Leading a Healthy Church Culture - Lesson 15

Primary Handles (Part 1)

In this lesson, the Dr. Sessoms discusses primary handles for developing a healthy church culture, which are the primary embedding mechanisms of organizational culture. The lesson describes four primary handles: stories, rituals, symbols, and power structures. Sessoms explains how these handles, whether we know it or not, shape the very culture that we are part of, and how they determine the values that become the real values within a culture. The lesson also provides examples of each primary handle's impact on culture. The importance of understanding primary handles is emphasized in the conclusion.

Rick Sessoms
Leading a Healthy Church Culture
Lesson 15
Watching Now
Primary Handles (Part 1)

Lesson Overview: Primary Handles (Part 1)

I. Introduction to Primary Handles

A. Explanation of Primary Embedding Mechanisms

II. Primary Handles

A. Stories

1. Explanation of Stories as Primary Handles

2. Example of a Story's Impact on Culture

B. Rituals

1. Explanation of Rituals as Primary Handles

2. Example of a Ritual's Impact on Culture

C. Symbols

1. Explanation of Symbols as Primary Handles

2. Example of a Symbol's Impact on Culture

D. Power Structures

1. Explanation of Power Structures as Primary Handles

2. Example of a Power Structure's Impact on Culture

III. Conclusion

A. Importance of Understanding Primary Handles

  • This lesson covers the importance and characteristics of a healthy church culture, the biblical foundation of church culture, diagnosing the health of a church culture, and cultivating a healthy church culture through prioritizing relationships, creating a safe environment, nurturing spiritual growth, empowering the congregation, and celebrating God's work.
  • You will gain knowledge and insight into the characteristics, and importance of a healthy church culture, how to diagnose and address unhealthy church culture through biblical leadership and communication, and how to cultivate a healthy church culture.
  • You will gain insight into how to lead a healthy church culture by learning about the importance of healthy leadership, building healthy relationships, establishing healthy structures, and implementing healthy practices.
  • In this lesson, the class discusses a fictional case study called "The Shadow of a Leader," which describes the decline of a Christian leader named Dr. Robert Avella, who became obsessed with power and control over time, causing damage to the ministry and losing trust in his team, as they reflect on the early and later stages of his leadership.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the challenges and pitfalls of leadership, particularly when leaders lose focus on their spiritual values, become driven by fear and control, and lack accountability and community support. By understanding these factors, you can recognize and address toxic leadership in various contexts.
  • By engaging with this lesson, you will gain insight into the complex dynamics of power and control in leadership, the prevalence of misused power within the Christian church, and the critical importance of fostering accountability and community to maintain a healthy balance of power.
  • This lesson explores Jesus' unique leadership style in the context of the foot-washing event in John 13:1-17, highlighting principles such as leading from a secure sense of self, addressing the deepest needs of followers, and paying it forward through service to others.
  • This lesson teaches you about the significance of developing a Christ-centered church culture, including the exploration of culture's components and the positive and negative aspects it can have within a church setting. You will also learn about the role of leadership in building a healthy church culture, adapting to change, and overcoming challenges.
  • This lesson provides insight into church culture by examining its components, revealing how assumptions and values impact products and practices, and discussing the importance of addressing these core beliefs and assumptions for lasting change.
  • This lesson examines assumptions and worldviews in church leadership by comparing different mental constructs and their influence on leadership values and roles, while also exploring the machine metaphor's impact on organizational life and the new generation's response to this worldview.
  • In this lesson, you learn the importance of cultivating and nourishing people in a garden model of leadership, comparing it to the machine model, and discovering how various biblical metaphors shape the understanding of the church. Emphasizing core beliefs and values, you realize effective leadership focuses on following Christ and maintaining the right attitudes.
  • You will gain insights into the importance of leadership in creating a healthy church culture, including the role of leadership in setting the tone and creating an environment that fosters spiritual growth, discipleship, and healthy relationships. You will also learn about the characteristics of a healthy church culture, practical steps for building a healthy church culture, and the challenges and obstacles to building a healthy church culture.
  • By studying this lesson, you will gain knowledge and insight into the importance of creating a healthy church culture and practical steps for doing so, including the role of leaders in modeling and promoting a healthy culture, building relationships, developing a shared vision, fostering communication, and encouraging accountability.
  • This lesson covers Luke 5, gleaning lessons regarding Jesus' leadership and the four pillars of Christian leadership, which are relationship, influence, follower potential, and common purpose.
  • As you go through the lesson, you will learn about the four primary handles for developing a healthy church culture, which are stories, rituals, symbols, and power structures, and how they shape the values that become the real values within a culture.
  • By understanding the importance of what we measure, we can determine what is significant to us. Measuring something objectively makes it valuable, while not measuring something can result in losing its importance. The example of churches measuring attendance and donations is used to highlight this point, and the lesson suggests that churches should also measure other important aspects like outreach, discipleship, and community service.
  • This lesson discusses how Jesus prepared his disciples to establish the church, and how his actions and values during his time with them set the groundwork for the culture of the church; you are encouraged to explore the principles Jesus instilled in his disciples by examining specific stories, such as the healing of the demon-possessed man and the clearing of the temple.
  • Learn to lead a healthy church culture by analyzing current values, identifying actual values, and creating a strategy matrix to establish and support desired values using four embedding mechanisms.

