Leadership in small missional groups, reviewed…

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We took a trip up to Aberdeen yesterday to meet up with friends from Gairioch Church. As part of their planning/organisation, they have a bi-annual ‘sounding board’, where they invite some outsiders like us to come and be part of a conversation about where they are up to, where they are heading and to discuss challenges they are working through. Michaela and I always feel like frauds as what they have achieved is special, and the thought that we might have some expertise to offer seems to us a little silly- however, it all seems to come out in the conversation.

Yesterday a lot of conversation was caught up around the issue of leadership; particularly the kind of leadership that might be the best way to work with small groups of families and individuals engaged in what we have called ‘missional’ groups. It is an old theme for all of us involved in the essentially fragile practice of community. Some questions never quite go away;

  • How do we lead without becoming oppressive? How is power shared, or at least mitigated?
  • How do we lead in a way that does not create passivity and dependency on the part of those we journey with?
  • How do we lead in a way that creates safety, warmth and stability?
  • Who looks after whom?
  • How are specific responsibilities shared and encouraged?
  • Where does the buck stop?

Within my own community, these questions are still largely unanswered. We find temporary solutions only, which is a weakness but paradoxically also sometimes a strength.

My rough conclusions from conversation yesterday where that three things are vital in trying to deal with leadership in small groups; Context, purpose and developmental stage.

Context might mean the place where people meet, the nature of the group in terms of comfort with one another, experience of individuals within it etc. Leadership has to emerge from what the group is comfortable with. Our context is a small town in which most of our members have done with ‘religion’- we have been inoculated against the formality and rigidity of leadership structures, at least in part because of our own and others failure. Leadership for us had to be small. It had to be shared.

The purpose of small missional groups will of course have some variability. At times we work together on specific tasks- food banks, art installations, kids events, worship services, community projects. Some tasks clearly benefit from a leader, an organiser, an agitator. Someone needs to see the big picture and hold everyone else to account for delivering what they said they would deliver. This probably does not need to be the SAME person each time, as we all have different skills and experiences.

However, the starting point of most small missional groups is community. Our hope and conviction is that our activism will grow out of our connectedness, our common place of becoming. We are a constant experiment of turning an inside outside; of practising the art of love so we can learn to be deliberate in our love of others outside the group (an easy thing to write but an extremely difficult thing to achieve.)  If this is the ultimate purpose of our group then leadership is probably much more akin to facilitation. The role of the leader is to create safe space for others to adventure in, not necessarily to direct what happens within it.

Interestingly enough, the skill set required to create (or curate) this safe space is not one that many of we pioneering far-horizon kind of folk find easy to operate within. Safety and predictability bores us. Our pushing at the edges frightens others. This tension is very real to any of us who have been in these groups. Currently I am sweating within mine as most people are content with what is but I am wanting more…

Which brings me to the issue of developmental stages. Groups like ours have a trajectory that typically involves something like this;

dreaming – gathering – planning – forming – conflict – reforming (repeat last two stages several times) – ending.  

Leadership at different parts of the groups life may need to be very different. I think there is also a need for EXTERNAL leadership (or at least facilitation) at times to bring new perspectives and refreshment.

I have great hopes for Garioch church. They are a lovely bunch of folk who are asking all the right questions. The model of church – deliberately small enough to be around a table, but networked with bigger relationships – is one that really appeals to me.

If you are interested in this issue, you might be also find some use in a few previous ramblings on the subject;

Leadership, networking and the trajectory of pioneering groups.

Leadership in small missional communities.

Church in the margins- gender and leadership.

Rollins on leadership.

Leadership in the new context, lessons for post-charismatics.

Leaderless organisations.

Reflecting on the life of small ‘missional’ groups.

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