Discovering the Character of Your Church
Core values are deeply-held understandings and attitudes that guide a church in its planning and decision-making processes. They form the foundation on which members perform their work and conduct themselves. These values underlie the church's ministry efforts, govern members' interactions with each other, and guide the strategies that will be used to fulfill the church's mission. Core values describe the personality and character of a congregation.
A church's values can be categorized based on several different criteria:
- Positive vs. Negative:
Positive values (for example, "We make major decisions only after a season of prayer and fasting.") propel the church toward worthwhile goals. Negative values (for example, "We don't do anything that we think might upset the Jones family.") pose obstacles that must be overcome in order to make progress.
- Spoken vs. Unspoken:
Few congregations spend the time and effort to discover and articulate their core values, but that does not mean they have none. In fact, each congregation has a set of core values that are understood by nearly everyone in the church, whether or not they are ever spoken aloud. In the absence of clearly-articulated positive core values, negative unspoken values gain the upper hand and hamper the church's effectiveness.
- Aspirational vs. Operational:
Aspirational values are ones that are not currently apparent in the church's life, but that some believe should be. By contrast, operational values are ones that are currently demonstrated in the congregation's words and work. Members can easily cite concrete examples that embody these values.*
To effectively plan for the future, or to navigate through a transition period, a church must invest the time and energy to arrive at a set of core values that are positive, spoken, and operational.
How does a church discover its core values?
The simple answer is "through careful observation." Many things can indicate what is most important in a church, including the architecture, layout and décor of its physical facility; its "heroes" and revered members; and its inviolable traditions.
One of the best ways to surface a congregation's core values is to encourage members to tell stories. Mark Lau Branson, in his book, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004), gives a detailed strategy for encouraging members to tell positive stories about their church involvement.
A simpler method can also bear good fruit. Gather members in groups of 12 or less and ask them to discuss some simple questions:
- What makes this congregation unique?
- What generates the most enthusiasm around here?
- What episodes from our congregation's history have become "larger than life" and retold repeatedly?
- Why did this congregation come into being? What was the vision of its founders?
- What qualities of this church draw new people to it?
- What decisions (especially difficult ones) has the church made that were particularly good decisions?
- What hopes for the future are expressed repeatedly from the pulpit and in private conversations?
From the answers to these and similar questions, the group can extract recurring themes. These themes are reliable pointers to the congregation's core values.
There are many. Among them are the following:
- They provide insight into God's call:
Scripture reveals that God has arranged the church according to a specific plan (1 Corinthians 12:18). Knowing the church's core values, along with an understanding of its mix of gifts, can help leaders discern God's purpose for their congregation.
- They help a church direct its efforts more productively:
Churches are constantly faced with decisions about how to allocate their human and financial resources. Knowing its core values can help leaders direct those resources into ministries that will make the best use of them. It can also help them to avoid wasting time and energy on something that simply isn't going to work in that congregation. A church that values simplicity and spontaneity, for instance, probably should not implement a program that is highly-structured and tightly controlled.
- They keep the focus on the positive:
Churches can develop inferiority complexes as surely as individuals can. A leadership that spends much of its time handling conflict can come to see the church as little more than a bundle of vexing problems. Having a clear sense of the church's core values can remind both leaders and members of what is good, right, and praiseworthy in their church. The apostle Paul wisely counseled the Philippian church to "think about such things" (Philippians 4:8).
If your church has never discovered and articulated its core values, now would be a great time to do so. The investment of time and effort will pay huge dividends.
This is the first of four articles related to determining a congregation's core values and how these values — hidden or stated, operational or aspirational, personal or shared, and used with integrity — work in the life of a congregation. There series is called "Discovering the Character of Your Church" and are found with other resources for churches, especially churches in ministerial transition, on the Interim Ministry Partners Website. The articles in this series are: