Changing the culture of a church

June 29th, 2015

“Any time you go in and you have to change a culture, it’s always smart to start heavy-handed, and you can always ease up a little, if necessary. But if you go in easy, it’s hard to put the hammer down after that.” Tom Herman, Head Football Coach, University of Houston

OK, it isn’t often that I would quote a football coach about anything. Tom Herman is the new head coach for the University of Houston. He’s not your average football coach. Tom is a member of Mensa, a smart guy with lots of experience in cultural change. When he said cultural change is what it takes to turn around football teams, I perked up.

What does changing a football team have to do with changing a church? The process of changing the culture is the same. While pastors and leaders never need to use a “hammer,” they do need to make clear from the beginning Jesus’ mandate and vision for the church, and what needs to happen for the church to move forward. Common instruction to new pastors is — don’t change anything for the first year. Just preach, and love the people. In other words, win everyone over first.

Tom says that when he first started out as a young coach, he wanted everybody to see him as a great, easygoing guy, one everyone could talk to and everyone liked. When he tried that, he discovered that instituting a new culture was harder than ever. The same thing is true for churches and the old proverbial wisdom about moving slowly and keeping people happy has brought us where we are today: stagnant and declining.

We have undersold the true expectations of our churches and our members. We celebrate “pennies for mission” instead of sacrificial giving. We triumph clean grounds and beautiful stained glass instead of missional drive and servant ministry. We settle for occasional attendance and happy congregations over justice and devotion. Pastors don’t have control over a congregation the way a coach has over the team. But what we do as leaders is very much like coaching. We set clear expectations and high standards. Our leadership must include encouragement and praise, not when we see baby steps, but when we see fidelity to our true purpose and vision. If we compromise basic principles in order to make people happy, our leadership is just confusing, and in the end we will all lose.

“Children are keen observers but poor interpreters of adult behavior.” I can’t remember who said that, but it's a truism and applies to all forms of leadership I think. People are keen observers but often poor interpreters. What people see pastors and church leaders doing always matters. They may not understand our behavior, but the antidote to that is not to change our behavior. The antidote is to be constant interpreters: of the church’s purpose, mission and vision, and offer clarity about the behaviors needed to bring us into alignment as we press forward.

Karen Vannoy is the co-author of "Adapt to Thrive" and "10 Temptations of Church." She blogs at Church for Tomorrow.

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