Culture Trumps Vision

I was born and raised in a pastor's home in India, and have been in full-time ministry since 1973. God has guided me through a wide and varied journey. My experience includes serving the church as a janitor, youth pastor, senior pastor, Christian university president, and as a denominational leader. I now serve the Kingdom at large as a leadership consultant, conference speaker and author. This is not to describe my pedigree, but rather to give you context that with all that in my background, the last few years have been quite frustrating—especially in my consultations with "successful" churches. Let me tell you why. From outward appearances they were oozing with success and to hear the pastors speak publicly at various events you would think they found a church panacea. However, in my private conversations I kept hearing the same song: "I know we should be further down the road but we aren't. We have great facilities, numeric growth and strong under girding programs but I know something is wrong, something is missing—just can't put my finger on it."

Like a good consultant, I would probe and prod and create leadership architecture to facilitate the pastor's vision—however both of us knew something was still amiss till one day… One day the invisible hit me—it wasn't the vision, the mission, the core values, the facilities, the finances, the ministry programs etc—it was the toxic culture that created a quagmire and bogged down vision fulfilment.

Many pastors pour time and resources into communicating a strong, clear vision for their church, but when their vision fails to materialise, they become confused and frustrated. Quite often, they don't realise that culture—not vision—is the most powerful factor in any organization. It's often unspoken, unexamined, and unnoticed, but it determines how people respond to leadership and vision. My book CRACKING YOUR CHURCH'S CULTURE CODE: Seven Keys to Unleashing Vision & Inspirationdescribes the concept of organisational culture in a church environment, outlines the impact of culture, and offers the promise that the reader will be able to recognise the connection between culture and vision, empower people to do their very best and love doing it, and have a clear process to implement cultural change.

As a leadership consultant, I often wondered why the best strategic plans and good leadership often were not able to move churches in the desired direction. Then I saw and smelled the noxious carbon monoxide of organisations—toxic culture. Quite often, leaders don't see or smell it, but it poisons their relationships and derails their vision.

Churches have a wide range of personalities. A few common traits characterise healthy church cultures, and a set of opposite traits are found in unhealthy ones. Leaders all along the spectrum long for their churches to be strong, healthy environments where people thrive, support each other, and celebrate each other's successes.

Some comments I hear from church leaders are, "We spent time and money to re energize the congregation. We took our top staff on a retreat to instil the new vision into them. We hired more staff, and we reformatted our worship experience. We started new programs. We redesigned our stage set. We created a killer website, reconfigured our offices, redecorated to create a fresh ambiance, and designed a new logo for the church. We even wrote a song about how great we are! But none of this has made a bit of difference. We haven't gone backward, and I'm glad of that, but I thought we'd be way ahead of where we are today. What am I missing?"

Toxic culture is like carbon monoxide: you don't see or smell it but you wake up dead! Senior pastors do a lot of good things, but they fail to understand the impact of the existing organisational culture on their new, exciting vision for the church. It is like changing the engine on a sports car to make it faster, but it's spinning its wheels in the mud. Or to use a different metaphor, they try to transplant a heart into a patient whose body rejected the foreign organ. No matter how perfect the new heart is, the patient had no chance at all unless the body accepted it.

Culture — not vision or strategy — is the most powerful factor in any organisation. 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.

When a disconnect exists between a leader's vision and the receptivity of those being led, the problem isn't the vision; it's the culture.

First, we need to understand what we mean by the term organisational culture. It is the personality of the church. My simple definition of church culture is: "this is how we do things here."

To help you uncover the nature of your existing culture and identify the steps of change, we must examine the full range of cultural health, from inspiring to toxic, and describe the seven keys of C-U-L-T-U-R-E.

Some questions for you to consider...

1. C ontrol
         Q. Is there authority with responsibility? 
         Q. Who actually controls what gets done and what doesn't? 

2. U nderstanding
         Q. Does everyone understand the "why" behind the "what"? 
         Q. Who are the primary designated communicators in the church? 

3. L eadership
         Q. How is leadership discovered, developed and deployed? 
         Q. How are "new" leaders assimilated and how do "old" leaders receive them? 

4. T rust
         Q. How is trust earned in your church? 
         Q. Is failure fatal in your church?

5. U nafraid
         Q. Is the culture fearless? 
         Q. Are innovation, creativity and new ideas offered and discussed freely? 

6. R esponsive
         Q. How responsive are team members to each other? 
         Q. Does the team think systemically? 

7. E xecution
         Q. Are decisions and plans being executed? 
         Q. Does everyone know "who" does "what" by "when"?


Organisational 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 organisation's true personality.

Vision and strategy usually focus on products, services, and outcomes, but culture is about the people — the most valuable asset in the organisation. 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 organisation succeeds, but to the extent that it is toxic, energy subsides, creativity lags, conflicts multiply, and production declines. I'm not suggesting that churches 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.

To see a few snapshots of your church's culture, you might ask these questions:

  • Who are your heroes? What makes them heroes? Who determines who the heroes are?
  • How much does the average staff member feel he or she has input into the direction and strategy of the church?
  • 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 organisational chart?
  • How are decisions made, deferred, denied or delayed?
  • Who are the non-positional power brokers?
  • Where are control problems and power struggles most evident?
  • How is "turf" defined and protected?

I encourage you to form an informal team of key staff and or volunteer leaders with the senior pastor and have an honest conversation about these questions on the topic of culture. You'll be glad you did.

A toxic culture will eat vision for lunch - don't let it be yours!

By Dr. Sam Chand


In his latest book CRACKING YOUR CHURCH'S CULTURE CODE: Seven Keys to Unleashing Vision & Inspiration Dr. Samuel Chand (www.samchand.com) helps churches diagnose, understand and change their cultures to inspiring, motivating and full of enthusiasm. To take a free survey of your church's culture (or departments) go to www.freeculturesurvey.com.

"This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter, "The Pastor's Coach," available at www.INJOY.com."