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Churches that want to maintain a healthy culture will anchor themselves in the gospel and then adjust, accommodate, adapt, and morph as the years go by. A church’s initial culture will help sustain the church over time, but it may also resist adaptation to new situations. A founding vision is designed for the original members, but people come and go, conditions change, and new challenges arise. How can a church assess its health and affirm what is good while also discerning areas that need modification? Many sectors in our society—businesses, nonprofits, and others—make good use of regular assessments, and I believe that churches would also benefit greatly from undergoing routine measures of assessment.
Assessments are like what C. S. Lewis once said about forgiveness: “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” Assessment tools are wonderful to think about—until the results come in. (I know of organizations that have done assessments, but after reading the results, the leaders destroyed or distorted them without ever communicating what was discovered.) So while I encourage you to conduct regular assessments, I also want you to be ready for whatever an assessment might uncover. If your church is in a crisis, you might be willing to hear anything that will get you out of it and back on track. But if your church is in a reasonably good spot and perhaps desiring more growth, an assessment’s results may be humbling, exposing some toxicity in your organization. I urge all church leaders to encourage transparency, humility, and truth telling, and to prepare themselves for what they might hear.
Acquire Some Tools
Churches use a number of tools to assess themselves. My daughter, Laura Barringer, and I developed the Tov Tool after we were asked by a church leader to develop an assessment based on our book A Church Called Tov. This tool can be found in an appendix to our new book, Pivot: The Priorities, Practices, and Powers That Can Transform Your Church into a Tov Culture. The Tov Tool concentrates on the redemptive needs of churches that have too much toxicity. We ask questions designed to foster small group conversations about empathy, grace, putting people first, truth telling, justice, and service. We’re not suggesting these virtues are the top six for a church or that they are the only virtues a church should seek to cultivate. But what we have learned from more than four years of conversations with church folks is that these six virtues are typically lacking in toxic cultures. Thus, they are a good place to start.
Make it Safe
Conducting a valid assessment requires honest answers to clear questions. Honest answers can be threatening to leaders because they may bring to light hidden areas of toxicity that require repentance and repair. Leaders therefore must commit to making it safe for everyone taking the assessment to provide their genuine thoughts and opinions. Grace, humility, and understanding will be necessary for all. Honest responses must be safeguarded from becoming gossip or slander. Here’s a good commitment statement to create a safe environment: “We want you to answer these questions honestly; we promise your answers are valued; and we promise safety for saying what needs to be said.” Genuine safety may be the most difficult challenge for churches to achieve. Think hard about how to make it safe for those participating in the assessment. Make sure you really want to hear what people think.
The defining skill of good leadership and creating a healthy church culture is genuine listening. How do we listen well? By not interrupting or criticizing; by repeating back what the other person has said, to his or her satisfaction; by not co-opting the other person’s words and ideas into our own. Good listening may include asking questions, but only for the sake of clarification and understanding. Questions cannot be criticisms in disguise. So you think the HR department’s practices are not consistent with empathy? can either be a really good clarifying question or a very subtle dig at HR. The art of listening is not a natural fruit among many leaders. Work on your listening skills.
When leaders open up an assessment to other leaders, groups in the church, or even the entire congregation, they should expect surprises. Assessments often reveal what is invisible to the leaders and the congregation. You may well learn that your church has too much of a celebrity culture. You may discover that your church has been spinning narratives about people who have left. You may uncover some power abuses that have created fear among those who are close to the inner circle. You may find that you are really good at empathy and grace but are not doing well at serving the needs of a sizable demographic in your church (e.g., widows, seniors, women, youth) or having the level of impact you desire in your community.
Assessments are necessary, and assessments can be scary; but they are nonetheless important. Teachers are often assessed by their students after each course; workers typically receive annual reviews. Our educators and business leaders assess their organizations because they want to know the truth and work to improve their practices. For those same reasons, and for the glory of God, churches would do well to assess themselves.