This course is one of many taught by Dr. Rick Sessoms. It can be taken as a stand alone course, or as a part of the Christ-Centered Leadership Certificate. 

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Dr. Rick Sessoms
Leading a Healthy Church Culture
Primary Handles (Part 1) 
Lesson Transcript

Well, we've talked about the assumptions. We've dealt with values, and where I'd like to go at this point is to talk about what we call ‘primary handles’ for developing a healthy church culture. These handles originate with a researcher by the name of Edgar Schein, who, if you look up on Google -- you can Google his name under culture and leadership or organizational culture and leadership -- you'll find that he's one of the premier researchers in the field and has been for many years. He talks about primary embedding mechanisms of organizational culture, and what he means by that is these are the mechanisms that, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we want them to be or not, are indeed the mechanisms that are by reality how we're dealing with these handles, consciously or not, is shaping the very culture that we're part of. How the organization deals with these handles determines the direction of the culture, and more specifically, it determines the values that become the real values within a culture. 

Remember I talked about the fact that we often have a set of written values and a set of official values somewhere. What happens, though, is that as we look and we evaluate our culture from the perspective of these primary handles, we're going to begin to see what the real values of our culture are. So, these handles, and I'll say this again later, but these handles are both an evaluation tool as well as a tool for strategy as we look into the future. So, let me unpack these a little bit and then we'll work through these handles together and look at them and see what Jesus did with these handles as well.

The first handle that is critical is what our leaders model and teach. Now that one may seem very intuitive to you. There was a survey done among 250,000 leaders that was done some years ago and asked the major things that people are looking for in their leaders, and as you can imagine, they got a whole lot of responses, but of the top three things that people are looking for in leaders, the first area is competence. They want to know that the leader knows what he or she is doing - that's number three. And number two is inspiring. They want leaders who are inspiring, that inspire them to move beyond. But what would you think would be the number one thing that people are looking for in leaders? You know? 

STUDENT:  A realness, a humility, that these are people that you can identify. 

Okay, very close. 

STUDENT:  Non-hypocritical. 

Non-hypocritical. That's really, really close. The simple word is they want honesty. That's the number one thing that people are looking for, 250,000 -- that's not a small sample -- and the number one response was honesty. But what was interesting was the follow-up question. The follow-up question is how can you tell whether the leader is honest? And the response was not in what they say, but in what they do, so we're looking for demonstrated honesty, not just spoken honesty. So, it's about, we all know that if you're not modeling what you're teaching, then whatever you're teaching becomes suspect. I think there's a common understanding of that. 

Let me also make a comment about the teaching part, however, because it says model and teach, because sometimes if we're trying to address a culture, sometimes if we're trying to bring a new emphasis within a culture or a new set of values in a culture, we can be doing some things as leaders that may seem really, really weird or really out of place, and if we don't provide the interpretation of what we're doing, then it can often be misinterpreted. Sometimes you'll see Jesus with his disciples perform a miracle or do an action, and then he'll turn to his disciples and say, “Now, do you understand what I have done for you?” And John 13 is a primary example, when he washed their feet, because obviously, that was something that was so far outside of their culture where the master stooped to wash their feet. There needed to be some explanation that went along with that because it was so countercultural to the way that they had functioned. So, it's about what our leaders model and teach; obviously, you’ve got to be modeling what you're teaching, but leaders need to teach what they're modeling, so that the two become seamless, and what I've watched oftentimes is leaders that come into organizations and with all good intention want to change the culture, but don't spend enough time communicating what it is that they're trying to do, and it often can be misinterpreted to the cost to everyone. Does that make sense? Is that clear to you? Questions about that one? That's one of the five primary handles, so if you look at what the leaders are modeling and teaching within the organization, that's a major clue as to what the values are going to be within that organization, within that culture, regardless of what's on the wall. Okay?

