By Samuel R. Chand
Culture—not vision or strategy—is the most powerful factor in any organization. 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 an organization—particularly in churches and nonprofit organizations, but also in any organization—shapes individual morale, teamwork, effectiveness, and outcomes. In an article in the magazine Executive Leadership, Dick Clark explains how he took the pharmaceutical firm Merck to a higher level: “The fact is, culture eats strategy for lunch. You can have a good strategy in place, but if you don’t have the culture and the enabling systems, the [negative] culture of the organization 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 and nonprofit organizations 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 church or nonprofit. Like all personalities, it’s not simple to define and describe. Organization development consultant, speaker, writer, and filmmaker Ellen Wallach observes, “Organizational culture is like pornography; it is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”
Organizational culture includes tangibles and intangibles. The things we can see are the way people dress and behave, the look of the corporate offices, and the messages of posters on the walls. The intangibles may be harder to grasp, but they give a better read on the organization’s true personality. The organization’s values (stated and unstated), beliefs, and assumptions; what and how success is celebrated; how problems are addressed; the manifestations of trust and respect at all levels of the organization—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 products, services, and outcomes, but culture is about the people—the most valuable asset in the organization. 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 organization succeeds, but to the extent that it is stagnant, discouraging, or genuinely toxic, energy subsides, creativity lags, conflicts multiply, and production declines. I’m not suggesting that churches and nonprofits 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 point the way forward, but they invite meaningful participation from every person at all levels of the organization. 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 organization together and gives it the strength it needs to excel.
The inputs into the “cultural system” include the stories that surround the staff’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 reputation of the leader, the reputation of the organization, the attractiveness of the church or nonprofit to prospective new staff members, a measure of pride in being a part of the organization, and a positive impact on the entire community.
To see a few snapshots of a church’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 church or nonprofit,” what stories are told?
- How much does the average staff member feel he or she has input into the direction and strategy of the church or nonprofit?
- 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? What factors build loyalty?
- What is the level of creativity and enthusiasm throughout the organization?
The shape of an organization’s culture begins at the top level. The leader’s integrity, competence, and care for staff members 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 organizational culture:
- Culture is the most powerful factor in any organization.
- 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 for your vision. With a new appreciation for your culture, you’ll empower your staff members to do their very best—and love doing it. You will create the context for vision to grow. When your people feel valued, their enthusiasm will electrify your church! There’s no magic formula—quite the contrary. Changing your organization’s culture will be one of the most challenging processes you’ve ever implemented, but I guarantee you, you’ll be glad you did.
 Dick Clark quoted in “Corporate Culture Is the Game,” Executive Leadership, Nov. 2008, 3.
 Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 188-189.
This article is adapted from Chapter 1 of Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code by Samuel R. Chand.
Dr. Sam Chand 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.
Also by Sam Chand:
Learn more at samchand.com.