The remarkable near-toxic-to-flourishing culture comeback at Willow Creek Community Church has inspired Christian leaders everywhere. How can the same three proven “culture protectors,” which helped transform Willow’s culture, work for your organization?
Willow Creek’s “before” story wasn’t pretty. In 2008, bubbling staff tensions with unfocused ministries, stressed budgets, people transitions, and a Great Recession national economy became a rolling boil. The BCWI employee engagement survey brought the messy spillover to senior leadership in the form of a hard-hitting report that included a quote from one employee who said, “I feel like a grunt in this organization.”
Willow Creek’s culture turnaround began slow and steady. To sustain the health of their culture, leadership continues to build on the strength of some of their early breakthroughs, which they call “culture protectors.” Their practicality and usefulness was matched by their effectiveness:
1. Focus on doing one or two things well each year.
For Willow, their first-year action plan focused on:
- Cascading Communication. “To give our people the kind of clear, constant communication they wanted, we captured and sent out the key points of our senior team’s Tuesday meeting to all department leaders. With so much transition and uncertainty in the air, we made great gains,” says Human Resources Director Colby Burke, who helped spearhead much of Willow’s culture strategy.”
- Trust. “The survey report revealed many of our own people didn’t really know the senior pastor and the leadership team. That all changed through informal group lunches with the pastor and our staff. The experience of personable, face-to-face conversation around a simple, shared meal was impactful.”
2. Let managers and department heads take ownership in the staff engagement process.
“The needed change in our culture really took hold as a couple of department heads took ownership of the survey scores of their own areas. That’s when I knew we were making process,” says Colby. “It’s one thing for our senior pastor to champion a culture turnaround. Once our key ministry leaders began to own the process, real traction and culture growth began to happen. Our leaders’ increased ownership of, and engagement in, the culture meant we were on our way to realizing the outcomes and vision God has given our church.”
Our leaders’ increased ownership of the culture meant we were on our way to realizing the vision God has given our church.
3. Develop an annual rhythm for your people and overall talent management.
“It took some time to develop, but having a twice-a-year talent review process has become an optimum rhythm for leaders to identify:
- Staff members with high potential and opportunity
- Fit concerns of possible gaps between our hopes and results of employees
- Helping each department identify 2-3 things to work on during the next 6 months.”
Says Colby, “Culture protectors drive home the direct correlation between healthy culture and ministry impact we continue to see at Willow Creek. A sustained, healthy culture means we’re able to scatter and sow many, many seeds that can take root and produce the fruit of God’s kingdom on earth. It’s the increasingly good employee engagement that allows us to grow a flourishing culture needed build a fantastic church for a fantastic God.”