Why Do We Talk about Congregational Culture?

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay; you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. –  Isaiah 64:8

“Organizational Culture” has become a very common phrase in business, non-profits and faith-based organizations. An organization’s culture represents the collective values, beliefs and principles of the organizational members. It is a product of many factors: organizational history, unwritten but understood rules, treatment of leadership, traditions, transparency of decision-making and how new ideas come to manifest themselves. Over the last ten years, many of the great organizational pundits have gone back and forth on whether organizational culture trumps strategy or if a good strategy wins the day. After a time, this type of argument becomes more about semantics than actual useful application. The real question is how does organizational culture affect strategic thinking, leadership and growth for organizations? The pundits can debate all day, the rest of us have work to do.

In congregations, the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT)™ examines culture using a congregation’s collective values and beliefs regarding the world and the wider community through the lens of their Christianity. This is their theology. The CAT also looks at how committed the congregation members are in moving towards their collective objectives. This is their flexibility or adaptability.

For a congregation’s strategic movement and priority-set to be embraced, it must have alignment with the congregation’s culture. This is true in terms of a congregation’s theology – a conservative congregation that believes that conversion is the first step to a better society needs to have ministry that fits with that belief set. Likewise, in order to avoid becoming stagnant, a congregation with limited flexibility will have to be mindful in next steps so that they are able to embrace change and create an environment that is open to new ideas.

It is important to note, that while we have found time and time again that theology does not hinder strategic movement, lack of flexibility can. With the rare exception (14 congregations out of 2,000 to be exact), the more settled the congregation becomes the harder it is for them to be a vital organization. This indicates that the more settled the congregation, the more imperative it becomes that next steps focus on flexibility so that the strategy can be rooted in culture, but, importantly, that the culture allows forward movement.

In order to help congregations strategically plan their next steps, we have to first understand their culture and how this will help, hinder, and propel growth of various kinds.  The often quoted phrase is “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Let’s get them at the table together. Because as we come to understand how culture affects a congregation’s next steps, we can truly begin to lead in way that is compassionate, mindful and effective.

– Emily Swanson, President

Holy Cow! Consulting

Organizational Intelligence and Bearing Much Fruit

Jesus said that every tree is known by its own fruit.

William James captures the profundity of this simple statement: “fruit-tree1The roots of a man’s virtue are inaccessible to us. Our practice is the only sure evidence.”

At the corporate level, organizational intelligence is indifferent to the internal processes, structures, and beliefs of a particular congregation or faith-based ministry. While we recognize that denominational distinctives, styles of worship, and congregational qualities are important to members, they are in many ways inaccessible to us as outsiders beyond the scribbles on our flip charts.

The focus of organizational intelligence is on the fruit of the ministry, not as we would judge it, but as members bear witness to it. What we are asking members to identify is the quality of shared life, in the most literal terms, the “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

We don’t use these exact words in OI because they are value-laden and subject to what is known as “idealistic distortion.” Idealistic distortion is the tendency to see one’s behavior in an overly positive manner. For example, when surveyed about whether they are good drivers, the great majority of respondents indicate they are “better than average.” Outside of Lake Wobegon, this is mathematically impossible!

When we speak of “satisfaction” we have good reason to believe that we are actually measuring aspects of love and peace. When we speak of “energy” we believe we are measuring aspects of joy and goodness. The hospitality that members offer to others (kindness), the capacity to manage conflicting differences (forbearance), and the willingness to follow leaders in a governance structure (faithfulness and self-control) are all expressions of this spiritual fruit.

Jesus indicated this to be the ultimate test of discipleship: “that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Notice that it is addressed corporately to disciples, that is, how we live in community. In this sense, engaging organizational intelligence is an act of corporate discipleship, looking beyond all the necessary processes at the roots to discover what is actually being produced as fruit.

Russ Crabtree

Founder of Holy Cow! Consulting 

Organizational Intelligence and Saving the Precious Commodity of Time

2079960b97301271e7872ccda5be2072A transformational regional association is one that has focused on creating vital, growing congregations and is discovering effective ways of achieving that vision.  One of the obstacles to this vision that is frequently mentioned is finding the time required for regional association staff and volunteers from local churches to undertake the work involved in that enterprise. In this article, I explore the four ways that OI addresses the time issue.

Time Saver #1: Abandoning Failure Paths

Anyone who has ever undertaken a road trip has first hand experience with the relationship between information and time. Maps, a graphic form of information, save time by eliminating failure paths, that is, routes that do not lead to the destination.

