Your Hidden Curriculum (part 1)

What do people learn from you about the Christian life? Sometimes it's what you never intended to teach.

Many years ago I heard a great teacher make a distinction I never forgot. Every educational institution, he said, has two kinds of subject matter. There is the formal curriculum. And there is what might be called a hidden curriculum.

The formal curriculum consists of agreed-upon topics. Algebra, geography, English lit, history, physics. Faculties and school boards and parents decide on—sometimes war over—what makes up the formal curriculum.

The hidden curriculum also involves learning, but no school board ever sets it. The hidden curriculum consists of questions like: Which students get called on and which go ignored? Who do other students want to sit next to in the cafeteria and who sits alone? How do the groups stand on the great Chain of Being from jocks and cheerleaders to chess club members to the untouchables? Whose jokes get laughed at? Whose body is shaped right? Of what does "cool" consist, and who possesses it?

  • The formal curriculum is intentional.
  • The hidden curriculum is inherent.
  • The formal curriculum is obvious.
  • The hidden curriculum is subtle.

What you learn in the formal curriculum often evaporates after your finals—sometimes even earlier. What you learn in the hidden curriculum lasts a lifetime. And if there is a contradiction between what's taught by the formal curriculum and what's taught by the hidden curriculum, people always believe the hidden curriculum. Always.

The reason this stays with me so vividly, of course, is that I work at a church. We have a formal curriculum. It gets taught in classrooms and preached on weekends. It gets sung from the stage and facilitated in small groups. The formal curriculum is what gets taught when we study Romans, or learn about contemplative prayer, or take a spiritual gifts inventory.

But we have a hidden curriculum. Who gets fawned over, and who gets ignored? How do the staff and leaders get along when they're off the platform and think nobody's looking? How does a small group respond when someone shares a problem that is untidy and unresolved? Do leaders respond with panic or irritation or confidence or gentleness when a problem strikes? When there is a conflict, do people face it head on or go into avoidance mode? Does the church staff run on fear?

A couple told me recently of visiting a church in a city they'd just moved to. It was a church that prides itself on reaching unchurched people. But it was clear that the hip and the cool and the artists were prized above all there. The formal curriculum said, "God hangs with everybody." But the hidden curriculum said, "Don't expect to get too close to the core if you tuck your shirt in."

When I teach the formal curriculum, I have the chance to think about it ahead of time. I can rehearse it. I can illustrate it with self-deprecating humor and humble-sounding personal disclosure. I can try to make it comes out just right.

But I'm teaching the hidden curriculum all the time. I cannot prepare for it. It just leaks out of me. I teach it when a staff member is under-performing and I respond by withdrawing. I teach it when a powerful leader blusters and I placate instead of confront.

We all tend to overestimate what people learn from our formal curriculum. (I have been frightened over the years by how often people will tell me they appreciated a point I made while preaching and—not only is that not the point I was trying to make—it's the exact opposite.)

And we underestimate what people learn from our church's hidden curriculum.

And when there is a disagreement between the two—when we claim "God so loved the world … " but we really love the beautiful or the useful or the cool or the strong—the message people take from our church is the hidden curriculum. Always.

What Are We Really Teaching?

How do I recognize my church's hidden curriculum? My small group's?

We have been trying to get concrete about our church's effectiveness, so we've developed a kind of dashboard to review together with our elders once a month. We're developing ways to gauge peoples' volunteering and community involvement and worship and growth and giving.

But we also realized that hidden curriculum issues are harder to assess. So periodically we'll take time with our elders to look at what are sometimes called the soft assessments. What concerns do we have as we look at our congregation? What kinds of stories are being told? What's the level of busyness in peoples' lives? Is prayer happening in ways that are authentic and wide-spread?

Sometimes it gets assessed even when we aren't trying. Since our church has been around more than 130 years, we have to keep working to see how it appears to outsiders. Recently a team of folks at our church hired some "mystery attenders" to come to a service and give us feedback. (It's a little like having a newspaper critic review a restaurant, except nobody gets to read it but you.)

It was fascinating to get to see our church through the eyes of a stranger who wrote about it at length. We got a chance to see where our behavior is congruent with what we say we believe, and where we diverge. There were many heartening comments, but one of the hardest was an observation that although we talk a lot about loving people, it did not always feel like that was a priority to the strangers who walked among us.

Another indicator is staff relationships. A church that I'll call First Methodist Church (not its real name; its real name is First Baptist Church) has a worship arts director and a student ministries architect who are not talking to each other. They are jealous and competitive and mistrustful. They are also talented and embedded and possessed of devoted constituencies. So the church allows them to live in a de-militarized zone. The formal curriculum of the church includes things like Matthew 18:15, where Jesus commands his people to seek reconciliation. But the lesson people in the congregation take away is that talent and outward success trump reconciliation and authenticity.

When I first got to my current church, I drew a little socio-gram of our leadership team. Who is connected to whom? Who is withdrawn? How big are the distances? Where are the alliances? It was a very helpful exercise to know how the hidden curriculum gets played out in the central circle.

Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Stay tuned next week to read Part 2, where Ortberg discusses how to face hidden curriculum not just in our churches, but in ourselves.

—John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. Excerpted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International. For more articles like this, visit

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Leader Training Strategies

Leader Training Strategies

Informal and formal training strategies
Clearing the Way for Small Groups

Clearing the Way for Small Groups

How small groups became the central ministry at Zion Church
5 Ways to Invest in Your Small-Group Ministry This Summer

5 Ways to Invest in Your Small-Group Ministry This Summer

Now is the time to build up your ministry for a strong fall launch.
5 Ways to Develop Your Leaders This Summer

5 Ways to Develop Your Leaders This Summer

Take advantage of the slower pace to thank your leaders and prepare them for fall.
Training Leaders to Study the Bible

Training Leaders to Study the Bible

Leaders who know God's Word encourage group members to engage Scripture.
Healthy Ministries Provide Ongoing Training

Healthy Ministries Provide Ongoing Training

Your leaders need more than just start-up training.