Let me pick up my thoughts with this word of caution.
You may be a pastor of a local church in a mostly homogenous town, suburb, or neighborhood and think a call to cultural awareness does not apply to you. You believe folks are the same where you serve and churches are mostly the same wherever they are. But you are wrong, absolutely wrong. Your blindness to this reality may be a cause for you ineffectiveness as a leader.
Every group or organization is embedded in a culture of its own making or imported by a majority group. No two are identical. You lead and serve people who are influenced by their individual cultures and who serve within a larger culture you are either seeking to create or have inherited.
Culture, those values and traditions that drive behavior, is the DNA of your church or organization. Your church or organization will behave as its DNA calls for it to behave.
Core values and vision statements on websites and posters are meaningless if they do not reflect the cultural DNA of the group/church/team you are trying to lead. Discover the cultural DNA, and you will find how the group will act in stressful situations. When the two—values and behaviors—are in sync, people change the world. Try to create a culture that opposes the group’s cultural DNA, and you have yourself a mountain to climb…or, an extended vacation in another town far away.
The culture of your church or organization must not be overlooked. Trompenaars and Voerman observe,
The influence of culture should not be underestimated. It is the one factor that influences every single other process within an organization.¹
To be culturally aware is not enough. We must learn to lead in the context of cultural boundaries, values, and expectations in order to lead those we serve. But, we must lead.
Todd Bolsinger, in Canoeing the Mountains, affirms the power of organizational DNA when leading,
No matter how much power and authority you perceive resides in your title or position, no matter how eloquently you articulate the call of God and the needs of the world, no matter how well you strategize, plan and pray, the actual behaviors of the congregation—the default functioning, the organizational DNA—dominate in times of stress and change. ²
Culture does eat strategy for breakfast.
Scott Rodin, in The Steward Leader, affirms the influence of the community on culture.
While the leader may shape the culture, it is maintained, nurtured, developed, adjusted, amended and reformed by the community. In all of these ways culture transcends any one particular leader, and we need to be free from it in order to let that happen when it must. ³
While the culture of the community is a powerful influence on the direction of the group, Rodin calls for leaders to be steward, one-kingdom leaders who are free in Christ to allow the community of faith to form its culture under the headship of Christ.
Steward leaders, unlike owner leaders, “develop and nurture culture not by controlling information or manipulating perspective, but by modeling the heart of the steward leader and being free to allow it to be repeated throughout the organization.” 4
To make disciples is to create a culture that fosters becoming like our Leader, Jesus, and behaving in a manner consistent with his values. Disciple-makers are culture changers, and they are servant leaders who serve the mission of God and create a culture that fosters transformation into the likeness of Christ.
Bolsinger speaks to the leader’s role in relationship to culture when he writes, “The actual behaviors of those in authority express and shape the actual values of the organizational culture.”5 Actual behaviors shape actual values that create a prevailing culture. This is why the leader must be aware of his or her value-driven behaviors and the culture he or she forms by them. You can’t preach or cast vision for one thing and act differently toward another.
People follow those they trust to take them where the leader says he or she is taking them. Or, following Bolsinger’s metaphor of leading in uncharted territory,
No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on it. 6
Jesus, our Leader, inaugurated a kingdom-of-God culture through his incarnational life, death, and resurrection. He challenged the prevailing culture of his day while living and leading in it. He established values and behaviors foreign to most, but essential to God’s mission of reconciliation. Jesus then commissioned his followers to create a culture for all people he named the Church. He has called his servants-leaders to do the same.
Culture can eat you for breakfast or it can be the environment in which people breathe and thrive as his church and who serve the world in the name of Jesus.
How has the culture of your church or community affected your leadership?
What is one takeaway from this blog that gave you insight into your role as a leader?
Any thoughts or action items you would offer the rest of us to change or create a culture that fosters growth into the likeness of Jesus?
1F. Trompenaars and E. Voerman, Servant-leadership Across Cultures (2009), 21.
3Rodin, R. Scott. The Steward Leader: Transforming People, Organizations and
Communities (p. 109). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
5Todd Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted
Territory (InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 74. Author’s italics