Becoming a Cultural Historian

Bishop Richard Condie - 14 July 2021

Culture is easily understood as “the way we do things around here”. Gaining an appreciation for this in any community that we lead, will often be a predictor of success. If you ignore or misunderstand how a community does things, and then act in a way that is contrary to this culture, conflict is an inevitable result. But truly understanding “the way people do things around here” and working with this, will lead to greater and more effective change.

Edgar Schein is one of the best in helping unpack organisational culture. His definition of culture is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to these problems”. (Edgar Schein, Organisational Culture and Leadership, San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2004, 17)

He argues that culture is made up of artefacts, values and assumptions. Artefacts are observable behaviours of the group – think of the way decision are made, architecture, how people are welcomed and what people talk about. Under this are the articulated values of the organisation – honest church value statements are a good guide here, about what the community is aspiring to. “We believe in expository preaching and deep community”. At the bedrock are the unarticulated assumptions – truths that seem self-evident to members of the community, but that often can’t be put into words. This is where real culture lies. This is the implicit grid of reality, that is taken for granted, non-debatable, and difficult to change.

Some have described it as a lily pad in a pond. We see the lily pad on the surface (the artefacts), but under the water is the stalk of the lily (the values). The stalk is connected to the roots way down in the mud at the bottom of the pond (assumptions). If we take culture as just what we see, without doing the deep excavation we will miss the true gold.

Schein says that culture is made up of the pattern of these assumptions, which over time have helped the group learn how to adapt to their environment and to work with each other. Their interpretive credibility is passed on to others and taught to successive generations as the “way we do things around here”.

An example might help. A community I was part of was very democratic. When a decision was made, everyone seemed to expect to have an opinion and a contribution to the process. The artefact was as expectation that “open consultations” would be held about any decision which became quite unwieldy in a large and complex organisation. I found myself pushing against this, wanting the “decision makers” rather than “the group” to make the decisions.

The community often spoke about its commitment to “every member ministry” as the reason for this democratic process. This was a well-articulated value. I understood the term to mean, every member had a gift or gifts from God that they could use in his service for the common good. It didn’t seem all that connected to decision-making to me.

However, when I began to listen to stories of how the community had been formed, some assumptions came to the fore. Back in the early days when the community was much smaller, every member of the community would gather together in the home of the leader for bible study and prayer. But this was also the forum in which the community would decide what the group would do next. Everyone was involved in the decision because they were few in number.

What I discovered was that the meaning of “every member ministry” to this group, was not what I thought it was, but actually meant “participatory decision making”. This was how they had learned to solve their “problems of external adaptation and internal integration” (Schein), that is, how they would advance their mission and community life.

The fascinating thing was that virtually no one could articulate that this was the underlying assumption of why there was such a strong commitment to participatory democracy in so many decisions. Once I understood this was the culture, “the way things were done around there”, I was freed to work with the group in a much more constructive way.

Culture, in terms of patterns of shared assumptions, can only be discovered by becoming a cultural historian. It is only when we get people talking, telling their history and their stories, and deeply listening to them, that we will hear the deep assumptions of culture. They emerge when we begin to hear the patterns, the same stories being told over and over by different people. When you reflect back to people what you have heard, (i.e., articulate the assumption) and they agree and feel understood, you will know you have understood the culture.

When I am inducting a new Rector to Parish, I encourage them to become a cultural historian. To ask people to tell their stories of how they came to the community and what they learned about it; to listen deeply for the patterns of assumptions that emerge. Only then can they lead in a way where real change is possible.