Safer, healthier culture
Culture is the all-important ingredient in the success of any organisation or community. Strategy is important – in fact it is essential - we have to know where we are going and how we are going to get there, but knowing how we are going to get there is as much about our culture as it is the plans and dreams for our work or ministry. The need to focus on culture and get that right, in whatever setting we are working in is critical to the success of achieving our goals. So, culture and strategy go hand in hand, but good strategy without good culture will never achieve its fullest potential.
Creating environments in which everyone is safe and can flourish is fundamental to our purpose as God’s Church. Building safer, healthier culture is all about modelling attitudes and behaviours to those around us to achieve this purpose. To effectively create safer places, we must be prepared to take a long cold look at our cultures – do they support this mission and vision? How do we know that we are both safe and healthy?
What are the characteristics of safer, healthier Christian culture?
It is important that we consider this. Safe and healthy culture doesn’t happen by mistake. We have to work at it. We can’t just assume that we all know the answer to this question, like the child in Sunday School who worked out that the answer to every question was Jesus.
If we want to see our culture having a positive effect on those we work with or minister to, we must start with ourselves; our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. Sometimes this means we will need to be the change we want to see around us and help others to see what we see.
Safer, healthier culture means:
- We have the principles of safeguarding as the foundation of our efforts.
- We respect, value and nurture those in our care.
- We empower and guide through appropriate use of scripture.
- We nurture our leaders at all levels.
Safer, healthier culture also means that:
- We value whole-life service, not just what happens in church.
- We operate with a healthy regard for accountability (for ourselves and others).
- We model inclusion and participation.
- We guide in a manner that maintains freedom of choice.
So, how do we ensure that a focus on these things stands a chance of making a difference? Here are seven top tips to help us map our culture against our aim of creating the safer places that incorporate the points above:
1. Listen to the stories and commentary
Pay attention and genuinely listen to what is being said about your church or organisation, both by those inside and those outside. How do people think you have managed challenging issues? Can you demonstrate that you are prepared to learn lessons from what didn’t go well?
2. Be proactive in your communications and messaging
Make every effort to be clear in your intention to facilitate and foster safer practices. Ensure that people know who your key contacts are and that you welcome comments and concerns being shared appropriately. Reinforcing positive messages about safer places within services will help too.
3. Manage power dynamics
Be attentive to how power is used within your church organization, by who and for what purpose. Is any exercise of power coupled to appropriate accountability? Make every effort to ensure that power is used in a way that empowers others – to be most effective, it should be given away.
4. Be transparent about your structures and accountability mechanisms
Be alert to the formal and informal structures and accountabilities that exist in your church or organisation – it will make all the difference to the long-term sustainability of your culture-setting efforts. Ensure that shadow structures (i.e. informal and often unrecognised) don’t undermine your efforts and reduce accountability.
5. Be clear about governance and leadership
Make sure you are clear about how your church or organisation is governed. Would people know who to speak to and know the difference between organisational governance and spiritual leadership? Ensure you give the maintenance of your culture sufficient attention alongside the pursuit of mission and vision.
6. Foster good customs and practices
Encourage and model the day-to-day behaviours and ways of working that you want to see in your church or organisation. Welcome appropriate and respectful challenge to behaviours and attitudes that threaten or conflict with safer, healthier culture.
7. Review and Refresh
Keeping issues of safer, healthier culture on the agenda so that it becomes expected as the norm will encourage growth and flourishing. Reviewing the impact of all the above will help you to make changes in a timely way and allow you to deal with low level concerns before they get too big.
Despite our best intentions and the best strategic planning, our work and ministry will be limited in its ability to foster flourishing unless we can demonstrate that it is founded on and characterised by a well-informed culture – one that is safe and healthy.
The material in this article is based upon the book ‘Escaping the maze of spiritual abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures’ by Lisa Oakley & Justin Humphreys, SPCK, 2019.