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Defining the Leadership Culture at Your Church

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Organizational Culture is the squishy stuff that is often difficult for even the most experienced leaders to clearly articulate. But just because it’s difficult and forces you to have uncomfortable conversations, face the brutal facts, and do the hard work of mining out the best ideas doesn’t mean it should be avoided. In fact the best leaders have a crystal clear picture of the behavioral norms that both reflect and build the desired culture in an organization. If you plan on perpetuating your culture you’d better be able to clearly articulate it and get others to see it…after all as Peter Drucker famously said…

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker

Every organization has a culture – attitudes they want adopted, values they want championed, beliefs they want instilled and behaviors they want reproduced. Leaders are the cultural architects of any organization.  Eventually every organization takes on the character and priorities of its leaders.  As a result, leaders need to become intentional in creating culture.

At Sun Valley Community Church, there are a few things that make our staff culture unique.  There is a way of operating and a way of treating others that we expect from those who are in leadership.  We have been working diligently to try to capture them in a few memorable, clear statements. We’ve gotten it down to 7 clear and concise statements (with further explanation that’s been added in) that we believe capture the essence of our culture. Don’t be confused, these are not the same thing as organizational values. These are staff norms, distinctives, and behaviors that both reflect and build a desired culture. I’m not posting these here to copy or to mimic. You have to discover and be true to your unique identity as a leader and organization. However I am posting these here as an example and to hopefully encourage others to do the hard work of clearly defining and articulating your own culture.

#1 LeadershipWe choose to love first and lead second, but always do both.

The Bible describes Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).  He knew when to be compassionate and when to be bold and he used the perfect mixture of both for any/every situation.  Jesus was the perfect man and the perfect leader.

We are not so fortunate.  Most of us lean to one side or the other.  Some are primarily grace givers, while others are truth tellers.  Grace givers believe the best about everyone.  They take people at their word and believe in a God of “second chances.”  However their weakness is that their trust is sometimes unfounded and at other times they don’t delve into problems and get to the root issue.  As a result, people may feel accepted but because of an unwillingness to confront obstacles to growth, they never become the leader God meant them to be.

Truth tellers have a different perspective.  They believe that “the truth will set you free” and so they willingly and consistently point out opportunities for improvement and change.  You never have to worry about knowing what is on the mind of a truth teller.  They are forthright and honest in conversation, whether confrontational or friendly.  However, very often truth tellers miss the relational side of ministry and as a result are seen as insensitive, abrupt and harsh.

At Sun Valley we expect our leaders to learn how to lead others with both grace and truth.  We believe that truth is best received when there is a strong foundational context that “we want something for you, not from you.”  We train leaders how to say the hard things in caring ways. Relationship is a key to receptivity. High trust paves the way for high challenge.

In our culture, the order of grace and truth matters.  Truth is spoken in the context of relationship.  When people know they are loved, accepted and respected, they will be more receptive to much needed change.  We also choose never to stop with only love.  It is never loving to leave out the truth. Love does what is best for the other person no matter what they get in return.  We love first, lead second, but always do both.

#2 RiskWe have a big God, so we take big risks and trust Him for big results.

Nothing is impossible for God.  He has commissioned His church to reach the world with the Gospel.  Therefore, God designed the church to be on the offensive in its dealings with the world.  In Mt. 16:18 Jesus states, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The only thing that can stop the church is the church.

And yet many churches take very few risks to reach those who are far from God.  Instead they house themselves in comfortable buildings and focus their resources on making the already convinced more comfortable.

This is not God’s plan for the church.  At Sun Valley, we encourage our staff to try big things to reach more people.  The world is rapidly changing which means methods need to change.   Leaders in the Sun Valley culture will experiment.  We are not afraid to try things and make mistakes.  We also understand that “new” is not necessarily better, “effective” is better.  We have high trust in our leaders.  This high trust leads to high expectations.  So we expect our leaders to key in on results.

Therefore when resources are limited and results are expected, evaluation becomes vital.  We evaluate everything, consistently trying to improve “what is,” to make it what “it could be” and “should be.”  We hire leaders who are willing to try new things and expect them to become “masters of midcourse correction.”  We have a big God, so we take big risks and trust Him for big results.

