Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay; you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. –  Isaiah 64:8

“Organizational Culture” has become a very common phrase in business, non-profits and faith-based organizations. An organization’s culture represents the collective values, beliefs and principles of the organizational members. It is a product of many factors: organizational history, unwritten but understood rules, treatment of leadership, traditions, transparency of decision-making and how new ideas come to manifest themselves. Over the last ten years, many of the great organizational pundits have gone back and forth on whether organizational culture trumps strategy or if a good strategy wins the day. After a time, this type of argument becomes more about semantics than actual useful application. The real question is how does organizational culture affect strategic thinking, leadership and growth for organizations? The pundits can debate all day, the rest of us have work to do.

In congregations, the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT)™ examines culture using a congregation’s collective values and beliefs regarding the world and the wider community through the lens of their Christianity. This is their theology. The CAT also looks at how committed the congregation members are in moving towards their collective objectives. This is their flexibility or adaptability.

For a congregation’s strategic movement and priority-set to be embraced, it must have alignment with the congregation’s culture. This is true in terms of a congregation’s theology – a conservative congregation that believes that conversion is the first step to a better society needs to have ministry that fits with that belief set. Likewise, in order to avoid becoming stagnant, a congregation with limited flexibility will have to be mindful in next steps so that they are able to embrace change and create an environment that is open to new ideas.

It is important to note, that while we have found time and time again that theology does not hinder strategic movement, lack of flexibility can. With the rare exception (14 congregations out of 2,000 to be exact), the more settled the congregation becomes the harder it is for them to be a vital organization. This indicates that the more settled the congregation, the more imperative it becomes that next steps focus on flexibility so that the strategy can be rooted in culture, but, importantly, that the culture allows forward movement.

In order to help congregations strategically plan their next steps, we have to first understand their culture and how this will help, hinder, and propel growth of various kinds.  The often quoted phrase is “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Let’s get them at the table together. Because as we come to understand how culture affects a congregation’s next steps, we can truly begin to lead in way that is compassionate, mindful and effective.

– Emily Swanson, President

Holy Cow! Consulting

4 thoughts on “Why Do We Talk about Congregational Culture?

  1. Hi Bruce-
    Thank you for your comment. It is always hard when taking an assessment and not yet seeing the results to understand how everything can fit together. I do not know all the modules or supplemental questions your congregation picked so I cannot reference questions over the basic 85 CAT questions.
    As for the critical abilities module it is indeed limited and not meant to replace a complete transition summary and vital leader profile that will need to be developed from the entire CAT results. Instead, the critical abilities module gives folks some ability to rank what they would like to see in their next clergy person. That ranking can help when it is benchmarked to give insight into what folks are perceiving the congregation needs, the rest of the CAT can help give insight into what the congregation actually might need – which can be two very different things.
    I hope this gives some clarity. Please do not hesitate to email us at if you have questions.

    Emily Swanson

  2. I just completed a parish survey and offered the following in my open comments and share them with you:
    Regarding this survey: The Critical Abilities section doesn’t recognize that many abilities “cross over” and are interconnected. It has too many “either/or” responses and not enough “both/and.” Question 92 does not allow for issues to be of an equal level of importance. Nor does it recognize that some are complimentary to each other and work together for the desired result. Multiple foci are needed in some cases to achieve the desired result. Question 95 should have more than the 3 scenarios provided. The three provided are too restrictive and exclusionary.

    I realize that surveys have to have limits on responses, but there are ways to gather more and better data using less restrictive wording and providing more choices as well as multiple “equals.”

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