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.

Leaderless organisations…

I have been thinking about leadership again of late. This is in part because the group I belong to Aoradh has had to tackle some thorny issues without a ‘leader’ as such recently and we are not part of a wider network from which external advise/encouragement might be sought.

The way Aoradh has stumbled upon doing leadership is something like this;

  1. We started out very task centred – we were promoting a festival – for which an organising committee was more than enough. We asked one of our members to take leadership of this committee, as we were a disparate group and there was a need for clear communication with media/professional clergy/local authorities.
  2. There was a process of chaotic competition of ideas and principles concerning what we were about. Some people left, and the ones left were mostly in the process of considerable change- and this was reflected in what Aoradh was becoming. The group was small enough not to need ‘a leader’ and there was general resistance to formality and structure.
  3. Aoradh progressed from task focus towards an increasing community focus. More people joined, some left. There was a real sense of freedom to do things differently, which was highly valued in particular with people who had been part of hierarchical and even oppressive church structures. Because of this, despite a general feeling that leadership was an issue, we just decided to defer it.
  4. So we entered a period in which leadership was mitigated according to specific tasks or events. We met regularly to decide business collectively, and different people either took or were asked to take leadership for specific things. For example, Michaela is a natural organiser, so tends to circulate dates, and keep us on track. I am a dreamer, so always have my eyes on the next thing, the coming horizon. Andy is practical and technical and so will always want to roll his sleeves up etc etc. And for the most part, it works with very little conflict, and only a little confusion.
  5. There are of course different levels of comfort with this process however. It can be messy and frustrating, particularly for those more structurally-minded. The best we can say now is that leadership is still a work in progress.

Along the way I have found some ideas useful to inform our debate;

Grace

Jonny described a similar process as ours that Grace went through. They too decided to ‘defer’ the leadership question- and did so for years it seems. Eventually however, a structure did emerge in the form of a leadership group that rotated annually, and had the task of ensuring that the principles of the Grace were upheld and protected.

The common table

I read an article by Mark Stavlund, who is part of a community called ‘The common table‘, describing a kind of process that he called ‘negative space’. I wrote about this here. Mark describes a process of leadership in small groups that very much fits our current model.

There is an old idea about leaderlessness based around the idea of a starfish. If you cut off any limb of a starfish, it can operate independently. It has a separate nervous system. Translated to a small group of idividuals this might suggest that a group of people can connect together without formal leadership, and indeed, like the starfish, flourish without a head because all of its limbs are independent from the control of a central nervous system. Cut off a limb and it survives.

However.

And it is quite a big however.

Back in 1970, American feminist activist Jo Freeman wrote a paper called The Tyranny of Structureless GroupsIt seems that each new generation of activism makes similar mistakes around leadership. A couple of quotes might illustrate the point;

…The term ‘structureless’ group is as useful and as deceptive, as to aim at an ‘objective’ news story, ‘value-free’ social science or a ‘free’ economy. A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez faire’ soc iety; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones…

…Thus ‘structurelessness’ becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement it is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). The rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is curtailed by those who know the rules, as long as the structure of the group is informal. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware…

A group without a leader can easily become a group in which leadership takes place in dishonest, even underhand ways. Just to say that decisions are taken in common does not mean that actually happens. It does not mean that everyone is encouraged to participate, or facilitated to use their own skills talents and abilities.

There is a difference then between not having a leader, and not having a structure through which leadership functions are mitigated.

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be openand available to everyone, and this can only happen if they are formalised. This is not to say that normalisation of a group structure will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and makes available some means ofattacking it.

Which brings us back to leadership.

Small groups like ours should really be measured by the degree to which we hold, serve, love, encourage, facilitate. The kind of leadership that might achieve this will be of a very different nature to that of a factory or a political party (even if we might need to use some of theses skills too at times.) I think that the best fit for small missional groups is a kind of leadership that seeks to make creative nurturing space, and to keep it safe.

This will include making a space to make inclusive and safe decisions. Deciding how to do this well is an essential developmental step, and (if you are anything like us) will need to be constantly revisited.

It is possible to achieve this without a ‘leader’, but not without ‘leadership’.

Leadership in small missional communities…

It is an old theme- I was just re reading this old post here about Todd Bentley and all the madness around his leadership. There appears to be a similar storm gathering around Mark Discoll’s leadership of Mars Hill. Leadership, power, control- these are things that seem to be perpetual struggles for we humans as we seek to work out collective faith.

Last weekend we were speaking to a group of people about developing small missional communities, and of course we had to say something about leadership. Our small community (Aoradh) still has no ‘leader’. This is in part because we have simply deferred resolution of the issue, and also because we have sort of fallen into a different kind of process of decision making.