STUDENT:  We had a good example of that in church on Sunday. So, after the sermon, our worship minister got out there and made a comment about how that was a really powerful sermon, and then Jay, the preacher, just finished up. When he got back up there to do the benediction, well, he gave glory to God for the sermon and said, that's kind of what he’d been talking about for the last months, or whatever, is, you know, giving glory to God instead of sort of taking it on ourselves because he's the one who judges. And so – 

So, that was a critical moment, wasn't it, because everybody was watching? What's he going to do now? 

STUDENT:  Right. He could have just not said anything, or whatever, but he made a point of doing that. 

Good for him. Excellent. 

STUDENT:  Modeling and teaching requires a relationship.

Unpack that a little bit. What do you mean by that statement? Let me repeat it for the people that are listening: Modeling and teaching require a relationship. 

STUDENT:  If you're modeling your behavior, you have to have a relationship with somebody who is observing; to have a demonstrated model or demonstrated teaching, you have to have a relationship with folks. If I have an audience of 500 people, I can give them a message that's wonderful, but that's not a teaching: that's a whole different concept. Teaching really requires, in my mind, requires a relationship. 

Great point. Thank you. 

Well, let's talk about the second one. How we allocate our scarce resources. I've never worked with the Vatican, but as far as I know, every Christian organization that I know about, every religious organization that I know about, perceives that they have scarce resources. We'd like to have more, wouldn't we? I'd imagine that the Chapel Hill Bible Church would like to have more resources than you have. I know that our organization would love to have more resources than we have. The only religious organization that I know of that probably feels that it has adequate is the Vatican. But besides from that, most of us -- in fact, I was in India recently talking with the director of a major Christian organization that from most of our perceptions is just loaded with funds, and it was just fascinating to hear the perception of that person talking about the organization, how poor they were and how much in need of funding they were, and so on and so forth. So, we all perceive that we have these scarce resources, but how we deal with those scarce resources, whether we like it or not, whether we want that to be or not, whether we preach something altogether different, the reality is how we deal with those scarce resources communicates volumes to people. 

I've been involved in a number of organizations that talk about the value for people and to develop people, but when it comes to the year-end budget cuts, sometimes the first thing that gets cut is any cost to develop its people or the retreats or what have you, and those are necessary things at times, so this is not necessarily a criticism of the organization, because sometimes that's what's required. But the fact of the matter is, when we do cut those resources, it communicates to the people what we truly, truly value. It's not just about money, of course; it can be about personnel, it can be about equipment, it can be about space, it can be about time allotment, can be about a lot of different things. But whatever we consider to be a resource that particularly is scarce, those things that aren't set, those things that we do have to scramble for, and there's some negotiation over, how we take as leaders and allocate those resources makes all the difference in the world in terms of what our culture perceives that it truly and really values.

Have you seen that in action? Do you agree? What do you think about that? 

STUDENT:  I think it goes back to practicing what you preach. I mean, as a leader, you might say that this thing is really important to us, but you don't allocate the funds to it, or it’s disproportionate in some other way that people are, you know, questioning that, what's really important to you guys.

STUDENT:  And it depends on how you define resources; if my resources are my tools or my products versus the people I deal with, because if my belief is that my people are my resource, then that's where I'm going to put all my limited other resources, my products. 

Sure, sure. So, resource is more than just money; it's a lot of different things for sure. 

STUDENT:  What are some ways that Jesus used his resources in his ministry? He had a lot of time that he spent with God and with his disciples, but can you think of some other ways or anyone else that Jesus used as resources that we might? 

I think that's a great question, and we're going to get to that question, but let's stop and ask the question. I'd like to pursue that a little bit. Good question. What do you think? What resources did Jesus have at his disposal? Time, a critical one, right? We'll explore that. But how did he spend his time? 

STUDENT:  He wasn't choosy about whom he spent his time with. He was just as happy to spend it with someone that was an outcast. 

