The words rolled around in my head. And I asked her to repeat it. She seemed to slow down to make sure that I got it.
“Tod, you have done a great job articulating a compelling vision for our church. It’s one of the things that you do best. But you have to remember that vision is not all that powerful. Culture trumps vision every time.”
She went on to say that in most organizations, far more powerful than any agreed upon, outside, even authoritative or "divinely inspired" goal, mission, or purpose, is the ingrained, unconscious, unexamined and usually even unnoticed norms, attitudes, and forces that give a group a sense of cohesion. The culture of a group is like its "DNA", its part of what makes it what it is. A “culture” is the result of the intentional and mostly unintentional “habits” of a people. The assumptions, “givens”, the unreflected-upon actions and attitudes that make up “who we are” that most of the time we don’t even think about.
The woman sitting across the table from me in the coffee shop was one of my elders. In her professional life she is a consultant with years of senior management experience in medical and pharmaceutical sales. She had just finished helping our staff with a comprehensive strategic planning process that was all built around making sure that everything we do was consistent with our church vision statement.
She affirmed (and I love) our church vision statement. But just as I was getting excited that people were really starting to “get the vision”, she hit me with this reality-club: Vision is quickly thwarted by the culture of a people, community or organization. And this was utterly depressing to me.
In fact, I resisted it for quite awhile. Until I began to see as I spoke with colleagues, taught in seminaries and consulted with church leaders, how often the “vision statements” of a church were only approved, applauded and, especially applied when the vision expressed the culture of the church. Rarely did a vision statement become the rallying crying for challenging the culture of a church to be more radically faithful to the Kingdom calling. Instead, the Vision Statement remained on the wall and the culture was accommodated…and little genuine life transformation occurred.
So, how do we move from affirming a vision to transforming a culture? That is the question that I have been rolling around in my head since I sat in that coffee shop.
Here is one thing I believe: No one sets out to undermine their vision. No one who believes in the vision of a church, organization or cause determines to let it get trumped by the status quo. But it happens. All. the. time. And it happens mostly unconsciously through our unreflective habitual actions.
So, the “vision” that I have of being under 18% body fat and qualifying for the Boston Marathon, gets “trumped” every time I “unconsciously” eat three bowls of chips and salsa while I am sitting at a table talking with a friend about my “vision” to have less than 18% body fat and qualify for the Boston Marathon.
The vision of raising children who will live for Christ at all cost, gets trumped as soon as junior makes the “elite” soccer team that plays on Sundays.
The vision of the Church that exists to be the answer to the prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven” gets trumped when we make decisions primarily to “meet the needs” of our members.
What can we do? How can we experience the true power of a God-inspired Vision?
Well, we can start by focusing on what we are doing. Observing our actions, paying attention to habits. And then humbly acknowledge those moments of contradiction and come back to Christ again.
Culture may trump vision every time. But humble self-awareness of our contradictory nature is a pretty powerful opening hand to play.