A Book Review: How to Get Along with Your Church: Creating Cultural Capital for Doing Ministry

Thompson, George B., Jr. (2001). How to Get Along with Your Church: Creating Cultural Capital for Doing Ministry. The Pilgrim Press, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100; 151 pages in Paper Back Edition.

Reviewed by Marvin L. Morgan

Prominently portrayed on the front cover of George B. Thompson, Jr.’s book, “How to Get Along with Your Church” are the bright, smiling faces of a multicultural, intergenerational group of women and men.  Perhaps the smiles are an indication that these men and women are members of local churches, where the pastors have followed George Thompson’s prescription for building “cultural capital” within the local churches, while in the process of becoming effective pastors.

Dr. Thompson begins by asking a key question to newly called (appointed) pastors, “How well do you know what you are getting into?”  He believes it would be a gross and often fatal mistake to assume that the rural or urban churches to which one has recently been called (appointed) is the same, in every way, as all other rural or urban churches with which one may be acquainted.  Churches that may appear to be similar are often very different.  The clue to discerning the key differences in churches can be found by focusing upon and learning each church’s unique “culture”.  “Congregations themselves create communities, and those communities in turn create, nurture, and transmit culture” that is unique to their own setting.  Therefore, “effective ministry” in this present age and beyond “is all about learning, by both the pastor and by the congregation.”

For development of his theory, Thompson borrows from the social sciences, especially the discipline of “cultural anthropology” that “looks at the overall life of a community, seeking to discern patterns of behavior and meaning that are shared among its members.”  When a newly called pastor applies this same learning process within a local church, the pastor positions himself/herself to build “cultural capital.”  In other words, the pastor “gains the ability to participate significantly in a [congregation] by becoming accepted [adopted by the members of that congregation] and [by] honoring [that congregations own previously established] values.”  He/she invests himself/herself in the life of that congregation with the widely held assumption “that there is a [direct causal] relationship between what [a person] ‘puts into’ something and what they ‘get out’ of it.  In other settings, we call this “paying our dues.”  A pastor’s “ability to do effective ministry depends on [his/her] acquisition of cultural capital within [the particular congregation to which he/she has been called (appointed)].”

At the risk of oversimplification, the following is a brief restatement of some of Dr. Thompson’s primary concepts.

He defines “culture” as “shared meaning and behavior.  It is something that people have in association with others…it stands for things that are important to people, things they value; and it is acted out in the things that people do.”  A part of the difficulty that new pastors face is their failure to recognize that culture exists at three distinct levels [a concept drawn from Edgar H. Shein’s Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publications, 1992), chap. 2].

The first level of culture and the one most visible and easily noticeable is the culture’s “ARTIFACTS”.  These are a community’s (church’s) “structures for living and working, objects for daily use, rituals and activities, dress, ways in which people interact,” etc.  The way these artifacts are viewed and valued may and often do vary from one community (church) to the next.  The second level of culture is a community’s (church’s) “ESPOUSED VALUES”.  These are beliefs within the community (church) about what is important, what the community (church) says it values.”  Nevertheless, a pastor must beware because espoused values, often expressed in positive terms, may mean something very different from what is expressed.  The third, level of culture is [the community’s (church’s) “SHARED BASIC ASSUMPTIONS”.  Dr. Thompson believes these to be the “most significant” level of culture because these assumptions “define the culture, they reveal what makes it tick”.  However, these shared basic assumptions, although very basic and highly determinative of a community’s (church’s) behavior are “almost subterranean.”  They tend to go unnoticed until a new pastor or any pastor violates (acts in a way that disrespects) one of them.  Then the shared basic assumption is subject to be expressed, usually with a show of “anger or frustration” by a church member who recognizes the violation.  Thompson refers to this common error made by pastors as “stepping on a land mind.”

Key layers of culture further shape each of these levels of culture.  The levels and layers of culture in turn “converge in ways that give each local community (church) its own unique blend of culture.”

Thompson proceeds to identify a carefully thought out procedure for the ways a new pastor may prepare to know a new church, become accepted (adopted) by and provide sensitive leadership within a new church, creatively handle conflict within and “say goodbye” to a church.

One of the major strengths of this book is its emphasis upon helping a newly called (appointed) pastor to more clearly understand “what he/she is getting him/her self into.”  If the data Dr. Thompson provides is true, “the highest rate of pastoral dropout occurs between the third and fifth years out of seminary”, this book is both timely and urgently needed not only by pastors and church leaders but also by new (and veteran) clergy who are engaged in the unique field of Intentional Interim Ministry. 

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to new pastors, veteran pastors (especially those in connectional churches where they are subject to occasional reappointments), church leaders and all other clergy who genuinely desire to be effective in local church ministry.

Rev. Dr. Marvin L. Morgan serves as Interim Senior Pastor of the more than 800-member, St. John Evangelical United Church of Christ, Collinsville, IL; a faculty member of the Center for Congregational Health, Winston-Salem, NC and as Adjunct, D. Min. faculty, in Leading Congregations (Managing Transitions – Intentional Interim Ministry), at Interdenominational Theologi