Two of my friends recently quit their jobs at a nonprofit fighting human trafficking, an organization whose work resembles International Justice Mission’s. They both worked there for a few years. Drawn by the organization’s unabashed Christian mission and commitment to work with the poorest of the poor, they both traded potentially lucrative salaries to work what amounted to minimum-wage jobs for this mission.
They entered the jobs with bold expectations and enlivened spirits. But the organization squashed their expectations and enthusiasm. Quickly.
“The best word I can use to describe the work environment is oppressive,” one of my friends shared. “There was no trust.”
This organization engaged in remarkable poverty fighting work. And, as Christians, my friends resonated with the values of their employer. But what they found on the inside was not compelling. It was depressing.
The organization promised to save the world but trampled their employees in the process. After trying for a few years to make it work, my friends both threw in the towel. Tired of seeing colleagues chewed up and spit out by the toxic corporate culture, they quit. The culture sapped the very vibrancy from its employees who joined the organization because of its mission.
Behind the slick web site, its leaders created a divisive environment. Staff retention rates floundered. In my friends’ short tenures there, they saw nearly a complete turnover of the staff.
Closed-door meetings were common. Hushed tones and secrecy wafted through the headquarters. Executive leaders sent conflicting messages to the staff. Leaders shrouded their remarks about the financial state of the organization. It was normal for staffers to gather secretly in hallways to pray for the organization and the constant state of disarray and distrust simmering in the office.
This organization’s leaders created a culture of suspicion and panic. Their web site, marketing brochures and events were captivating, but their internal reality was far from it. A cultural malaise infected the organization and just might end up collapsing it, despite the profound nature of the anti-poverty work they’re advancing.
Culture predicts behavior. Embedded in the rites and rituals, culture takes a life of its own: It’s just what an organization does. And it’s too important to leave to chance.
“Culture is a balanced blend of human psychology, attitudes, actions, and beliefs that combined create either pleasure or pain, serious momentum or miserable stagnation,” wrote business consultant Shawn Parr. “A strong culture flourishes with a clear set of values and norms that actively guide the way a company operates.”
In many ways, leaders cultivate corporate culture within faith-based organizations just like they cultivate their own spiritual lives. Spiritual disciplines create cadences and structures for our relationship with God to flourish. Likewise, in marriage, everyday rituals protect and sustain our relationship. Date nights, hand-holding, and shared prayer compose the rhythms of healthy marriages.
“Anyone who has mastered a golf swing or a Bach fugue is a ritual animal: one simply doesn’t achieve such excellence otherwise,” shared James K.A. Smith. “In both cases, ritual is marked by embodied repetition. Ritual recruits our will through our body: the cellist’s fingers become habituated by moving through scale after scale; the golfer’s whole body is trained by a million practice swings. Because we are embodied creatures of habit—God created us that way—we are profoundly shaped by ritual.”