Culture and Leadership: My Story of Coming to Grips with Change

My wife was the first woman to pray during Sunday morning worship service in the history of our church. It was Mother’s Day 2014 when my wife ascended the steps on the stage during the worship service, walked over to the microphone and prayed for the mothers and the women who desired to be mothers but were unable to be at that time. Her desire to pray during the worship service launched a new phase of ministry for me: one where I began to grapple with the implications of establishing a culture in the church.

The term “culture” is an ambiguous term that means everything and nothing at the same time. The difficulty in defining “culture” is illustrated by late author, David Foster Wallace’s anecdote during a commencement speech:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ … The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. 

David Foster Wallace

Leaders within any organization, but especially the church, are placed in a tricky situation. When they are hired, they are stepping into a church which already has an established culture, but they are also charged with changing the culture, especially if the culture of the church is out of step with the Scriptures. But one of the responsibilities of a pastor is to work to bring the culture of the church in line with the Scriptures. Such work means upholding a “double responsibility.” The leader must uphold the lines that God has drawn in his word. But the leaders must also not draw lines where God has not drawn them.

Reflecting on my wife’s desire to prayer leading up to the Mother’s Day service, I realized that throughout the history of our church, we had established unScriptural boundaries which barred women from fulfilling legitimate roles within the body. Even Paul himself assumed that women would be praying and prophesying within the gathered assembly (1 Corinthians 11:5).

After my wife prayed, I began a more intense search into the Scriptures as to what Scripture says concerning a theology of men and women. I had been trained in complementarian theology both in my undergraduate and graduate studies. While I still believe in the gist of complementarian theology, what I discovered is that many of the prohibitions of women serving in various roles within the body had little, to no, Scriptural grounding. Where is the chapter and verse saying a woman couldn’t serve as an usher? Conservative Protestants have even allowed women to serve as deacons, so shouldn’t we examine our practices?

One of the rejoinders to my thoughts on the matters comes from those who propose a “thick” or “broad” complementarianism. They argue that while no chapter or verse may explicitly restrict women from say, reading Scripture in public, they draw theological principles from the whole of Scripture. Such appeals to the broader teaching of Scripture is why I too investigated the overall storyline of Scripture as it relates to men and women. The overall teaching of Scripture is why I don’t think the point of restricting women from serving in any role other than elder stands. I just don’t believe it is healthy for our church to erect barriers for women to use their gifts to serve the Lord when Scripture itself doesn’t erect the same barriers!

Studying the Scripture’s teaching on men and women then lead me to ask: What kind of culture are we creating in this church? Are we creating a culture which is actually in line with the Scriptures? Or has it been more driven by the reactive cultural norms of fundamentalist Christianity of when the church was originally founded in 1969? It’s ironic to me that the “meals” ministry at my church had historically been considered a “women’s ministry” function when the original meals ministry of the church was lead by seven men (Acts 6:1-7)!

Investigating the church’s culture as it related to women also launched me into a new phase of investigation: what was the church’s culture concerning racial issues? It is the understatement of the year to say that 2020 brought racial issues to the forefront of American culture once again. The national conversation happening around these issues raised in me a need to really take a deep dive and do more reading on the issue to understand the history of racial issues in our country and the church. Knowing history is helpful, however, when attempting to implement change. One cannot helpfully change a culture without knowing history.

I am in the very beginning stages of thinking about and pursuing racial reconciliation within the body of Christ. To a large degree, I don’t even know where to begin or what to do. But the need to figure this out is vital because we must always be asking the question: What kind of culture are we creating? If we are creating a culture which perpetuates division which Christ died to overcome, that is not good. One thing that’s clear to me so far is that racial reconciliation is a not a one-size-fits-all solution. Pursing reconciliation along racial lines requires extended patience and deep humility. From what I’m hearing from our minority brothers and sisters in the Lord is that majority culture believers have a tendency to be like a bull in a china shop: we just come in, attempting to “do stuff” without actually paying attention and listening to the concerns of others. This ought not be.

So here’s to another year of crafting the culture at the church. And hopefully it is a more biblical, more God-honoring culture by the end of 2021.

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