Cultures of Belonging


Organizational cultures are born in the intersections of shared relationships. If the quality of those relationships is healthy and constructive, that’s the kind of culture we’ll experience. If those relationships are toxic and fear-filled, well, that’s exactly the culture we’ll bear witness to. Cultures of belonging are built on the belief that the relationships within our organization can be healed and so can our organizational cultures. This healing depends not just on reconciliation between people inside our organizations now but also on examining who has been left out. To share kingdom relationships, no one can be left out of the equation.

Perhaps your organization has tried to create a more diverse organization but has been frustrated when those efforts came up short. We present this model as necessary in addressing the whole system of your organization to create space for underrepresented voices, whether that is women, BIPOC leaders, or people of different nationalities.

Imago Dei

First and throughout the process, becoming a belonging culture requires that we see the image of God in each other. Men need to see and recognize that God made women in his image and for his purposes and gifted them for that calling. Those gifts include leadership, preaching, and teaching.

Women need to see the image of God in the men who have hurt them and marginalized them. It’s too easy to demonize a man who doesn’t know any better, who has been socialized in wrong beliefs about women and hasn’t been held accountable until now for bad behaviors. To borrow the title of Bishop Tutu’s book, there is no future without forgiveness.

Organizational Culture

You can see the image of God in each other, you can make the strategic case for why change is necessary, but if you don’t tackle the organizational cultures that were originally created by men to welcome only men, you will see women “check out” either emotionally or physically from your organization, exacerbating the likelihood that you’ll be able to recruit any in the future. How is performance measured, who gets celebrated, what toxic behaviors are supported or ignored for the sake of “more and better” ministry?

Intentional Development

A culture of belonging needs to intentionally develop everyone if it is going to rewrite the curriculum scripts on what good leadership and influence look like. Women too need to overcome mental hurdles by believing that the way God has equipped them for leadership is leadership. Not a mistake, not an accident. They are his beloved, called for his purposes, and equipped for his work.

Leadership Will

This lever is actually first and last. None of these changes will be implemented unless existing leaders have the courage and the will to recognize the image of God they have diminished in women, the strategic case for better performance of their organization, and understanding that the whole organizational system has been working against a belonging culture all along. Systems can be changed.

Does all this feel like too much? It shouldn’t. In our combined thirty-plus years in the sector, we have watched far more ambitious “global change” agendas executed in missional organizations with far fewer necessary outcomes. Creating a belonging culture will be the legacy you leave because it will forever change the positive outcomes of your organization. Everything else you do for the success of your organization and the communities you serve will pale in comparison to this endeavor.


creating cultures of belonging

Adapted from Creating Cultures of Belonging by Beth Birmingham and Eeva Sallinen Simard. ©2022 by Beth Birmingham and Eeva Sallinen Simard. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

Beth Birmingham is an NGO leadership and organizational consultant, development researcher, trainer, and former tenured professor (Eastern University). She is cofounder of BE Development Partners, a consulting firm that trains organizations to develop belonging cultures.

Eeva Sallinen Simard is the project director (chief of party) at SCOPE Project at World Relief and has more than ten years of experience working with missional NGOs from research to ministry. She is cofounder of BE Development Partners, a consulting firm that trains organizations to develop belonging cultures.

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