I read something the other day that seemed to describe what we do (or what we try to do) really well. Mark Stavlund, who is part of a community called ‘The common table‘ was describing a kind of process that he called ‘negative space’, that he described as follows;

individuals see a need for something, and say so.  As these voices start to harmonize, the leadership team– whose main purpose is to be attentive to the church and to protect its heart– will take notice and begin to clarify the need.  They will work to define it; to understand its parameters.  There might be a need for a different format for organizing the Sunday workflow, or a new way of doing service projects, or a financial concern, or an entirely new program of ministry.  But instead of leading some kind of charge, the leadership team will pull back a bit and simply organize the conversation that is brewing about the new thing or the reform that is needed…

It is a lot of work, and a lot of mess.  But it also generates a lot of creativity and ownership.  Supplying solutions in this way organically integrates the best people in the right places.  The people who step up are almost invariably the right ones for the jobs, and the solutions they find are amazingly exciting and durable. The hardest lesson for those of us with worrying tendencies or those who feel some sense of responsibility for all organizational systems to work flawlessly is that we need to sit with our discomfort and simply wait.  We’re learning that in church, sometimes the best thing to do when faced with an important need is to do nothing.

This is not necessarily about the absence of leadership, but is certainly about the laying down of power and control. There seems to me to be something of Jesus about this.

Church in the margins- gender and leadership…

There has been some discussion over on Jonny’s blog about that old issue of gender in leadership. It seemed to rage over two different book reviews- here and here– both of which were on new forms of church, and both of which were overwhelmingly male in authorship and involvement.

Some of the comments have been very pointed and it is quite likely that some people have been left feeling sore by the whole thing. I know that blogging can easily result in these kind of ego rattling discussions, but to be honest, I have never liked them. It is like watching a slowly unfolding car accident- compelling, but at the same time unpleasant.

Not that the issues do not need to be aired.

Particularly when it concerns the marginalisation of female voices within the discussions about what church is becoming. The kind of marginalisation that stands in a long line of similar suppression of female voices throughout church history.

I have my own particular perspective on these issues, as we all do. Our small group has no leaders- in the formal sense that is. Different people take (or are given) control at different times however. I also meet with another Bible study/prayer group, in which I am usually the only man.

In both of these gatherings, leadership, as far as it exists, is best understood in terms of hospitality. And in this, we do have a leader- and she is the one who organises, invites, disseminates information, provides tea and a listening ear. This kind of leadership is so much more than being the host of a dinner party- it is faciliative, releasing and creative in the way that it makes people feel safe, included and part of something. It is both the object and the means by which we become church.

Perhaps you could say that this is what female leadership looks like. And if so, it seems to me to be the kind of leadership that is needed within our new forms of church more than any other.

Women might be better at this kind of leadership than men (or rather some women might be better than some men, with the percentage balance towards the women) but let us be honest- we can all get it so wrong.  And this is often revealed in how we use personal power as much as how we display public leadership.

I am no longer easily ‘led’ by anyone- male or female- but I hope I am an easy companion as we walk side by side. And when I see power being used to overcome, overwhelm, overpower- particularly when this is done callously and with scant regard to the damage being done- then our ways will diverge.

So for me, the new forms of church that are emerging have an opportunity to correct some of the public leadership gender imbalance- and this seems to me to be a great thing. But despite the fact that I am a straight, white male, I am going to risk saying this-

There are more important things.

Jim Jones, and surviving the sociopaths…

I was listening to the radio this afternoon in my office whilst tidying up some papers, and was captivated by this programme

The compelling true story of two sisters, Annie and Carolyn Moore, who died in the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana on November 18th 1978. Over 900 people died that day, followers of Peoples Temple and its leader, Jim Jones. This documentary drama is one family’s experience of Peoples Temple, which began with the highest ideals. It’s told through the actual letters between Carolyn & Annie and their parents back home.

This told the story of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple church right to the bitter end- from the unique perspective of insiders- people who kept faith in Jones right to the very end. Two women who were in leadership positions in Jonestown, and whose parents even seemed supportive of their involvment.

What was fascinating is a kind of insight that emerges as to how people would be prepared to follow this man- prepared to put their faith in him- to believe in the world he created, and be even be prepared to die at his suggestion…

Attempts to make sense of what happened at Jonestown have tended to paint Jones as something other than human. He is seen as evil personified, able to cast a mystical spell over the brainwashed people he surrounded himself with. They, in turn, we tend to see as weak lambs to his slaughter.

But hearing this programme made me think that this was too easy.

There was so much about Jones that was attractive, and I could imagine how seekers after a radical spiritual way of life could be attracted to him. How I might have been interested in the way of life he offered…

Another thing I began to wonder about was the degree to which the dreadful end to the People’s Temple and Jonestown was an extreme example of a more common experience- namely the power we ascribe to leaders in religious/church contexts.

