Leadership in small missional groups, reviewed…


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;


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.


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’.

‘Making missional communities’ podcasts…

Graham sent us a copy of the recording of our talk about making small missional communities at Calvary Christian Fellowship near Preston.

We were invited to take a road trip to describe something of our experiences with Aoradh, and we structured the discussion into three main sections ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘up’ with me talking about some of the background and theory (such as it is!) behind what we do, and Michaela describing our activities in a bit more detail. We tried to be really honest about the difficult bits as well as all the great stuff.

I have uploaded it as a series of podcasts, partly because other folk in Aoradh might be interested to know what we said about them, and also because the issue of how we make and sustain community in these fluid postmodern times seems to be pretty important, so others might like to hear something of our story.

You should be able to download the different sections on these links, but I am told that ‘ourmedia’ sometimes takes a little while to make uploads ‘live’, so you may need to come back a little later…

Making missional communities 1

Making missional communities 2

Making missional communities 3

Making missional communities 4

Making missional communities 5

Making missional communities 6

Making missional communities 7

Making missional communities 8

New monasticism comes of age…

The concept of a new kind of monastic community has fascinated me.

Perhaps because I lack discipline in life, and so practising a deliberate spiritual rhythm has seemed both extremely attractive but rather out of reach.

New monasticism has gathered interest as a rather trendy form of church community- growing on the edge of ’emerging’ stuff. It has links with the 24-7 prayer movement, as well (of course) as much older traditions. It has a radical edge that is also attractive to me.

Today- driving back from Lochgilphead in the darkness after a long meeting- I tuned to radio 4, and caught the end of ‘beyond belief’, which included interviews with a member of Moot, and a general discussion about- new monastic communities. It was a searching discussion, which asked some important questions about the nature of monastic life, and whether this new monastic stuff really involved the same amount of ‘giving up’ and setting out on a real path of self sacrifice. Commitment is not for life- but for a season. Perhaps until the inevitable small group conflict begin! You can listen again on the i player- here.

It is also clear that some of the new communities do not seem to regard themselves as standing in the same tradition as the old monastic way of being- but rather seeking a deeper life (not necessarily overtly Christian.)

It is worth checking out the interview on the Moot site with Shane Claiborne.

I see there is a new Ning site- New Monasticism Network.

My own small community is in the process of chewing over what we mean by ‘community’.  We are going through what I can only describe as a 4 year barrier- when we are having to look to re-examine ourselves. It has been painful and challenging, if necessary. New labels and concepts are not for us at the moment- rather we just need to remember to practice the disciplines of friendship and love.

Because the formation of any small community, as previously discussed, can be a process of such incredible highs, and such terrible lows. Jonny Baker pointed out these posts by Ian Adams. I really liked what he had to say, which seemed loaded with wisdom- and I suspect, hard experience!

In any community there will be always be a lot of focus on what we do. That’s fine – the actions of the community, its surface life – are important. But behind the activity is something less obvious, more subtle, and perhaps even more important. This is what I think of as the spirit of the community.

Almost every family, project, team, society or business has a spirit or value system, often unrecognised, and sometimes less than positive. Gracious or greedy, caring or care-less, transparent or manipulative [or a mix of those] – the spirit of a community is how it feels to encounter it – and the spirit of thing has the power to create something beautiful – or to trash it.

Because these small groups of ours- they are very fragile. They need loving and nurturing. Sometimes we just want to walk away- and perhaps there is a time to do just that. But they also offer such hope and life.

So, whatever your label, may you find friends and fellow pilgrims to travel with. It is the Jesus way…