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Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Peter Drucker

This article is adapted from Chapter 1 of Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code by Samuel R. Chand. He is a former Pastor, college President, Chancellor and now serves as President Emeritus of Beulah Heights University. In this season of his life, Dr. Sam Chand does one thing–Leadership. His singular vision for his life is to Help Others Succeed.

Practically speaking, it is culture—not vision or strategy— that is the most powerful factor in forming and sustaining parish life. It determines the receptivity of staff and volunteers to new ideas, unleashes or dampens creativity, builds or erodes enthusiasm, and creates a sense of pride or deep discouragement about working or being involved there. Ultimately, the culture of a parish shapes individual morale, teamwork, effectiveness, and outcomes. The fact is, culture eats strategy for lunch. It’s possible to have a good strategy in place, but if culture is not addressed and effective systems to change it, then the negative aspects of the culture of the parish will defeat the strategy.

In the past decade or so, dozens of books and countless articles have been written about the importance of corporate culture, but relatively few churches have taken the arduous (but necessary) steps to assess, correct, and change their culture. First, we need to understand what we mean by the term organizational culture. It is the personality of the parish. Like all personalities, it’s not simple to define and describe. Humanly speaking, culture is an amalgamation of heritage, community mythology, language, clans, shared history, values, entrenched behaviors, habits, customs and more. Some is of the church, most is not.

Parish culture includes tangibles and intangibles. The things we can see are the way people dress and behave, the look of the church offices, and the messages of posters on the walls. The intangibles may be harder to grasp, but they give a better read on the parish’s true personality. The parish’s values (stated and unstated), beliefs, and assumptions; what and how achievements are celebrated; the nexus of worship and sacramental life,how problems are addressed; the manifestations of trust and respect at all levels of the parish—these are the intangible elements of culture. Every group in society—family, town, state, nation, company, church, civic group, team, and any other gathering of people—has a culture, sometimes clearly identified but often camouflaged.

Many leaders confuse culture with vision and strategy, but they are very different. Vision and strategy usually focus on programs, services, and outcomes, but culture is about the people—the most valuable asset of the parish. The way people are treated, the way they treat their peers, and their response to their leaders is the air people breathe. If that air is clean and healthy, people thrive and the parish moves toward the Kingdom, but to the extent that it is stagnant, discouraging, or genuinely toxic then energy subsides, creativity lags, conflicts multiply, and forward movement abates. This is not to suggest that parishes drop their goals and spend their time holding hands and saying sweet things to each other. That would be a different kind of toxic environment! A strong, vibrant culture stimulates people to be and do their very best and reach the highest goals. Spiritual leaders model and point the way forward, but they invite meaningful participation from every person at all levels of the parish. Together, they work hard toward their common purpose, and they celebrate each other’s accomplishments every step along the way. Trust is the glue that holds the parish together and gives it the strength it needs to excel.

The inputs into the “cultural system” include the stories that surround the parish’s experiences; shared goals and responsibilities; respect and care for people; balance between bold leadership and listening; and clear, regular communication. The outcomes include the ministry and reputation of the priest, the reputation of the parish, the attractiveness of the parish to prospective new members, a measure of joy and dignity in being a part of the parish, and a positive impact through service on the greater community.

To see a few snapshots of a parish’s culture, we might ask these questions:

  • Who are the heroes? What makes them heroes? Who determines who the heroes are?

  • When someone inquires, “Tell me about your parish or your Faith Tradition,” what stories are told?

  • How much do staff members, parish council members or general parishioners feel they have input into the direction and strategy of the parish?

  • Who has the ear of the top leaders? How did these people win a hearing with the leaders?

  • Who is rewarded, and for what accomplishments?

  • What is the level of loyalty up and down the organizational chart of the parish? What factors build loyalty?

  • What is the level of creativity and enthusiasm throughout the parish?

The shape of a parish’s culture begins at the top level. The leader’s integrity, competence, and care for staff and parishioners create the environment where people excel . . . or not. In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni observes that trust is the most powerful trait in shaping a positive culture, and trust thrives on honesty. He writes, “When there is an absence of trust, it stems from a leader’s unwillingness to be vulnerable with the group,” and “leaders who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation of trust.”

We can identify key principles to help us understand the importance of parish culture:

  • Practically and humanly speaking, culture is the most powerful factor in any parish.

  • Culture is usually unnoticed, unspoken, and unexamined.

  • Culture determines how people respond to vision and leadership.

  • Culture most often surfaces and is addressed in negative experiences.

  • Culture is hard to change, but change results in multiplied benefits.

A positive culture will act as an accelerant toward the Kingdom. (We are saved in community but we go to hell alone. Alexei Khomiakov.) With a new appreciation for parish culture, a priest and a parish council will gain new insights to facilitate positive change. The context for vision will expand. Parishioners will feel valued and their enthusiasm will electrify the parish! There’s no magic formula—quite the contrary. Changing the parish’s culture will be one of the most challenging processes ever implemented, but it brings forth countless blessings.


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