Yeah. So, in other words, he was accepting of all people is what you're saying. Yeah.

STUDENT:  He could have spent all his time preaching in front of large crowds and trying to communicate to as many people as possible, that sort of thing, but he chose to spend it with his disciples and those particular individuals who wouldn't necessarily be the most important people around, that sort of thing; he could have been spending his time with the great synagogue leaders and emperors and things like that. He didn't spend his time there. 

STUDENT:  Our concept is if I really want to change around this entity, I'm going to have the person on top convince them, and they will then spin down. Jesus was just the opposite; he went to the very bottom so they could spin up. 

So, that's where he invested his energy and his time. Good. Yeah, I think those are the two key points, and we're going to explore this a little bit further later, but just as a statement at this point, Jesus prioritized his time with his Father and with his disciples and with the twelve, when he could have done so many other things, when people were pulling at him to do healings, I mean, he didn't heal everybody, did he? He wasn't selective necessarily; as you say, he didn't just accommodate the people at the top, for sure. Certainly, in terms of the outcasts, the Gentiles and so forth, he was an equal opportunity Savior. But the reality is that he spent a great deal of time with his disciples, particularly as he drew closer and closer to the cross. 

STUDENT:  Yeah, I don't know about other folks, but if I was going to try to make a major change, I would do two things:  I would leave a great impression, a lot of miracles, and I would go to the top; I would change those folks that would then maybe go and spin down. Jesus did exactly the opposite. 

Yeah. Fascinating. 

STUDENT:  I think one of the most shocking things about Jesus is he did not have limited resources. He had at his disposal all power, all wealth. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, angels, legions of angels, and the amazing thing is he rarely used them. 

So, he limited himself is the point. 

STUDENT:  Yeah, I mean, that's stunning, that he would set all that aside, and use some of it; I mean, he raised people from the dead. I mean, I haven’t seen too many people do that. So, he didn't just roam around, just throwing his weight around. 

I think that's a great point. So, to follow that logic, if it's true, and I think it is, that he limited himself in the resources that he accessed, perhaps part of that was to teach what he really did value, because if he'd had limitless resources, it would have been difficult to really see what is it that really is important here? Great point. 

STUDENT:  He often used the resources of others as well, like the donkey and then the upper room, to, I think, allow others to participate in what he was doing. 

Great point. Interesting. 

STUDENT:  As kind of a continuation of what you're talking about, when we travel overseas, I feel like a lot of times we in the States in the West have a tendency to think we have the resources and we're there to share our resources, and we tend to limit it to just finances and money? And kind of going on what you just said, truly, he kind of chose not really to have a whole lot to do with money in and of itself as a resource; he was kind of showing us where true value comes from; we're priceless. 

It's almost like with the money out of the fish's mouth he was saying, you think this is a big deal; it's not a very big deal kind of an issue. Good point. 

The third primary handle is behaviors we reward. Man, this one's huge. What behaviors in the organization, in the church, do we truly reward? And the flip side of that is which behaviors do we penalize? We can think of a myriad of examples, but in many churches, and I want to say this carefully, but in many churches, there is the statement oftentimes that we reward, we champion integrity, for example, and the spiritual disciplines. But the fact is that in churches that I know about, in Christian organizations that I've been part of, more often than not, the people that are rewarded are people that have access to resources and know how to work the political system. Now, that's a strong statement. I'd like you to come back at me if you disagree. What do you think? The point here is that whatever we reward, whatever behavior we truly reward and whatever behaviors we truly penalize will drive the values within the culture, regardless of what we preach or what we have written in an official statement. What do you think? 

STUDENT:  I think it's true and it's complex because we can unintentionally reward behaviors we don't mean to. I work in education, and someone was telling the story that there was a situation where some students were discovered to be cheating, and they confronted four, and one student admitted he was, and three said that they were not, and they punished the one who admitted that he was, and the three that said that they were not were not punished, the point being that the message that was unintentionally sent was don't ever admit you're cheating. It's more complex; I don’t want to oversimplify the example, but it's not just identifying the behavior, it's how we respond to that; it doesn't mean if you confess to something wrong that you’re blessed because you've confessed it; there always have to be consequences, but there can be also collateral things that occur; we have to be very intentional how we relate to that problem. 

