MLab

Leadership From the Inside Out — Part I

Posted by Gary Hamel on May 27, 2010

In a pair of recent posts (Part IPart II) I argued that many of us have lost our faith in large institutions. We increasingly feel ill-used by our employers and ill-served by our elected representatives. More troubling still, many of us have also lost faith in faith-based organizations. In this regard, the Church of England (CoE) stands as Exhibit A. Founded 476 years ago when King Henry VIII broke with papal authority, the Church of England has in recent years been fractured by a contentious dispute over the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. As thorny as that issue may be, it is not the most vexing problem facing the “mother church” of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Today, less than 3% of the British population attends a Church of England service in a typical month—this according to a recent CoE report. That’s down by nearly 50% from 1968. A survey by Tearfund, a Christian charity, found that a third of Britain’s population is now “de-churched.” These are former parishioners who no longer attend weekly services. The fact that more than 50% of UK residents still describe themselves as Christians makes the decline of Britain’s “established” church all the more perplexing. As one website put it, “If the Church of England was the national football team, we would have sacked the manager long ago.”

The fact is, the Church of England has become irrelevant to most British citizens. At this point I should declare a personal interest. During the ten years I lived in the UK, I frequently attended an Anglican church just outside of London. I enjoyed the energetic singing and the thoughtful homilies. And yet, I found it easy to be a pew warmer, a consumer, a back row critic. After all, the only thing the vicar seemed to want from me was a kind heart and a generous hand. Like the other congregants, I was asked to donate time and money to the church’s programs—and that was it. None of the clergy seemed eager for me, or others, to actually take the initiative and start something. I was never challenged to lead—only to “serve.” If it sounds like I’m justifying my indolence, I am—but it’s hard to get excited when there’s little scope for initiative, or when the categories of contribution have already been defined by others. Though inclined to faith, I struggled to find my niche in a top-down, pulpit-led model of “church”—and still do. In this regard I’m not alone—well, not if the experience of Drew Williams is anything to go by.

I met Drew last autumn, 15 years after I’d moved back to the U.S. Drew, I learned, had recently made his own transatlantic move—to take up the role of senior pastor at a church in Greenwich, Conn. Ten years earlier, he had also changed careers. Trained as a corporate litigator, Drew practiced law for ten years before deciding to pursue a “higher calling.” After finishing his theological training in Bristol, he was appointed assistant vicar of an Anglican congregation 25 miles northwest of London, in Chorleywood, England.

Drew e-mailed me after hearing a talk I had given on “management innovation.” During my exposition I argued that organizations should be built around “communities of passion.” Apparently Drew agreed. In his note he told me, “I wanted to jump up and clap when you made that point, but since I’m English, I didn’t.” When we finally connected by phone, I learned that Drew had helped pioneer a radical new “management model” during his tenure at St. Andrews—one that was led from the pews rather than from the pulpit, one that fit programs to people, rather than the other way around. Wow, I thought, there’s something to learn here. Maybe there really is a way to reconnect individuals and institutions.

When Drew arrived at St. Andrews in 2003 as assistant vicar, he joined a church that had 500 members, a full roster of programs and a top-notch worship service—a church that was, by UK standards, large and successful.

Problem was, as Drew put it, St. Andrews had a back door that was bigger than its front door. Each year enrollment was shrinking by about 10%. Drew was bothered by what he saw as a “come to us” model of church—where the worship service and the physical building were the center points—both physically and spiritually—of the church’s mission.

“There was a lot of excellence in worship,” recalls Drew, “but we were pretty weak at making disciples. People would look at those leading from the front and say, ‘What could I possibly offer here? Everything is done so professionally.’ We had a congregation that saw themselves as an audience.”

St Andrews’ vicar, Mark Stibbe, was also troubled by this reality, and asked Drew to take charge of developing a new church strategy. Believing that the real mission of St. Andrews was to bring hope to those outside of the building and beyond the congregation, Drew started to think about how he might build a “go-to-them” church—one that would encourage the spiritual growth of its members while multiplying their impact in the community around them.

As he struggled with this challenge, Drew was hit with another realization. While St. Andrews had small groups (typically 3-4 believers who’d meet during the week to chat and pray), and a really big group (the entire congregation), it had no mid-sized groups—nothing that was the equivalent of an extended family—more than three but less than fifty. This struck Drew as odd since the early Christian church had been built around communities of just this size.

So Drew went out searching for some in-between models of church—and found one in Sheffield, England. There, Mike Breen, the vicar of St Thomas Crookes, had been experimenting with programs built around “mid-sized” groups of 20-50 members. Intrigued, Drew drove up to Sheffield and spent several hours interviewing Mike about his novel approach. During that conversation, Mike planted the seeds for what would become a bold experiment at St. Andrews.

Drew saw several advantages to organizing around medium-sized groups—what he would later call “Mission-shaped Communities” or MSCs.

First, they would be more open and inviting than the small groups. Over time the small groups tended to become cliquish. Often, when Drew tried to help a new member connect with a small group, he’d be told that the group was full, or be asked whether the newcomer was “needy.” A mid-sized group was big enough that a newcomer wouldn’t stand out, yet small enough so he or she wouldn’t get lost.

