7 Steps to Creating a Thriving Ministry Culture

At the age of 24, I started my own nonprofit to help rehabilitate girl child soldiers in a war-torn region of Uganda. I had little to aid me in this process except my passion and a copy of Nonprofits for Dummies I’d picked up in a Barnes and Noble one day which quickly became my Bible.

Passion is wonderful, but if we don’t couple that with education and a curiosity for growth, then we’re going to face many defeats and failures. As people came alongside me in my vision, it created layers of complexity, and I didn’t have the organizational leadership skills to truly build a thriving team culture. Towards the end of my time overseas, I began to try and implement some of these practices I’ve since learned.

In the new model of missions, many are starting and running humanitarian organizations that work in fields of sex trafficking, water wells, and social entrepreneurship. We desperately need help and sometimes we’ll settle for warm bodies, but at the end of the day we’re doing more harm than good if we think these volunteers matter less than the people we’ve set out to serve.

Sometimes as nonprofit directors we can fall into the danger of treating employees or volunteers simply for what value we can extract from them, what they can do for us, rather than as people with their own needs we should care for. Within missions’ organizations, we often chew people up and spit them out, offering little member care, and complaining when we have high turnover rates.

As leaders, we often want to fulfill the mission even at the cost of ourselves and those alongside us. I get it. I’ve been there. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I was so snowed under with my first nonprofit that I didn’t value staff well-being as much as I should have.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the needs of volunteers or employees in addition to the needs of the people you are trying to serve. And yet, studies have shown that investing in a solid, thriving organizational plan will result in happier, healthier staff and greater productivity as an organization with less turnover and burnout. Investing in self-care strategies and the well-being of your staff will result in long term sustainability.

But as Facebook engineer and Asana founder Dustin Moskovitz says, “It’s not something that just happens, I realized [culture] was something that needed to be carefully designed, tested, debugged and iterated on like any other product.”

With this in mind, here are 7 steps to creating a thriving ministry culture:


1. Own that there’s a problem around stress

Change has to come from the top down. As the director or team leader, you have to own your issues of over-responsibility and overwork and find a value for self-care so your people can follow you. You can say “unplug from work,” but if workaholism and martyrdom is lauded and modeled in your life, if people are praised for answering emails over the weekend and getting little sleep, then the culture is promoting eventual burnout.

Stop the guilt and shaming around people not being “tough enough” if they can’t do all you can. Accept there might be special grace on your life to do what you do. And remember if you are unhappy or stressed, your entire staff will feel it too.


2. Build a team — hire and delegate

We might be too overwhelmed to care for the needs of volunteers ourselves, which is why ideally we should have a volunteer coordinator, someone who is specifically focused on workers’ emotional well-being. As a missions organization, we should have a delegated member care staff person or hire an outside counselor or coach for our people to receive the ongoing inner healing they need to do their jobs well. Make sure these people have a value for compassionate connection.


3. Create policies that mirror your values

Instead of praising people for working 60-80 hours, start praising people who take their time off. Stop guilt and shaming around self-care or making people feel they aren’t tough if they aren’t sacrificing everything for the cause. Compassion fatigue is real. Write up and distribute policies that share your values. Come up with a fun name people can use when they need a break: “Me time,” “Mental health break,” “Snooze button,” etc.


4. Practice what you preach

Culture only happens if you implement your values and policies and you actually participate in them. Your team will model their lives after you. Email your team about your personal goals for self-care; that will give them permission to engage in their own. Some great ideas:

  • Morning celebration or testimony time (What gives you joy/what are you thankful for?)
  • Encourage people to leave work on time and unplug (Play a song loudly in office till everyone is out)
  • Flexible work hours (work from home; come in later if you worked late the night before)
  • 4-day work week (longer hours for 4 days for a 3 day weekend)
  • Digital detox (No emails sent late at night or on weekends)
  • Walking meetings (walking while you brainstorm promotes equality)
  • Keep healthy snacks in the office for energy throughout the day
  • Mandated mental health day every 3 months (time off to be with Jesus or do what nourishes them)
  • Build a quiet room for prayer, meditation, or power naps with a sofa or bean bags. Have lavender essential oils, tea, etc, an iPod with guided meditations or nature sounds for when people need a stress break. Offer adult coloring books, which are proven to reduce stress
  • Put a small gym at office (weights, yoga mats, punching bag, bike) and encourage exercise breaks during the work day (Studies show 20 min of exercise in the afternoon is a better stimulant than coffee)
  • Download meditation apps (Calm, Headspace, Mindfulness)
  • Employee of the month- give them a massage or gift card to something self-care related (honor attitude and compassion)


5. Get ownership from your employees and team members

This is perhaps what makes thriving cultures successful. Find out what your people value, what would help them de-stress, either through an anonymous survey or in person if you’ve created a safe environment for them to be honest. Invite them into creating your wellness policies. It can be scary to let go of control and get feedback, but it’s essential to a thriving org culture.

You may live in a culture where you’re afraid people will become lazy. In some African cultures things seem to move a lot more slowly. Change your expectations and remember that a well-supported staff will be more productive in the end. If they have a stake in your values, they will be more likely to carry them out. Creating breaks will lead to fewer people trying to cheat the system. Make sure you follow up to see what’s working and what isn’t. Learn to respect people’s boundaries when they say they can’t handle something.


6. Invite play and fun into the workplace

Play is an important aspect of building strong team dynamics. In harsh environments where we witness intense suffering, play is perhaps even more vital. Here are some suggestions:

  • Have Crockpot Mondays where different people cook their favorite dish and share (breaking bread together is important in building cohesion)
  • Have board games in the office to play during lunch breaks or a staff game night (Smallworld, Codenames, poker, Cards against Humanity, Apples to Apples, Taboo)
  • Put up a whiteboard for staff to write inspiring quotes, funny drawings or encouraging messages
  • Do trust falls or a ropes course together
  • Go on a fun staff retreat together (camping or a resort)
  • Have a karaoke night or movie night with a projector
  • “Surpraise”- Every month choose a staff person and cover their desk in post it notes of praise and encouragement
  • Do sports together (Play volleyball, kickball, disc golf, ultimate Frisbee)


7. Take your vacations and mandate staff do the same

One of the things that begins to slip often in the nonprofit sector is time off. We get so caught up in fulfilling the mission that we lose sight of rest. Resting is essential and it’s admitting to God that we trust Him to take care of things, that we know He can move even without our help.

Recommended guidelines for international workers are 25-30 days a year of vacation time. But team members won’t feel like they can take the time off if they never see you completely unplugging. It’s also a confidence booster for staff to see that you believe they can hold the fort down and function without you. It’s recommended that every 3-5 years you take a longer sabbatical (up to 2-3 months) to reset, do research, and reestablish your purpose and your commitments to self-care. True growth often happens in the stillness.

In summary, let your organization be known not just for loving those you serve, but loving one another.


Sarita Hartz is a writer, life coach, and former humanitarian worker who writes about wholehearted living and healthy missions in her blog Whole at www.saritahartz.com. She loves helping people transform their lives. You can download her free eBook A Self-Care Plan for Global Workers (Learn to Prevent Burnout) at her blog.

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