A non-profit CEO, whom I’ve been working with for the past 9 years, invited me to his central team’s leadership retreat the Washington D.C. area.

The meeting was held at the Bolger Center, a beautiful 83 acre space used primarily by the U.S. Postal Service for training. Incidentally, this facility was originally built in 1920 and sold to the Sisters of Mercy in 1931 serving as a school, residence for nuns, and eventually their headquarters. It was a perfect venue for a Sacred Conversation about culture for a mission-driven non-profit organization.

The purpose of meeting was to have a structured conversation about the organization’s culture. “Why culture? Why now?,” I asked my colleague.

“Well, Chris, we’ve grown 4x since I took over seven years ago. We have a lot of changes that need to take place over the next year. We are now a 100% virtual organization. And we have one of the most important missions in education,” he replied. “I want to ensure that we preserve what makes our organization so special, as we make these required changes in pursuit of our mission.”

Culture impacts all of us, whether we realize it or not. Our relationships have a “culture.” Our families have a “culture,” impacting how we communicate with each other, celebrate important events, and practice certain rituals together. Our workplaces have a “culture.” Our communities have a “culture.” Our Churches have a unique “culture.” Our country has a national “culture”--one that’s becoming increasingly toxic.

What is Culture?

Culture is the sum of what we expect and accept from one another. Culture is a powerful force that shapes how we behave, how we interpret signs, symbols, and others’ behavior. The “culture” of the airport that I’m writing in this morning is what prevents me from standing on my chair and shouting, “Fire!!! Everybody run.” This would not be acceptable or appropriate in this cultural context. It would not be a moral action. There would be consequences for violating this cultural expectation.

Culture is like the water that a fish swims in—it’s both visible and essential, and also something that we tend to take for granted until the rules and expectations of culture get tested, violated, or become toxic.

Cultures take time to develop. Culture has history. Once a culture forms, it’s difficult to change because, by definition, it becomes, simply, “the way we do things around here.”

Reflections from our Sacred Conversation about Culture

Culture is Sacred—What’s the most important part of an organization or a human system? Its leaders? Its members, participants, or employees who serve, support it, and move on? It’s daily operations? Its deepest values, beliefs, and assumptions?

While each of these elements of human systems are important, above all, a group’s purpose (reason for existing), mission, and culture are what “set it apart.” The culture of a group determines how it makes decisions, prioritizes certain things over others based on assumptions, values, and beliefs, and achieves what it sets out to do—its purpose and mission. Culture is the heart of a human system.

So, for mission-driven organizations that are doing work out of a sense of love, devotion, and calling—work that is “set apart” for the common good and for God (the most important work of all)--culture is truly sacred.

Culture is learned—We transmit culture through conversation. “Wash your hands. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Say please and thank you.” These are norms and behaviors that are learned. It’s the same in organizations: “Send an agenda before the meeting. Write short emails, but schedule time together for deeper discussions. Don’t schedule meetings with “the boss” on Friday afternoons.” These unwritten rules of culture are learned.

Culture can be changed—although changing culture is difficult. I’ve learned how to change culture using the power of conversation. This is how I used the model. I hope it gives you some ideas about the importance of culture and how to use Sacred Conversations to appreciate, preserve, and enhance "culture" in your relationships, family, organization, or community. 

  • Invitation—We invited the right group of people to the conversation about culture. The leaders. The one’s who set expectations and reinforce norms about what’s acceptable. But we also invited the next two levels of full time staff. Staff play a critical role in shaping and transmitting culture. 
  • Intention—We jointly agreed upon the intent, aim, and purpose of our conversation: To collectively define what makes the organization’s culture unique, to appreciate the beauty of the culture that the leaders would never want to see change (we called these “roses”). To reflect on new things that were emerging in the organization that were exciting, but also unknown (we called them “buds”), and to address pain points and elements of the culture that get under peoples’ skin (the “thorns”).
  • Inquiry—It was my job to get the conversation going with some powerful questions and a loose structure (i.e., the Sacred Conversations Model) in pursuit of our intention. I was the professional “Helper.” The leaders of the organization were “Seekers” on a journey to discover and define what makes their culture so special, and to seek ways of making their culture EVEN better.
  • Illumination—The questions that we discussed, the generative dialogue that we shared led to new insights about how the expectations and “unwritten rules” of the culture impact things like daily communication, shared accountability, how meetings are run, resources shared, and how to build deeper connection in a virtual organization. And finally, this led to:
  • Integration—The insights, awareness, and connections that people gained throughout the conversation naturally lead to action and commitments that were made. Being more intentional about the culture’s “roses,” developing intentional plans to communicate and “transmit” the culture to the next generation. Taking advantage of those aspects of the culture that will propel the changes that need to be made, and going into the changes with “eyes wide open” about the aspects of the culture that could slow down the change—planning for these, allowing time for these, and committing to more Sacred Conversations to allow people to build belief in the changes and work through resistance.

My key take aways from this Sacred Conversation About Culture:

  • The Sacred Conversations Model works well in helping groups identify and “name” their unique culture.
  • Sacred Conversations can also help groups, teams, and organizations CHANGE their culture!
  • We made tremendous progress on naming and building an action plan for the organization to continue their cultural transformation, preservation, and stewardship journey in just six hours (with lunch included).
  • Everyone participates in shaping culture. We become what we repeatedly expect and accept of one another.
  • The cultural ‘tone’ is set at the top, but echoes throughout the organization at all levels.

If you’d like to learn more about how to use Sacred Conversations to understand the culture of your group, family, community, or organization—let’s have a Sacred Conversation about Culture!

About the author 

Christopher Reed, Ph.D.

Author of "Sacred Conversations: How God Wants us to Communicate."

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