Your congregational aroma

A reality check to see if your congregation’s culture stinks.

By Bill Wilson

Like many of you, I regularly read outside the world of congregational life in an effort to understand leadership issues. Recently, in Fast Company, I ran across an article dedicated to helping startup entrepreneurs establish healthy practices in their ranks.

The title, “6 Signs Your Company Culture Stinks,” was a little off-putting, but as I read, I quickly recognized that much of what Matt Ehrlichman was talking about resonated with the life of a congregational leadership group. Let’s see if your congregational aroma needs some attention as you consider whether your congregation’s culture stinks:

You’ve got gossips in your ranks.

The book of James is right in describing the tongue as being “a fire sent from hell.” Not only is gossiping a nuisance in the local church, it has a toxic impact upon the life of a church. While transparency and collaboration are the marks of a culture that people enjoy being part of, cliques, malicious smear campaigns and hidden agendas are the marks of a place no one wants to be. Healthy congregational culture is built upon trust.

I once went through a training event dedicated to the idea that trust was the critical link to building a healthy relationship culture. A key idea: there are trust accelerators and there are trust decelerators in your congregation. Gossips are some of the most effective decelerators to the work of the Spirit in your midst that you will ever encounter. Find them, name them and confront them or be controlled by them.

Your leadership team has bad habits.

The prevailing culture of your congregation takes its cues from those in significant leadership positions. If congregational leaders cut corners on their work ethic, devotional life or personal morality or display sloppy work habits, it has a trickle down effect to the whole congregation. Conversely, seeing a leadership model that is diligent, conscientious, humble, focused upon the needs of others and attuned to spiritual discernment sets a standard that others want to emulate.

Your managers’ hands are too clean.

I’ve watched many a minister send an unconscious, yet powerful message to a congregation: “I’m too busy/spiritual/important to do that.” Asking others to do what you are not willing to do is a short route to a dysfunctional congregation.

A healthy engagement with hands-on ministry means showing up and pitching in, managing by walking around, being accessible and engaged, having an open door and making it a point to be focused on the needs and concerns of others.

When a minister sends the unconscious or conscious message that “you or your class or your project or your problem are an intrusion upon my valuable time,” it is a congregational aroma killer.

Your employees are competing — with each other.

The Center where I work does a significant amount of conflict intervention work in local churches. Almost without exception, when we begin to peel back the layers of the conflict in order to design an appropriate intervention, staff competition and/or broken relationships are found at the heart of the issue.

When members of a leadership team spend more time competing with each other than banding together to meet the challenges of the day, you know you have a rotten culture. Back to the accelerators/decelerators designation: identifying who is who is critical for moving forward. Build up the accelerators.

You don’t play together.

I recently spent three days with a church staff as part of their annual weeklong staff retreat. It was amazing what those days away did for their sense of unity and shared mission. They balanced their strategic and calendar work with hilarious games, incredible food and true re-creation. I realized that my paltry efforts at twice-a-year overnight staff retreats paled dramatically beside this much deeper version.

Building a culture of healthy congregational leadership includes regular times for play as well as planning. Despite the eye-rolling from your stick-in-the-mud staff members, do it anyway. One staff that I was part of took the four “5th Tuesdays” of every year and planned a fun afternoon away from the church as part of our ongoing effort to create a positive team experience.

The church leadership group that doesn’t make time for team building or relationship building outside the office inherently faces unity and retention risks.

You lack school spirit.

Is it possible for congregational leaders to maintain a spirit of joy and meaning about their task? I believe it is not only possible, but essential to the effectiveness of the ministry. A unified understanding of your call, mission, vision and strategy is a necessary prerequisite. The moment you stop actually believing in your church, something essential begins to ebb.

How about it? How would you describe your congregation’s leadership culture aroma?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.