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Church Growth: Strategy and Culture in Harmony

The present Bishop of St Albans came to the Diocese in 2009 with a desire to focus on three themes: going deeper into God, transforming communities, and making new disciples. Bishop Alan put these themes out to the diocese for discernment, consideration and feedback. Over several months the process of discernment sharpened and grounded these ideas, issuing in our Diocesan initiative, “Living God’s Love” which has those three themes at its heart and which sees mission action planning as the right way to make sense of them in each parish.

To this we have added a sense of direction, and spelled it out explicitly based on the national priority “to take forward the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church of England”.

In all this the statistical and numerical data gathered among others by @ChurchGrowthRD has been enormously useful. We are moving out of the realm of anecdote and into matters of fact. This has made our strategic planning more robust and more objective. So far, so good.

But as the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. In other words, the assumptions and reflexes and foundations of an institution – any institution – can effortlessly swallow and ignore the implications of a strategy, even though everyone says they agree with every word of the strategy itself. We do not live by strap-lines alone.

In particular, diocesan culture needs to make room for the idea that the numerical growth of the church is worth aiming for. This has never been easy. Of course no one will say that it’s better if the church shrinks. But the inherited culture of the Church of England, and of parts of every diocese, still believes that spiritual and numerical growth are disconnected or only accidentally related. And in the hearts of some, to plan deliberately to grow the church in numbers is vulgar and ungodly, and to relate those plans to statistics and outcomes is downright wrong. So unless those with a diocesan responsibility work hard to align culture and strategy, our initiative will be as much use as a chocolate fireguard. But none of this is unique to the church…

In their Harvard Business Review article “Cultural change that sticks” Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley tell the story of Aetna, a provider of healthcare in the US. The culture of this organisation was to care for people and to put them first. They were suspicious of “management” and of an obsession with “the bottom line”. Does any of this sound familiar?

“In late 2000, John W. Rowe, MD, became Aetna’s fourth CEO in five years. Employees skeptically prepared for yet another exhausting effort to transform the company into an efficient growth engine.

This time, however, they were in for a surprise. Rowe didn’t walk in with a new strategy and try to force a cultural shift to achieve it. Instead, right from the start, he… took time to visit the people, understand their perspective, and involve them in the planning. With other members of the senior team, they sought out employees at all levels—those who were well connected, sensitive to the company culture, and widely respected—to get their input on the strategy as well as their views on both the design and execution of intended process changes.

These conversations helped Rowe and his team identify Aetna’s biggest problem: A strategy that focused narrowly on managing medical expenses to reduce the cost of claims while alienating the patients and physicians that were key to Aetna’s long-term success. At the same time, they surfaced Aetna’s significant cultural strengths: a deep-seated concern about patients, providers, and employers; underlying pride in the history and purpose of the company; widespread respect for peers; and a large group of dedicated professionals.”

It certainly sounds familiar to me. And the authors go on to distil a few simple principles from the Aetna story which clearly resonate with us in St Albans. Here they are, with some comments from me.

1. Match strategy and culture

Too often a company’s strategy, imposed from above, is at odds with the ingrained practices and attitudes of its culture."

When I worked for the Archbishops’ Council, travelling the Dioceses to look at mission strategies, I heard a number of cautionary tales. In all of them, diocesan leaders had moved too quickly and had disregarded the fundamental motivations of the parochial clergy and lay leaders. Now I’m sure a queue of people could be found to say that this is exactly what we’re doing in St Albans. But that’s not our aim. Instead we want to align what we hope to do with the pastoral, liturgical and evangelistic heart of the Church of which we are a part and which continues to shape us all. Change is hard, and sometimes hard things need to be said. But unless our changes will better deliver the core values of the Church then they will not be owned, and they will not make any difference, and they will not deserve to.

2. Focus on a few critical shifts in behaviour

Studies show that only 10% of people who have had heart bypass surgery or an angioplasty make major modifications to their diets and lifestyles afterward. We don’t alter our behavior even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we should. Change is hard."

Lots of dioceses have woken up to this, and we’re beginning to do so too. As we analyse the Mission Action Plans we’ve received – and a large majority of our parishes have now completed and reviewed these – we’re identifying a handful of things that seem to make a difference across the board. None of these is rocket science – Run a nurture course. Get a mission accompanier. Identify just one social need in your parish (A foodbank? A drop-in centre? Street Pastors?) and work with other Christians to meet that need. The point is that we now know that these things help. And we commend them to our parishes strongly.

3. Honour the strengths of your existing culture

Any corporate culture is a product of good intentions that evolved in unexpected ways and will have many strengths."

For the Church this is not hard. When I was last a Vicar the growth-points of the parish were two fold; the youth club and the Ladies Fellowship. Both of them touched people with strong natural networks; young people at school and college, and (mostly bereaved) women in their seventies and eighties. Both of them relied on friendship, human warmth and a shared experience. Both of them empowered ordinary people to be themselves and to speak naturally of their faith. Neither of them needed “new initiatives”. But both of them were greatly strengthened by being affirmed and honoured within the overall strategy of the parish. When culture and strategy walk in harmony like this, the result can so often be high-hearted and enthusiastic growth.

4. Integrate formal and informal interventions

As you promote critical new behaviors… be sure to integrate formal approaches—like new rules, metrics, and incentives—with informal interactions.”

We’re trying to make sense of this by bringing numbers and narratives together at every point. In our Diocesan Mission and Pastoral Committee we’re now using a range of home-grown and national statistics to get as sharp a picture as we can of each Deanery in turn, before we invite the Deanery’s representatives to discuss with the group how things are going and how they should go forward. Later this year we’re drawing together a cohort of self-selected clergy who want to share how spiritual and numerical growth is working where they are – and we’re expecting them to be honest about their figures and to share stories in small action-learning sets, in depth and in confidence.

5. Measure and monitor cultural evolution

When designing cultural metrics, remember that you get what you measure.”

The Church has never been good at the balanced scorecard – in other words at measuring hard data alongside the things that make data worth counting. In our Diocese we’re aiming to bring together narrative and numbers in a way that marries them together instead of setting them against one another. We haven’t cracked this one yet, but we’re listening out for examples of good practice from across the church and beyond it, because it’s a really vital ingredient in delivering a changed culture that aligns with an agreed strategy. If anyone reading this has any pointers, I’d love to hear them!

Paul Bayes is Bishop of Hertford in the Diocese of St Albans (

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