Yes…I know this is a long post…skim the highlights if you’d like. But I’ve put it all on here to help provide some kind of model for those interested in intentionally building a culture at their church. Keep reading if you want to learn more.

#3 EffortWe work hard, give our best and put family first.

Christians should work harder than anyone else on the planet.  The Bible teaches that the ability to work is a gift from God and that ministry is a privilege. Therefore work ethic should never be an issue for the believer.  At Sun Valley, we expect our staff to work hard.

We also give our best.  The ability to be “all here” at work is vital.  Focus, attentiveness and professionalism are expected attributes of all or leaders.  Prompt communication, collaboration and continual growth and improvement of ministry are norms for our culture.  We hire staff to get a job done.  We expect them to set goals, devise strategies, implement tactics, raise up volunteers and reproduce leaders so that greater impact can result.

We hire self-starters who are willing to report progress in a timely manner and are willing to receive coaching.  We look for self-motivated people who feel responsible for their ministry portion as well as their own personal growth (the person primarily responsible for your professional growth is you) but can work very well within the context of a team.  We look for leaders who not only work harder but smarter and who lead with moral authority – your effort should be an example to the person who works full-time and then gives significant effort to ministry.  The speed of the leader determines the speed of the team.  We expect your best.

At the same time, we also know that our greatest ministry is to our family.  Family is your greatest responsibility.  An unwillingness to focus on family has led many to ministry disqualification.  We want you to have an intimate relationship with your spouse and a healthy relationship with your kids.

As such, staff families need to understand that ministry is very often seasonal in nature.  There are times when ministry will be very intense and you will be working at an unsustainable pace.  There are also down times when ministry is not as intense and much more freedom is provided.  We hire staff that understand that this balance between ministry and family is not a problem to be solved, but a tension to be managed. And we expect our staff to become experts in managing this tension.  We work hard, give our best and put family first.

#4 Team – We want to take the hill, and we want to take it together.

The whole reason we are in ministry is to reach the world.  We have a job to be done, a goal to be accomplished and a dream that one day every person has had an opportunity to say “yes” to Jesus.  This is why we exist.  So we set goals, make plans and move forward.  This is the hill we want to take.

In the midst of trying to take the hill, we have realized that we are better together than we could ever be apart.  Sun Valley functions best as a team effort.  There is a power to collaboration.  There is a synergy that happens when each one of us takes our skills and abilities and combines them with those of the other members of the team.

We ask everyone to organize ministry in teams.  We push each other, sharpen each other, challenge each other and make each other better.  There are no silos at Sun Valley – no one is expected to work alone or go it alone.  Everyone is expected to function with a team of peers on staff and develop a team of leaders in ministry.  No one person has the best ideas all the time. Instead we learn to leverage each other’s strengths.  And together, we become a high performing team.

The pace of our ministry can become intense at times.  If someone falls behind, we will do whatever we can to bring him or her up to speed and keep them moving forward with the team.  However, if we determine that this person is unable to keep pace with the rest of the team, we will first try to reposition that person to a position with a more moderate pace.  If that does not work, our last resort is to replace them on the team, so that we can continue to move forward.  We want to take the hill, and we want to take it together.

#5 AttitudeWe live on the solution side of every issue.

We expect the ministry to grow at Sun Valley.  Growth necessitates change and change always comes with its set of challenges and problems.  It’s easy to see the problems.  Anyone can do that.  The challenge is not seeing the problem but forming the solution.

We expect Sun Valley staff to be proactive when it comes to problem solving, whether you are anticipating problems before they occur or solving them as they happen.  We expect them to engage in interaction with other leaders to solve the issue.  We expect them to behave as if they are owners of every portion of the ministry of Sun Valley.

We expect staff to have a “Can do” mentality.  No matter how difficult the task, we expect staff to try and to have a positive outlook, a cooperative spirit and a willingness to “get dirty” in order to move forward.  When the issue is a performance issue, we ask that staff assume ignorance rather than obstinance.  When training has failed and it is proven to be an attitudinal issue we will address it as a character problem.  We train ignorance and challenge obstinance.

