Made to Thrive: 10 Tips for Building a Healthy Church Culture

“So, what’s it like to work here?”

This is a good question to ask someone if you want to learn about the culture of their workplace. But when you ask, watch for the person’s immediate reaction. Did their face light up, or was there a downward change in their countenance? Did they pause, or did they launch right into listing the organization’s positive attributes?

You can tell a lot from this question, even when asked about working at a church. While it does not get into the specifics of the cultural drivers or sustainers of purpose in a ministry, it does tell you the ultimate effects of the culture on the person. Why? Because that is what culture does: It shapes us. In a sense, it is something that happens to us. It affects our well-being, and just as importantly, our performance and, in the end, the performance or fruitfulness of the organization itself.

In my experience working with churches and Christian organizations, the good ones are able to establish and sustain a positive culture that drives both sides of the organization’s needs—the need for people to thrive, and the need to accomplish the mission. So, the question then becomes, “Is our culture focused on both with intentionality? Do people love being part of what we are doing, and are we actually doing it well?”

Having people thrive and accomplishing your mission are a good GPS for your church. Just like how a train traveling down a track needs both rails to work well, the same is true for a healthy church culture. It needs to have a right environment that keeps people growing and happy, and pushes them to high performance. The hard part is intentionally growing that right environment.

Putting in the Work

Recently a regional bank VP told me his bank had a growth plan that included buying other banks. He wanted to do a culture project to make sure the new banks got integrated well into the culture he desired to build.

“What does the culture you desire look like?” I asked.

“When someone walks into one of our banks, we want it to feel like a Chick-fil-A,” he said.

“That’s a great vision,” I said, “but are you prepared to spend the kind of time and money that Chick-fil-A spends on achieving that culture? Otherwise, without the focus and work, it’s just a pipe dream.”

I then went on to describe Chick-fil-A’s intentionality, dedication and resource allocation to building culture. The man was flabbergasted—he had no idea developing a great culture would take that much effort. And therein is usually the problem: not understanding how much focus and hard work it takes to purposefully build a positive culture.

The upside of doing this intentional work is fruitfulness for the people and the mission, but the downside of not doing it can be disastrous: low morale, turnover, church splits, lawsuits, etc. It is crucial, therefore, to work on your culture. Culture builds DNA, and DNA drives identity, who you are and what you do. But a good church culture does not just happen on its own. It must be built and grown on purpose. It is the garden where everything is growing, so it must be planted with good seeds, watered, scaffolded, nurtured and, very importantly, weeded.

Many church leaders err by seeing their culture only as a “safe place” or a “loving place” to work. They do not focus on driving the hard side of ministry, which is work and performance. Often when someone tries to begin to have accountability and introduce metrics and standards of performance into a church, the instant rebuttal is, “Wait! This is a ministry. You are trying to treat it like a business.”

I shudder when I hear that, and want to say, “Oh, so God’s business is the only one that is allowed to not perform well?” The truth is the opposite.

There is no such thing in the New Testament as a non-performance-oriented culture, one that is without standards of performance, one that does not demand a return on investment of resources to a person, or has a demand for results. For example, in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30), the two workers who performed well were promoted, and the one who didn’t was fired and his position given to someone else.

I have often asked leaders of Christian organizations, “What does it take to get fired around here?” Many times, the people in the meeting just look at each other. “I’m not sure that has ever happened,” someone might say. “Maybe if you steal money or have an affair. We usually just have a non-performer move to another department.”

That is a problem. In the Bible, lack of fruitfulness gets cut out. Even high performers are pruned in other ways “so they can bear more fruit” (see John 15). Everyone is held to high standards.

On the other hand, having a “bully” culture is also a mistake. These negative environments are so demanding that they break people. This type of workplace treats staff members so poorly that they burn out or leave altogether. If these workers were to read their Bible, they would see that the poor behavior that has been inflicted upon them was blasted by Jesus and the prophets. High standards are key, but the Bible also says that we need to be helped, empowered, trained and supported to grow into the ability to meet those high standards. Bully cultures omit the second part of that. Jesus has high standards, but he also comes to where we are and builds us up so that we are able to deliver on what he demands.

Building a Great Culture

So, where do you start? Here are a few tips to think about as you take steps to work on your church culture.

1. A healthy culture must have ownership, buy-in and intentionality from the top. Period. Culture often flows downward. I will not work with a company or organization if I do not have buy-in and participation from the top leadership. Otherwise, you do good things that flow up and hit a ceiling of authority and power, and get infected or diminished. Include the elders and senior leadership in seeing culture as a priority in your church.

2. A healthy culture must have a culture vision. What do you want your culture to look like? To feel like? To drive people in thriving and performance? Get specific about what that will be.

3. The culture vision must match the vision and mission of the church. What you are building inside must match what you are trying to accomplish. If the mission is a growth of what exists and just doing it better, that looks one way. If it is entrepreneurial in nature, it looks a bit different. For example, ask your team, “Does the mission call for excellence in execution for a particular audience, or does it require speed and innovation to do things that haven’t been done before?” Go into detail.

