Creating a healthy culture is critical for any organization, company or church. If the culture you and others live with and under is bad, it will over time contaminate everything else. Carey Nieuwhof shares some essential building blocks of a healthy church culture.

Guest Post by Carey Nieuwhof

Every church has a culture—yours does, mine does—and whether you have a healthy one or not, I can promise you that your culture IS impacting every area of your ministry.

It’s why leaders choose to work for your church… or choose not to.
It’s why you love working with your team and volunteers… or why it’s difficult.
And it’s why guests feel welcomed when they walk in the door… or whether they don’t.

So, to start, what is church culture?

Think of church culture this way: Mission is what you do. Vision is what you see. But church culture is how your church feels. It’s the unspoken rules, the vibe, and the climate of your church experienced by members, staff, and visitors. Each of these pieces (written and unwritten) makes your church’s culture what it is. An example is that some churches have a culture that places an emphasis on outreach into the community, while others may lean more toward discipleship and growth within the community.

Why Does Culture Matter?

If your church’s culture is healthy, amazing things happen:

  • People love being there
  • Great leaders come and stay
  • People grow in their faith
  • Your church becomes attractive to the community

Culture is invisible but determinative. You can’t see it, but it defines so much. Sadly, for many churches, the culture isn’t healthy. And a bad culture consistently undermines an amazing mission, vision, and strategy.

As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Think about it, culture is…

  • The reason you love shopping in some stores and despise shopping in others.
  • Why you love some airlines and pass on others.
  • Why some families always have fun when they’re together and others can’t stand to be in the same room.

So, the question becomes: How do you create an amazing culture?

1. Be honest with yourself about your actual culture.

Whether you’ve ever written down your core cultural values or not, your church has a culture. Your culture is what your church feels like, how people behave, and how people treat each other. Example: walking into any restaurant, and you’ll immediately get clues to what their real culture is. The values on the wall might say “Service with a smile” or “Excellent facilities”, but a simple look around will tell you whether the staff likes each other, or their customers. A trip to the bathroom might show stained paint, a lack of toilet paper, and a dirty sink. And walking back to your table, the decor is nice enough and the prices on the menu aren’t cheap, but you notice a burned-out light bulb.

When your meal finally arrives, the food is lukewarm, and when you tell your server, he rolls his eyes because that’s the eighth time today that happened. So what’s the real culture at that restaurant? The manager might say, “We value excellence.” But the reality is they don’t. The same dynamic is at play in many churches. What the leader wants and imagines isn’t happening in real life, and what’s written on the wall isn’t happening down the hall. So get honest. You might even bring in a third party to do a realistic assessment of your culture. This can be done by a consultant or someone who doesn’t go to your church but loves you enough to tell you the truth. When you get the honest assessment, don’t defend the way it is. Just listen, accept it, and move forward, determined to make it better.

2. Identify and eliminate toxins.

Church culture isn’t naturally healthy because people aren’t naturally healthy. And as a leader, one of your chief jobs is to figure out why your culture isn’t healthy and change that.

So look for the toxins that are making your culture unhealthy:

(If you want to drill down further on toxicity, I outline seven warning signs that you have a toxic church culture and the early warning signs that a person is toxic in this post).

You can’t eliminate what you don’t identify, so identify the things you want removed from your culture.

3. Don’t mistake your beliefs with your values.

Know this: the number one mistake church leaders make when trying to define their culture and values is confusing their beliefs with their values. Like most churches, you probably value scripture, prayer, and, obviously, Jesus. It’s easy to make an overly ‘spiritual’ set of values that you think are your cultural values because, well, in our culture, we value the bible. It’s great that you value scripture, but that belongs in your doctrinal statement, not in your core value statements. That’s why most churches struggle to create a great culture. Leaders go to great pains to write a mission and vision statement and work hard on their belief statements (or doctrinal statements).

… but they leave culture to chance by not taking the time to encode it.

They either leave it to twist in the wind and hopefully get ‘caught’, never bothering to teach it. But the reality is that without defining it, it’s almost impossible to export accurately and train your staff and volunteers in it. The best way to define your culture, and to make it easy for your people to live out day-to-day, is through your church’s core value statements. The vast majority of churches have core value statements that don’t really mean anything. It’s behaviors, not beliefs, that determine culture. And encoding your culture into core value statements will help you not only define, but replicate a healthy culture in your church.

4. Model the change you want to see.

As you go through defining your church’s culture and values, realize this: Your church will only be as healthy as you are. Expecting a church to be healthy when its leader isn’t is like expecting an athlete to run a marathon with a missing heart. It’s not possible. Any conversation about church health starts in the mirror for a leader. You can write the most powerful core values ever written, but if you don’t model them, they’ll never be a reality. As I discuss in detail in my program, the Art of Church Growth, healthy leaders produce healthy churches. The healthier you are as a leader, the healthier your church will be. The same goes for all the changes you want to see.

As a leader, you need to embody the things you want your organization to embody:

You get the point. As a leader, culture starts with you.

5. Write it down. (Create or Revise Accurate, Memorable Core Value Statements)

Once you’ve covered the first four building blocks of creating a healthy culture, you’re ready to put pen to paper. There are two places your culture and values can be crafted:

  • Your core value statements
  • Your policies and procedures

I have another post on exactly how to write your church’s core value statements. But only after you’ve tackled the hard stuff: Auditing your culture, identifying and eliminating the toxins, disentangling your values for your beliefs, and modeling the change you want to see, are you ready to write some value statements that will have power and weight. A healthy culture is so rare these days, but when you see it, it becomes a magnet for a world desperately in need of health.