Leadership and Ethics in the Self-Organizing Emergent Church 1

This is a long post I know; hope you persevere with it.

The issues of leadership, in particular whether people ought to work full time for the church has provoked some wide debate on this blog before. [ see posts and comments here and here ] It’s something that I’ve been thinking over for a while now. I seriously believe that the issue of leadership – and the style of it that people are intentionally going to make decisions about – is perhaps the most crucial one that the Emerging Church has to face. If we get the leadership issue wrong, then I believe that the movement will not mature into the radically new model that it currently promises; I have to admit to some concerns already.

To set out my stall again:

I believe that if churches are going to be effective organ(isation)s – incarnating the gospel in the places they are, speaking in the forms that the culture they are immersed in understand, – then they are going to have to learn to be ‘self-organizing.’ Self-organizing systems are ones that can grow and adapt organically to changes in their environment. With their boundaries being porous, they can sense the environment around them, and adapt themselves to it quickly.

I also believe that this model of organization is one that is initiated by Jesus in the establishment of the early church. The ‘viral network of the Spirit’ and the emphasis on everyone being part of the body (not machine) of Christ suggest to me that self-organization is not only sociologically, but theologically a better model of church than the top-down, hierarchical, client-server model of the Temple that Jesus critiqued so heavily.

The question then comes: how does leadership operate in a self-organizing, bottom-up system? Is there such a thing as leadership in these systems, or is it an anarchy?

The first part of my answer would be, yes, there is such a thing as leadership in such systems. But the model and style of leadership is so radically different to that which a) ‘leaders’ are used to using and b) ‘followers’ are used to experiencing that it is enormously tempting to quickly revert to old models of leadership where ‘leaders’ feel in control and the ‘followers’ can abdicate responsibility for their spiritual journey to them and just jump on the bandwagon.

Hence, there needs to be a real decision on both sides to make the new model work: leaders need to stop organizing everything and followers need to start taking more responsibility. (As an aside, it’s because of this need that I feel that full-time paid leadership is a massive hinderance to the establishment of self-organizing systems.)

In order to get into some of the detail of this, I’m going to be posting some thoughts around Douglas Griffin’s book The Emergence of Leadership – Linking Self-Organization and Ethics, which is part of the Routledge series on Complexity and Emergence in Organizations. [Hence the new category of Leadership.] Thanks to Jon for generously putting me on to it.

Some initial thoughts then from the introduction:

Griffin initially invites us to consider the semantics of organ-izations, corp-orations etc and see that they refer to ‘bodies’. There is a paradox here. In corporate scandals we refer to corporations ‘as if’ they were entities in themselves, when in fact they are really groups of individual people:

“This designation of a ‘body’ to a group of people is purely hypothetical, ‘as if’. Forgetting this ‘as if’ and attributing direct agency to these groups has become a habit of thought leading us to think and talk about groups as objects, as things…

Griffin reflects that it is the confusion of the ‘as if’ that is causing us problems: we forget that they are only like single entities in certain situations, but are actually groups of individuals. What we have done to overcome the paradox is to forget the ‘as if’ with the result that:

“we locate ethical responsibility in both the ‘system’, simply taking it for granted that a ‘system’ can be ethically responsible, and in a few individuals. In doing this we adopt a particular view of leadership in which it is individual leaders who are blamed and punished when things go wrong, or praised when they go right. The rest of us are allocated to passive roles as victims of the system and of manipulative leaders, and our salvation lies in the actions of heroic leaders. In thinking in this way, we are obscuring how we are all together involved…”

I think we can immediately recognize a lot of parallels with the church as organ-ization. Firstly, we hear people complaining about ‘the church’, as if it were a monolithic entity, arguing that they have been abused by ‘the church’. And in some senses, we are one. But, rather than locating ethical responsibility in ‘the church’,  we also need to see that we are very much a group of individuals, and the ethics of the whole lies with the ethics of each individual. Secondly, we allow ourselves to take passive roles, and give over our salvation to the actions of heroic leaders.

Griffin concludes this section with a key point: “As soon as we think differently about ethics, we must think differently about leadership.” Allow me to paraphrase this for our situation: as soon as we think differently about church as an emerging, self-organizing spirituality, we must think differently about leadership.

I’m not sure that we have done so yet. Still too many ‘heroes’. Still too much passivity. Still too easy to see the EC ‘as if’…


11 responses to “Leadership and Ethics in the Self-Organizing Emergent Church 1”

  1. I have been obsessing about this subject for years. In particular, I have wondered why charismatic churches are so hierarchical when the charismatic model of church in the New Testament seems to point to a more interrelated model. From Peter’s explanation of Pentecost, to Paul’s detailed model of the body of Christ, the message seems to be that the days of the gifted individual are over and the time when everyone has gifts and skills to contribute has come. The distribution of God’s Spirit means that we need each other. In this new economy ‘leadership’ is by gift, evaluated by all.

  2. Alan Roxborough has an excellent quote on this, from Mission Shaped Church. I’ve posted it at http://craftycurate.blogs.com/pilgrims_progress/2004/05/leading_from_th.html
    Emerging leaders must lead by example, and from within?

