Cultivating a Culture of Spiritual Transformation in your Church or Organization

“We can never see an organizational field, but we can see its influence by looking at behavior.  To learn what’s in the field, look at what people are doing.  They have picked up the messages, discerned what is truly valued, and then shaped their behavior accordingly…Organizational life is shaped by the invisible. If we attend to the fields we create, if we help them shine clear with coherence, a powerful field develops—and with it, the wondrous capacity to organize into coherent, capable form.”

Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science

Have you ever had an experience like this? You are enjoying a private conversation with another leader from within your church or organization and the two of you are open and receptive, able to listen attentively and willing to share your thoughts from the heart.  You notice a prayerful spirit in that person or perhaps a deep wisdom that you really respect.  Perhaps you have several interactions with individuals that seem particularly graced when you are one to one. But then you all show up in a leadership setting—a board meeting, an elder meeting, a staff meeting—and things are somehow different.

An individual who expressed real wisdom privately is suddenly reticent to share open-heartedly. Someone who is normally kind and gentle exhibits a hard, defensive edge. Relationships which, in more casual settings, are characterized by love and trust become tense or give way to maneuvering and posturing that speaks of a subtle distrust. Someone who has, in personal interactions, expressed a sweet desire to know and do the will of God, can barely find time for a quick prayer at the beginning of a meeting where real guidance is needed.

You can’t help but wonder What is going on here?

This common and yet very disturbing leadership experience speaks to the power of organizational culture to shape individuals and their responses. Human beings are a lot like rocks in a riverbed.  Just as the water flowing over the rocks day after day changes the shape of those rocks by virtue of the fact that they are in the flow of the river, we too are shaped by being in the flow of the organizational dynamics at work in the group we are a part of. These dynamics are often so subtle it is very hard to recognize them, let alone talk about them. Sometimes there is even an unspoken rule that we are not allowed to talk about these things because saying something honest will somehow make us a bad person, a disloyal person, a divisive person, etc.

What’s Your Culture?

The brave question for leaders who are concerned about spiritual formation in their setting is: How is the organizational culture shaping me and all of us who work and worship here?  Are we being transformed by virtue of the way we live and work and worship together or are we being deformed by unhealthy organizational dynamics?  Is transformation even possible in the current environment or is there something in the way we are together that actually works against transformation or even prevents it?

Any approach to spiritual transformation that fails to wrestle with the power of organizational dynamics to have a transforming or deforming effect will see very limited progress in spiritual transformation over the long haul. One of the dangers inherent in many current approaches to spiritual formation is that we tend to reduce it to a privatized matter that can be handled primarily by offering a program or a retreat here and there.  We are looking for an attractive add-on, not systemic change.

But spiritual transformation is not merely an individual matter. Authentic spiritual transformation confronts us, not only on the personal level, exposing our individual sin patterns, addiction to control and image-management, preoccupation with self-protective strategies, or performance-oriented driven-ness; it confronts systems and structures, exposing the ways in which our life together has a transforming effect or a deforming effect. Romans 12:2, which admonishes us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” is not written primarily to individuals; it is written to a group of Christians gathered in Rome trying to figure out how to live their new life in Christ together.  This verse could be more accurately interpreted “be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind—not just your private mind but also your corporate/together mind!”

Every church or organization has its own cultural patterns—ways of being together and working together that have become normative and shape us over time.  Some of these cultural norms are officially “on the books” through spoken or written communication, but many are unspoken and involve tacit agreements to which everyone adheres.  For instance, there might be a cultural pattern of addiction to work which is lived out through an unspoken agreement that no one takes their full vacation or, if they do, they don’t unplug completely. Or it might be understood that people work 50-60 hours a week which makes it impossible to maintain a manageable work week and still have a Sabbath.

There may be subtle norms governing what kind of information gets shared in what settings or how truth is manipulated in order to be more palatable to the congregation or constituency. It could be that the pastor has glaring character or personality issues that are destructive to the group, or the board is clearly dysfunctional but the unspoken agreement is that these issues will be tolerated. The Emperor might not be wearing any clothes, but no one is allowed to point it out!  These are just a few examples of a wide variety of cultural norms that can shape a church or organization and thus shape the individuals who work and worship there.

But there is an even more subtle reality functioning within churches and organizations; it is what Walter Wink identifies as the spirit or the ethos of a place. Referring to Revelation 2 and 3 in which seven letters are addressed to seven churches, Wink points out “the congregation was not addressed directly but through the angel [of that church]. The angel seemed to be the corporate personality of the church, its ethos or spirit or essence…the angel of the church was apparently the spirituality of that particular church.”  That is why, Wink points out, “the spirit of a church or institution can remain fairly constant over decades, even centuries, though all the original members have long since departed.”[i]

It is why a discerning person can sense a spirit of fear and control, apathy and defeat in a place or a spirit of love, trust, and deep faith.  Or why persons who are responding to God’s invitations to deeper levels of transformation might be faced with the dilemma of needing to defend against deforming dynamics in a particular church or organizational culture in order to grow.

Transforming or Deforming?

