Some churches take their staff culture for granted. Having a healthy culture that glorifies God and points people to Him may sound simple, but staff culture can be difficult to navigate, even in churches. Your culture is the working environment that includes common values, a shared vision, and similar attitudes and behaviors. You may have sincere intentions of it being healthy, but even the best intentions don’t always translate to day-to-day life.
A healthy culture is a big contributor to people enjoying their jobs. It can prevent turnover, and it can be lifegiving, not only to pastors and other staff members, but also to volunteers, attendees, church members, and those you serve. Factor in a crisis that includes a lot of change—such as suddenly moving to remote work—and your culture will matter more than ever. There are tools that can make your work easier, such as Aplos, and project management systems like Podio or Asana, but having a healthy church culture with the right people on your team is essential.
As a former executive pastor of a church, I understand how crucial it is to have a healthy church culture. Now, as the CEO of Aplos, I have taken much of what I learned working in a church environment and implemented similar values in our company.
Chances are you have certain values for your church culture set in place, even if they are implied rather than stated. They are probably already part of your church’s culture whether you realize it or not. But it’s important to clarify them for your leadership team and the staff. When your staff and church leadership know and live out the values, your culture and the church members will benefit from everyone being on the same page and working together as a team. Assuming everyone on your staff loves God, follows Him, has integrity, and adheres to the beliefs of your church, then you have the foundation for a healthy church culture.
Although this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, these signs of a healthy church culture can help you evaluate if your church is on the right track or if your church leadership needs to make some changes.
7 Signs Of A Healthy Church Culture
1. The culture aligns with God’s mission.
This should be a no-brainer. However, even pastors and church leaders can get off track sometimes. Prayer and the Bible need to be central to your church’s culture so everyone knows the direction they’re headed, and so they can help lift one another up on the way as they share the gospel and disciple other believers. When people on staff are there to seek their own gain or pursue personal side missions rather than staying focused on where God is leading the church, things start to get wonky really quickly. But when your church leaders and staff are all abiding in Him and working on mission together, your church can be part of something much greater that God is doing.
2. The culture is imperfect.
Everyone is a work in progress, regardless of age, and whether you are an attendee, senior pastor, or somewhere in between. No one is perfect, and they shouldn’t have to pretend to be. Imperfection is not a sign of unhealthy church culture, but hypocrisy is. Pastors and team members need to be able to be honest about their struggles, which in turn allows church members to do the same. That doesn’t necessarily mean people need to provide details about everything they’re going through, but they do need to feel safe being transparent with each other and with the church congregation about their humanity.
If staff members are afraid of being vulnerable or getting help when they need it, that allows sin to take root. It will start to creep in to other areas of their lives, and when left unchecked, that can lead to disaster for the person and for the church. But if staff members feel safe seeking help early, you may be able to avoid issues of church discipline or huge moral failures. When they are given the freedom to be honest, and the resources and time to heal, that will allow your staff to minister to others from a place of real health. Knowing your staff members and leadership have a culture where they are seeking help when they need it also builds trust with your congregation.
3. The culture is unique to your church.
Your church’s culture is for your church and not another one. Sure, some values may overlap with other churches, but your culture should have its own personality. If you are trying to duplicate the exact church cultures and values from somewhere else, and force them to be your own, they will feel inauthentic to your leadership and your staff. Instead, consider why you want those values to be part of your church culture. What is it about that other church’s culture that interests you? If you can identify why you are drawn to it, you will have a much better chance of implementing the right value that is specific to your church.
Even if you adopt a similar value from another church, such as innovation, for example, it may look entirely different in your context than it would in theirs. It might be innovative for your leadership to start looking at ways to accommodate people with different disabilities so they can be included in your services and small groups, whether online or in person. For another church, perhaps innovation looks like the children’s pastor and youth pastor working together to streamline a curriculum that encourages kids and students to grow in their faith in an age-appropriate way. Your church doesn’t need to be everything for everyone. Let it be the church God called it to be.
