Challenges of church culture

Reading a little about business cultures recently makes me suspect that paying more attention to culture might help us understand what is going on in church life.

Churches vary in size, but each size transition marks a change in culture. Smaller churches, where everyone knows each other gradually grow into churches centred around the pastoral skills of the minister. Then as churches grow beyond the 200 barrier they become more programme orientated; people can’t know everyone else in the church by name and so the church becomes a cluster of clusters. At this size the number of church staff starts to increase so as well. Then as the church continues to grow in size it mutates again; increasingly the personality of the senior leader is important and the need for structured ways of working our vision grows. These churches are also staff driven.

Business also vary enormously. In small businesses everyone wears multiple hats and performs a variety of roles, there are fewer written policies and things are more personal. In larger organisations there is a clearer corporate culture, with a growing sense of ‘fitting in’ to the company mould. There is a greater sense of expertise and things having their place.

Culture is about shared values but work in different ways. Some are power orientated, with one person dominating and making key decisions. Some are task orientated, getting things done is the name of the game. Others are role orientated, with people focused on doing their job right and keeping to the rules (something that only works in larger organisations).

So what? As we work on church staffs, or for bodies like Associations, we need to acknowledge we are small staff groups in big organisations.

As Churches gain church staff, many of the leaders (deacons, elders etc) use skills they learn from corporate life to describe how things should be done. This often means ideas from larger companies that you wouldn’t normally use in a small business of 3 or 4 employees.

Small staffs naturally work better with a personal (blurred edges) approach rather than an organisational one. I wonder if this lies behind the tension some churches have between their staff teams and the wider leadership team. Because these staff teams often come with church growth culture dominated by the Senior Leader there can easily be a sense of being locked out of decision making.

Regardless of the number of staff appointments, the size dynamic of churches is a big mixture. You may have a staff team of 4, which naturally suits a small business approach; but you have a membership of 300 which needs policies and strategies to function effectively. In a smaller church a single minister can be more role orientated in the way they go about ministry.

So I’m pondering if some of the issues we face are the result of our unique mix of small culture staff teams in a large organisation culture. And as we think about wider life beyond the local church, part of the disconnect we experience is that many of us operate in a small team culture whose task is to organise a larger church culture, whereas denominational structures have developed out of a corporate ‘shared value’ but role orientated culture. 

In wider BUGB life, our ability to change the culture will depend on us grasping these differences and working with them.

One thought on “Challenges of church culture

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  1. Thanks Neil – we do need more people who can help us reflect on why most Baptist Churches tend to hit a numerical ceiling (cf how few grow beyond 250). I did some work on this 20 years ago, but it needs some up to date reflection. The general response feels like ‘large is automatically non-relational’, or ‘Baptist Churches shouldn’t be large because everyone can’t be involved in everything’ and usually hidden behind claims (false in my view) about Baptist identity!


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