Seven Cures for a Toxic Culture

The culture of your church is essentially comprised of who you are, what you value, and how you get things done.

All churches begin with an enthusiastic vision of a culture that is so inviting people can’t resist. But leading a church is complicated. Vision for the culture will not naturally stay aligned without diligence and intentionality.

Candidly, it’s easy for a church to lose its way.

Even in the healthiest of churches, culture can drift. New people come, new staff gets hired, culture drifts. It needs constant attention.

Perhaps your church, however, has passed common drift. It’s possible that your culture has become unhealthy.

Here are some symptoms of a toxic culture:

  • Consistent and unresolved conflict among the leaders.
  • The morale of the staff is low.
  • There is a sense of “politics” in the church.
  • Critical decisions are delayed or unwisely made.
  • There is more conversation about problems than stories of life change.
  • There is high defensiveness.
  • Trust is low.
  • There are very few visitors.
  • There is a lack of vision.
  • There is little joy.

Please don’t read this list and panic. Even the best churches can experience one or two of these symptoms for a short season. That’s normal.

In a healthy culture you name the problem, talk about it openly, make the needed corrections and go on.

No church is perfect. The idea here is to help churches where it’s evident that the culture needs improvement.

Let me be candid and name the number one problem of a toxic culture:

No one is taking ownership and responsibility for the condition of the culture.

Until a leader, the leader, steps up and says, ‘The culture of our church is not healthy, and I own that problem. I take responsibility for the solution.’, the church will remain in trouble. This doesn’t necessarily mean the leader is the cause of the problematic culture. He or she may have inherited it, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The leader must step up and take ownership.

I don’t know your story or what you are going through, but I’ve worked with hundreds of churches, and I’m confident that while this plan may not be custom for you, it will serve you well as a general guideline.

1) Own it.

Again, the current condition of your church’s culture may not be your fault, but as the leader, it is your responsibility. However, if you have been there for a while, whatever culture, behavior and results you have, you have either created or allowed.

I love the book Boundaries for Leaders, by Henry Cloud. Chapter two is worth the book. “You are Ridiculously in Charge.” He tackles this topic in more depth; I highly recommend it.

2) Tend to your soul.

It’s easy for you as the leader, whether as the senior pastor of a small or large church, executive pastor, campus pastor or department leader in a mega-church, to carry the weight of an unhealthy culture almost as if you did something wrong.

There are no perfect churches. It’s your job to help your church become healthy, not perfect. Give yourself grace as you get ready to lead this change. Take plenty of time for reflection and prayer.

3) Identify the gap.

Write down how you describe the current culture. Write it from three perspectives:

  1. How visitors experience it.
  2. How long term attendees experience it.
  3. How staff and key leaders experience it.

Be as objective as possible.

Gather a small, but trusted group to help you.

1) Choose five words that describe the problem/culture.

  • You might write keywords like defensive, distrust, political, silos…etc.
  • Then, write one sentence for each word to describe what that means in your context.

2) Write five words of how you want the culture to experienced.

  • Such as loving, bold, trusting, empowering, fun, honest…etc.
  • Write one sentence describing specifically what that means.

Don’t make the lists long or complicated. The difference between the two lists is the gap.

Note: It is possible that you will write a different experience for visitors than for long term attendees, leaders, and staff. If that is true, describe why.

4) Lead toward solutions.

The solutions are the specific plans that you design to close the gap between what your current culture is to what you want it to become.

These conversations can get tense. It’s easy to be tempted to ascribe blame; resist that temptation, that never helps. It is, however, essential that you are honest about your current reality and speak very candidly about what is necessary to bring change. (Close the gap.) Remember, you will get what you allow.

5) Consider getting outside help.

It is possible that you may hit an impasse and need an independent outside voice to help you walk through at least the initial stages of change.

You are not looking for a consultant to assist you with ministries and mechanical programming and processes. (What you do and how you do it.) You need a reliable and trusted leader who can guide you through the nuances of the experience of your environment. More of what it “feels” like to be part of your church. This is not as “fuzzy” as that might sound. Remember how particular your sets of five words are. Stay focused.

6) Make tough decisions.

This is the part where you first go back and re-read the chapter on “You are Ridiculously in Charge.”

The absence of these means you choose to allow things to remain as they are. This is a costly process. You may lose some people. No one ever wants that to happen, but it’s often necessary to realize change.

7) Plan for the long term.

