Monthly Archives: June 2014

A starting response to Paul VK on Structure and Culture change

These are some thoughts about and objections to some of what Paul VanderKlay wrote in a blog post linked below.

To me, structure is derived from culture which is created by values.

Let me write that again with bracketed definitions included: structure (buildings and organizational patterns and power controls) flow from culture (behaviour in which values are expressed) which flows from values. So, to me, values are the starting point of everything we do as individuals, congregations, agencies and denominations.

Values, in my experience, come in two categories: idealized or ‘preferred’ and real or lived-out values. Behaviours that reveal the actual values we hold are the real thing, together creating the real culture. Values that we have selected as optimal or ideal are the dream. In between is hypocrisy. See:

So, my starting point for any structure and culture conversation and reflection would be the question: What are our real behaviours and what real values do they play out?

The way we organize church leadership in a congregation, for instance, reveals a set of values. “Checks and balances” or “no one person or group having too much power in the organizational system” is one value set.

The way we might invite people to our churches (value: outreach) but then expect them to understand and learn our cultural patterns by osmosis (value: Cosa Nostra, a residual remnant of immigrant preservation) is a values conflict, or a conflict of behaviours that come from values that are contradictory.

The newcomer is likely to assume, in the face of this, that they are not really welcome or that they can only be welcome if they accommodate to the existing values, behaviour and culture, most of which are not written anywhere, such as church dress codes. They tend to then fall away.

So, when others, like Paul VanderKlay, write about structure and culture, I am watching for what I describe above to be evident in the reflections. I don’t find it. Paul’s latest post on this is found at:

Paul asks:

What do we want from this experiment?

  • We want the North American “in support of” staff to better support the North American church

  • We want denominational staff to be more responsive to cultural changes in the North American church

  • We want to see a new culture develop, more permission giving, less controlling.

All of these are good things.

In reply, I say: “more permission giving, less controlling” will allow the stasis quo (spelling intentional) to continue. The problem, in my view, lies in individuals and congregations not being broken out of their game of believing hanging preferred values on the wall will change their structure and culture. Who – if the congregations are going to keep their autonomy – is going to challenge that denial?

You say, Paul, that “we want denominational staff to be more responsive to cultural changes” but who is going to foster congregational responsiveness to cultural change when their very organizational DNA is preservationist?

How can denominational staff be “supportive” if a prophetic challenge is needed? Somebody needs to be the bad cop. Someone needs to be the prophet calling people back to something essential. But if the congregation has the power to do away with leaders who challenge their false comforts, how will that happen? They are unlikely to fly in a denominational staff person at great expense to be challenged in that way. And if they do, they can easily let the wet sand close over the footprint and forget the impact saying to themselves “that person just does not understand us” not realizing that they maybe need to understand themselves better.

So you can see my mind was full of questions at the outset. Until I read “The issues are in the churches and there are multiple challenges.”

At that point I began tracking with you better.

I would say the Cosa Nostra Challenge is actually an outworking of the My Church challenge, as is the Pre-Post Christendom one. Culture war is a hijacking of values by non-gospel agendas and, as you say, a sign the church has lost the radicalness of Jesus rejecting culture wars to establish a Kingdom that operates by out-of-this-world principles. Etc.

In sum, to me, starting the work by changing structure and culture is a work of futility. It is tinkering to avoid the real sink-cause. We need to challenge the values our culture and structure show now, and we need to confront the dissonance between our wall-plaque values and the ones we live individually and congregationally. Structure and culture change will follow that. It won’t create it.


Posted by on June 28, 2014 in Uncategorized


What aspects of CRC culture might be keeping us from thriving?

I define culture as the actions by which we live out and express our values. As I’ve written elsewhere, we often have a hypocrisy of values, i.e. those we profess publicly are not those we actually live out. When I say values are the basis of culture I am talking about these unstated values. They actually have more influence and power. I have no idea if that is an acceptable definition of culture or near what the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture means by culture.

On various media platforms an ‘outside of official channels’ discussion is ongoing about this and related subjects like leadership and how our organizational structure possibly limits us. and even making leadership afraid to speak up. I have linked to two blog posts in the statements above that will give you some idea of the discussion.

All of this has me thinking about many things, and thoughts are coming faster than I can capture. But I find myself returning to a question that I think my experience qualifies me to begin to address. That question is: What aspects of our “culture”  in the CRC might be contributing to a failure to thrive?

I refer to — and depend on — experience as a son of a CRC pastor, as a person who lived in the Netherlands for 3 years just before my teens, as a person growing up (or trying to) in the CRC in Canada in the 70’s and early 80’s, as a King’s in Edmonton and CTS educated pastor who served two churches as a called pastor, and now as a Specialized Transitional Minister on his second contract. A myriad of other experiences, many very difficult, some very educational (working at an addiction treatment center) add to the mix.

I am skipping all kinds of caveats and disclaimers (why do I feel they are needed in the first place? could that be an element of culture?) to simply and concisely as I can share some observations from the pulpit and pew level. I don’t have a lot of interest or experience ‘higher’ up the organizational and institutional ladder.

As an immigrant-based denomination, I see us as having the following never-overtly-stated cultural values but with plenty of actions demonstrating they exist (see first link above). I’ve tried to put them in order of effect, starting with the biggies:
Preservationist – we have grown up with the implicit and explicit value and practice of maintaining something from the past.
Oppositionalist – we are used to being always on guard (defensive) against what we fought about before or against new threats (aggressive). (To me, the external architecture of the Seminary side of Chapel at Calvin College symbolizes this well. It looks like a Fort, with slots for archers or gunners and everything).
Relationally challenged: Poor interpersonal and relational boundaries – we don’t know how to disagree and live well together. (These will be made more clear further in the list as contributing factors are named)
Comfort seeking, not in Heidelberg Q & A 1 style, but originally in the familiar practices from ‘back home’ and then in other things. Ironically, we sometimes find comfort in reciting Q & A 1 just because “we know it was important” at one time. So too with Forms and other rituals.
Suspicious of emotion, relying on the brain as an unfallen part of man.
Fake rationalists Under a veneer cloak of reason or rationality, emotion actually runs the debate in many council rooms. So does broken or strained relationships. Another word for it is anxiety or fear.
Low Emotional IQ, in fact deeply emotionally or psychologically wounded. Especially in Canada, many of the immigrant generation were suffering unhealed deep trauma when they came to North America. In a hardscrabble initial existence, and in a religious culture that suspected emotion, emotional and personal and spiritual growth were luxuries no one had time or use for. So, in many cases, the generation now dying off were quite immature and broken. Studies show that my generation, without strong intervention and active engagement in addressing that, can be a bigger mess than the one before.
No longer principled in making choices – as practices derived from principled choice were defended and protected, their meaning was lost, we became living museums re-enacting empty rituals
That is just a start. I realize there are positive ones as well, but I’m looking for the ones that lead to a lack of flourishing.
I welcome feedback or further input.