I never would have called myself a contrarian until recently. Now I can look back and see the seeds of it being planted in my college years during the turbulent ‘60s. The school of architecture I was attending went through a radical shift, rejecting the design approaches of the past and, with a new sense of ethical responsibility, began a quest for more humane places of work and home. Attending that school also threw me head first into the Vietnam War protest movement—what we were doing as a country just wasn’t working and needed to change.

A few years later I found myself in one of the most innovative architectural firms in the country. Among other things, they had developed a management system that would virtually guarantee that large construction projects would be finished on time and on budget—an aberration for its day. I fully embraced this new approach that, again, threw out all the old rules and saw project after project successfully meet our new, self-imposed criteria.

The next step was a 5-year stint in Dubai, leading one of the largest building projects in the world at the time—fighting every step of the way against all manner of out-of-date, third world systems. Then we received an invitation from a British firm to bring our now widely-acclaimed system to the UK. For six years, I led our company in challenging 300 years of British design and construction traditions. So, I guess there is a strong stream of contrarianism running through my blood after all!

So where is all this going and how does it apply to the church? Well, at 42, I left the corporate world when God opened a door into a full time vocational ministry. That church was an early champion of the Church Growth and Seeker Sensitive movements, which meant throwing out all the rules of what had for centuries been the typical traditional American church—that just didn’t work anymore! For the next 26 years, I had the privilege to serve as the XP of that church and two others, continuing to challenge the norm while seeing thousands of people, who would never enter the doors of the old model, meet and find their Savior!

Even though these churches and corporations each embraced a new model, I still felt there was one piece missing, yet I couldn’t figure out what it was! In every instance, through my corporate and church career, there was always a deeply broken system that needed to be thrown out and replaced by one that used a new set of rules. But the most valuable resource wasn’t the system, it was the staff (the flesh and blood real people, with lives and struggles and families) that mattered most and got the least attention.

In 40+ years of management, I have done more staff reviews than I ever want to think about—and I hated doing every one of them! I kept changing the questions and the criteria but somehow it always came down to, “Were you effective in your department?” “Did you meet your division’s goals?” “What signs of numeric growth were there in your ministry area?” and “Here are all the things you need to improve to keep your job!” The church borrowed the evaluation format from the corporate world, changing it a little to talk about “ministry,” but something was still missing.

For about five years, I took the position that annual reviews were a waste of time. If we were each doing an effective job of leading and managing, then we already knew if goals were being met and were correcting problems on a day-by-day basis. That approach had its advantages but eventually pressure from conventional thinking insisted we do annual evaluations again. I eventually developed a 360-degree review process that generated staff discussion, not just evaluation. Even though it was used successfully by multiple churches, I still wasn’t satisfied.

Then I got it! About two years ago my friend, Dr. Sam Chand, wrote his breakthrough book, Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code. That was IT, the missing piece! “Culture eats vision and strategy for lunch!” he wrote. In all the criteria I had used in managing staff, evaluating them and leading them, it was the culture in which they were expected to perform that was the most important thing! Sure I cared if goals were met, if a staff member showed a contribution to growth, if they showed up on time, or looked presentable … but what mattered more was HOW that was done and in what environment it took place.

The evaluation had to start with me. Have I done everything I could do to create an environment of transparency, trust, mutual respect, openness, honesty, sharing the mistakes, and partnering in people’s lives, not just in their ministry projects? In fact, was I personally modeling an authentic walk that I wanted others to have? I am deeply in debt to Dr. Sam! His entire book finally put into words something I hadn’t been able to express or get my arms around for years.

I just “retired” from my role as XP, but if I were still doing evaluations they would look very different. First, we would need to create some definition of what type of staff culture we wanted and then put it in writing. Next, the evaluations would have open-ended questions for discussion—first about me as a leader and then about issues of character, family, integrity, personal spiritual growth, and how that staff member contributes to the stated and desired staff culture we are striving to create. There would be questions about how our evolving culture either helped or discouraged the progress toward our mutual goals. There would be much more integration of departments and questions of how and when we support each other across department lines, working toward our mutual church-wide vision.

Making culture THE thing changes ALL the rules! It changes how we do our ministry day to day and what becomes most important. It finally puts a handle on why some groups succeed and why others don’t. It makes it possible to talk about how a culture change could gradually help all the strategic objectives, vision and goals achievable in a healthy and balanced way. Dr. Sam wrote, “Culture—not vision or strategy—is the most powerful factor in any organization.” So, I now say, “Developing and managing your staff culture may be the single biggest contribution any XP will ever make!”