When it comes to spiritual formation, organizational cultures are rarely neutral.  The more deeply an individual engages in the life of the group, the more they will be shaped by the spirit of the place. For the most part, cultural norms (or the organizational field, as Wheatley identifies it) will support and catalyze the process of spiritual transformation or they will work against it.

Cultivating a culture of spiritual transformation does not happen by accident; it must be led very intentionally by leaders who are deeply committed to the process of spiritual transformation in their personal lives and in their life together.  These leaders know a culture of transformation is not primarily about programs; it is a culture shift that must emanate from the center out.  This means they are 1–clear that they are called to be a transforming community at the leadership level, 2–committed to the values that shape and undergird a transforming community, 3–engaged in spiritual and relational practices that help them live out their values in concrete ways, and 4–willing to covenant together around these things.  There is no short cut for this.

The good news is that the leadership group’s commitment to become the “transforming center” of their church or organization will automatically begin to change the culture from the inside out. Over time, the transforming values they are living together will become embedded in the system to create very positive cultural norms that shape the spirit or the ethos of the place. Individuals will start to experience spiritual transformation just by being in the flow of the community’s life together, which will result quite naturally in an increasing capacity to discern and do the will of God.  And that is really good news!

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. This article is adapted from Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (InterVarsity Press, 2012). Not to be reprinted without permission.

[i] Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p.3-4.

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
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Great article and very insightful. Tom Marshall in his book “Authorities in Heaven and Earth,” makes a case that once any form of organisation is created there is a spiritual authority that takes control. It happened at the Tower of Babel. This Spiritual authority is displayed in the culture of the organisation, including the Church. It is incumbent, as you clearly state in this article, that Christian Leadership intentionally guards against dark spiritual forces taking charge. This comes by intentionally doing what Rom 12:1,2 states -continually allowing the Holy Spirit to transform our minds against a very compelling world beckoning us to conform to its standard (style, thinking, and ways).

God bless you Ruth.

Very thought provoking article. What can those of us in pastoral leadership do to grow in our ability to discern those unspoken norms and values that shape us for better or worse?

That’s a great question! You could start by intiatiing honest conversation among people (like staff) about how the way you work and lead together impacts character. Do they find themselves becoming more honest, more loving, more faith-filled, more willing to take risks by virtue of their participation in the system? Or have they found themselves becoming more guarded, more fearful, the environment? Invite specific examples and listen, don’t judge their experiences or seek to defend. Does your life together re: scheduling choices and expectations make it realistic to unplug at night and on vacation, to practice solitude, sabbath and other transformative disciplines? Is truth-telling (even to senior leadership) encouraged and affirmed or is there a lot of posturing and manuevering? If you ask and the environment is safe, they will tell you!

Ruth, Thanks for the article. It is right on target on a subject that needs to be articulated. What is the name of your new book, who is the publisher, and when will it be out?

I was just asked by Alban to do the forward to a new book by Don Zimmer on spiritual foundations for leadership and governance. Don was the chairperson of Worshipful-Work. I touches some of the same issues.

I am currently in New Zealand–but not in Christchurch–where I will be leading a workshop for the Knox School of Ministry in Dunedin. In an interesting conversation the other day with a Presbyterian denomination staff member, I ased what happened to the initiative of Michael Thawley, a moderator back in 2003-04. Michael was introducing some discernment and consensus process into their national meetings. He has since died and the person said that his efforts did not last because other new moderators were uncomfortable leading that way! It confirmed by belief that folks do what they know how to do and the culture had not been sufficiently established. It is not a one or three year project. We must hold it as a vision with processes for decades for the culture to be established. So keep up the good word! You are importantly positioned!

Chuck Olsen

Thanks, Chuck. I agree that this is a major culture shift and not a one-three year project. I hope it is one some of us are up for! You have been such an important voice in this whole arena–your affirmation means a lot. The working title of the book is Leadership Discernment: Seeking God’s Will Together (InterVarsity Press) due out in June 2012. Keep praying!

[…] is never merely private and personal, says Ruth Haley Barton in this taster of her forthcoming book on leadership discernment. The culture / ethos / ‘spirit’ / […]

A timely post for me. I have been invited to participate in a conversation about this very topic in a week with a few leaders in our church. Thank you

Wonderful e-reflection…and timely! I couldn’t agree more with the statement: “Cultivating a culture of spiritual transformation does not happen by accident; it must be led very intentionally by leaders who are deeply committed to the process of spiritual transformation in their personal lives and in their life together.” When I focus on “personal life without community” I become inward and often isolated, and when I focus on “life together without personal transformation” I fall off the other side of the horse and become too purpose or tasked driven – often leading others by setting expectations that are, more often than not, shaped by a type of corporate pragmatism or what is trendy, and not from what flows out from a culture within the church of personal and corporate spirituality. Being intentional here as leaders is not easily or quickly accomplished but surely is well worth the energy and devotion of our calling!

Yes, indeed!

What timely word! I couldn’t agree more, especially this excerpt: “…it must be led very intentionally by leaders who are deeply committed to the process of spiritual transformation in their personal lives and in their life together.” People need to see us living it out. The old adage still holds true: practice what you preach.

Ron Stohler
Pastor, Growth and Groups
Grace Community Church
Noblesville, IN

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