The 7 Keys of Culture


Culture is established either by design or default and everything has a culture; homes, businesses and even the church. You can have a great vision and mission, but without culture, everything falls apart. Let’s take a look at what it takes to create an amazing culture.

Everything has a culture whether you know it or not. Every home has a culture, which explains why you may walk into a home and feel peace and love, or tension and anger. No one has to say or do anything, you just feel it. That is culture. Businesses also have distinct cultures. This is why Starbucks attracts different clientele than Tim Hortons. Both serve coffee, but each one has a different feel and therefore attracts different people.

Every church has a culture as well, and it happens by design or default. You can either intentionally design the culture you want, or you can be a slave to the culture that happens by accident. It is your choice. But, I would rather design the culture I want than allow the culture to design the church it wants.

Culture is about behaviours and attitudes and the general feeling you get somewhere. Bad culture happens when what is advertised or said just isn’t happening. It doesn’t matter what is being said, what matters is what is being done.

In a church, culture is more important than vision, mission, or strategy. This can be tough to swallow. For years, I tried to introduce what I thought was an incredible vision only to have it fall flat. It felt like I had hit a brick wall. But, the truth was, I had hit a brick wall, and that wall was culture. For example, I could have the vision “to reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means with the Gospel of Jesus Christ” — as all of our Victory Churches do — but if the culture of my church is insider focused, it does not matter how good the vision sounds, it will not work.  My culture will trump the vision every time and I won’t actually be able to fulfill what I intend to do. This problem describes the majority of my ministry, and I was frustrated. That is why I am so passionate about culture and teaching pastors the importance of it.

[bctt tweet="Culture is more important than vision, mission, or strategy. #culture #church" username="kellystickel"]

I pride myself in being a master strategist. I love strategy and I love talking about vision and mission. It is fun because it inspires people, it gets people excited. In contrast, culture isn’t all that enjoyable to speak about. It’s often hard to define or clarify. It doesn’t inspire people because it often requires a change in behaviour and its results aren’t always immediate. Yet, culture always wins. If I don’t make culture the most important thing I design, then I will not be able to implement effective strategies or be able to reach exciting visions. In my opinion, the first thing a pastor needs to do, before they talk vision or strategies, is examine and define their culture. Does the culture they currently have make it possible for the vision to work? If it doesn’t, then the culture must be changed before the vision is laid out. Otherwise, the pastor and his team will become frustrated, the pastor will lose credibility as a leader because the culture is fighting the vision, and therefore the vision will not work as projected.

With all that being said, let’s dive into the 7 Keys of Culture. The keys are an acronym for the word “Culture”, which makes them easy to remember.

1. Control

When evaluating your culture, there are some key questions to be asked on the basis of control.

  • Would you say there is too much control from the top, too little, or just the right amount?
  • Do people know what is expected of them, or are they confused sometimes?
  • Are the lines of authority and responsibility clear on our team? How can we tell?

People function most effectively on a team if they are given control or authority along with responsibility. It is extremely frustrating to be given responsibility for something without the authority to actually make decisions in that area. So, when evaluating your culture, you have to firstly evaluate issues of control and communication. People thrive on teams that have a free flow of information and ready access to resources. It is important that the “top” doesn’t keep all of the information to themselves, or it will lead to frustration. Is there a risk to not having all of the control at the top? Absolutely. But, I think the risk is greater if there is too much control from the top down than if people are given the authority to make decisions for their area of responsibility.

2. Understanding

This one builds off of the first one, especially when it comes to communication. So, the questions a team must ask in order to evaluate their culture in the area of understanding are questions like:

  • Do most lines of communication on our team flow from the leader, or is there good cross-pollination?
  • Do people on our team feel understood, valued, and directed to give their best each day?
  • Is the vision for our team both God-sized and specific?

This point is all about clarity. Every person on the team needs to have a clear grasp of the vision, as well as a clear idea of their role in facilitating that vision. They also need to have a clear understanding of the gifts and contributions of their teammates, and the way the team best functions together.

A healthy team culture is reliant on everyone clearly knowing what the vision of the team is and each ones role in making that vision happen. The more they understand these things, the healthier the culture will be. A lack of clarity or understanding in these areas can cause the culture to become toxic and it will hold the vision back. 

3. Leadership

This one is not necessarily about the leader as a person or the leadership team and their particular abilities as much as it is about the “culture of leadership” within the organization as a whole.

  • Does the organization have a culture of leadership development? John Maxwell calls this having a healthy growth environment in which everyone is challenged to grow as a leader.
  • How well are we doing at identifying and developing rising leaders?