Complaining is contagious.  We expect staff to understand the “bucket principle.”  Any time a problem arises, it is like a fire. When staff becomes aware of an issue they must recognize that they have two buckets – a bucket of water or a bucket of gas.  Getting on the solution side of the issue is like pouring water on the fire while joining in on the complaint side is like pouring gas on it.   We live on the solution side of every issue.

#6 Sober-minded – We know who we are and who we’re not and we do what is best for the whole.

We expect leaders to know what they are great at and what they stink at.

Nothing is more damaging to ministry progress than a leader who is not self-aware.  A lack of self-awareness creates an uncomfortable cringe factor for everyone else on the team.

There is great power to knowing your strengths and weaknesses.  As a result better teams are formed, better decisions are made and better implementation results in bigger results.  Therefore Sun Valley staff seek others input about personal strengths and weaknesses and defer to the team wisdom over personal ambition.

Sober-minded leaders surround themselves with leaders that are better than they are.  They defer decisions to those who will make the best ones.  They choose to lead in areas of strength.  Sun Valley staff thrives on humility and teachability – they are able to take on the posture of a servant and a learner.  They are able to celebrate others strengths and laugh about their own personal weaknesses.

At Sun Valley we expect our leaders to trust in the intentions of the rest of the team when difficult conversations about strengths and weaknesses occur.  We expect them to defer to the team.  Every decision that is made must go through the filter of “What is best for Sun Valley?” not “What do I want to do?”

#7 OutsidersWe exist for those who are not here yet.

Everything we do at Sun Valley is to help fulfill the Great Commission – making disciples out of “them.”  This is the “hill” we are taking.  Our greatest focus is to make more of “them” a part of “us” so that they can join us in reaching more of “them.”

To emphasize this priority, we give special attention to tracking new attendees, “Yes” decisions and baptisms.  These metrics are signs of health and mission focus.  We expect all ministry leaders to become keenly aware of these stats in their areas of oversight.

Being outsider focused greatly impacts how we do ministry for “insiders.”  The intentional focus on reaching people is a part of true maturity in Christ – who came to “seek and save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10).  All our ministries that impact insiders are for the express purpose of training them to reach outsiders.  As we are “helping each other move toward authentic Christian living” (our mission statement), the greatest sign of success is that they live out “Authenticity, Community, and Generosity,” (our values) and move through “Come-Grow-Serve-Go” (our pathway).

We expect staff to support unapologetically the design of our weekend services to be guest-friendly.  We expect our leaders to have a plan on how guests will be effectively welcomed in their ministry environments (whether large, medium or small group settings).  We expect ministry trainings to focus on making outsiders insiders and to help insiders make relational room for outsiders in their personal lives.  We expect our leaders to model outreach to neighbors, friends, relatives and co-workers in their personal lives.  Because, we exist for those who are not here yet.


Posted in Leadership

5 Responses to “Defining the Leadership Culture at Your Church”

  1. Jason June 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    Love this post. So true and so applicable.

  2. Rev. Dr. Jennifer Rawlings May 19, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

    Hey Paul! I am sooo glad to see that so many of us who grew up together have devoted our lives to Christ. I enjoy your articles. This one was important for me as My husband and myself are in the process of beginning a home church and creating other home churches with leaders who are qualified not only in the Word of God but also in their living with ChristLike behavior.

    So proud of you!
    Love in Christ,
    Jenna

  3. Chris Rivers (@chrisrivers) January 20, 2015 at 5:14 am #

    There’s no doubt, that culture is the litmus test of your vision, values, and strategies! Great post.

  4. Jim Herzberg April 9, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

    Is Sun Valley a Staff-led or Elder-led church? What are the pros and cons of each? Do you have a specific recommendations for resources about this specific topic?

    • Paul Alexander April 10, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

      Jim, Sun Valley is “Staff-led, Board Protected.” I certainly prefer a Staff-led model for many reasons…may have to do a post about that in the future, thanks!

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