That's a great point. The sad part is that whether we intend to communicate or not, we still communicate, is the issue. I remember I was with a CEO of a large Christian organization one time, and he was being blasted and criticized within the organization because of an action he took. And I'll never forget sitting down with him, and he said to me, “Rick, I didn't mean for it to be interpreted that way.” And I had to say to him, “Brother, it doesn't matter what you intended, because the people in the organization, all they have to observe is your behavior. and it's the rare person that will ever come to that type of person at that level and say what did you really intend here? It's the behavior that is observed, and whether we intend it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we even want it to be that way or not, it’s the behaviors that we reward, and on the flip side, the behaviors that we penalize, that drive the values deeply within any culture, is the reality. Agree? Disagree? What do you think? 

STUDENT:  What's causing me to go back and then test some of the assumptions, if I'm rewarding some behavior because this person was successful, one of my assumptions is that success is what God wants., financial success or worldly success; or another assumption is that worldly success can help God's Kingdom. So, it is really causing me to go back and really look at some of those assumptions underneath those values. 

Right, and remember, I said last week that it's so difficult for us to actually address assumptions, that the best I can hope to do with this course is to address the value level and hope that we can bleed down into some of those assumptions and begin to say what's really going on here? But the point is, these are addressing the values level, and as we look at these, again, these are not prescriptive, these are descriptive. Whatever we do with these is going to determine the culture of the organization. That's the descriptive part. 

STUDENT:  So, the way I see it, it's kind of a corollary to the first one where it says, well, the leaders themselves acting in a way that adheres to what they teach, then are they rewarding behavior in people that they're leading that doesn't adhere to what they're teaching or professing? So, you know, are they sort of looking the other way at behavior that people would suspect that they should be not supporting? 

Yes. How do we reward people in the church? What are some of our reward systems? When I was growing up, we got the star, you know, if we attended Sunday school for a year. But beyond that, what are the reward systems that really are useful and used in the church to communicate what we value? 

STUDENT:  I think in our church, one thing is just like even having time in the worship service for people who want prayer or people who want missions. You got different aspects of – 

So, it's what we highlight in our general gatherings. 

STUDENT:  And I think that's the same as, well, we’ve got 5 minutes, you know, devoted to prayer; we would say that was being rewarded. That may sound –

It's so critical. When I was vice president of spiritual formation in college, my responsibility was chapel, and it when I got there, they were doing all kinds of things during the chapel service three times a week. I mean, they were doing all kinds of things that weren't chapel, and one of the things that I did early on is I stood up and I said, “This is what chapel is, and this is what it's not.” Can you imagine the pushback that I got? It seemed like a simple statement, but it was because we were going to reward some things in chapel, and we were we were going to highlight some issues and not highlight others, and that becomes a big deal, and it's true in the church because whatever is in that place where we all commonly gather, whatever gets attention in that moment, typically becomes a more highly valued issue. 

What are other ways that we reward?

STUDENT:  Along the same lines, we reward certain activities or efforts or whatever, get more leadership support that is rewarding as well as actual time in the service, but maybe it's participation. 

STUDENT:  Yep, potential leadership attention. 

Okay, attention by leadership to people. Good. Where leaders apply their energy and attention. Good. 

STUDENT:  I know one pastor says, “I never speak against any program; I just never mention it. I never give any attention to it. I never tell when it's going to happen. I never tell who's leading it. I only promote the things that I'm in favor of. I never speak against anything, but his very actions cause these things to fall off the radar. 

Good point. 

STUDENT:  It’s where we expend our resources. 

Okay, it comes back to resources, doesn't it? 

STUDENT:  That's time. That's money. That's personnel. Our whole values are what we live. 

STUDENT:  I don’t know that it is so much that individual people are rewarded, but it's like the causes or the things that people care about are rewarded or not paid attention to, and I think that is probably the biggest thing; I don’t think individuals get gold stars in church that often.

It seems to me that we also reward people based on a promotion or, you know, they may start as an usher; you know, we have these promotional ideas, and eventually, you can end up as a standing elder in the church. So, these are ways that we reward people, and who we reward and on what basis we reward. Another way of saying this is look at the organization’s way of hiring, firing, promoting, and retiring people, and that can be in a volunteer organization or an employee-based organization, how you hire, how you fire, how you promote, and how you retire people. It will tell you a lot about the standards that are used, and those will tell you a lot about what the organization values.

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