The Delicate Art of Leadership in a Fresh Expression

One of the tough things to explain about how a Fresh Expression (Emerging Church, whatever) like Cafechurch works is the dynamic between the leadership and the community. How do you get from a situation where there is no community, to one in which there is?

Firstly, I think you need a bunch of you. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it all by myself! Perhaps it would be possible? I’m not sure. I certainly think it would be a lot harder than starting off with a few mates.

I heard a story once which illustrated the situation well, about a Nigerian missionary. In Nigeria, the story went, he would arrive in a new town, get onto a bus to the city centre, stand up, start preaching, and by the time he arrived, he would have enough people to start a new church. He then tried this approach in London. Arrived in Heathrow, got on the tube into town, started preaching, and by the time he got into town, he had failed to interest anyone. It’s a different situation, and his techniques didn’t work.

Sometimes in my conversations with the mainline churches, I wonder if they think that I’m claiming to be a sole operator – as though I see myself as doing what that Nigerian guy did. Of course, that is not at all the case – without a community, I am precisely no use whatsoever.

However, I don’t think that’s the whole story. With respect to my wonderful community, I think that a community does in fact need leadership. The Jesuits (apparently) say: any structure which isn’t consciously just will be unconsciously unjust. Just because there isn’t a formal leadership structure does not mean that there won’t be power games going on – just that they will be unadmitted, unconscious, and unjust.

My favourite quote about leadership is that the role of the leader is to define reality, and say thank you. Or to put it in a different, but related, way: the role of the leader is to create a safe space, but a space which points a certain direction. How are people to be nurtured, but also to be gently nudged out of their comfort zone to the new things which are needed?

The delicate dance is to know when new things are in fact needed – and working out what they are. You can’t get too far ahead of where the group is prepared to go, but, equally, it is very easy to stay exactly still. After all, (as Ronald Heifetz says) any organisation is perfectly designed to get the results which it is getting. Every organisation has a repetoire of responses, language, jokes – a whole ethos. The problem is when this whole way of being isn’t achieving what it needs to do. Of course, it is a mistake to think of a community as though it is exactly the same as a company: I’m note sure that I would want to fundamentally define Cafechurch in terms of “tasks” – the need for community is such a basic part of being human that it probably doesn’t really need much more justification. But, then again, there are ways in which it can be better or worse community, more or less open to God’s call.

For instance, in Cafechurch there is a subtle pressure to reduce the religiosity quotient to as low as possible. Sometimes it is stronger, sometimes, like now, it is less present. But there is something about the venue – meeting in a bar seems to lend itself to certain sorts of things (laughing loudly, drinking beer) and not so much to other things (praying, having  conversations about God.) It can feel odd to break up a perfectly nice evening with a Bible reading, which can have the secondary rather anxious-making aspect that the bar staff will probably come in with the coffee at exactly the moment everyone is sitting in thoughtful silence, as happened to us last week.

That isn’t too hard a problem to overcome at the moment – it just takes a bit of willpower to break the unspoken rule our society has about not talking about Religion (or sex or politics of course) and just get on with it. It’s what we are all here for after all.

But there have been times when not only would it have been hard to do it, but it would have been wrong to do it: there have been times in the life of Cafechurch where people have had only the most oblique and conflicted relationship with faith, and to insist on overtly religious content would have been so far out in front of where the group were that I  would have been hanging around out there on my own.

You have to understand where people are at. I think (or at least I hope) that I have a pretty good sense of where most people in the group are, faith-wise. I know their stories, and that helps me to judge how far to push. Often not terribly far. For instance, when I suggested that people might be interested in going to a Taize service last weekend, I could see everyone’s eyes glaze over. Better to back off here, I thought to myself.

This all relates to another question which I am pretty often asked by church people: how do we make decisions? Because we don’t have any property to speak of (a few dozen books in our library, a data projector, and a broken projector screen), in a way there aren’t too many decisions to be made.

But from another perspective, we have to make decisions all the time; much more than in a more established church. What are we going to talk about next week? And the week after? What format should our meeting take? Should we launch a new event? And so on.

For this sort of decision, I guess I take responsibility for deciding. It seems to me that this falls under “define reality”, and given that much of the load of running sessions falls to me, I guess it makes sense that it’s my call.

But at a deeper level, I don’t choose in a vacuum. Because I know pretty much what everyone thinks about the whole God thing, which in turn is because we spend our evenings in conversation, more or less formally, I usually have a sense of what is going to fly, and what is not.

