Shaping Culture: Correcting For It (3 of 4)


No matter how clearly you lay out the path of culture and how well you model it, there are going to be plenty of times when people in your church or on your team veer off the path.  Every time I see it happen, I feel like the wind just got knocked out of me.  How could someone deviate from a path I love so much?  Why would they do such a thing?  What do I do now?

If I’m honest, my strategy as a young leader was to ignore these little cultural deviations.  I was convinced if I waited long enough, the cultural outlier would happily rejoin the rest of us on the path.  But that’s not always the case.  In fact, many times I watched as others joined them in the weeds!

One of the most important tools in shaping culture is intentionally correcting deviations from the culture.  Leaders must find ways of communicating, “Hey, that’s not how we do it around here.” (Hint: This is best communicated in person and with an attempt to understand why and how the person got off the path in the first place.)  However we do it, leaders must correct cultural deviations.

In my experience, there are two ways off the cultural path:

  • Cultural wanderers.  Most of the time they don’t even know they’re off the path until you point it out.  They’re just doing what they’ve always done, what came naturally or what seemed right to them.  They aren’t trying to ruin your organization, defy your leadership or destroy your culture.  They’re actually trying to get it right but just wandered a bit.  When this is the case, your corrective conversation becomes much more of a vision casting, cultural shaping moment.  You have the privilege of helping the person understand your culture at a much deeper, more personal and real level.  These conversations are leadership gold!
  • Cultural hijackers.  These guys are a problem – they know they’re off the path.  In fact, they’re trying to create a new path and lead others down it.  They know where you’re trying to go; they just don’t like it and are convinced they can carry the organization in the direction they want to go.  The Bible has a lot to say about how we should handle cultural hijackers.  “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10-11)  Simple translation – remove them from the culture they’re trying to hijack.  Here’s the good news – cultural hijackers are rare, so don’t be too quick to label someone this way.  But when it becomes clear you’ve got a hijacker on board, take action.

I used to hate these kinds of conversations as a leader.  I would avoid them, delay them and half the time wimp out in the middle of them.  But I’ve come to see that they are a hugely important tool in shaping culture.  I’ve also come to realize that if I don’t care enough about the culture of our church to defend it, I really have no business being the one who shapes it.

Shaping Culture: Modeling It (2 of 4)


I spent my first year out of college working at a cell phone store and for a management consulting firm.  Both experiences left me deeply aware that there’s often a huge gap between a leader’s glowing review of their corporate culture and the reality on the ground.  I would meet with plant managers who insisted that worker safety was their number one priority only to hear stories in the plant of how impossible it was for workers to get steel toed boots.  I would meet with leaders who were genuinely convinced their company was the greatest place to work only to find out that the majority of the staff spent the majority of their time sending out resumes.

So, while it’s important to be able to define the culture you’re looking to create in your team or organization, the reality is that simply putting it in writing or being able to talk about it will never get the job done.  Leaders must model the culture we want to create.

Paul says it this way, “Follow me, as I follow Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1).  That’s a high calling for any leader to live up to, especially when you add Jesus into the mix!  Here’s what I’ve come to understand as a leader – this verse is a self fulfilling prophecy.  Your people will follow you in exactly the same manner you follow Christ!  So, if your organization struggles with celebrating wins, it’s probably because you struggle with celebrating wins.  If your organization frenetically jumps from new idea to new initiative to new plan to change the world, it’s probably because you have the attention span of a fruit fly!  For a leader, examining organizational culture is a lot like looking in a mirror.  As has often been said, you can teach what you know but you’ll reproduce who you are.

So, leaders, we must ensure that our lives embody the culture we’re trying to create.  Two ways to accomplish this:

  1.  Don’t steal someone else’s culture.  If you hate change, don’t try to make innovation your competitive advantage.  If operating efficiency is your thing, find your advantage by offering the best product at the lowest cost.  Know who you are and lead the organization that makes sense for you.  One of the most helpful things I heard in planting Restoration City was from Larry Osborne, “Plant the church you’ve always wanted to attend.  It’s the only one you’ll be able to lead instinctively.”  Here’s how I see it – your best friends should be the least surprised at your church’s culture.  They should look at you and your church and say, “Yup. Makes sense to me.”
  2. Allow people on your team to hold you accountable.  If you deviate from the culture, people need to call you on it – and do it quickly before the whole organization follows suit!  You’re going to go off the path every once in a while.  Make sure there are people in your organization to get you realigned quickly.

