January 2016: Culture • Character • Ability – Who we are says more about what and how we do things

January 5, 2016 | GNJ News, Bishop's Relay Column

You don’t always have everything you need, but using what you have to make it work is how I define working class. I grew up in a working class family and neighborhood. Along with my faith, it helped define how I lived, how I approached work and even how I approach faith. For instance, a passage in the book of James, faith without works is dead is an important scripture passage for me. I tend to be action oriented rather than talk and observation oriented. Don’t misunderstand me, talking and analysis are critical for service and engagement, but a lot of talk tends to frustrate me and too much analysis can lead to paralysis. I also encourage people to learn from their mistakes rather than ponder and talk about something until we are sure we are right.

Today I begin a four part series about culture, character and ability. While individuals have these so do congregations and organizations. Understanding and living out of a healthy culture, character and ability strengthens the mission and fruitfulness of a congregation or organization.

I began by sharing about a cultural aspect about my own life, working class. It is not just a way of approaching life or problems, but a value and attitude for my living. Congregations and organizations have a set of values, beliefs and attitudes that make up their culture.

It is important to clarify something right away, culture is neither good nor bad. It is who we are. For instance an innovative, pioneering, experimental, entrepreneurial, and dedicated group may describe a team working on ending cancer or a drug cartel. It is not their culture but what they use their culture for that determines whether the culture is organized for good or bad.

Working class culture can lead to creative problem solving or over work and burnout. We are better off not judging someone’s culture, particularly when it is different from ours, but understanding someone’s culture. When a congregation or organization is using their culture for harm, we are better to find the positive aspects of their culture and move it toward the mission of God. For instance a culture of loyalty can lead to exclusion by being loyal to the same group of people or a set of traditions. This loyalty can get in the way of the new thing God wants to unfold. How do we move a group of loyal people to embrace God and the new thing God wants to do rather than being loyal to the past and those we know?

Culture can be powerful and transformative. Recently a denominational leader came to meet with some of our staff and conference leaders to learn more about The United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey. At the end of her visit she sat down with me and said, I have never been to a conference like this. When I came through the door I was warmly greeted and engaged in a delightful conversation with the receptionist. Someone came to get me and walked me to the person’s office for my appointment. I was asked if I wanted coffee and was taken to the kitchen where I saw the Dean of the Cabinet cleaning some dishes in the sink. Throughout the day people were prepared for the conversations and spoke positively about their ministry, the pastors and the congregations. In one meeting, people were meeting with the bishop to talk about an important strategy and they disagreed with the bishop, even forthrightly at times and a better answer came from the conversation. Does this happen all of the time?

Yep, that’s GNJ I said. This is who we are. You can’t work here unless you are willing to do the dishes and set up chairs, you have to be warm and assertive, and you have to love God, your ministry, the people you work with and the pastors and congregations you serve. That’s pretty much our culture. If you don’t, it is not going to be a pleasant work experience for you and you probably won’t last.

That’s the power of culture. It guides, directs and affirms wanted behaviors and corrects and challenges behaviors that are not in alignment with culture. That’s why it is so important to understand culture and affirm and nurture the culture within a congregation or organization.

Now there is aspirational culture that congregations and organizations desire and in the midst of cultural change make the mistake of abandoning the present culture for something new and better. For instance, imagine if we could nudge the drug leader culture in a different direction. What if we could build on the innovative, dedicated, and pioneering culture and nudge it toward community development or community friendly business development? In some of the most transformative work, this is exactly what has occurred in cultures not organized for the greater good. It may not be getting rid of the old culture in our congregations, but transforming it into something life changing. And maybe we need only to add to rather than change the culture.

Our staff continues to affirm our culture of hospitality, hard work, loving (believing in) what we do, and forthright conversation. We also have an aspirational culture that we want to add to it. These are based on what Patrick Lencioni calls the five dysfunctions of a team. They are 1) trust, 2) disagreement, 3) commitment, 4) accountability, and 5) attention to results.

We talk about these as our aspirational culture. We are not there yet. Imagine if we said that these were our culture and someone new came and did not find us trusting or was reprimanded for disagreeing with someone. The person may not stay or worse stay and talk negatively about us. Imagine if a congregation put on their sign board, “all welcome” and when someone different showed up encountered a congregation that ignored them. Many congregations describe themselves as friendly but never befriend a new person or mainly stay in their cliques.

Every congregation and organization has a culture. It may be using the culture to move a positive mission forward or to create harm. It is better to identify what is positive about your culture and build on it rather than trying to create a new culture. When people are behaving badly, nudge their good cultural values in a positive direction. Adding new values to a culture is appropriate but never say it is your culture until you have been practicing it for a while.

The culture Jesus tried to instill tended to be the things GNJ staff are working on – grow trust, disagree with the status quo when it is not kingdom work, commit to God and the mission, be accountable for your actions and bear fruit by paying attention to results.

I invite you to explore the culture/values within your congregation and organization and ask how is our culture moving the mission of God forward and how can we grow and reinforce the culture for greater mission fruitfulness.

Keep the faith!
John Schol, Bishop