We were quickly reaching a standstill. The congregation I serve as executive minister had long been famous for the quality of its programming. But the sheer amount of choice we were offering had left our staff drained and taxed our congregants’ ability to attend and support our programs. One of our parishioners told me, “I need a night off from church!”

We began to wonder: Why were we doing it all?

Our church had the proverbial mission statement. We were even working on its revision, adding more structure in the form of vision and value statements. In many respects, we really thought we knew who we were as a congregation, and what we were meant to do. We were moving forward full-tilt.

But we had discounted several factors that had a huge bearing on the life and culture of our congregation. Among them: a decade of staff changes, including a cataclysmic transition from a longer tenured senior minister to a new leader.

So we backed up and entered a major period of prayerful discernment and reflection. In so doing, we ascertained that while our stated identity, vision, mission, values and even our priorities for ministry were in a good place, we needed to better understand how these statements would be integrated into and “lived out’ through the life of the church. Some will argue that this is what a Strategic Plan is designed to do. Before such an instrument can be developed, I believe that the natural “DNA” of a congregation has to be discovered, and we needed to better understand our culture.

The culture of any organization, including a congregation, is a powerful force. It is built through years of being together, forging hopes and ideals, being guided by personalities, and adapting to both external and internal forces. Scholar Edgar Schein identifies the key drivers of the phenomenon of culture as being what a group sees, hears and feels: the “visible products,” “feelable structures,” and “observed behavior.” At the heart of culture are “espoused beliefs and values, ideals, goals, values and aspirations.”[1]

Culture is an abstraction yet the forces that are created in social and organizational situations deriving from culture are powerful. Culture patterns of shared basic assumptions learned, external adaptations and internal integration. It becomes the correct way to perceive thoughts and feelings.[2]

Therefore, a church’s culture or “ethos” will enable priorities, determine intents and drive ministries far more than any other dynamic. In reality, a church culture is most often determined by the people a congregation attracts as well as the history they share together.

At my current placement, Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, we came to realize that we have a remarkable culture that fits well within our understanding of Jesus’ work of forming community from collections of people. Theologically and biblically, our culture is tied to how God established the church through the personhood and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is provocative that Christians follow a person and not an institution or a system. Jesus gathered a close community of followers who walked, lived, ate and worked together in the true sense of Koinonia and developed community over the years of their being together.

We define Marble’s culture as being a “covenant community.” A covenant community knits a family of diverse individuals, who mutually share experiences of celebration, tribulation, and inspiration, together in deep relationships that are life-transforming. A Christian covenant community is tied to the person and teachings of Jesus Christ and is experienced as a journey toward redemption, wholeness and love for God and all humanity.

A covenant community is by its very nature a relational entity, and even though it is a large congregation, Marble is a very relational church. By that, we mean that relationships are valued over tasks or events. Our community, our faith, is invigorated by our people. Under the ministries of the three most recent senior ministers, Marble Collegiate Church has sought to proclaim and live out a positive, embracing theology that offers hope to everyday life. Our congregational culture seemed to loudly proclaim that Marble is a place where the wounded can find solace with other wounded and can discover acceptance beyond compare. Many a person has testified to me that at Marble they found hope and a place where they are loved. They come to Marble perhaps feeling as if they are missing something in life. Yet, once they are a part of us, I have heard many say they can’t imagine ever living without the fullness our covenant community provides.

Once we were able to define our congregational culture, we became intentional about incorporating this “ethos” in our planning and execution of our vision, mission and values.

Our staff committed to meeting together to plan programming and ministries at a minimum of six months, and ideally a full year, in advance. As executive minister, I became the “gatekeeper” for all calendaring. If and when I saw conflicts or opportunities to foster better collaboration between areas and staff, we would bring groups together.

Our staff became organized around teams. We call them the five “ships” — worship, discipleship, “servantship,” fellowship and stewardship. Our intent was that Marble would “live into” its own culture: what we do would always reflect who we are.

It was invigorating to name and claim our culture — our ethos. At our best, we witness the weaving together of our disparate stories, perspectives, and experiences into the fabric of our “village” as valuable and inspirational. Now, more than ever, we can live into our vision, mission and values. They are more than words on paper. They are the very breath of God.

[1] Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, (San Francisco: Jossey Bess Printing, 2010), p. 24.

[2] Ibid., p. 18