It’s as simple as this – organizational culture flows out of leadership culture.  People aren’t following the inspirational sayings in your lobby.  They’re following your life.

Shaping Culture: Defining It (1 of 4)

Define Culture

If you can’t define your church’s culture in words, you aren’t intentionally shaping it.

For years I made the mistake of assuming culture was too ambiguous to capture in words.  I thought I would somehow kill the magic of culture if I tried to quantify it.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Now I believe that culture is so vital that it must be captured in words.  If you can’t write it down, you don’t really know it and you have no hope of teaching it to others.  So, leaders, don’t let yourself off the hook – force yourself to put words around your culture.

The single most helpful tool I’ve found in putting words around culture is a concept called plumb lines that comes from Larry Osborne at North Coast Church in California. In the building world, a plumb line is an extremely simple tool (a piece of string with a weight on the end) that will help you make sure what you are building is perfectly vertical and aligned.  Larry describes cultural plumb lines as “leadership proverbs.”  They’re short, pithy little sayings that describe your culture.  When clearly stated, these provide clarity in keeping everything aligned with the culture you want to create.

Here are a few of our plumb lines at Restoration City:

  • Look for a way, not an excuse.
  • Find the unexpected extra.
  • Assume the best.
  • People > Programs.
  • Environment Matters.
  • Treat Volunteers Like Celebrities.

We have more but that gives you an idea of the church we’re trying to become.

We don’t make our leaders memorize all of our plumb lines but they show up in our conversations, emails and sermons enough that people start to catch on before too long.

What plumb lines describe the church or organization God is asking you to create?  Take the time to write it down.  Don’t be frustrated if it takes a while – I’ve been actively working on these for Restoration City for the last two years and thinking about them on and off for the last 12.  You can always add, edit, delete plumb line.  The key is to be getting something on paper.

Defining your culture will force clarity in your mind and give you a tool to teach your team.

Shaping Culture

Church Culture

Every church has a culture.  It’s not defined by doctrine, mission statements, strategic plans, core values or org charts.  You get glimpses of it by listening to the language people use, watching the way decisions are made and observing how people treat one another.  It’s the intangible “way we do things around here.”

There are no exceptions.  Any group of people who have been together for a year or longer has a culture.  The question is whether it’s being intentionally shaped or passively discovered.  The difference has enormous implications for the life, health and effectiveness of a church.  If Peter Drucker was right, and I believe he was, when he famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast“, then any leader who isn’t intentional about shaping the culture of their organization is committing leadership malpractice.

In my time leading Restoration City, I’ve learned that a leader must do four things to intentionally shape the culture of their church or organization:

  • Define It
  • Model It
  • Correct It
  • Celebrate It

Three out of the four won’t get you there – it takes a commitment to all four disciplines.

I’m going to take my next four blog posts to discuss each one of these disciplines in greater depth.  I hope it’ll be helpful for our leaders at Restoration City and anyone else passionate about creating a healthy and intentional culture.

Culture matters to much to discover it.  Leaders must shape it.

51 Hours

IMG_3058Last week was a big one for the McGowan’s.  Laura enjoyed some much needed time to rest and replenish with one of her closest friends in Raleigh.  That meant Jack, Aidan and I enjoyed a little guy time around the house.  When I say a little, I mean 51 hours.

To be honest, I loved getting that time with the boys.  We had a lot of fun, ate a lot of pizza and played for hours.  I will also say I developed an even deeper appreciation for my wife and all those who spend their days caring for children.

A few random observations:

  • When I was in college, they sold caffeinated water on campus.  We used it to make coffee.  I haven’t seen that product in a while (and it’s entirely likely the FDA has banned it).  That’s too bad.  They should sell that stuff by the gallon at Buy Buy Baby.
  • There is literally nothing a 2.5 year old boy will not try to climb.  See photo above.
  • Just because a 2.5 year old boy can climb up doesn’t mean he can climb down.  Also, see photo above.  For the record, Laura, when Jack tells you he was not being safe, got stuck and scared and that Daddy rescued him, this is what he’s talking about.  Of course, he may also be talking about trapping himself in the shower in the basement.  But there’s no photographic evidence of that one.
  • The amount of strategic planning required to plant, fund and lead a church is nothing compared to the planning it takes to use the bathroom or shower with two little kids around the house.
  • Bathing two kids at the same time leaves you as soaked as sitting on the 3rd row at Sea World.

