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culture leadership

Creating Safer Places Requires the Right Culture 

Do you remember the popular radio and TV series ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ that was aired in the UK and the USA between the 1980s and early 2000s? If you’re much younger than I am, the answer is possibly ‘no’. This comedy quiz show was based around four stand-up comics who had to improvise in character form to a suggested topic or scenario offered to them at a moment’s notice. How I would laugh! The four comics would stand in pairs opposite each other on an open floor and in response to the suggested topic, they would have to randomly throw themselves forward to act out a comic scene that related to that topic. In these shows, there would often be occasions where two (or more) of the four would race forward at the same time and have to work out which would give way to the other to perform and win the point. On other occasions, where the topic was perhaps a little more challenging or abstract, there would be a tense pause where none of them would rush forward and they would all look nervously across the open floor at each other, waiting to see who would jump forward to offer an interpretation of the topic.

Sometimes, this is how things play out when we need to tackle difficult issues in our churches or organisations. We stand on the sidelines waiting for our leader to come up with the goods regardless of how well equipped he or she may be to deliver. There is a real danger that in our churches and organisations, we look to our leaders for everything; we expect them to be the first to speak about a topical subject; we expect them to provide the first nuggets of wisdom; we expect that they will have the answers to the difficult questions – there are multiple problems in these assumptions about our leaders. Perhaps first and foremost, we disempower ourselves and devalue the contribution we bring to the life and success of the church or organization.

Leadership Culture

The role of leadership in setting and maintaining safer, healthier organisational culture is critical to the direction it takes. However, we should never fall into the trap of believing that leaders hold the exclusive rights to what our cultures look and feel like. What do we mean by this? It would be true to say that if the leader(s) are not prepared to be the ones driving the pursuit of safer and healthier culture, we have a problem. But if leaders do not involve their teams and congregants in identifying what the culture should look and feel like, there is less chance that everyone’s behaviours will reflect the values that underpin the culture we are attempting to embed.

So, the pursuit of safer, healthier culture is truly a team effort – in terms both of how we identify it and how we maintain it. In fact, for leaders to not involve their teams or congregations in the development of culture would be missing the point, as in many ways we (the members of the teams and congregations) are the culture. The culture exists because we are gathered together in some form of community. Culture is therefore a dynamic force that has the power to unite individuals from all walks of life in a common set of values and behaviours.

What is culture anyway?

It's the question that many of us wish we would never be asked. How do you define the intangible in an intelligible way? For those who study human interaction and behaviours from different perspectives, the definition of culture can be as broad as it is long. Academics have sought to pin this down for decades, if not centuries. One study by Helen Spencer-Oatey (2012), seeking to understand different definitions of culture, cited previous work that had identified 164 different definitions as long ago as 1952. These definitions ranged from those that looked at elements from an individual level and a universal level to those that suggested culture is created by individual behaviour (as we suggested earlier) rather than those that suggest behaviour is influenced by culture. All are equally valid perspectives.

Culture is clearly a fluid and dynamic set of both tangible and less tangible elements that affect our everyday interactions within the groups and communities of which we are a part. Because it is fluid, culture is something that we need to continually assess and keep under review. When members of any community or group change, the inter-relational dynamics change. New experiences, attitudes, values and behaviours can emerge and divert, distract and dilute the culture that we are attempting to maintain. It is also important that, in a situation where we are seeking to rebuild culture that has been abusive or toxic, we are alert to the need to challenge any old behaviours that may potentially re-emerge.

I have worked with many churches and organisations seeking to improve where there have been past difficulties. Despite changes in location, personnel and practices, signs of ‘old culture’ have a habit of re-appearing and threatening to derail good progress. The opposite is, of course, also true. By keeping the outworking of our culture and values under review, we are also able to identify new factors that may have entered the frame that exemplify the culture we are attempting to maintain. Therefore, absorbing these and embedding them as examples that underpin safer and healthier culture is extremely important.