If the destination is vital, growing churches, organizational intelligence can help identify the paths that will not get us there. I will not present a comprehensive list of well-documented failure paths here. Instead, I will focus on one: low missional flexibility. I define missional flexibility as “the capacity of a church as a whole to make changes that are necessary to effectively fulfill its mission in a particular context without investing large amounts of internal energy managing conflict.” With rare exceptions, churches with low missional flexibility indicate the desire to grow, but do not have adequate flexibility to accommodate their aspirations.

Churches with low missional flexibility will stagnate and decline regardless of the financial resources that are invested in their renewal. This is also true of less tangible resources including the time and energy of a regional association staff. No amount of coaching, training, or facilitation can compensate for a lack of missional flexibility. For this reason, regional associations should direct their energy toward congregations that are more adaptive and move inflexible congregations to the bottom of their list. Organizational intelligence provides the information that enables leaders to make these kinds of tough decisions.  The result is a more productive use of time.

Time Saver #2: Closing Black Hole Conversations

Black hole conversations occur when individuals seek to monopolize the time of a leader by advocating a perspective that is not fact-based. When I was a pastor, I could count on an annual visit of the president of the women’s association complaining that younger women were not supporting their work by attending their (daytime) meetings. Finally, I did a little research. In a church with 800 members, only four “younger” women did not work daytime jobs. That ended the long series of (black hole) conversations.

In a healthy congregation, about 70% of members are going to be satisfied. Even so, 3% of the members are still going to be dissatisfied. For churches in crisis, 20% of the members may be dissatisfied. Even in the strongest of churches, 10% of members indicate there is a disturbing level of conflict. This means that complaints to regional association leaders are inevitable. A phone call from a disgruntled member of a vital congregation may be just as intense and time-consuming as a phone call from a disgruntled member of a church in crisis, but the two require very different responses. One is a black hole conversation that needs to be closed and the other is a crisis that requires an intervention. How does a regional association leader know which is which?

Organizational intelligence provides the information that enables leaders to do a better job distinguishing one from the other. By pulling up the Vital Signs report on the screen in real time while talking with a church member, the leader can place the conversation into a factual context. In some cases, this enables the leader to shift the conversation in a pastoral direction, which will likely be more fruitful. In other cases, it will enable the leader to know what conversations can be abbreviated or spaced, all with a good measure of integrity. That not only saves time, it reduces stress.

Time Saver #3: Focusing on Motivated Moments

Local church leaders are often oblivious to the activities of regional associations, and church members even less so. Regional association leaders often spend a lot of time trying to market programs to local churches and are frequently frustrated by the lack of response. Marketing regional association offerings that are unaligned with the priorities of local church leaders absorbs an inordinate amount of time.

For example, stewardship programs are often a major focus of regional associations in spite of the fact that organizational intelligence consistently indicates that stewardship is a relatively low priority to local church leaders, far behind priorities related to church growth, disciple-making, and creating vital congregations. Getting focused in areas where congregations are motivated saves time otherwise wasted on a small number of people. Organizational intelligence can save time by identifying those priorities.

The greater time-saver of organizational intelligence is in creating motivated moments when churches are asking for a connection to the regional association that require no marketing at all. When local church leaders review their organizational intelligence, they inevitably turn to the regional association representative (assuming he/she is in the room) and ask for help. If regional association leaders were simply present to local church leaders as they review their organizational intelligence, they could probably eliminate half their marketing budget and save all the time they invest in trying to get people to come to events.

Time Saver #4: Moving from Interventions to Interactions

Churches in crisis require climate-based interventions. I define a climate-based intervention as process in which a regional association must step into a local church to deal with a crisis situation where the morale has deteriorated to the point that the church is now in a recovery mode. (I distinguish this from a conduct-based intervention where allegations have been made against a leader.) As any regional association leader can testify, interventions are stressful and time-consuming.

In contract to churches in crisis are churches in descent. Churches in descent require an interaction. I define an interaction as a purposeful conversation among local church and regional association leaders. Interactions address issues before they reach the crisis level. For example, a healthy church that calls a pastor will rarely go into crisis in the first year of the new pastorate. However, there can be a significant erosion in energy and satisfaction, a trend, if sustained, is likely to lead to a crisis within five years. Interactions with churches in descent are much less stressful, are more likely to have positive outcomes, but also require far less time.

Churches in crisis are relatively easy to spot but hard to treat. Churches in descent is easier to treat, but harder to spot. For that reason, regional associations usually do not become engaged until churches reach the crisis level and require a time consuming intervention.

Organizational intelligence, when gathered systematically over time, can reverse this pattern. Regional association leaders can begin to spot churches in descent when purposeful conversations (interactions) are more like to have a positive outcome which preserves the vitality of the church, the esteem of the leader, and, most importantly for this article, saves time for the regional association leader.

Russ Crabtree