4. People laugh together.
Let’s not forget the church is the people, which includes staff, so having a culture that honors and cares for them is important. When people are overworked, undervalued, burned out, or there is a lot of tension, genuine laughter is often absent. But laughing together is an indicator of relational health. Staff members may still have bad days at times, and there may also be issues to work through, but being able to laugh together can help.
When you can go a step further and foster healthy friendships between staff members, that can be huge for the culture and church. An outpouring of a healthy culture is a staff that is teachable and quick to forgive. People speak truth to one another and show grace to each other. When the staff members like each other, enjoy hanging out together, and sincerely care for one another, that will play out in the way they serve the church and the community.
5. Every staff member invests in the culture.
When everyone on the team is invested in the culture, they’ll do what they can to uphold it. However, when someone on your staff doesn’t care about the culture or values you have set in place, or they rebel against those values, that will affect everyone else. If you can lead your team to work together to hold the church and culture in high regard, your staff will be in a great position to serve others.
That’s not to say everyone must immediately be onboard with everything in the culture. It might take some time to guide someone to where you want them to be. If you believe they have what it takes, you can encourage people to get there in their own time, but full group participation in the culture will eventually be needed. People can’t be only partly onboard. Having complete buy-in is essential because when your values are compromised, your culture will start to erode. If you want the values to be an accurate reflection of your church’s culture, then 100% adoption is required.
6. Staff members can trust each other.
Many people say communication is the top priority in a work culture, particularly in a remote one. They’re not necessarily wrong, but consider this perspective: what if breakdown in communication is merely a symptom of a lack of trust? Building trust within your team will open up a true line of communication. Trust allows people to share ideas without the fear of feeling stupid or being ridiculed. It allows your team to try innovative things without being afraid to fail. It also gives your team what it needs to wrestle through conflict when it arises and to resolve those conflicts fully.
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni clarifies, “Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible.” It may take work to get there, though. Trust doesn’t always come naturally, and neither does teamwork. You may think people wouldn’t inherently be competitive with each other in a church context, but that isn’t necessarily the case, “because in the course of career advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. It is a challenge for them to turn those instincts off for the good of a team, but that is exactly what is required.”
Trust needs to occur across all relationships and roles for it to truly be part of your culture. Teammates across departments need to be able to trust one another. The leadership needs to be able to trust the rest of the staff, and reversely, staff members in all positions need to be able to trust the church leadership. In my experience, trust is the value that is impacted the most when there are interpersonal conflicts. Since we are humans, those are going to happen. Conflicts themselves are not the problem; the real problem is if they go unresolved. If your team avoids conflict or only deals with it on a surface level, issues won’t be completely resolved, and your church’s culture will suffer. When your team can trust each other enough to work through conflict and resolve it, they will build even more trust and become much stronger than before.
7. Leaders believe in their staff.
A leadership team in a healthy culture should be able to believe the best in the staff and each other. If you don’t, you may need to reevaluate whether you have the right values in place, the right people on your team, or if there are leadership issues that need to be addressed. Added stressors, such as the times we are currently living in, will put your staff under pressure, revealing their strengths and weaknesses. If a crisis occurs and you experience a high level of distrust of those on your staff, the pressure has merely exposed what has already been there for a while.
Luke reminds us, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). When you can’t see someone sitting at their desk in the office, it can be easy to question people’s work ethics. But if you have implemented a healthy church culture where you are able to believe in the people you work with, you should be able to trust them whether they are onsite or offsite. When folks trust each other, they continue to run (do their job), knowing that although they can’t see their coworkers, they are also running right alongside. If you have the right people on your staff who are all living out the values of your healthy church culture, you can believe they are right there on mission with you.
Those are just a few signs of a healthy church culture. What are some others? Let us know in the comments. Lencioni, Patrick, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Jossey-Bass, 2002, 195-196.