4. The vision must have a strategy and a plan. This is the point where things can get lost. Remember, you are trying to drive behavior and behavior change. That requires awareness of the valued behaviors, ongoing focused attention on those behaviors when the team is doing their day-to-day work, and deliberate practice of the skills and behaviors that drive culture. A strategy of how to do that includes defining the behavioral values or actionable behaviors that you as a staff define as crucial.

A group enforces its norms, and these will become your behavioral norms and anchors. It also requires a gap analysis of how you are doing right now and what you need to do better. Come up with a plan as to how this will be conducted. Who will message that at all levels? How will you keep the messaging simple, clear and actionable? Who will drive that activity, champion it and be accountable for it? What role will each person have in making sure it happens? What will we do that includes the entire enterprise, the departments, individual teams, and one-on-ones that are focusing not only on the ministry, but on our cultural norms? What will the departmental and team activities be?

This focused approach has a cadence that keeps it alive and improving. Here are a few simple examples:

  • Communicate what you are trying to drive.
  • Communicate the skills and behaviors that are important.
  • Have all-staff meetings.
  • Host department half-day workshops at regular intervals focusing on how to live out your values.
  • Have 10-minute reviews after team meetings where you ask, “How did we do on our valued behaviors today?”
  • Interview people in front of everyone on how they are living out the cultural norms.
  • Celebrate people who are living out the cultural norms well.
  • Build fun and staff-bonding experiences that have nothing to do with work.
  • Create 1-on-1 reporting relationships that include the values.
  • Set up mentoring relationships.
  • Hold Lunch and Learns once a month to review a book with a team or department. Get different team members to be in charge to share a book they are reading and teach from it, or read it together as a team.

5. Build an immune system. Your immune system takes care of infection without your brain ever becoming aware of the pathogen. Poor performance or bad behavior is best dealt with cubicle-to-cubicle and never has to go above that, but if it is not resolved there, teach people what to do next (Matt. 18:15–18). Explain how to have safe, honest conversations about performance as well as behavior. Mistakes should be “bound” at the lowest level first, but if the infection is too strong, it must move up the chain.

6. Modeling is key. If the top is not modeling good cultural norms in performance and thriving, the culture will be undermined. Culture is more caught than taught.

7. Develop key skills. Skills in having difficult conversations in grace and truth, receiving feedback, listening, having forward-looking accountability, building a growth mindset, etc., are not gotten from simply reading a book. They have to be taught and practiced. Leverage fun activities like a two-hour workshop where you put people in groups of three, roleplaying where one gives helpful feedback to someone and they have to receive it. The third person observes and then reviews how they did before everyone switches roles.

8. Learn from others. Have leaders from businesses and other churches talk to your team or departments about how to drive a positive culture. When working with CEOs and companies, I often invite a client who is stellar at something to come in and share with them.

9. Offer opportunities for growth, and multiply those. Send people to a conference and let them bring back what they have learned to share with others on staff.

10. Measure, measure, measure. Remember that what gets measured and held accountable improves. Use various methods to stay in touch and take the temperature of how you are progressing.

Caring for the Culture

The Bible has two great themes throughout: grace and truth. A culture that has both is a healthy culture and a biblical one.

Grace and truth need to work in tandem in your church. If you have grace without truth, or acceptance without a requirement to do better, you will get low performance, chaos, divisiveness and various moral problems.

It is not loving to allow people to not perform. God is trying to mature all of us, and enabling someone who is not performing is getting in God’s way of growing that person into the good works that they were designed for (Eph. 2:10). It also discourages hard workers to see someone get away with poor performance or behavior without being held to standards. It ruins the credibility of your leadership.

On the other hand, if you have truth (expectations, accountability, performance standards, etc.) without grace, you crush people or drive them away. It isn’t loving to lean on people so hard that they break. Great cultures also support us and encourage us.

Think of it as a violin string—it is tight enough to hit the right note, but not so taut that it snaps. People thrive in cultures that push them to be more of who they were created to be. As the Bible says, “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works” (Heb.10:24).

The popular term “psychological safety” is mostly about the balance of being pushed to be your best but not hurt you. Think of it this way: Is your church culture safe for people to give their honest feedback? Share their honest reality about what they see or think? Is it a safe environment in which people can admit mistakes and ask for help? Is it safe to confront someone lovingly? Are everyone’s opinions valued and welcomed? Can you speak truth to power and to peers alike? Can you try things and fail? At the same time, is all of that done in the service of doing better?

Take it a step further. Are roles in your church so clearly defined that people are empowered to know how they move the needle each day, and are they free to do that? Do they know what their lane is and how to not invade someone else’s lane? Does each person know what success is for them and what the expectations are so they can meet them? And most importantly, do they know how that success is needed and paramount for making the mission work?

When you think about it, this type of culture sounds like a body. Your body works “as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). And that body has a head (a leader) that makes sure each part gets the food (training, resources, direction) that it needs, as well as help and correction when it is not functioning well. It has an immune system to stop germs from becoming illness. It also does not starve itself or hurt itself. It has a culture that includes a correct temperature, hormonal balance, chemical balance, blood flow balance and on and on. Only then can it perform and thrive, getting the required results needed for that day.

This body—your staff—is counting on you. Your job as a leader is to intentionally take care of it in an environment of grace and truth so that it can go after the prize that God has called it to.