Second, there’d be a lot more room for members to exercise their leadership gifts in intermediate-sized groups. A group of three or four wasn’t really big enough to tackle significant projects—and thus wasn’t very good at exploiting the leadership talents of its members. On the other hand, few lay members were eager to volunteer for large-scale, church-wide projects.

And third, Drew hoped the MSCs would strengthen the social fabric of the church by creating new opportunities for members to interact with one another.

Despite these potential advantages, Drew had doubts—and faced some tough, practical questions . . .

How, exactly, could he transform passive followers into active leaders? Was this even possible?
How could St. Andrews exploit the power of self-organizing communities without creating a bunch of cliques and factions? Where would the cohesion come from?
What role would he and Mark need to play in supporting this new strategy? Could they actually “lead,” if they weren’t leading from the front—and if so, how?

With just a month to go before he had to stand in front of the congregation and outline his strategy, Drew knew he needed answers to these questions—and fast.

So, dear reader, what advice would you give to Drew? What have you learned about turning followers into leaders—and then leading the leaders? And is it possible to dis-integrate an organization without fragmenting it?

Next week, part II: What Drew learned when he “dis-organized” St. Andrews.

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Your mention of "thoughtful homilies" really hit the nail on the head, because such things, while momentarily comforting, are not real spiritual food. I'm convinced that the C of E, among others, has ceased to be relevant by seeking to please, rather than expounding the truths found in the word of God.

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Discovering Mission, Serving Community, Providing Cover

Drew’s MSCs Mission Shaped Communities are a refreshing change to the typical social model employed in many churches. There are organizational considerations but being a church there are also spiritual aspects to Drew’s situation.

Model

Drew’s MSCs Mission Shaped Communities fit the model Paul described in the letter to the Ephesians. That Christ himself had given leaders (apostles, . . .) to prepare those involved to serve others. So mission is important – what we’re ‘supposed’ to be doing to help the church and the community.

Direction

Drew’s actions involve next activating the groups and that depends on the directional perspective.

Some believe that God is able to ‘communicate’ his intention (including his choices for service targets) to a congregation while others believe that He gave guidelines and leaves it to us to choose who we will serve in His name.

Some give the example in Acts 13 where the Holy Spirit directed the Antioch congregation to commission Paul and Barnabas for yet undefined work (arguing that this would have been applicable to no other congregation as no other had Paul and Barnabas attending).

Mission

Drew must set the groups looking for opportunities to serve each other and the community at large – for each group to find its ‘mission’ and to discover its ways to achieve it.

If natural affinities and connections are to be the source of each group’s mission then Drew should help each group suggest and select its own mission focus. This might be something like, “My brother is a policeman and he tells me many policemen and policewomen struggle with their marriages due to shift work and job pressures. Perhaps we can offer marriage seminars for our police force at no charge.”

More?

This is valuable and praiseworthy but perhaps a further degree of cooperation with God is possible.

If God is viewed as interested in guiding the congregation then Drew should personally model and teach the groups to seek audience with God daily and to seek to join God in initiatives that He may have already started on. This is essentially the “Experiencing God” model put forth by Henry Blackaby (and others throughout history George Mueller, Hudson Taylor, etc.).

In the book, “Experiencing God” Blackaby recounts a similar mission-service example to Drew’s.

A church expended three years in activities to serve the local university’s students with nothing to show for their efforts. Blackaby challenged the mission-group to set aside their own designs and to join God in His desire to have students get to know Him better. He asked the group to pray to be sensitive to situations where God was already at work and to join Him immediately even if it meant changing their planned day. The mission group committed itself to joining God’s efforts.

That week a student involved in the mission group left a class with another student who seemed more interested in talking than in previous encounters. She asked the mission student if she had time for a chat. Though the mission student had another class to go to she sensed this may be one of the occasions Blackaby suggested might arise. She skipped her class and they both went for a coffee. At the end of the hour the girl asked the mission student if she was free that evening. She responded yes and asked what the other girl had in mind. She said, “There is a group of about 15 of us in my dormitory who read the bible. None of us are sure we understand but we’d like to know God more personally. We’ve been looking for someone to lead us. Would you be willing to come and help us?” In the next few weeks the mission group discovered multiple groups of students in this way and set about to serve them.

Cohesion

In groups formed in this way cohesion isn’t an issue because the group together sought guidance, looked for opportunities to join God, saw Him direct in non-normal ways, and began to see lives change and faith grow.

Cover

While activating the groups, Drew must also provide ‘cover’ and help those in leadership to not be threatened by the groups but rather to be supportive of this new movement. This task will be much more difficult than activating the mission groups.

Some church leaders are only interested in seeking God’s design for their church as long as it completely aligns with their own view. These leaders speak words of support for God’s working in their midst but inwardly they continue to advocate for their own agenda. We all fall short of God’s standard and it’s more difficult for some of us to be neutral on an issue and set aside our preferences and seek God’s direction without bias.

Role

Drew’s role, in summary, is to activate the groups, help each find a mission and to experiment with ways to achieve it, while protecting this new form from the larger organization’s (and the leaders’) immune response.

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