There are two primary mistakes church leaders make that keep their church’s DNA* from being embedded/replicated in their congregation. Both are deadly, in terms of mission focus, alignment, and excitement, and both are equal in their devastating affects.

*(DNA = Mission, Values, Vision, Strategy, Beliefs, and Behaviors)

The first mistake can be summed up in two words: Picture Frame. If you don’t like that two word description, File Drawer could be substituted. This mistake is so prevalent, that you’ll probably recognize it instantly. Mistake number one is for the church leadership to get together by whatever means they choose in order to discern and develop their “Mission Statement,” and if they are wise leaders, they also put together the rest of their DNA (see the July–August 2008 issue of Net Results for more on congregational DNA). Once they emerge from what is often a very difficult task, they will have crafted beautiful and hopefully effective DNA statements. Typically, these statements are artistically and/or tastefully illustrated on canvas or poster board, placed in a picture frame, hung on a wall, and after the dedication of the plaque with much bravado, largely ignored. (The alternative image is that they are efficiently typed, placed in the Board Minutes, then placed in a file folder and dropped in file cabinet never to be seen again.)

The sin isn’t that they get put up on the wall, incorporated into the minutes, or put into a file drawer. The sin is that the church leadership does little more than give a passing nod to the mission, values, vision, strategy, beliefs, and behaviors. Instead, the day after the DNA statements are adopted, they’re back to playing church and doing business as normal. Then six months later, they wonder why the conflicts and/or apathy over program and direction have continued unabated.

Virtually every leadership book says over and over and over again that if the leadership doesn’t embody the DNA in their actions and decisions, then others in the organization—and the organization itself—will not embed the DNA no matter how much pressure they may feel. I use the adage, “You can’t lead where you’re not going” to sum it up. You must incorporate, embody, and behave within the bounds of the DNA in all your decisions. You must be held accountable for your behavior and DNA alignment, as well as holding others accountable to that same DNA. If you don’t, don’t expect anyone else to. In point of fact, whether you embody the DNA or not, you can count on your followers to follow you … meaning if you don’t, they won’t (didn’t know you were that effective of a leader, did you? They really are following you!).

The second mistake church leaders make, which is every bit as deadly, pernicious, and pervasive as the first, is under-communicating the DNA. I was in a church recently that made a big deal of their annual vision series. The pastor explained that each year they set aside four Sundays to celebrate and re-embrace the mission and vision of the church. The upshot of the conversation included the pastor’s frustration that although they emphasized the vision, the congregation was not getting on board. I looked at the newsletters from previous months … little to nothing about the DNA. I looked at their bulletin: nothing. I checked their letterhead: nope. However, to their credit, the website did have a section about their mission and vision, though you had to click on the About Us link and then navigate to three different pages to view it all (Our Mission; Our Vision; What We Believe). So, to sum it all up, the congregation heard the mission and vision a total of four hours each year, out of 8,760 available hours, and virtually no more. It’s no wonder the DNA wasn’t getting embedded. Even if the key leaders were living the DNA in their lives and decisions, the majority of the congregation wasn’t hearing about it.

Here’s the rule of thumb. When, as a church leader, you’re sick and tired of communicating the DNA, the majority of the congregation is just hearing it “the first time.” Although Willow Creek has taken a lot of heat lately, they stood out as one of the shining examples of embedded DNA. Virtually every person, clergy, laity, and even many of the guests, can tell you what Willow’s mission is. Members and staff both have done much to embody it in their real lives, let alone in every church decision that must be made. The question is, how did they manage to embed the DNA so deeply that almost everyone emulates it? First, of course, the leaders demonstrably embody the DNA. But second, in virtually every sermon you heard at Willow Creek, at least one leg of the DNA was be mentioned, and often expounded upon. The same goes for nearly every other mega-church. People hear and read about the mission, values, vision, strategy, beliefs, and behaviors every time the step inside the church building, every time they’re with a church leader, and on every piece of paper that comes out from the church.

Overkill? Hardly. If you intend to embed the DNA into the congregational milieu, over-communication is a minimum requirement. There’s an old adage called the Nehemiah rule that vision must be communicated every twenty-six days.* I’d add that during the other three weeks you need to communicate the rest of the DNA.

*(Twenty-six days is half of the fifty-two days it took to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls with Nehemiah recommunicating the vision once in the midst of the build.)

If you’re going to embed the DNA within the congregation, you must avoid the two deadly sins of omission: You gotta walk the talk and you have to talk the walk—and you have to walk and talk a lot.