8 Steps to Building Thriving Ministry Culture

August 03, 2017

thriving nonprofit cultureAt the age of twenty-four, I founded a ministry to help rehabilitate girl child soldiers in a war-torn region of Uganda. It was a ton of hard work. I was young, full of idealism and naiveté and I didn’t know very much then about how to build a thriving culture.

As people came alongside me in my vision, I became responsible not just for me, but for my team as well.

This created layers of complexity I wasn’t quite sure how to navigate. More people meant more pressure, more consideration of other’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, decisions and disagreements.

I had the passion and youth to “go, go, go” all the time, but I didn’t think about how that affected the people around me or what it would do to me long term.

In the ministry/nonprofit sector there is great amount of burnout and unhealthy practices that are taking a toll on those who have dreams of doing good. Many articles are surfacing about this dangerous trend.

There is a widening gap between the values ministries and nonprofits say they hold and the way they treat their employees.

Turnover is the greatest human resource challenge facing nonprofits.

In some ways, it’s understandable. We desperately need help and sometimes we’ll settle for warm bodies.

As founders we fall into the danger of treating employees or volunteers simply for what value we can extract from them rather than as people with their own needs we should care for.

Within ministry we often chew people up and spit them out, offering little member care, and complaining when we have high turnover rates.

In my coaching work, I often see the detrimental consequences well meaning ministries are having on their own people.

This saddens me because I believe God doesn’t want service to equal slavery.

We reach out to the poor and suffering with the Gospel of love, but often have little love and consideration for one another.

I get it. I’ve been there. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes. My first nonprofit I was so snowed under, I didn’t value staff or volunteer well-being as much as I should have. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by the needs of volunteers or employees in addition to the needs of the people you are trying to serve.

And yet, studies have shown that investing in a solid, thriving organizational culture will result in happier, healthier staff and greater productivity as an organization with less turnover and burnout.

Investing in self-care strategies and the well-being of your staff will result in long term sustainability.

Organizational culture is a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations.

Often these values are unverbalized and insidious.

For example,

“The Boss is a workaholic and never takes off. I should be like that too.”

“Feedback is not appreciated. If I disagree I should keep my mouth shut.”

“I don’t want to, but it’s expected that I’ll answer emails over the weekend.”

Unless direct actions are taken to create a thriving culture, nonprofits can deeply wound their employees or even fail in their mission.

So here are 8 steps to creating a thriving ministry culture:

1) Become a Conscious Leader

The most important thing you can do for team culture is to do your own work yourself. In conscious leadership there is a concept of being above or below the line. When we are above the line we believe it’s more valuable to learn and grow than to be right, we are curious, open, feeling emotions, making impeccable agreements, and taking responsibility for our actions. When we are below the line we believe there is a threat, we act out of fear and blame others, we respond with drama, anger, and defensiveness, have a scarcity mindset, and we believe we are right. These polar opposite modes of leadership create vastly different outcomes within culture. If you are a leader I highly encourage you to learn the work of the Conscious Leadership Group. (I just returned from a retreat my former life coach held and this work has radically changed my life.)

2) Own that there’s a problem around stress

“Burnout doesn’t just derive from working too much, it’s about perfectionism, unreasonable expectations, and a systematic toxic work culture that says our life is our work.” – Alessandra Pigni-

Cross-cultural work is stressful. It just is. Ministry often demands our whole souls. We care, and without ongoing processing that care can lead to toxic behaviors. High levels of stress are detrimental to our health long term and that ultimately affects our ability to have impact in the world. It’s much easier to avoid burnout than it is to recover from it. But change has to come from the top down. As the director, you have to own your issues of over responsibility and over working and find a value for self-care so your people can follow you. You can say “unplug from work” all you want, but if workaholism and martyrdom is lauded and modeled in your life, if people are praised for answering emails over the weekend and getting little sleep, then the culture is promoting eventual burnout. Stop the guilt and shaming around people not being “tough enough” if they can’t do all you can. Accept there might be special grace on your life to do what you do. And remember if you are unhappy or stressed, your entire staff will feel it too.

3) Hire and delegate

We might be too overwhelmed to care for the needs of volunteers ourselves, which is why we should have a volunteer coordinator, someone who is specifically focused on their emotional wellbeing. As a missions organization, we should have a delegated member care staff person or hire an outside counselor or coach for our people to receive the ongoing inner healing they need to do their jobs well. This person should be someone safe, someone they can be honest with and not fear punishment or disciplinary action. Make sure these people have a value for compassionate connection.