  3. Absolutely agree about the charismatic thing Simon. I think the whole idea of the Spirit, Spiritual gifts etc. have been hijacked by the charismatic movement, and led to a paucity of thought and language about them in other movements. Pentecost is the most powerful affirmation of God’s emergent, networked vision for us.
    And I like Alan’s quote Richard:
    “The pastor apostle is one who forms congregations into mission groups shaped by encounters with the gospel in culture – structuring the congregations forms into shapes that lead people outward into a missionary encounter … but in this kind of congregation, the pastor will only be able to lead as he or she models the encounter with the culture”
    However, I still feel that there is a danger of too much of the passive/active in this (even though I doubt Alan meant it to be taken this way). There is a risk of this being interpreted as “let’s get ourselves a trendy vicar who likes Radiohead”, (from the original post, the “hero Leader to save us”) rather than, let’s sack the full time leaders, enable them to work part time and all get more involved in shaping this vision together.
    “Encountering culture” is the troublesome phrase of course as it brings us back to the culture ‘as if’ it were some seperate entity. You can’t encounter culture. You have to participate in it. This is the trouble with much of the alt.worship/emerging church: it seeks to train-spot culture. When it should be trying to be the train.

  4. Colin Darling

    I have been working on chaos theory and storytelling. Jesus gave us precious little in terms of model rather he told stories – in the form of holy humourous semi-limericks that draw our attention to certain uncertainties. They are like (Lorenz) attractors in chaos theory.
    If you revisit the attractors in almost any order or frequency you eventually produce a form in phase space. If we continually revisit Jesus’ attractors in ‘Way space’ we find something being formed which is what Jesus wanted and knew would be formed. It is in this way that Jesus is himself the Way. Not his name as a magic word, or ritual device follow him round the attractors. Look at the things he did and hear his stories and see where it leads you. He is the fractal.

  5. Jonathan˘

    I’m with you all the way!

  6. Gr8 chat here!
    The more concerned comments and advice i get from Christian’s, the more convinced i am that their concern is misplaced. God actually trusts us. Leadership should be what it’s always been taught to be… the greatest servant, the foot-washer… the person who just gets on and loves people… and lives. I even wonder if Jesus was a leader? I mean, what kind of leader gets killed then buggers off after they’ve been proved correct all along after they re-incarnate? And what does this leader leave us with? The exact same freedom from sin and HolySpirit that he had… even though we are no where as worthy as him!
    That ain’t a leader…
    that’s a cloner who deliberately uses difficient and unpredictable DNA strands.
    I’ll follow that mad scientist anywhere and duplicate their lifes work.
    Are we Christian’s or Jesus-Mutations?

  7. Colin – fantastic thoughts. Thank you.
    “If we continually revisit Jesus’ attractors in ‘Way space’ we find something being formed which is what Jesus wanted and knew would be formed. It is in this way that Jesus is himself the Way”
    Would it be fair to say that part of the problem is leaders setting themselves up (in cahoots with our laziness) as un-strange-attractors… and our visits by them thus create routine, tiresome and over-familiar forms… Forms that are ‘unfractal’: lacking infinite depth and symmetry?

  8. For me, the telling term is pastor apostle. What does this mean? An apostle who is called a pastor because that is the convention of his/her church, or someone who fulfils both of these roles (and probably the rest of Ephesians 4 as well)? It seems to me that there is a desperate effort on the part of the church to narrow all of the ‘leadership’ gifts down to one. In contrast, Ephesians 4 points, consistent with 1 Cor 14, to a multiplicity of gifts, distributed to every member of the church (v7).
    As to the fractal analagy, I think I understand the message, but not the model!
    I think that ‘servant leadership’ is a term that the church hides behind on this subject. I once asked a leader what he meant by it, and he drew a parallel with being a laird, ‘serving’ the welfare of his tenants! At the other end of the spectrum is a leader I know, who I see as the church’s ‘pet saint’: a man who appears to be truly humble, but must be getting a massive payoff from the adulation of his flock.

  9. You can find a bit of Capra’s take.. the physicist turned biologist.. here..
    Better is the whole chapter in his book “The Hidden Connections”.. I placed an excerpt here..

  10. In the charismatic movement there’s been an awful lot of backslapping about the success of ‘leaders’ to create or inspire ‘movements’.
    For example exhibit A – http://www.kingsnet.org/Kings%20Church/PsWesRichards-HonouringSunday.pdf
    Leaving aside the relative merits of these ‘movements’ I would question whether this legacy of amazing leadership is deserved.
    Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography, plays down talk that he was a leader in the anti-aparthied movement, pointing at his heroes, many who passed away during ther struggle.
    Movements make leaders, not the other way around, or as Tony Benn says: “Apartheid wasn’t ended by Nelson Mandela and a spin doctor.”
    I believe I am part of a movement. I am as important as anyone else in that movement. It ebbs and flows, it swells and clashes against ideas, people and other interests. It isn’t orchestrated, led, or designed.
    A true paradigm of leadership – I love the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus leaves the 99 to find the 1. Most of our church leaders wouldn’t leave the 1 to find the 99.
    But the ones who do, the real heroes, we cluster around, quickly turning them into monuments.

  11. veronica preayer

    i feel lead to start a ministry, not to be pastor but to be an evangelist in the body. give me more words of wisdom. i plan to do what god has for me to do. i just want to work for the lord , while it is day for when night comes no man work!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! be blessed