“We can never see an organizational field, but we can see its influence by looking at behavior.  To learn what’s in the field, look at what people are doing.  They have picked up the messages, discerned what is truly valued, and then shaped their behavior accordingly…Organizational life is shaped by the invisible. If we attend to the fields we create, if we help them shine clear with coherence, a powerful field develops—and with it, the wondrous capacity to organize into coherent, capable form.”

Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science


Have you ever had an experience like this? You are enjoying a private conversation with another leader from within your church or organization and the two of you are open and receptive, able to listen attentively and willing to share your thoughts from the heart.  You notice a prayerful spirit in that person or perhaps a deep wisdom that you really respect.  Perhaps you have several interactions with individuals that seem particularly graced when you are one to one. But then you all show up in a leadership setting—a board meeting, an elder meeting, a staff meeting—and things are somehow different.

An individual who expressed real wisdom privately is suddenly reticent to share open-heartedly. Someone who is normally kind and gentle exhibits a hard, defensive edge. Relationships which, in more casual settings, are characterized by love and trust become tense or give way to maneuvering and posturing that speaks of a subtle distrust. Someone who has, in personal interactions, expressed a sweet desire to know and do the will of God, can barely find time for a quick prayer at the beginning of a meeting where real guidance is needed.

You can’t help but wonder What is going on here?

This common and yet very disturbing leadership experience speaks to the power of organizational culture to shape individuals and their responses. Human beings are a lot like rocks in a riverbed.  Just as the water flowing over the rocks day after day changes the shape of those rocks by virtue of the fact that they are in the flow of the river, we too are shaped by being in the flow of the organizational dynamics at work in the group we are a part of. These dynamics are often so subtle it is very hard to recognize them, let alone talk about them. Sometimes there is even an unspoken rule that we are not allowed to talk about these things because saying something honest will somehow make us a bad person, a disloyal person, a divisive person, etc.

What’s Your Culture?

The brave question for leaders who are concerned about spiritual formation in their setting is: How is the organizational culture shaping me and all of us who work and worship here?  Are we being transformed by virtue of the way we live and work and worship together or are we being deformed by unhealthy organizational dynamics?  Is transformation even possible in the current environment or is there something in the way we are together that actually works against transformation or even prevents it?

Any approach to spiritual transformation that fails to wrestle with the power of organizational dynamics to have a transforming or deforming effect will see very limited progress in spiritual transformation over the long haul. One of the dangers inherent in many current approaches to spiritual formation is that we tend to reduce it to a privatized matter that can be handled primarily by offering a program or a retreat here and there.  We are looking for an attractive add-on, not systemic change.

But spiritual transformation is not merely an individual matter. Authentic spiritual transformation confronts us, not only on the personal level, exposing our individual sin patterns, addiction to control and image-management, preoccupation with self-protective strategies, or performance-oriented driven-ness; it confronts systems and structures, exposing the ways in which our life together has a transforming effect or a deforming effect. Romans 12:2, which admonishes us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” is not written primarily to individuals; it is written to a group of Christians gathered in Rome trying to figure out how to live their new life in Christ together.  This verse could be more accurately interpreted “be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind—not just your private mind but also your corporate/together mind!”

Every church or organization has its own cultural patterns—ways of being together and working together that have become normative and shape us over time.  Some of these cultural norms are officially “on the books” through spoken or written communication, but many are unspoken and involve tacit agreements to which everyone adheres.  For instance, there might be a cultural pattern of addiction to work which is lived out through an unspoken agreement that no one takes their full vacation or, if they do, they don’t unplug completely. Or it might be understood that people work 50-60 hours a week which makes it impossible to maintain a manageable work week and still have a Sabbath.

There may be subtle norms governing what kind of information gets shared in what settings or how truth is manipulated in order to be more palatable to the congregation or constituency. It could be that the pastor has glaring character or personality issues that are destructive to the group, or the board is clearly dysfunctional but the unspoken agreement is that these issues will be tolerated. The Emperor might not be wearing any clothes, but no one is allowed to point it out!  These are just a few examples of a wide variety of cultural norms that can shape a church or organization and thus shape the individuals who work and worship there.

But there is an even more subtle reality functioning within churches and organizations; it is what Walter Wink identifies as the spirit or the ethos of a place. Referring to Revelation 2 and 3 in which seven letters are addressed to seven churches, Wink points out “the congregation was not addressed directly but through the angel [of that church]. The angel seemed to be the corporate personality of the church, its ethos or spirit or essence…the angel of the church was apparently the spirituality of that particular church.”  That is why, Wink points out, “the spirit of a church or institution can remain fairly constant over decades, even centuries, though all the original members have long since departed.”[i]

It is why a discerning person can sense a spirit of fear and control, apathy and defeat in a place or a spirit of love, trust, and deep faith.  Or why persons who are responding to God’s invitations to deeper levels of transformation might be faced with the dilemma of needing to defend against deforming dynamics in a particular church or organizational culture in order to grow.

Transforming or Deforming?

When it comes to spiritual formation, organizational cultures are rarely neutral.  The more deeply an individual engages in the life of the group, the more they will be shaped by the spirit of the place. For the most part, cultural norms (or the organizational field, as Wheatley identifies it) will support and catalyze the process of spiritual transformation or they will work against it.

Cultivating a culture of spiritual transformation does not happen by accident; it must be led very intentionally by leaders who are deeply committed to the process of spiritual transformation in their personal lives and in their life together.  These leaders know a culture of transformation is not primarily about programs; it is a culture shift that must emanate from the center out.  This means they are 1–clear that they are called to be a transforming community at the leadership level, 2–committed to the values that shape and undergird a transforming community, 3–engaged in spiritual and relational practices that help them live out their values in concrete ways, and 4–willing to covenant together around these things.  There is no short cut for this.

The good news is that the leadership group’s commitment to become the “transforming center” of their church or organization will automatically begin to change the culture from the inside out. Over time, the transforming values they are living together will become embedded in the system to create very positive cultural norms that shape the spirit or the ethos of the place. Individuals will start to experience spiritual transformation just by being in the flow of the community’s life together, which will result quite naturally in an increasing capacity to discern and do the will of God.  And that is really good news!

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. This article is adapted from Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (InterVarsity Press, 2012). Not to be reprinted without permission.

[i] Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p.3-4.

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