“Genuine bonds among coworkers where employees demonstrate caring, compassion, and tenderness was associated with lower stress levels.” –The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit

4) Create policies that mirror your values

As a team, come up with your value system and what you will hold dear. Including staff and volunteers in this process will lead to greater levels of ownership. Address any areas where you aren’t in integrity with what you said was important to you. Instead of praising people for working 60-80 hours, start praising people who take their time off. Working longer is not associated with greater social impact. Stop guilt and shaming around self-care or making people feel they aren’t tough if they aren’t sacrificing everything for the cause. Compassion fatigue is real. Come up with a fun name people can use when they need a break: “Me time,” “Mental health break,” “Snooze button,” etc.

5) Practice what you preach

Culture only happens if you implement your values and policies and you actually participate in them. Your team will model their lives after you. Have your own personal self-care plan then email your team your goals so they will have permission to engage in their own. And be open to feedback and where your actions might not be in alignment with your values.

Here are some other great ideas to create healthy culture:

  • Morning celebration or testimony time- (What gives you joy/thankful for?)
  • Encourage people to leave work on time and unplug (Play a song loudly in office til everyone is out- Toto’s “Africa” is a great one )
  • Flexible work hours- work from home; if work late, come in later
  • 4 day work week- longer hours for 4 days for a 3 day weekend
  • Digital detox- No emails sent late at night or on weekends
  • Walking meetings- walk while you brainstorm- promotes equality
  • Every 3 months- mandated mental health day (time off to be with Jesus or do what nourishes them)
  • Build a quiet room for prayer, meditation, or power naps –with a sofa or bean bags- have lavender essential oils there – tea etc- have iPod available with guided meditations or nature sounds for when people need a stress break- create an atmosphere of walking into a spa – have adult coloring books- proven to reduce stress
  • Put a small gym at office- weights, yoga mats, punching bag, bike- encourage exercise breaks during the work day (Studies show 20 min of exercise in the afternoon is a better stimulant than coffee)
  • Download meditation apps (Calm, Headspace, Mindfulness)
  • Employee of the month- give them a massage or gift card to something self-care related (honor attitude and compassion)
  • Have healthy snacks in the office for energy throughout the day

Ariana Huffington’s Thrive Global has lots of other great tips for preventing burnout in your organization.

6) Get ownership from your employees in the process

This is perhaps what makes thriving cultures successful. Find out what your people value, what would help them destress- either through anonymous survey or in person if you’ve created a safe environment for them to be honest. Invite them into creating your wellness policies. It can be scary to let go of control, to get feedback, but it’s essential to thriving org culture. You may live in a culture where you’re afraid people will become less motivated if you give them more lee way. In some African cultures things can seem to move a lot slower. Change your expectations and realize that a well-supported staff in the end will be more productive. If they have a stake in your values, they will be more likely to carry them out. Creating breaks will lead to less people trying to cheat the system. Make sure you follow up to see what’s working and what isn’t. Learn to respect people’s boundaries when they say they can’t handle something.

7) Invite play and fun into the workplace

Play is an important aspect of building strong team dynamics. In harsh environments where we witness intense suffering, play is perhaps even more vital. Here are some suggestions:

  • Have Crockpot Mondays where different people cook their favorite dish and share (breaking bread together is important in building cohesion)
  • Have board games in the office to play during lunch breaks or a staff game night (Smallworld, code names, poker, apples to apples, taboo)
  • Put up a whiteboard for staff to write inspiring quotes, funny drawings or encouraging messages
  • Do a ropes course together or trust falls
  • Go on a fun, staff retreat together (camping or resort)
  • Have a karaoke night or movie night with a projector
  • “Surpraise”- Every month choose a staff person and cover their desk in post it notes of praise and encouragement
  • Do sports together (Play volleyball, kickball, disc golf, ultimate Frisbee)

8) Take your vacations and mandate staff do the same

One of the things that begins to slip often in the nonprofit sector is time off. We get so caught up in fulfilling the mission that we lose sight of rest. Resting is essential and it’s saying to God that we trust Him to take care of things, that we know He can move even without our help. Recommended guidelines for international workers are 25-30 days a year of vacation time. But staff won’t feel like they can take the time off if they never see you completely unplugging. It’s also a confidence booster for staff to see that you believe they can hold the fort down and function without you. It’s recommended that every 3-5 years you take a longer sabbatical (up to 2-3 months) to reset, do research, and reestablish your purpose and your commitments to self-care. True growth often happens in the stillness.

Let your organization be known not just for loving those you serve, but loving one another. You will leave a greater legacy of love and social impact in the world if you highly value those you serve with.

How are you building a thriving ministry culture?

For further reading:

The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit
The Idealists’ Survival Kit
The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership

  • sunnyhorstmann

    AMENNNNN….ahhhh I learned all this the hard way. Thanks for posting. Hope and pray less people have to go through what some of us went through. 😛

    • Aw thanks Sunny! Would love to hear some of your hard earned lessons 😉