Changing Leadership Landscapes in 2024: Leading inside of Culture Change

By Natalie Briscoe

Quick Version

  • The congregation’s culture is its most important feature
  • Leaders have a major impact on culture
  • Critical skills for congregational leaders to develop at this time are self-awareness, empathy, an ability to grow individuals and teams, and creativity.

The most important feature of our congregations is often the aspect that goes the most unnoticed: the congregation’s culture. You’ve heard your Southern Region Staff say frequently: “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” Your particular culture that is rooted in the unique personalities in your community - and the combination of those personalities - combined with governance style, local context, and interaction with our wider Unitarian Universalist culture, has the strongest effect on congregational vitality and is, frankly, the biggest indicator of future growth. Attention to the culture of your congregation and seeing each technical change you make - such as structural changes, staffing changes, and leadership changes - as a cultural shift in the congregation allows us to more efficiently manage the congregation’s emotional field and creates spaces where our ministries can flourish.

The leadership in your congregation shapes the culture of the community, and the influences, as we know, can be both positive and not so positive. This awareness asks us as leaders to pay attention to the cultural shifts in the congregation and the relationships that form the basis of the emotional system. The best leadership is an active leadership; cultivating an intentional cultural awareness means that the environment and emotional field of the congregation is tended to. We have more control over the culture of the congregation than we think we do.

We continue to dismantle systems of oppression that are embedded in our dominant culture, and paying attention to our own culture is an act of justice-making and the creation of the Beloved Community. Because we are unable to break apart systems of oppression with the same tools that built them, leaders are asked to gain new skills to become culturally aware leaders. Those skills include:


Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your emotions, values, beliefs, behaviors, passions, and purpose. The best leaders make understanding themselves a priority and have spiritual practices which help them stay in alignment with themselves and their own personal values and beliefs. Gaining and cultivating this self-awareness not only helps you to identify your needs and increases your ability to meet them during leadership’s difficult times, but it also allows you to understand your effect in the system and the culture of the congregation. Being aware of your growing edges helps you to accept feedback, which creates a robust culture of ongoing development, trust, and creativity. Being aware of your own emotions, triggers, behaviors, and beliefs helps you understand how the congregation supports you in spiritual development and amplifies your values, thus creating a culture where personal ministry is fostered and grown as a part of a vital, relevant, and true Unitarian Universalism. Self-aware leaders are able to see the difference between their personal needs and the needs of others and the congregation as a whole, thus being able to steward those needs in ways that are mutually beneficial rather than positioning them in competition against each other. Self-aware leaders are also aware of their own biases and prejudices, thus creating a space which is intentionally invitational of diversity and equity.


Empathy is used to describe a wide range of experiences. For our purposes, we’ll use a psychological definition which defines empathy as the ability to sense other people's emotions (called affective empathy), coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling (called cognitive empathy).

In today’s world, where exhaustion and burnout are high while motivation and capacity are low, leaders must cultivate empathy in order to raise relational rewards for participation in congregational life. Empathetic leadership can raise engagement levels congregation-wide by creating a space where people feel that their ideas and emotions are valuable and safely held, which in turn leads to innovation and inclusivity.

An Ability to Grow Individuals and Teams

A major function of today’s leadership is the ability to create and empower more leadership. Becoming a culture which intentionally focuses on the development of individuals and teams creates capacity in the congregation for more leadership, makes recruitment easier, and builds succession into all leadership roles. In order to develop individuals, leaders need to make mentorship, coaching, leading development programs, and practicing invitational leadership a main goal of their leadership position. To build great teams, leaders must communicate clearly, delegate effectively, hold space for diversity in opinion and working style, and hold clear standards and expectations for themselves and their teammates.

Above all else, leaders can create development cultures by always knowing the ultimate why, holding mission at the center of their work, and remembering and reminding others what is at stake in even the most routine of tasks.


Leaders must understand the cultural system of which they are a part, both realistically and aspirationally, and then live in the space in between - a place called the “aspirational divide.” The aspirational divide can cause great exhaustion if we focus too much on how far we have yet to go, but it can also cause great excitement when we focus on what is possible. Beloved Community is not just a thing we strive to build; it is the ultimate inspiration for our creativity and imagination. It is the place where all are loved, cherished, and flourish into their most authentic and aligned selves. It is the place where the embodiment of love is the only constant, and evolution and growth are like water flowing over fertile ground. Today’s leaders must keep this vision in mind and constantly open space for creativity in culture creation.

Next Month, we’ll browse five leadership styles: Transformational Leadership, Spiritual Leadership, Adaptive Leadership, Servant Leadership, and Participatory Leadership, and how each of these styles has wisdom for us as we become the leaders we are waiting for.

If you would like to learn more about the aspects of leadership mentioned in this article, practice becoming culturally aware, understand how leadership styles impact your congregation, or workshop any of these ideas for yourself or your team, please use the Partnership Activation Request to request a consultation with your leadership or to host a state-wide leadership day at your congregation.