A Church and Its Culture
October 16, 2017—The organizational guru Edgar H. Schein pointed out that culture in organizations tends to not be directly visible because it is something that the members take for granted and which exists as part of the underlying and unconscious assumptions that have evolved over time to deal with the various internal issues that the group has had to face. But a leader can identify the culture of a system as it is reflected in the overt behavior that is visible in how members relate to each other. In a strong church culture, these assumptions and beliefs give rise to group norms around which there is a high level of agreement. For example, culture ensures that there is high agreement among members as to what constitutes proper behavior in the various settings in which the members meet. I’ve attended one congregation in which behavior at the corporate worship service was restrained, but where a social gathering at which deacons and leadership participate allowed for a more relaxed and informal atmosphere—and I’ve been in another congregation where the exact opposite was true.
In a strong church culture, there is high agreement among members regarding what is legitimate authority; and this agreement may be rooted in the traditions of the group rather than some rational formulation (as in a Family Size congregation that will more readily obey a mandate from the patriarch in the system than listen to the wise council of an experienced and trained pastor). The church culture is what facilitates ways for the beliefs and values of the church to be communicated and passed on through a system of rituals and ceremonies, rather than codified in law and detailed rules as in other organizations. Church culture also affects the inclusion practices of a congregation. It’s what makes staffing patterns relatively stable when there is an expectation for long-term ministry employment of the pastor and other ministers. But culture also makes outreach and recruitment very selective. Congregations with strong cultures tend to follow intensive, if not overtly conscious, socialization processes that move people toward the center of community life. These cultural inclusion practices tend to result in high levels of loyalty and commitment to the values and traditions of the congregation.
Cultural forms embody the ways of a faith community. Therefore, congregational leaders need to give attention to developing and articulating the congregational culture in order to work with the influences of the hidden lives of congregations. The congregational culture includes several components that the leadership can readily identify. For example, culture includes the following elements:
- The shared values of the congregation, often communicated in shorthand slogans that summarize deep-seated core values;
- The heroes and saints of the church—the pantheon of individuals who embody or represent the core values of the congregation;
- The rituals of the congregation—the repetitive behavioral repertoire in which values are experienced directly through implicit signals;
- The ceremonies and practices that are observed—episodic occasions in which the values and heroes are put on display; anointed, and celebrated—baptisms, farewell and launching rituals, celebrations and recognitions of tenure;
- The stories that are told—concrete examples of values and heroes and saints who triumph by following culturally prescribed ways; and
- The cultural network of relationships—including a collection of informal “priest and priestesses,” gossips, spies, and storytellers whose primary role is to reinforce and to protect the existing ways of the community.
As these social components develop in a congregation, they create a strong culture that is extremely powerful in controlling the behavior of participants and is the dominant influence in the hidden lives of congregations. This cultural emotional process is what evokes the cooperative effort normally associated with communities.
1. Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1985), p. xi.
* Adapted from The Hidden Lives of Congregations, Israel Galindo.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists.