My friend’s first day as senior pastor did not start how you would imagine. No quiet prayer in his office, vision session around a whiteboard or staff meeting. Instead, he pulled in the church parking lot before anyone else had arrived and parked in the back. He grabbed his toolbox from his truck and walked over to a parking space in the front row. He then pulled out a wrench and proceeded to dismantle the sign that read “Reserved for Senior Pastor.” The church had an unhealthy over-respect for the man in the pulpit, and it needed to end. That was my friend’s first act of changing the church culture.
Culture is the water we are swimming in. The tendencies, language, rituals and biases we carry become nearly invisible to us. Somehow we are looking through the water, yet we can’t see it. But these things are obvious to our visitors.
Every senior leader is the chief trendsetter. As goes the leader, so goes the church. What they do becomes the norm, and others will adjust to match their habits. For example, they send emails to the staff late at night, so the rest of the staff starts to also. They prepare for Sunday services haphazardly; the rest of the staff slips into last-minute mode. They view rest as an unneeded luxury, and the staff becomes working machines.
Management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We can have the best strategies for life transformation in our churches, but they will get swallowed by bad—even mediocre—culture every time.
Every pastor wonders, What are we known for? What do people say about our church around town? These are great questions to ask, but they are about reputation. Pastors need to take the risk to ask an important culture question: What do people feel when they experience my church?
No culture is completely healthy or unhealthy. Some normal behaviors are helpful, others are harmful, others are neutral. If you are bold enough to invite your staff and congregation to ask culture questions, you always will uncover things you would rather not see. But that does not mean you should not ask the questions.
Is it time for a culture audit at your church? I recommend you and your staff take a thorough journey through these three questions:
1. What should we keep doing? These things are healthy and fruitful.
2. What should we start doing? These things would be healthy or fruitful additions.
3. What should we stop doing? These things are unhealthy or past their season.
We don’t need more stories of unhealthy church culture spinning out of control. Because the pastor is setting the trend, I encourage you to ask these questions about your own life, too. Maybe it is time to have your staff complete an honest 360° review.
The best time to handle critique in your culture is when it is self-initiated. Audit your culture before something breaks, because what you are repeating today becomes the water you are swimming in tomorrow.
Is that a good thing?