Building a Healthy Team Culture

“A clear culture is like the white blood cell system of an organization and it gives you a better chance of self-correction.”

In a few months, Life.Church (formerly will celebrate our 20th anniversary. Looking back on where we started and where we are today, there’s no mistaking what a key role our culture has played in our organizational health. Without a clear culture, our team would not have been able to develop and collaborate as we’ve grown across multiple locations.

But even when we were one church in one location, we were investing in a healthy team culture thanks to Jerry Hurley, the team development leader at Life.Church. As the architect of our cultural development, I asked him to answer a few questions about how churches of any size can create and maintain a healthy culture.

What does having a strong and clear team culture do for a church?

Jerry Hurley: Culture happens, whether you’re intentional about it or not. The question is whether it’s a culture you want. Is it a culture that’s serving the church well? And is it serving your staff and volunteers well?

In an organization where it’s hazy, people struggle to understand what behavior is or isn’t consistent with the culture. Every corrective conversation becomes a personal conversation. It’s about something you did and why you were wrong.

A clear culture tends to police itself. When behavior is out of line, everyone sees it, knows it and understands it. It’s much easier to address because it isn’t personal. A clear culture is like the white blood cell system of an organization and it gives you a better chance of self-correction.

Life.Church has hundreds of staff members today but you’ve been part of the team since there was just a handful. What did you do early on to help define the culture of our team?

JH: Churches that are just starting out are in the best position to begin defining culture because everything is still easy to see and implement.

Early on at Life.Church, we focused on self-awareness—both as individuals and as an organization. At a personal level, we helped people understand their individual strengths and personality so they could get the best out of themselves and understand the people they work and serve with.

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The other thing we did was to identify some key behavioral values that help people thrive on our team. This is where we needed to cultivate organizational self-awareness. I used to find myself trying to convince people that Life.Church is a great place to work and serve. And while that’s true, it wasn’t the whole picture. I had to accept the fact that it’s also difficult—and for good reasons. We place a high value on excellence, speed, risk, failure and feedback. Not everyone is ready to step into that.

What was the process you used to define those behavioral values? How can churches identify the things that lead to success?

JH: Look at your best. Who are the people you’d love to have 10 more of? What are their attributes?

We identified values like resilience, humility, teachability and a strong work ethic. They’re important because I can’t put those traits into people. I can teach them how to perform certain roles, but I can’t teach someone how to be driven or humble.

People ask me all the time: How do you get Life.Church DNA into your team? And that’s the wrong question. Because I can’t. I can’t put DNA in our team just like I can’t change your eye color. What I do is I look for people who already have Life.Church DNA in them and bring them on the team.

You talked about DNA. How can a staff with a distinct culture still embrace diversity in thoughts, ideas and people?

JH: When you’re defining the cultural values you’re looking for, make sure they are attributes that stand above individual traits. So for example, I can be a driven individual as an introvert or an extrovert, as someone who prefers structure or doesn’t, at 20 years old or 20 years into my career. Your organizational DNA shouldn’t be based on personality traits but on underlying values.

What are some specific tools you’d recommend to a church trying to cultivate self-awareness in team members?

JH: We use several tools, including Myers-Briggs, Strengths Finder and Emotional Intelligence. There are lots of other great tools are out there. What you choose isn’t as important as finding what serves your church and sticking with it. Consistency helps build common understanding and a shared language.

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Don’t let yourself get bored with what you’ve got or distracted by something new. We haven’t added any new tools in this area over the last 10 years at Life.Church, but we throw a lot of weight into the ones we’ve established. If you walk through the halls at Life.Church, you’ll see people’s strengths and personalities posted on their doors and our cultural values displayed on the walls.

What advice would you give to a pastor or church leader who’s starting at square one in trying to build a cohesive team that can be great at working together collaboratively?

JH: Do your best to help someone coming in today understand how you got to where you are. Actually go through and share what has shaped your church into what it is today. When someone is your second employee, their experience will be different than your 12th or your 22nd so it’s important to close those gaps of understanding about how you got to where you are.

Your goal is to help them understand the why behind the what. People will make the wrong connections if they’re left to figure it out on their own, so make sure you invest intentional time passing that along to every new team member.

And here’s why this is so important. Look at what unites a group of people: a common purpose, common language and common enemy. The church already has a common enemy. When we develop a clearly defined culture, it will bring our common purpose into focus. It also gives us a common language to talk to and about each other with understanding. All of these things work together powerfully, uniting us on a mission with eternal significance.

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Bobby Gruenewald is pastor, innovation leader at Life.Church. Connect with him on Twitter: @BobbyGwald