How a Group’s Culture Affects Your Leadership

group culture

Excerpted from ‘Big Results Leadership’ (B&H Books)

Cleo TV is a fairly new urban cable television network whose target audience includes African American millennials and Generation X women. They feature a travel, food, fashion, and design program called Lens of Culture. Their point is that we can all be looking at the same thing, but we may see it, appreciate it, or even be repelled by it because of our own life experiences. Indeed, even the biblical text is seen through all the rigors of our study and our own cultural lens.

Culture is the collective beliefs and ideals that energize the behavior of a group of people. Culture passed down from our parents; informed by our media sources; shaped by our faith, our community and our peers; and solidified by our experiences. The organization you lead may be similar to another, but it has its own unique culture.

Who are the people or families of influence? Why are they afforded this deference? What are the thought-shaping events or influences? Culture over time can be changed, but to run up against it can be like paddling in the wrong direction in a raging stream or using your head to try to break through a brick wall.

My life started in the north, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was there through my college years and the first years into my engineering career. Then I moved to Louisville, Kentucky. I quickly learned that things were different in the south. People in Pennsylvania, in my estimation, were friendly, but the hospitality in Kentucky seemed so much greater. From my first Sunday in Kentucky to the last, people were always inviting my wife and me to their home or out to a restaurant for dinner. It was fantastic. Then, from Kentucky, I went to lead the church in Suffolk, Virginia, also in the South. I thought Kentucky was my introduction to southern culture and that everywhere in the South would be just like that. Boy was I wrong! It wasn’t that people in Virginia were less hospitable. What I found over time was that their hospitality was in a different place. It was shown in a different way. Now that I live in Tennessee and have traveled to almost forty different countries, I have two observations.

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Observation one is this. Everybody is the same and everybody is different. What I mean is that everybody deals with the same basic life issues, but how we lead people through them can be impacted by the culture in which they live. The gospel is great. It works beautifully everywhere, but leadership is done within a culture and is moderated by ethnicity, education, environment and economics.

Observation two is that local culture is not monolithic anymore. A few years ago, when I was serving as pastor in Virginia, I attended a meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. At the meeting were leaders of twenty-seven ethnic fellowships in the SBC. Next to me was the president of the Vietnamese Fellowship. During one of the sessions, he quietly slid a gospel tract toward me. I took one look at it and saw it was written in something I couldn’t read. I assumed it was Vietnamese. So I quietly slid it back and said, “We don’t have any Vietnamese in my area.” He pushed it back to me again and said, “Go to your local nail salon.” So, at a meeting in Georgia, a guy from Arizona who had never been to Virginia, told me where to find Vietnamese people in my neighborhood.

I started taking a look around. I noticed more distinctly that there were more than just Black people and white people in my city. The owner of the nail salon was Vietnamese. The owner of the beauty supply was Korean. The owner of the motel was from India. My doctor was from Kenya, and my wife’s doctor was from the Philippines.

I looked inside my congregation and saw people from Uganda, Ghana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Saint Croix. Hispanics from Panama and Caucasians of Irish and other European ethnicities. I came to realize that our church in a little southern town was looking more and more like the kingdom of God and what heaven is going to look like. While the numbers of the various ethnicities were not great because of the demographic of our community, the openness of our church was great.

How did it happen?

1. We had a pastor-led commitment to missions. Since the end of my college days, I have traveled for vocation and vacation in almost forty countries on five continents. Every year for nineteen years while I was at that church, I, the pastor, led one of our international mission trips. This helped me and the members of the congregation to develop and maintain a true biblical worldview and passion for people. Sometimes, we have a biblical view, but it’s really a biblical community view.

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2. We led the church as a church that was Black, rather than as a Black church. We were a church that was Black because we were in a community that was demographically Black. That meant we could embrace and celebrate our heritage as Black Americans but at the same time be open to accept and embrace people that were not Black Americans. I believe if you hold up your ethnicity over your Christianity you may consciously or unconsciously be closed off from God’s greater kingdom work. If we see ourselves as a Black church, white church, Korean church, or whatever, it means that all who come to us must conform and become what we have declared we are, but if we see our Christianity first and our ethnicity only as representing the people we currently serve, we remain open to God’s leading others our way who may not be what we have been but are a part of God’s greater kingdom agenda.

3. We celebrated every member of the congregation. We had flags that hung in the sanctuary, but the only flags we hung were those that represented countries we, as a church, had traveled to on mission or countries in which our members were born. We did international potlucks, dress in the attire of your native country Sundays, and we were open to new songs members brought from their homeland or from a mission trip.

We love to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Seeing, appreciating, and being sensitive to the different cultural elements and differences around us is part of making this prayer a reality.

Read more from Mark Croston.

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Mark A. Croston

Mark A. Croston served as pastor to an urban congregation in Virginia for 26 years. He now serves as national director of Black & Western church partnerships at LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also general editor of the YOU Bible Study Curriculum and is the author of Big Results: Sunday School and Black Church Life.