The Unwritten Rules of Your Church

  • In response to a consistently full auditorium, Pastor Steve announces the addition of a second worship service. Though this results in some complaints, he is nevertheless surprised when he loses his job six months later. The only reason given was that he had split the church by starting the second worship service.
  • Pastor Brandon is encouraged by some members to add a contemporary service on Saturday nights, based on the model of a nearby non-denominational church. He decides not to do so and loses many members, most of who were on the church leadership team. Four months later, he reluctantly moves to another church in a different community.
  • Student pastor Glenn scales back the Tuesday night discipleship structure to involve students in community ministry projects. Even though more students participate in this than did in the discipleship groups, he is fired over a series of incidents involving miscommunication and calendar conflicts.
  • Adult pastor Neil puts together a comprehensive, small group structure for home Bible study and community but does not require attendance reports from each group. Four months later, he moves to a different church under duress and is replaced by the Evangelism pastor.

Frequently I hear terminated leaders say, “This really caught me out of the blue. I truly didn’t see it coming. I still really don’t know what happened.” Often they say something like, “Everything was going so well. All of the sudden everything seemed to spin out of control and within a month or two I had been fired.”

While there are a variety of reasons for forced termination, many occur because of a leader’s inadvertent violation of his church’s culture.

Essentially the culture of an organization is its “corporate personality,” a living blend of values, traditions, norms, assumptions, and experiences that produce a nebulous code of behavior often referred to as “the unwritten rules.” Every church has them and not knowing them can get you killed, or at least terminate your tenure.

A church’s real values and culture are found in how time and budget are spent and how people are treated and rewarded. A church’s expressed values are frequently very different from its real values. Often a leader’s mistake in assessing church culture is in doing more listening than observing. Andrew Carnegie once said, “As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.”

Assessing the culture of an organization can be somewhat akin to nailing Jello-O to the wall. It is a “soft” skill in the sense that empirical data does not tell the whole story. Nevertheless a leader’s potential is profoundly impacted by their grasp of this “tribal knowledge.”

Even though as a leader I may choose not to deal with reality, reality has a way of eventually coming to deal with me. As a leader, you must develop the soft skill of understanding your church’s culture. If you don’t, some hard facts may someday come knocking at your door.


To assess the culture of your church,

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