What do we value as a church?

35th Street just west of Cellular Field

Growing up in Chicago, I have frequented countless hot-dog joints and ordered many a double dog with everything but onions. (Note that for Chicagoans everything does NOT include ketchup.) I have also visited many McDonald’s, including the original in Des Plaines (IL), where I enjoyed a “Big Mac” and fries. 

I find it interesting that McDonald’s does not serve hot dogs. A lot of people are making a lot of money selling hot dogs in Chicago but when McDonald’s expanded their menu many years ago they added breakfast, not hot dogs. Why not hot dogs? One can only conclude that their core values as a corporation did not support it. 

Churches are a lot like restaurants. Every restaurant is in the business of serving food and every congregation is in the business of making disciples. Every restaurant serves only a portion of the people in its neighborhood and every congregation serves just a portion of its community; that is, both have a limited share of the market. Every restaurant’s market share is shaped by the way it serves food and every congregation’s market share is shaped by the way it makes disciples. The way both the restaurant and the church serve others is shaped by their values.

Values explain WHY we do WHAT we do, the ‘what’- in this case being the congregation’s mission. Values are the convictions that shape priorities, influence decisions, and are demonstrated by behavior. They frame the life and ministry of your congregation. They answer why you do what you do and, consequently, why you don’t do what you don’t do. Values function like railroad tracks for the church. They provide the foundation on which to develop ministry, language for communicating what is important, and courage to take risks.

Four Types of Values

Since they play such a critical role in the life and ministry of your congregation, every congregation needs to become aware of the values that shape its ministry. Towards this end, I take a cue from Patrick Lencioni. In his book The Advantage, Lencioni encourages us to distinguish between these four types of values: Permission to Play, Accidental or Circumstantial, Aspirational, and Core. Let’s look at each as they apply to the local church.

Permission to Play Values are the bare minimum standard required by your church. If you are like most churches, you affirm the Christian faith as articulated in the Apostles’ Creed.  If you are Lutheran, you have also decided to affirm the Book of Concord. If you are an Evangelical, you have chosen to affirm the Bible as the inspired and infallible Word of God. If you are a first-generation immigrant church, you have most-likely chosen to worship in the language of your native country. If a person does not ascribe to your Permission to Play Values, they are most-likely not part of your congregation.

Accidental or Circumstantial Values are observable traits that have come about unintentionally and often originate within the culture of the community. A congregation in rural America does church differently than a church in urban America, a congregation of immigrants worships differently than an American-bred church, as does a congregation of blue-collar people compared to one of white-collar people. These differences are neither good nor bad, but they are real. We ignore them at our peril.

Some circumstantial values rise as a result of the influence of a previous pastor. I learned this simple truth from Jerry, a great man of God who joined me in pastoral ministry for the last decade of his life. He was a retired high school counselor who knew more about the people in town than just about anyone else. He was also a charter member of the church I was serving. He shared with me that, looking back over the fifty-year history of the church, each pastor left an imprint. For one it was a commitment to prayer, for another it was a commitment to missions, and, for me, a love for “helping the church recognize that we are just a small part of a much bigger and diverse church.” The imprints he described were, in effect, circumstantial values imbedded during the ministry of a pastor. These values remained part of the complex personality of the congregation. 

Aspirational Values are characteristics your church wants to have in order to become a healthy congregation with an effective ministry. I was raised to faith in a church first established by Dutch immigrants: The First Christian Reformed Church of Chicago (now called Ebenezer). Like most immigrant churches, those who founded the church loved both Christ and the culture of their old country. Also, like most immigrant churches, new members came to them shortly after migrating to Chicago. Consequently, like most immigrant congregations, the church had no clue how to reach out into the community of which it was a part. Ironically, its most effective form of “outreach” was “outsiders” marrying in. Four generations later Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church faced a difficult decision: close the doors or adopt an Aspirational Value: to minister to a community that no longer included Dutch immigrants. I’m happy to report that this Aspirational Value became a Core Value now shared, budgeted for, and lived by the congregation.    

Core Values are distinctive convictions that determine your priorities, influence your decisions, and are demonstrated by your behavior. The apostle John shares with us a few of the core values of the First Church in Ephesus: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary (Revelation 2:2-3). Seems the Church in Ephesus valued hard work, perseverance, and church discipline.

Identifying Your Core Values

What are your Core Values? What values determine your priorities and influence your decisions? What distinctive behavioral traits are exhibited by your congregation? What makes your church tick?

Now I realize that asking your congregation to identify its core values is like asking a fish to describe water. Our core values are so much a part of us that it may be difficult to talk about them objectively. But we need to spend time identifying them if we are looking to call a pastor who is a good fit for our congregation. A pastor who doesn’t recognize a congregation’s core values won’t be around long. Plus, a healthy church is a values-driven church guided by a publicly-identified set of core values that reflect its highest aspiration as a church. 

So, where do we begin? If your congregation has not yet articulated them, you may do so through several different types of conversations. 

1.   Answer this question: What are we most passionate about as a church? 

2.   What is our church like when we are at our best? Share “success” stories about your congregation. They will reveal what is important to you.

3.   Develop your 30 second elevator pitch—practice inviting someone to visit your church services. What you say will reveal what you value about your church.

4.   Describe how your congregation differs from others in the community. What do we want to be known for as a church?

5.   Check out the Core Values embraced by other congregations (easily accessible on their websites) and see if one, or more, describe your church. 

6.   Review your congregational budget. What values are reflected in your budget?

7.   What values are reflected in previous congregational decisions, or ideas that have been rejected in the past?

Changing Values

I close with a warning. Your efforts to identify your core values may reveal one or two that congregational leaders may need to address and, perhaps, change. That is a painful process, like pulling a tooth. 

Congregations that find themselves in maintenance mode, for example, will discover several core values contributing to that condition, values they may need to eradicate if they hope to make disciples. One of those core values may be “keeping the peace” at all costs. This value reveals itself when congregational leaders refuse to deal with a volunteer who has been providing inadequate leadership for a ministry—and doing so for years. Replacing that value with one equal to “being the best we can be,” requires many difficult conversations.

In the process of identifying core values, a congregation may also become aware of circumstantial values that are holding the church back from making disciples. Providence Church, for example, had been afraid to talk about the Holy Spirit. They had this fear ever since the ministry of Pastor Tim who took a group from the congregation to plant a charismatic church in town. Can you imagine trying to make disciples without acknowledging the vital role of the Holy Spirit? It wasn’t until the wound from that experience became a scar that the church would again value the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

As I look back over nearly forty years of pastoral experience, I attest without reservation that the most difficult task of congregational leadership has been cultivating and nurturing biblical values. As long as you work with the congregational values in play, you can make many changes in the church without resistance. Be prepared for pushback, however, when congregational leaders identify and attempt to live by biblical values. Congregational leaders need courage, resolve, a never-say-die attitude, and the comfort of the Holy Comforter to persevere. 

Sam Hamstra, Jr. is the author of several publications including the Pastor Search Team Guidebook (2020) and the forthcoming Questions to Ask BEFORE Searching for Your Next Pastor (2020).


  1. Rick on May 27, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    Thank you for these articles. Very helpful.

    • Sam Hamstra on May 27, 2020 at 4:58 pm

      Rick, thanks for taking the time to read it.

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