Here’s one final one:  I love being a Dad. 

I know so many single guys who fear settling down, growing up and taking on the responsibility of a wife and kids.  I totally get it; I was one of you for years.  And, yes, I now consider 10pm staying up late and can have an in depth conversation about sleep training an infant.  But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.  So, guys, don’t fear what will be one of the greatest blessings in your life.

The Bible Should Bother You


The only way not to be bothered by the Bible is to not read it.  But if you’re willing to crack open the pages of the most extraordinary book in human history, you’re going to be bothered.  Or at least you should be.

Jesus says some fairly shocking things.  He really seems to think we’re going to pray for our enemies.(Mt. 5:44)  He really does want us to consider others more important than ourselves. (Phil 2:3)  And then there are times when Jesus is just plain offensive.  Take, for example, Mark 7:27, “And He was saying to her, ‘Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’”  Fabulous.  A nice lady comes to Jesus, asks Him to help her daughter and He calls her a dog.  What the Donald Trump is He doing?!?!

Unfortunately, we don’t often allow ourselves as Christians to be bothered by the Bible.  We gloss over the hard to understand, challenging, odd or hard passages in search of a feel good promise to carry us through the day.  We want warm and fuzzy, not hard and challenging.  Now, don’t get me wrong – the Bible is filled with majestic promises that will carry us through the day.  But some of the greatest truths about God are found in the hard passages.  Don’t gloss over them.  Wrestle with them.  Pray over them.  Get some help.  Dig.

All of this is on my mind because I’m speaking on Mark 7:24-37 this Sunday at Restoration City.  We’re going to talk a lot about why Jesus is calling this lady a dog.  Why not spend the week thinking and praying through that passage on your own?  Here’s a hint: He’s not insulting her. He’s teaching in a parable.

Oh, how I long for us to be a church that grapples with the Scriptures.  Don’t splash around by the shore.  Swim in the deep water.  It’s where the greatest treasures are found!

Where Did All My Friends Go?


Do you remember how big of a deal your friends were in high school and college?  They were everything – my guess is you wanted to do everything with them, spend as much time with them as possible, figure out life with them and just be yourself with them.  They were a source of encouragement, rebuke, understanding and joy.

But the whole concept of friendship seems to take a real beating in our 20’s.

There’s a sea of new relationships to navigate.  For the first time in our lives, we have coworkers and apartment mates.  Dating relationships get more serious and start to turn into marriages.  Kids enter the picture with all of their play dates, preschools and weekends at the playground.  Every one of these changes is good.  But many times they come at the expense of our friends.  If we’re not careful, we can wake up in our 30’s and realize we don’t really have any close friends.

It’s interesting to see how concerned Solomon was with friendship when he was writing the proverbs.  Consider just a few:

  • A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. (Prov. 17:17)
  • A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Prov. 18:24)
  • Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel. (Prov. 27:9)

The wisest man who ever lived seemed to think it was important to have a few close friends.  He needed people who would stick with him no matter what.  He wanted to know he had a few guys in his corner when he failed and needed to be picked up.  He needed people to shoot straight with him.  He needed people who were willing to tell him what he needed to hear even when he didn’t want to hear it.

Honestly, I need the same.  We all do.

But those kind of close friendships don’t happen by accident.  They take time, intentionality and the willingness to ride out a few storms.

So, here’s my question for you if you’re in your 20’s: Who are the people in your life now who you know will be there for you 30 years from now?  Who are the friends you’re going to want to go on vacation with when you’re married and have kids?  Who would you call if the bottom dropped out of life and you needed serious help?  Those are your closest friends.  Prioritize them, invest in them, take the risk of being vulnerable with them, let them into your world and stay involved in theirs.

There are plenty of people who bring joy to our lives for a season.  But my closest friends have been with me through multiple seasons.  We’ve been in each other’s weddings.  We’ve all changed jobs (in most cases, several times).  We’ve all moved.  We’ve seen each other at our best and our worst.  They couldn’t care less that I’m a pastor or church planter.  They just love me.  And I love them.

Don’t let adulthood crush friendship.  Whether you’re in your 20’s, 30’s or beyond, there’s always room to form, strengthen and enjoy the blessings of a few close friends.  You’re life will be so much richer if you do.

Learners Pray


Monday was awesome – I got to spend the entire day with my two favorite boys on the planet.  It was also a little scary because my favorite person on the planet, Laura, was with her Mom in Richmond.  So, it was just me and the boys!

