Angie Ward on Clues to Hidden Core Values

"9 Clues to Secret Core Values: More on discerning your church's hidden agenda" by Angie Ward, (Leadership Journal, February 28, 2005)

Thanks, and wow. Thank you to everyone who responded to my
previous column about hidden core values. Thanks for sharing your insights and
questions. It was a privilege to read about your stories and your struggles, and
I hope what follows will be of help on your leadership journey.

First, a quick review: Most churches these days have some sort
of mission or purpose statement. All churches, however, also have their own
internal culture, a set of shared attitudes, values, and beliefs that define
church and shape its practices. This deeply entrenched culture can be summarized
into an "ethos" statement which is almost never officially articulated, but is
nonetheless extremely powerful. Here are some (more) examples:

  • Let’s just have church and go home.
  • We’re better than you.
  • Don’t ask questions.
  • Bigger is better.
  • Christians don’t have problems.

Aligning a church’s actual values with its stated values is
crucial to ministry effectiveness. The most effective churches will have a
mission that reflects biblical values, and an internal culture that reflects the
mission. When a church’s ethos matches its mission, it becomes a unified whole
with a unified goal. But when there’s a disconnect between these two areas, the
church will resemble a rowboat full of people pulling in opposite

So, how do you determine your church’s actual core values?
Unfortunately, your church’s ethos will rarely stand up and announce itself,
although those of you who have participated in tense congregational meetings may
have gotten close. Rather, a leader must look for clues that will help point to
the prevailing ethos.

Keep in mind that identifying an organization’s ethos is a
discovery process that can take months or even years. Sometimes the culture is
so deeply entrenched, it’s difficult to identify, which is also what makes it so
hard to change.

How do you discern your church’s hidden values? Here are some
questions to stimulate the discovery process.

1. Mission: Improbable? Start by looking at your
church’s current mission statement. Do you have one? Is it biblical, and is it
reflected in the church as a whole? Are you fulfilling your mission? If not,
where’s the tension? In our case, one tension was in the area of evangelism. The
answers should give you some initial clues for discovering your church’s actual
values. Our church said it was evangelistic, but the budget, attendance, and
conversion rate showed otherwise.

2. Who’s the boss? Take a look at your leadership
structure, both formal and informal. Who’s allowed to call the shots, and what
are their values? Do staff members buy in to the church’s mission? Do they
practice it? What about the other "power brokers" in your church? (You know who
they are!)

3. He said, she heard. Are key elements of your stated
mission, vision, or values in conflict with each other or with other things that
have been communicated to the congregation? For example, a church may describe
its Sunday worship as a "gathering of believers" while also expressing the
desire to be "seeker-focused." This tension is also seen in sub-ministries whose
leaders have been allowed to build their own "empires" separate from the
church’s overall mission.

4. Who are the people in your neighborhood? Look at your
surrounding community. Is there a mindset that is carried into your church by
the people? If a community’s culture is very unfriendly to newcomers, for
example, that attitude will also shape the culture of the local church. I used
to live in the Twin Cities, where people were known for being "Minnesota nice,"
which meant generally pleasant on the surface, but not apt to quickly share
their real feelings. That cultural mindset fed (nicely, of course) our church’s
ethos of "don’t rock the boat."

5. History 101. Look closely at the history of your
church. How did it start? Did it have healthy beginnings, or did it split from
another congregation? Was there a significant event in its history that has
shaped the current values of the church? Often, well-meaning actions have
unintended long-term consequences, such as a church that undertakes a successful
building project but then becomes more focused on preserving the facility than
using it for ministry.

6. Spearing the elephant in the room. What’s the thing
that everyone knows, but is scared to talk about? What topics or issues are
taboo in conversations? Sometimes a church’s actual values are reflected in what
is not discussed as much as in what is discussed.

7. Show me the money trail. While it’s possible to "buy"
ministries without ministry "buy in," a church’s spending is still a good
indicator of its real values. A church that claims to value world missions
logically should devote significant financial resources to that area. What does
your budget say about your priorities?

8. Mirror, mirror, on the wall. What is your
personal ethos as a leader? Does your life reflect what you have written on
paper? Do you preach the importance of outreach, yet have not talked to a
non-Christian in years? If you don’t live your church’s mission, why should

9. Ask and you shall receive the truth. Sometimes the
best way to determine your church’s ethos is to simply ask others! Ask people in
leadership, and ask regular attenders. Ask other pastors, and ask people who
don’t go to your church. What is the outside perception of your congregation? At
my church several years ago, another local pastor astutely pointed out that our
church really wasn’t practicing what it preached about evangelism. Of course,
you should also ask God, in prayers for wisdom and discernment.

Once you begin to get an idea of your church’s underlying
culture, see if you can summarize it into a one-sentence statement, such as the
examples above. Then, test its validity by applying it to various "tension
areas" in the church. If you’ve nailed the ethos, chances are good that it will
explain a lot of the frustrations in your ministry. It will also resonate with
wise leaders within your church.

Of course, if you find that your values do match your mission,
congratulations! You have overcome a major obstacle to greater effectiveness.
But whether your ethos supports or subverts your stated values, identifying the
underlying culture is the first step toward harnessing its power.

Angie Ward is a consultant, ministry leader, and pastor’s spouse
in Durham, North Carolina.

Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today
Leadership Journal.