Leading with Anabaptist Values
To develop a healthy organizational culture is to intentionally agree how we will live and work together and pay close attention to whether our actions match our words.
Culture refers to the rituals, values, images, roles, customs, foods, and expectations that people groups adopt and live by. Culture is pervasive and affects everyone. A unique culture can emerge among any group, including within an organization. Understanding an organization’s cultural patterns makes a difference in the ability of people to work together.
For early Anabaptists the church was not an institution, a series of worship services, or the physical building, but rather a community of people following the teachings of Jesus. The journey of faith started with making a personal choice to follow Christ and moved quickly and directly to “we” – living the Christian life together. Anabaptists believed that the new community called for by Jesus would be different than the surrounding society; in a sense, the new community would have its own culture.
A few of the threads that began with early Anabaptists and run through many Anabaptist-influenced cultures globally include:
- Anabaptists hold human relationships in high regard and believe that caring for each other in practical ways is central for human flourishing and faithful Christian living. Building caring, cohesive cultures within Anabaptist communities is a high priority.
- While Anabaptists stress the importance of personal, adult choice in deciding to follow Jesus, they also stress openness to give and receive counsel within the church community. Anabaptists have emphasized interdependence, the gathered wisdom of many, and supporting the needs of the community over individual goals.
- For many Anabaptists creating and sustaining a strong cultural community is just as important, and sometimes more important, than creating and affirming a creed or well-developed doctrinal statement.
It is valuable and empowering for people to know that they are part of something bigger than they are, to be part of a purpose, goal, or community that is beyond their own individual experience. A strong organizational culture can provide that sense of belonging and purpose. Active leaders find ways to build a sense that all are engaged in something bigger and more important than themselves. Developing a culture in which co-workers can “give and receive counsel” from each other in healthy ways across traditional lines holds benefits for leaders, staff, and clients. Dismantling a silo mentality and welcoming wisdom from any level – while decision-making responsibility remains clear – reinforces the together nature of what the organization is accomplishing. This process, done well, involves leaders doing whatever it takes to remove cultural blinders and realizing that a one size invitation does not fit all when it comes to asking for input or counsel. Varying communication styles and power inequalities can make it impossible for some people to confidently or safely respond to a call for honest input.
- What do you see as the best possible combination of “I” and “we?” How do you recognize and weigh each in organizational culture?
- Are “who we are together” and “who we want to be together” topics of conversation and communication from a leadership level? Why or why not?
The unique approach to Christian faith of the Anabaptists integrated all aspects of life. As a result, Anabaptist communities formed what is sometimes called deep or thick culture. Faith was not something simply experienced on Sundays, but the implications of that faith impacted all seven days of the week. Ways of relating to one’s neighbors, co-workers, family, government officials, and others were to be “under the Lordship of Christ.” As Anabaptism spread in the 16th century, Anabaptist culture and communities appeared visibly different enough to attract attention and persecution.
Early Anabaptists cared very much about understanding the societies in which they lived. In fact, Anabaptist movements coalesced among people on the cutting edges of societies. But Anabaptists also thoughtfully critiqued mainstream cultural norms and practices and sought to transform them. So for Anabaptists there has been an emphasis on questioning the majority culture while forming a strong alternative culture within the Christian community. This bent towards being counter-cultural is sometimes called “nonconformity” because of the Apostle Paul’s advice to First Century Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Through her New York City-based nonprofit The Groundswell Group, Reverend Addie Sanders Banks carries on this Anabaptist tradition of shaping cultures designed to reflect the image of Christ. Specifically grounded in Anabaptist values, she is expanding the definition of peace building to encompass the creation of healthy cultures. The Groundswell Group equips organizations, congregations, and communities “to create more just and peaceful cultures.”
Building a deep and healthy culture requires significant time, attention, and resources from leadership, not least because culture tends to be implicit and largely unspoken. Leaders who work alongside those served and those who serve to identify and operationalize the values, rituals, customs, images, and expectations of the culture will help develop a unique and sustainable organization. Selecting, shaping, retaining, rejecting, integrating, and aligning cultural values and practices is important work for leadership.Another reason to develop a deep or thick culture is to provide a foundation and heritage for the organization as it goes through various transitions in carrying out its mission. Cultural values and practices can be a point of reference to ground the organization and help move it forward.
Executive Director, Jubilee Association of Maryland
“Jubilee has always been known as a Mennonite organization, but in recent years we have become more explicit in talking to potential and existing employees about our identity as a faith-based organization and how important that is to our work. We have a very racially-diverse workforce and many foreign-born employees. A majority of our employees are Christian but a significant minority are not. We have been surprised and pleased by…read more
- In what specific ways do you orient new staff members to help them gain cultural competency within the organization? In what ways does your organization engage and integrate the cultural insights new staff persons bring?
- What cultural traits in your organization may spring from Anabaptist influence?
- What other influences significantly affect your organizational culture?
IN SUMMARY, every organization has a culture; it may be positive or negative, thick or thin, but it is present. And while significant cultural change is difficult, it is not impossible. It is often helpful to build on positive aspects of the current culture, even as one may choose to reject or reshape other aspects that are in place. Articulating organizational culture might be viewed as limiting, but it can also provide cohesion, inspiration, and establish expectations for effectiveness. Some ways to build culture in Anabaptist-related organizations:
- Developing a short mission statement and several values that are representative of Anabaptist themes, concepts and practices
- Regularly integrating and communicating this mission and its related values
- Developing clear guidelines around expectations of behavior and speech
- Identifying several cultural values or practices that you wish to keep and highlight, which help provide continuity and create a positive culture going forward
- Identifying several cultural values or practices that you wish to discontinue or refocus to help create a more positive culture going forward
- Communicating explicitly the features of organizational culture for new employees and those you serve
- Having a fair and thorough grievance process that enables people to safely express when an individual or organization is behaving contrary to its stated values
- Knowing when the organization’s culture needs to run counter to the dominant culture to live its values and achieve its goals
Cultural practices typical in many Anabaptist-related organizations:
- Prayer at events, gatherings, and meetings
- Assigned parking spaces are given for functional reasons, not based on position (few CEOs have assigned parking places)
- Town meeting-type communication with residents, clients, patients and team members to interact directly with executive leadership
- Significant time and energy invested in processing decisions
- Food is an important part of many events and gatherings
- Patriotic and nationalist symbols, holidays, and recognitions tend to be downplayed
Some Anabaptist-related groups have strongly emphasized certain cultural traits and practices, leading to legalism and exclusion. This can result in religious faith being reduced to following cultural practices rather than having a dynamic spiritual life of discovery. And a narrow cultural focus has caused many non-Anabaptists, and Anabaptists steeped in differing cultural practices, to be excluded from decision making, and the sharing of gifts. Focusing primarily on one’s immediate community or context has not allowed for renewal, new experiences, responding to emerging needs, or creative thinking. This can lead to isolation. On the other hand, some Anabaptist-related organizations have become so concerned about not being exclusive that they reject or deny their spiritual or cultural heritage and its attendant values. They have reacted against the strong community cohesion and thick cultural practices of some Anabaptist cultures and purposely pivoted toward the mirage of generic culture and values. To summarize these two extremes, either a group tends to reinforce its culture to the level that it leads to legalism, isolation, and exclusivism, or the group tends to deny its cultural heritage and adopt other practices and values in an uncritical manner. These tendencies are evident among all kinds of religious and cultural groups, including in Anabaptist churches and Anabaptist-related organizations. Keeping a strong center of core values and practices, yet being open to other values and practices is a key dynamic in having a healthy organizational culture.