Culture As Pac-Man

After my last blog about the power of culture, the unrest at Willow Creek North Shore (WCNS) campus, has moved me to develop this concept further. Culture is like Pac-Man, where the figure goes after the little elements to consume them, and this is an analogy to how culture will swallow up strategy. This is being seen in the push back of the congregants at WCNS. This is a clear example of what happens when leaders with strategic vision collide with the real flesh and blood needs, values, and feelings of the constituents. 

I have many times noted that those in Christian leadership positions often focus more on vision casting and strategic change, and less on the very powerful elements that comprise human culture. As a result, the culture resists the strategy. The new strategy seeks to change the culture of an organization, which represents a threat to those engaged and loyal to that culture.

I once had a young pastor come to my counseling office who was defeated, dejected, and generally depressed. He had come out of seminary a fresh-faced, enthusiastic graduate, who had highly idealized views of how to lead a church. He was called to a small church in Iowa and set about trying to implement his vision. After two years, he gave up. The church culture was run by three prominent families, who had absolute control and they did not want change. He did not have the skill-set necessary to know how to deal with this. It has always been my view that the courses  seminaries need to teach is about church culture, and how it can destroy pastors who do not understand it. They do not use emotional/social intelligence to assess how to create change in a healthy way. 

What has happened at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) is that the elders selected a leadership team who have demonstrated, at this point, a clear tone-deafness to the larger cultural issues. As a psychologist trained in larger systemic elements, my focus is on the system into which the strategy seeks to create change. Systems have to be ready to align with change, and a good part of that is that the culture, in the form of the constituents, has been consulted and are slowly allowed to buy into the envisioned changes. 

People who have insight into the emotional and social intelligence elements of leadership recognize that change, particularly large-scale change, should never be initiated when that culture has experienced a high level of stress from recent events. For instance, a person who has just lost a loved one should not change jobs until they have stabilized from the trauma of loss. At WCCC, it is clear that the church is still in the re-stabilizing process of having absorbed the loss of a senior pastor, who was un-masked as having a power and control style of leadership, along with using that power to sexually abuse women. This was a shock that rocked the emotional rickter scale of the WCCC culture. It has been clear that the leadership of WCCC chose to ignore the substantial trauma that this revelation created, and pushed for change and a future focus. 

The second major stressor on the culture of WCCC has been the Covid-19 pandemic. This has been a destabilizing event, causing a loss of in-person community, which is emotionally devastating to a community that loves and connects with each other. A systemically-aware leader would know that this is the worst time to implement strategic changes to a culture. But the leadership of WCCC, ignoring the need to address the emotionally-destabilizing elements of the two major stressor events at the church, devised the new vision to move forward. They are now beginning to see the consequences of their lack of wisdom or larger systemic intelligence, when they sought to shoe-horn change into a damaged culture. 

The leadership culture at WCCC has been addressed in my previous blogs, primarily, pointing out the narcissistic, top-down, power and control, secretive, and generally damaging approach of the senior pastor and those who were his attendants to the throne (Emperor Who Had No Clothes). I want to point out that a lot of the culture of WCCC  was, albeit created by corrupt leadership, good in many ways. Those that came as congregants to WCCC loved what they experienced. They loved the worship, the opportunities to volunteer as a community in all kinds of service areas, the campus pastors and their leadership, the sense of love and community that was created, and many other things. It can be said that much of the culture of WCCC was loved and valued. Minus the scandal of leadership, much of what had been constructed culture-wise was desired and loved. 

The scandal of leadership that occurred in the revelation of Bill Hybels’ behavior, left a sizable void in the trust of leadership at WCCC. Why would it not? The new leadership at WCCC largely ignored the stressful and traumatic impact of the leadership failure, and certainly failed to recognize the issue of leadership mistrust that had been created. What was needed was a pastoral type that put a pause on any substantial changes and instead focused on binding up the wounds of the church and restoring trust in leadership. Instead, the tone-deaf approach focused on strategy, strategy, strategy! 

The elders are the ones that are primarily at fault for this. They resisted truly dealing with the emotional and sinful elements of past leadership behavior, and instead kept wanting to push forward. They obviously chose a senior pastor that aligned with their desires. Now I believe that they have locked themselves into a decision that is clearly being revealed as unhealthy to the culture of the church, but they do not want to admit that it was bad judgement. This reminds me of something in professional football. Sometimes a general manager will draft a quarterback in the first round, lock into a very expensive contract, and when it becomes obvious that the quarterback may not be talented enough, they will stick with them. They have made a strategic decision and they do not want to admit it because they have spent so  much money.

The culture that has existed at WCCC, as explained above, created a community that allowed congregants to feel connected.  There is never a more important time to preserve the elements of connection than in a crisis of stress, such as the ones where the Hybels’ situation and the Covid-19 pandemic created. To try to shoe-horn a change, that essentially looks like an attempt to dismantle the very elements that bring comfort to people, is highly threatening, and will be resisted. 

The leadership needs to humble themselves, admit the fact that they failed to assess the traumatic elements of the culture at WCCC, put a pause on the vision, focus more on the healing necessary for the culture to stabilize, address the truth about the financial situation of WCCC, address the truth about Bill Hybels’ sin and not just minimize it as a scandal. They need to acknowledge the significant lack of trust in leadership and commit to what it takes to rebuild this absolutely. necessary component. Only then should they help the church look at strategy and change, with the full engagement of the congregation. Communicate rather than assume everyone is good with your vision! 

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