In a pair of recent posts (Part I, Part 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.