I came across this post recently, by Bill Kinnon, where he quotes from this series, which discusses the role of sociopathy in church, and in Christian leadership. I have a mental health workers suspicion of easy labels given to human patterns of behaviour- but perhaps it is worth lingering with this concept for a while…

Here are a few quotes that Bill uses-

The Sociopath is unable to develop any kind of true, loyal attachments to people. This inability to be genuinely connected to others renders their experience of life bland, colorless, boring, and tedious. Consequently, they turn to power, not love and relationship, as the primary motivational factor for their lives. The sociopath seeks to gain power through which she can find some sense of connection to humanity by causing the suffering of others. The more she is able to make another suffer or hurt, the greater her sense of personal power, and the more exciting and invigorating life becomes. (Dr Martha) Stout says that the motivation for self aggrandized power is so strong in the sociopath that many of them work hard to place themselves in leadership positions because the authority of an office or position gives the sociopath the tools and avenues she needs to both feed and fuel her mental illness.

It is stunning the extent to which Christians forgo what they know to be true, pure, and right when they get to sit across the table from a powerful and charming bishop, pastor, or seminary professor. Studies show that otherwise normal and healthy personalities will do some of the most atrocious things in their blind allegiance to an official with a title.

The suggestion made here is that around 1 in 25 people could be described as having sociopathic tendencies, and that sociopaths will tend to gravitate towards situations where they can exert power, control and manipulation. Places like church.

Gulp.

I have posted before about the phenomenon that has come to be known as church abuse. (See here and here for example.) Many of us carry hurt and scars from finding ourselves part of church situations where leadership goes badly wrong. There are of course many reasons for this, and throwing around accusations of sociopathy at our leaders is unlikely to help.

But there are wolves who come dressed as lambs. When we see a hint of tooth or claw, may we have the discernment and the courage to recognise what we see.

There are some suggestions as to what to do when you are confronted with leadership like this here.

If you are in this situation- God be with you. It can be extremely difficult.

Rollins on leadership…

Alistair pointed me at this clip.

A bit more of the familiar Rollins technique of taking a concept and saying it’s only value is in rejecting it.

But in this case, I think I agree with most of what he says.

There are still a lot of BUTS though. The absence of Leadership leaves a vacuum that requires- leadership. (Note the subtle lack of a capital letter!) It is not whether we have leaders that exercises my thoughts at the moment, but rather what kind, and how they lead- particularly in the way of church.

Kindness- as a measure of spiritual maturity

Another great collection on Radio 4’s start the week programme. Listen again to it here.

There was this fascinating discussion about KINDNESS, relating to this new book, co written by a psycho analyst Adam Philips  and Historian Barbara Taylor.

on-kindness

They appear to take the view that our society has retreated from kindness as a way of interacting and engaging with the people around us. We assume that we are no longer inter-dependent and needful of others, and so kindness becomes identified with a kind of weakness and vulnerability.

They go as far as to suggest that we tend naturally towards kindness, but learn to suppress this as we grow into our culture. All Kindness, suggests Philips, is a RISK- but a risk that is transformative in the taking.

There is a review of this book in Guardian by Mary Warnock where she says this

Kindness to others arises out of sympathy. As the authors note, there is much evidence that other animals besides human beings (or “men” as they properly designate them) can enter into the sufferings and fears of others of their kind. But it is human animals alone who, because of their imaginative powers, can enter into the feelings of other people far removed from them, whom they cannot see or touch, but whose plight as fellow-humans they can share

In the Gospel of St Luke, a lawyer is told by Jesus that to live well he must love his neighbour as himself and, when he further asks who is to count as his neighbour, Jesus answers with the story of the good Samaritan, for many the very essence of Christianity. Kindness here arose spontaneously, not in obedience to any rule, in fact in defiance of convention. But as Christianity became increasingly ecclesiastical and hierarchical, with the consequent corruption of the priesthood, the good Samaritan was forgotten.

The new Protestantism declared man to be fundamentally sinful, such good actions as he could do dependent on the grace of God; and so the possibility of natural kindness disappeared.

So we come back to Jesus, and his call to live for a radically different agenda, according to the rules of a New Kingdom. And one of the watch-words of this new kingdom- is kindness.

It is one of those fruit listed by Paul as evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. (See here for some more ponderings on this.)

When we come into contact with kindness at a point of real need, we rarely forget it. It lives on in our souls. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians- all sorts of other loud and visible manifestations of faith will clang like gongs and then fall silent- but love will last for ever.

Which makes me think again about the myth of the super-Christian. I am interested in the stature aquired and the adoration we give to some of our leaders- perhaps for their charisma, their vision or their oratory power. When one of these paragons of Christianity falls from Grace, how dreadful it seems… how shocking.

Might this be because we measure spirituality according to a strange criteria? We equate knowledge with understanding, declaration with practice and power with ordination from on high.

Might we best return to a simple measure- of kindness shown, and a skew towards grace in all things. These are the leaders I look for. Jesus has ruined the others for me!