I can tell you this – one day flying solo with those two did wonders for my prayer life.  I don’t know that I’ve ever lived out 1 Thessalonians 5:17 so faithfully, “pray without ceasing.”  Everything we did was a prompt to pray – diaper changes, making lunch, going to the park, nap time…everything!

As soon as I got out of my comfort zone, I started praying like a spiritual hero.  But on days when I stay in my comfort zone, it’s way too easy to pray like a spiritual zero.  I still believe the primary culprits in our prayerlessness are pride and a small view of God.  But complacency certainly fans the flames of spiritual lethargy.  The honest reality is that I don’t feel the same compulsion to pray in areas of my life where I’m not stretched.  Meetings, emails and blog posts come naturally to me and, yes, I usually pray for God’s guidance but not with the same intensity I prayed in the face of a screaming 7 month old who was starving but also refusing to take his bottle because I was doing something wrong.

We would pray more if we got out of our comfort zone more.

In a recent Forbes magazine article, Erika Anderson writes about a new FIELD immersion learning program available to Harvard MBA’s.  The goal is to get these students out of the classroom and into the real world.  She writes:

“When you’re really learning – acquiring new skills or understanding, behaving and operating in new ways – you’re going to be a novice.  That means you’re not going to be an expert, and you won’t have all the answers.  You’ll make mistakes and have to ask “dumb” questions, and you’ll have ideas that you think are genius that will turn out not to work at all.

And becoming comfortable in that situation – staying curious and open and continuing to explore and improve – that’s the essence of real learning.”

We don’t learn and grow in our comfort zones.  Real learning only happens when we leave safety, security and predictability behind.  So, here’s my question for you today: where are you uncomfortable?  Where does life feel a little scary, a little exhilarating and a little uncertain?

If the answer is nowhere, odds are good you aren’t growing.  I would also venture to say odds are good you aren’t praying either.  Our souls and our minds expand when we find the courage to stretch, to learn and to grow.

Ashley Madison

Ashley Madison

As far as I know, there wasn’t one single person at our weekly gathering this past Sunday whose name was revealed through the Ashley Madison data hack.  And that’s a problem.  In fairness, if my name or one of our leaders names had been on the list, that would have been a bigger problem.  But I don’t want us to ignore the problem we do have.

It seems like people are responding to Ashely Madison in one of two ways: condemnation or amusement.  Condemnation seems more prevalent within the church and amusement in the broader society.  Both are deadly.

At it’s core, amusement says, “none of this really matters.”  Marriage isn’t that big of a deal, people cheat, the operators of the site made a fortune and it’s kind of fun to watch people get outed.  Of course, if it’s a high profile person being exposed, that makes it even more fun.  To be honest, I have trouble understanding how the destruction of marriages, family and trust can be sport for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, I do understand the temptation to condemn.  It’s so easy to take shots at a site so vile and at people who have done something so stupid.  God’s been using two passage of Scripture to help me fight my condemning spirit: 1 Corinthians 10:12 and Matthew 5:28.  The 1 Corinthians passage is a helpful reminder, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”  This whole mess should push each one of us deeper into community, into accountability and into establishing boundaries that protect our faithfulness and integrity.  We need to focus more on ourselves and less on casting stones at others.  By the way, in case you’re still tempted to fling a rock or two, let Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 sink in, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

People on the Ashley Madison list don’t need our jokes or our judgement.  They need Jesus.  Only in Jesus will they find a God who draws near to the broken.  Jesus doesn’t sweep sin under the carpet.  He carries it to the cross.  Jesus died for every single person on Ashely Madison’s list.  He offers hope, cleansing and restoration.  He offers a new day, a new life and a new way of living.  He breaks us free from the chains of sin and death and allows us to experience life and joy.

If that’s true, why wasn’t Restoration City filled with people looking for that kind of hope this weekend?

We should have been.  Churches all over this country should have been packed with outed adulterers who knew they would be welcomed, cared for and loved.  It seems like we still have some work to do in broadcasting the message of grace.

I’m not writing this to condemn the church.  I’m writing this to remind all of us that we are the church and you’re living your life this week as an ambassador of Christ.(2 Cor. 5:20) Stand for truth.  Don’t laugh at the jokes.  Show grace.  Broadcast hope.  Point to Jesus.  People don’t need to come to a church to hear the gospel.  They just need to meet you.  And if you know any one on the Ashley Madison list, tell them we would love to have them with us this Sunday.