Make Your Values Mean Something

Do the core values of your congregation have anything to do with how your congregants behave? With how the business of the church is actually run?

c754f041-b34d-465d-b819-f7ffa124d5aeThe naming of core values may seem like worthy work.  However, if your congregation isn’t walking the talk, your core values may inflict more harm than good. Values that are not lived out diminish the authenticity of your vision and your message. They call your trustworthiness and your capacity for influence into question.

If you have a set of empty core values that hang on a wall somewhere, all is not lost. There are things you can do right now to bring your core values to life. 


What’s the point of a core value?

Core values are the principles and beliefs that describe who we are when we are operating as our best selves.  Core values have an aspirational quality about them, but they must reflect something authentic in us. We have an entire universe of values, but some of them are so primary, so important to us, that throughout changes in internal leadership and the community around us, they remain our core. 

Core values are not descriptions of the work we do, nor the strategies we employ. They are not things we do; they are principles we hold. Examples might include things like: Christ-Centeredness, Generosity of Spirit, Excellence, Beauty in the Arts, Authentic Community, the Value of Every Voice, Speaking Truth to Power, Servant Leadership, etc.

Core values should serve as a guidepost for daily living, a compass in the design of programs and ministries, and an anchor in our decision-making. 

Failing to Walk the Talk

Espoused values are the explicitly stated principles and norms advocated by the organization, the values we want others to believe that we abide by. Enacted values are the beliefs and norms actually exhibited by our constituents. When espoused and enacted values don’t align, we have an integrity gap.

First Church espouses the value of hospitality, and in some ways they enact that value. They post greeters in the parking lot and at every stage of entry into the sanctuary on Sunday mornings.  They have specific rituals for welcoming newcomers, which include a gift loaf of bread and a follow-up call from a member of the welcome team.  Everyone wears nametags and the congregation eagerly greets the first-time attenders.

However, hospitality breaks down soon after the visitor’s first point of contact.  After worship, members gather into their own friendship groups and newcomers stand awkwardly by, with no one to talk to.  Classes and small groups are cliquish.  The closeness that established members feel towards one another isn’t extended to the newcomer. Leaders acknowledge that the espoused value of hospitality isn’t enacted by the majority of congregants.

Tricky Unstated Assumptions

When a congregation isn’t acting on its espoused values, the gap is generally due to one or more unstated assumptions that are at odds with the stated value. Surfacing and challenging unstated assumptions is core to reconciling behaviors and belief.

For example, after some dialogue at First Church, we were able to identify two unstated assumptions that kept congregants from engaging their core value of hospitality.

First, leaders assumed that the best way to assimilate newcomers was to get them to serve on a committee or board. This is how most established members had found authentic relationship. Members assumed that if they invited someone to serve on a board or committee, they were being hospitable and inviting that person into relationship.

Was it wrong for members of First Church to hold this assumption? Perhaps not. Encouraging people to participate in the leadership structure of the church is a good thing. However, by assuming that authentic engagement is dependent on board or committee participation, leaders were excluding those who wouldn’t or couldn’t participate in that way.  This was particularly true for the new young adults and young families showing up in worship.

The second unstated assumption that created a gap between espoused and enacted values was that “somebody else is in charge of hospitality”.  The average person sitting in the pew didn’t see a connection between their behavior and the welcome experience of the newcomer. They believed that their responsibility was limited to warmly greeting the newcomer in worship. Beyond that, they assumed that the staff of the church and the welcome team bore responsibility for extending hospitality.

After identifying these assumptions, leaders began challenging the behavior of congregants. Over a period of time, leaders were able to replace faulty, unarticulated assumptions with more helpful beliefs about hospitality.

Weaving Values into Decision Making

The decisions we make on a daily basis are a prime venue for enacting the values of the congregation. We can’t simply teach our core values to leaders and hope that those values will infuse group decision-making. We must teach our leaders a process.

An early step in any decision-making process is to frame the issue or problem being addressed. The next step should always be to clarify those core values that are relevant to the decision at hand. Which values are most important, which are of lesser importance? What stakeholder values may be in conflict with the congregation’s core values on this issue?

Later in the decision-making process, when we are evaluating our options and possible courses of action, each option should be evaluated according to whether it tends the relevant core values.

You can read more about creating a values-based decision-making process here.

Learning to engage stated core values is a discipline that any organization can learn. It requires intentionality and it takes time, but you can close the gap between espoused and enacted values through the exploration of unstated assumptions and through the implementation of values-based decision-making.