Don’t bail at the first sign of rough water. It may get rocky; keep in mind this will take time. The larger the church and more problematic the culture, the longer it takes. I can promise you this, if you continue to pour your energy into practical ministry without tending to your unhealthy culture, all you will get in return is exhaustion.


Think long term. Get some help. Lean into God (wisdom and favor) and don’t give up. It’s worth it. Changing your culture is possible.

Another great resource is the book Cracking Your Churches’ Culture Code, by Sam Chand.


Talk with an Auxano Navigator to learn more about dealing with a toxic culture.


> Read more from Dan.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Reiland

Dan Reiland

Dr. Dan Reiland serves as Executive Pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY. He and Dr. Maxwell still enjoy partnering on a number of church related projects together. Dan is best known as a leader with a pastor's heart, but is often described as one of the nations most innovative church thinkers. His passion is developing leaders for the local church so that the Great Commission is advanced.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

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Your Church Culture Must Change… Start Here

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. ~ Alvin Toffler

When bringing about change in the way people behave, we often need to start with questions of “why” before considering the practical issues of “how.” In the book Start with Why, author Simon Sinek contends that there are two primary ways to influence human behavior: you can either manipulate it or inspire it. While manipulation is not always negative (for example when a department store drops the price of a product to motivate a purchase), it often involves the use of fear or peer pressure to influence behavior. Additionally, change that is manipulated is usually short-lived. Inspiring change, on the other hand, involves the consideration of deeper issues. We need to ask underlying questions of “why.” Why do we perceive things in a particular way? Why do we behave in a certain manner? What are the motivations or inherent factors that undergird our behaviors?

In the book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz makes a distinction between organizational change and cultural change. Attempts at organizational change typically involve restructuring of some type, along with the use of new programs, processes and techniques. Cultural change, however, looks at how to create a new culture or environment, which will in turn require a completely new set of skills and capacities.

The answer to the crisis of the church in North America will not be found by making minor adjustments in our ecclesiology–how we do church. Instead, the problem is much more deeply rooted. It has to do with the essence of who we are as the church and what we have been called to do. The real issues in the current crisis are primarily spiritual, theological and missiological. To plant disciple-making, missional-incarnational focused churches that have a mind-set of reproduction will take deep cultural change in the way we think about God’s mission and the nature of the church, as well as how the church engages in that mission in local contexts. We must change our attitude from “we have never done it that way before” to “whatever it takes.”

An adage that speaks to the importance of considering change in an organization goes like this: We are perfectly designed to achieve what we are currently achieving. Read that again. We are perfectly designed to achieve what we are currently achieving. If we make application of this statement to the church today, one of the questions we might ask would be: Are we satisfied with what we are currently achieving? In other words, are we content or pleased with the impact the church is having today? If we are totally honest, the answer would seem to be a resounding no. The fact is, regardless of what marker a person looks at to judge the health of the church in North America, every indicator is trending in the wrong direction. If we are perfectly designed to achieve what the church is currently achieving, then shouldn’t we ask if there is an issue in the way we are designed? Or at least question if there is an issue in the way we understand the nature of the church and its place in God’s mission? Do we need to reconsider the way we think about church planting? Are there “design” factors that we need to rethink to achieve the outcomes we desire?

The strategies and techniques that fit previous eras of church history don’t seem to work any longer. What we need now is a new set of tools. We need a new vision of reality, a new paradigm—a fundamental change in our thinking that leads to a fundamental change in our behavior, especially as it relates to our understanding of the church, mission, discipleship and church planting.

Read more from Brad.


 

Learn more about bringing about cultural change at your church – connect with an Auxano Navigator today!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brad Brisco

Brad Brisco

I have an undergraduate degree in health care admin from Wichita State, a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, and a Doctorate of Ministry degree in the area of missional ecclesiology. My doctoral thesis was on assisting existing congregations in transitioning in a missional direction. I have been involved in church planting for over seventeen years and am currently the Director of Bivocational church planting for the North American Mission Board. I am co-founder of Forge Kansas City, a missional training center located in Kansas City and the Sentralized conference. I am co-author of Missional Essentials a 12 week group curriculum published by The House Studio, The Missional Quest a book with InterVarsity Press, and Next Door As It Is In Heaven, published by NavPress. Additionally, I enjoy working with existing congregations that desire to more deeply engage God’s mission in a local context. I have taught college level courses for more than ten years, including History of Christianity, Religion in America, Life of Paul, Discipleship and Evangelism and a course on Worship. My wife and I are parents to three children and have been foster parents to more than fifty other kids. You can contact me at brad.brisco@gmail.com

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COMMENTS

What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.