So, however we understand culture, it is essential that we understand we don’t exist in isolation – we interact with others, we live in a world that has a variety of beliefs and attitudes. Our ability to identify those elements that we want alongside those that we don’t is critical – as is the manner in which we go through this process, so that we are respectful and open to difference. Culture is the all-important ingredient in the success of any organisation or community. Strategy is important – in fact it is essential - we have to know where we are going and how we are going to get there, but knowing how we are going to get there is as much about our culture as it is the plans and dreams for our work or ministry. The need to focus on culture and get that right, in whatever setting we are working in is critical to the success of achieving our goals. So, culture and strategy go hand in hand, but good strategy without good culture will never achieve its fullest potential.

Creating environments in which everyone is safe and can flourish is fundamental to our purpose as God’s Church. Building safer, healthier culture is all about modelling attitudes and behaviours to those around us to achieve this purpose. To effectively create safer places, we must be prepared to take a long cold look at our cultures – do they support this mission and vision? How do we know that we are both safe and healthy? What are the characteristics of safer, healthier Christian culture?

It is important that we consider this. Safe and healthy culture doesn’t happen by mistake. We have to work at it. We can’t just assume that we all know the answer to this question, like the child in Sunday School who worked out that the answer to every question was Jesus. If we want to see our culture having a positive effect on those we work with or minister to, we must start with ourselves; our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. Sometimes this means we will need to be the change we want to see around us and help others to see what we see. Safer, healthier culture means: We have the principles of safeguarding as the foundation of our efforts. We respect, value and nurture those in our care. We empower and guide through appropriate use of scripture. We nurture our leaders at all levels.

Safer, healthier culture also means that:

  • We value whole-life service, not just what happens in church.
  • We operate with a healthy regard for accountability (for ourselves and others).
  • We model inclusion and participation. We guide in a manner that maintains freedom of choice.

A Framework for mapping cultures

So, how do we ensure that a focus on these things stands a chance of making a difference? Here are seven top tips to help us map our culture against our aim of creating the safer places that incorporate the points above :

1. Listen to the stories and commentary
Pay attention and genuinely listen to what is being said about your church or organisation, both by those inside and those outside. How do people think you have managed challenging issues? Can you demonstrate that you are prepared to learn lessons from what didn’t go well?

2. Be proactive in your communications and messaging
Make every effort to be clear in your intention to facilitate and foster safer practices. Ensure that people know who your key contacts are and that you welcome comments and concerns being shared appropriately. Reinforcing positive messages about safer places within services will help too.

3. Manage power dynamics
Be attentive to how power is used within your church organization, by who and for what purpose. Is any exercise of power coupled to appropriate accountability? Make every effort to ensure that power is used in a way that empowers others – to be most effective, it should be given away.

4. Be transparent about your structures and accountability mechanisms
Be alert to the formal and informal structures and accountabilities that exist in your church or organisation – it will make all the difference to the long-term sustainability of your culture-setting efforts. Ensure that shadow structures (i.e. informal and often unrecognised) don’t undermine your efforts and reduce accountability.

5. Be clear about governance and leadership
Make sure you are clear about how your church or organisation is governed. Would people know who to speak to and know the difference between organisational governance and spiritual leadership? Ensure you give the maintenance of your culture sufficient attention alongside the pursuit of mission and vision.

6. Foster good customs and practices
Encourage and model the day-to-day behaviours and ways of working that you want to see in your church or organisation. Welcome appropriate and respectful challenge to behaviours and attitudes that threaten or conflict with safer, healthier culture.

7. Review and Refresh
Keeping issues of safer, healthier culture on the agenda so that it becomes expected as the norm will encourage growth and flourishing. Reviewing the impact of all the above will help you to make changes in a timely way and allow you to deal with low level concerns before they get too big. Despite our best intentions and the best strategic planning, our work and ministry will be limited in its ability to foster flourishing unless we can demonstrate that it is founded on and characterised by a well-informed culture – one that is safe and healthy.

The material in this article is based upon the book ‘Escaping the maze of spiritual abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures’ by Lisa Oakley & Justin Humphreys, SPCK, 2019.

Justin Humphreys is the CEO and Head of Safeguarding Development for 31:8. Originally from Bristol, Justin has worked in a variety of social work and youth work settings for over 25 years. Most recently before joining 31:8 in 2010, he worked for the largest children's charity in the UK. Previous to this, he worked in a range of local authority roles; most latterly at a senior management level within a metropolitan borough council in the West Midlands. He has also served as a church pastor and is a passionate advocate for justice and authentic leadership.

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