I think it is important to note that there is a difference between developing and training leaders. Developing people into leaders requires a focus on heart and character as well as on skills whereas training is more about equipping someone to perform a particular task. Another important question to ask is what kind of resources (time, money, personnel, etc.) are we devoting to leadership development? A healthy culture will include a healthy growth environment where people are not just being trained for the tasks at hand, but are being developed into leaders.

4. Trust

Trust is obviously important to a healthy culture; up, down, and across the Org Chart. When people trust each other, they make a strong connection between the vision, their own roles, and the input of others both in strategic planning and in the steps of implementation. Trust may be freely given, but it is usually earned as people watch each other respond in good times and in bad. Trust most effectively grows in an environment that is HOT; honest, open, and transparent.

Trust is an interesting one as a leader. You would think that the only way a leader earns trust is when they do something right, but I have seen trust effectively earned by the way a leader handles failure, sometimes even more so than by one who had great success. That is part of transparency in earning trust.

At this level, teams need to ask:

  • In what ways is trust being built or eroded on our team?
  • How is failure treated on our team? How does that response affect the level of trust?
  • How does the team handle gossip? Are there clear guidelines?

When you get a handle on the answers to these questions, you will be able to evaluate the level of trust and health of your culture in this area.

5. Unafraid

This one is really about the risk level of the organization. A healthy organization is one in which the team is not afraid to take risks and this happens when they are unafraid to make mistakes. An organization that is afraid to take risks is one that will stop moving forward. Great leaders don’t squash risk taking by jumping on every mistake. Great leaders also welcome dissenting opinions, as long as they are offered in good will and with an eye toward solution and the organization moving forward as a whole. The team must ask:

  • How open is our team to taking risks?
  • What are some examples of courage on our team in the past year or so?
  • How does one person’s courage to take risks affect the team?
  • What happens when a person is courageous without being wise?

If we have an unhealthy culture, then people on our teams will be afraid to make mistakes. People who go to work afraid to make mistakes are often tentative and not at their best and usually make more mistakes. We don’t want people to work from the basis of fear, but we want them to work from a place of courage and a clear conviction of the nobility of their cause and a commitment to the people fighting next to them.

[bctt tweet="An organization that is afraid to take risks is one that will stop moving forward. #unafraid" username="kellystickel"]

6. Responsive

This one is subtle but so important. Responsive teams don’t just focus on the big goals and sweeping strategies, but they develop the habit of taking care of little things, because little things often become big things if left unchecked. Little things include promptly returning phone calls or responding to emails as well as communicating decisions to everyone that needs to know, when he or she needs to know it. I have found that as the organization grows, the amount of energy that needs to be invested in being responsive, to people inside and outside of the team, needs to grow as well. Questions we need to ask are:

  • How often do “little things” like returning phone calls and emails fall through the cracks on our team?
  • Does our team’s current organizational system foster responsiveness or hinder it?
  • Are we clear as to who should respond to what by when?

I know this one seems a bit trivial in the big picture, but I assure you it really isn’t trivial at all. Our ability to respond to people in a timely manner communicates that we care about them and our mission. Not responding in a proper time frame or manner will kill trust and create an unhealthy culture.

7. Execution

Execution has a lot to do with accountability. Excellence demands accountability. And, accountability happens when winning is rewarded, losing is penalized, and mediocrity is challenged. If one or more of those things doesn’t happen, it is a dysfunctional system. People don’t do what we expect, they do what we inspect. So, plans and visions become worthless if they don’t have targeted goals, deadlines, access to resources, and a budget.

[bctt tweet="Excellence demands accountability. #leadership " username="kellystickel"]

I believe a healthy culture happens when there is a clear plan of execution. Execution requires a clear goal, a clear strategy, a scoreboard that clearly shows where we are in the process, and accountability. Without these things, we can spin our wheels and be busy, but we will never be productive or get things done. So, questions a team must ask in this regard are:

  • How clearly defined are the goals and responsibilities for each person in our organization?
  • How are people held accountable on our team?
  • How do team members give feedback to each other about their performance and communication?

Clearly answering these questions will help you evaluate this part of your culture.

Culture trumps vision. And we have a great vision! But, in order to for us to be able to achieve that vision, we have to design the culture that will be conducive to that vision. This may require us asking ourselves some tough questions to identify what needs to change in order to move our vision forward. The first tough question to ask yourself is, “Are we getting the results we expect from our vision?” If we are not, and we are frustrated, then we most likely have a culture problem to fix in one or more of these seven areas. We must go to work on fixing that issue and designing a healthy culture because souls are depending on us to fulfill our great vision; to be the hope of the world, and on a mission to reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.


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