Organizational culture changes faster than we expect, but slower than we want.

I saw this interview with Jerry Seinfeld on the Late Night with Seth Meyers show where they discuss the timelessness of his eponymous sitcom. The stories and dialogue are just as funny and engaging today as when the show was running two decades ago. Yet in this interview, Seinfeld bemoans the fact that there are parts of the show that are simply ridiculous today because of the inescapability of culture change. No matter how timeless they tried to dress, cut their hair, or write the stories, there are elements that look decidedly 1990’s.

The same is true of our churches. 

When we look back on the last decade or two in ministry, we see how much the culture in our churches has shifted. Not merely have the external cultural indicators changed, but the internal ones, too. Sometimes those changes are positive, and sometimes not. Yet in the times when we see cultural red flags within our existing ministries or when we launch into something new and notice unhealthy culture, we just can’t seem to get the change to happen as quickly as we would like.

Here are the two undeniable constants about culture change:

Culture changes faster than we expect.

Culture changes slower than we want.

I’m certain that if you reflect on your own experience in ministry, you’ll see these things to be true.

So.

If culture is changing (and is therefore changeable), but it doesn’t change at the speed we want it to, how exactly can we enact the cultural shift we want to see?

Here are three steps to changing your church culture:

1) Don’t try to change how people think about your church.

Culture is made up of three components: what you say, what you do, and what you think/believe. I don’t mean “believe” in the doctrinal sense; I mean what the people and leaders of your church accept internally as the identity and motivations of your church. It’s this part of culture that is the most engrained but the least easy to shift. Research on organizational culture indicates that these beliefs have far more intertia than we might expect. To simply say, “Let’s change the way we think as a church,” may be desirable but it’s very likely ineffective. To spend time attempting to change these internal beliefs about the culture of your church may be an excercise in futility.

2) Reimagine the symbols of your culture.

Instead of trying to directly change what people feel and believe about your church, focus on the other 2/3 of culture that you can more easily influence. What you say about your church–its symbols–make a long-term impact on what the culture of your church actually is. The mission statement, branding, and publications of your church are symbols of what you want the culture to be. Don’t be fooled. A slick new logo and a catchy slogan alone will not change the culture of your church, but that doesn’t make these endeavours not worthwhile. Often times it’s these rebranding efforts that are the catalysts for other types of change. Reimagining the cultural symbols is not a silver bullet, but it very well may be a critical piece of the puzzle.

3) Target critical behaviors.

The final piece of the cultural formula is what your church does. The key processes, systems, and strategies that occupy your church’s time and budget have a massive influence on your church’s culture. But too many times, pastors who want to change the culture of their churches try to change all of the processes, systems, and strategies to bring a massive culture change fast. This almost always backfires. Think about when former Apple retail chief Ron Johnson took over at JC Penney. Johnson attempted to massively overhaul the systems and structures of the chain department store in order to develop a winning culture. But the sweeping changes proved too much, and Johnson was ousted after a ridiculously short stint. Don’t make this mistake. Rather than trying to change every strategy to achieve culture shift, target high-impact strategies. Choose a few critical behaviors that will have the greatest impact on revolutionizing the culture of your church.

In time, what you do as a church and what you say about your church will impact how people think about your church, and then cultural transformation will have happened.

The change will take time, but when you look back on the process you’ll say, “Wow, our culture shifted a lot faster than I expected.” This time, it’ll be for the better.

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