It’s kind of a dance really. You sense a certain… possibility of progress. And the community itself leads to ideas which you would not otherwise have had, because people are so different to one another. So the questions raised by the community are themselves ways of opening up reality, in which we are all journeying together.

Perhaps that’s the Holy Spirit at work: I certainly hope and pray so, because it is abundantly clear that none of us really understand yet what it going to take to be church in this new post-Christendom world, and it’s only with God’s help that we are going to make any progress.

2 comments

  1. Hello Alister. I can’t recall how I found your site or why I subscribed but have enjoyed following some of your writings. May I comment on this one? I find myself puzzled and sometimes slightly irritated by what seems to be an increasing fascination with ‘leadership’ in church circles. I suspect this is the usual thing of the church following so-called secular – but certainly business – trends. ‘Leadership’ has become a trend and an idolatry in that world. We should be wary of following it.

    In church circles my disquiet arises from the implicit assumption that the clergy/pastors/minister must ‘lead’ and the rest must be ‘led’. All very shepherd/sheepy stuff. Although I am a priest myself I have always sought to operate in a way that does not either infantilise or disenfranchise the laos, the laity. But it is hard to counter so many centuries of clericalism.

    Do avoid the possessive when speaking of the Christian community you serve (you say “my community”). And I wonder why you say “it does in fact need leadership”. I can guess what you mean, and that you mean it in a helpful way, but there is an underlying assumption to this kind of talk in churches which can so easily infantilise and disenfranchise the community itself. Best wishes, Hugh

    1. Hi Hugh

      Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading my blog. I’m glad you have enjoyed reading at least some of it 😉

      I’m wryly amused with the implication of your post that I’m contributing to clericalism – as a lay person myself, I often find myself up against that, in all sorts of ways. One of the (many) frustrations I have with trying to explain Cafechurch to mainstream church is that it is very hard for ordained people to see what we are doing as having any bearing on church whatsoever exactly because of the lack of any ordained people being involved. As one of my fellow (Anglican) college students once said to me: “but… does the bishop know?” You are righ that the church operates to disenfranchise people, and you are particularly right when you say that ministers are a big part of the problem. Though they don’t bear all of the blame – it’s all too cosily disfunctional for that to be true.

      However, I’m also a bit wary of the idea that things “just emerge” without leadership. Without leadership – and it probably often won’t be clerical, because by definition they are the most comfortable with the status quo – nothing new is going to happen. Leadership, if it is done well, should surely make that more possible than less? You see something moving in the community, and you, thoughtfully, get behind it, or get out of the way if that’s what’s necessary, rather than clinging to power.

      I think the current emphasis on leadership generally is because society is changing rapidly away from Christendom. I don’t know what it is like in your context (I presume the UK?) But in Australia, the church seems to be in crisis. It is no longer enough to set up shop in a new suburb, put out a sign saying “Anglican” or “Uniting Church” or what have you and wait for the crowds to come flocking in. They don’t, not any more. But in that case, what does need to happen? I think the answer to that is is somewhere between “no-one knows” and “let a thousand flowers bloom.” However, without leadership – that is, without people actually doing new things, then new things will not happen.

      I’m pretty allergic to the big leader dude (usually a middle age man) standing up in the front of some auditorium and holding forth about their all important vision. I think the strength of my negative reaction is probaby a flaw in me. I find it inauthentic, self-promoting… all that bad stuff. So in my own attempts to do something new, I do my absolute best to not be that middle aged guy standing up the front holding forth. (I can’t help being a bit middle aged these days, but I can definitely avoid holding forth.)

      I attempted in my post to give something of the flavour of that: how can we be truly collaborative, where every member is included, without being stuck in disfunctional or inadequate ways of being? We have tried to exist with no leadership, and it was terrible. What I was getting at in the post is that when there is no official, accountable, clear leadership, then it’s not like there are no power games being played – but they become secret, unaccountable, toxic.

      I’m sorry you find “my community” a bit possessive, but I try to steer clear of churchy language as much as I can, and “the community I serve” seems to me to fall under that category. I have “my” country, “my” football team, “my” wife, even “my” God without having to claim ownership.

      One of my problems as a communicator is that I compress things too much, and I think that the discipline of trying to write a blog in 1000 words exacerbates that tendancy. I hope this clarifies things slightly.

      Cheers

      Alister

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