Not for The Fainthearted: Changing a Church’s Culture

The Ubiquitous Church Parlor

The Ubiquitous Church Parlor

Our book group just read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly and  – as I do with everything from Cooking Light magazine to Tillich, I read through the lens of Church World.

Peter Drucker apparently once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  In other words, we can make all the strategic plans in the world, but if those plans mess with our organization’s culture, the plans will never work . . . unless we change the culture.

We need pastors who know how to change a congregation’s culture – albeit lovingly, pastorally, patiently, firmly.  But it’s essential for a congregation’s future to make such changes as we move into a post-Christian season.  Too few of our pastors know how to do this.

I love Brene Brown’s Ten Questions For Figuring Out An Organization’s Culture – again from Daring Greatly – and I have added common answers to her questions from churches I have known and loved.

Q1:  What behaviors are rewarded?  Punished?  Rewarded: Singing tenor in the choir.  Punished:  Changing the menu for the long-established Annual Global Mission Dinner.

Q2:  Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?  On soccer fields (for the kids) and golf courses (for the adults).  At the office.  In minivans and SUVs.

Q3:  What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, ignored?  Followed:  Casual Fridays dress code.  Enforced: No smoking.  Ignored:  Coffee cups in the sanctuary.

Q4:  Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?  If they are under 35.

Q5:  What are the sacred cows?  Who is most likely to tip them?  Who stands the cows back up?  Sacred cow:  The parlor.  Suspected Tipsters:  Members under age 40 with kids.  Cow restorers:  Church Ladies.

Q6:  What stories are legend and what values do they convey?  Remember when the pews were packed?  But now we have the wrong pastor/choir director/organ/elders.

Q7:  What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?  We sometimes eat them.

Q8:  How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?  As naive and too Oprah-esque.

Q9: How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?  It’s the Presbytery’s fault.

Q10: What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort?  Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?  Why is The Presbytery/the new pastor/the new music director telling us what to do?  There was nothing wrong with the way we wanted to do it.

Every week of my life I visit congregations full of truly wonderful people who are faithful but fearful.  They fear uncertainty.  They see the world around them changing.  But many of them love God and want to serve in the name of Jesus.  And this is why I stay in the institutional church.

Many of my friends decry the institutional church and all the ridiculousness of it.  But – in spite of all that is ridiculous – I know really great people who want to be the church for a new season.  They just don’t know how.  And it’s scary making the necessary shifts in an uncertain world.  But about these things I am certain:

  • There will always be a church.  It just might not look like it has in the last century.
  • Denominations will be altered in significant ways.  But even non-denominational churches will have partnerships with other churches.
  • Everybody will continue to crave community.  Everybody wants to belong.
  • Jesus is Lord.

Do you and/or your pastoral leaders know how to shift the culture?  What would you need to make this shift?

10 responses to “Not for The Fainthearted: Changing a Church’s Culture

  1. Just seeing whether this works.


  2. OK, that almost worked. I’ve been enjoying and challenged by this blog for a long time, but it has always insisted that I log in on a WP account, which I don’t want to do.

    Anyway, several of your recent posts have really hit home. As a third(!) career pastor serving a small rural church, I have concluded that many of us who find ourselves in such congregations are terrible fits — we have changed our own lives so dramatically to go into ministry that we have little patience for aversion to risk, we love the stimulation of the new and diverse as opposed to the tried and true of the 19th century, and while me may be in possession of oodles of forgotten Greek and Hebrew, we know next to nothing about leading practical transformation — at least not in ways that persuade others to come along for the journey.

    Thanks for all you contribute,


  3. spot on analysis and answers to those questions!


  4. I love these ten questions — fantastic! I wouldn’t dare say I know how to change culture in a church, because some days it feels like I do and some days it feels like I don’t. But I do think that changing a culture in a church has a whole lot to do with biblical discipleship that aims for change and transformation. My own experience is that special studies and change teams and top down strategy stuff is usually wasted time — for Drucker’s reasons. But studying the Bible and asking the tough questions about cultural conformity and faithful witness, week in and week out, can lead to long term change.


  5. Must add this book to my list/pile – third time it has come up within a couple of weeks…days even….


  6. Pingback: Changing the Culture in a Church | Missional Preaching: Equipping for Witness

  7. can we be simultaneously faithful and fearful? I suppose it depends whether we act on faith or fear. acting on faith is courage, as Brene Brown describes it (because if you’re not scared, it’s not courageous, lol!). acting on fear would seem to be the scriptural opposite of faith….


  8. I have seen church cultures sway slightly with a change in leadership, but they usually always spring back to what they originally were. I’ve heard it said that people don’t really fear change, they fear loss. So if we can figure out how to effect transformation and deal with perceived loss in some productive way, perhaps the result could be more lasting. And in response to your Question 5, I would say “church ladies over 70.” Many of us in our 50s and 60s are tipsters by choice. Thanks for a great post!


  9. Pingback: Blog - Not for the fainthearted: changing a church’s culture - Outlook DEV

  10. Pingback: Writing Policy is Ministry (And not for the Fainthearted) | A Church for Starving Artists

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