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Leading the Self-Organizing Church

I am convinced that self-organization has not just a sociological imperative, but a theological one too.

If you have browsed the management section of any bookstore, it will not have escaped you that “self-organization” is big business. From a business standpoint, the arguments are very appealing. We live in a networked world, where universal human rights ought to permit flat structures rather than rigid hierarchies. Self-organizing, or “emerging,” systems can respond quickly to local needs, and adapt themselves to new cultural or market pressures.

It is easy to see why this is appealing to the Church, but is it sound? I am convinced that self-organization has not just a sociological imperative, but a theological one too. I believe that the New Testament emphasis on people being all part of the Body—not machine—of Christ suggests a strong theological argument that self-organizing, emergent systems are a better model of church than the top-down, client-server model of the Temple that Jesus critiqued so heavily, and that it is only by allowing local churches to be
reincarnated—to be reborn as bottom-up, networked communities of faith, rooted in their immediate and particular localities—that we will see them truly re-engage with the culture that hosts them.

If I am right, then the question of the place of leadership in such organizations is a highly relevant one. How do we lead, while protecting the ethos of self-organization? Are leadership and self-organization a paradox? I believe not.

In the introduction of his book The Emergence of Leadership—Linking Self-Organization and Ethics, Douglas Griffin points out that enmeshed in the very language we use to talk about groups is the idea of “bodies.” We talk of organizations and of corporations, describing groups of people as if they were bodies—independent entities. So much so that we often lose the “as if”: “This designation of a ‘body’ to a group of people is purely hypothetical ‘as if,’” he writes. “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.”

This loss of the “as if” is nowhere more apparent than when a corporate story breaks. When we feel they have cheated us, we forget that these huge organizations are actually no more than collections of individuals. We ascribe human qualities to these companies, and speak of them “as if” they had ethical responsibilities. There are, of course, figureheads in such situations. Kenneth Lay could not possibly have plotted the Enron debacle by himself, but because each body must have a head, we forget the “as if” and caricature the story to one corrupt man at the head of a wholly unethical and malevolent company. The same principle operates when things go wonderfully right too, as Griffin explains:

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.

Just as with corporations, too many of our churches have risen and fallen solely on the fortunes of one figurehead. We are busy. We have full-time jobs and families to deal with. We don’t have time for anything but the “passive” role, so we hand our lot over to the most charismatic, heroic leader and rely on him to drive us into good pasture. If he doesn’t, we’ll just switch our allegiance someplace else.

This is the danger of the culture of the “professionalization” of Christian leadership. We abdicate responsibility to others and pay them to take responsibility for our spiritual growth. When all is going well, we are happy to stay. When the hero we are paying falls apart, the whole body falls with him. Aldous Huxley put the downside well in Ends and Means: ‘So long as men worship the Caesars and Napoleons, Caesars and Napoleons will duly rise and make their lives miserable.’”

I believe that leaders of self-organizing churches are going to have to refuse this “hero” role, and to do that, the whole mind-set of those in the church they are trying to lead will have to change too.

Griffin distinguishes between two sorts of self-organization. Systemic self-organization is where a body moves in an emergent, organic way toward a goal set out by a leader external to the body. The leader is thus an independent observer, able to keep subject/object boundaries. It is a “program-driven” approach to ministry. Participative self-organization has, on the other hand, no leaders external to the body. There are no subject/object boundaries. This is the “immersed, incarnational” approach to ministry and is, I believe, what Paul is trying to communicate in 1 Corinthians 12: 14–27: We are all part of the body of Christ. No one is external. Everybody is tied in to everyone else. There can be no abdication of responsibility to another member because we all have our roles, and all have our gifts.

This has two implications for leadership. First, because leaders are not external, they must fully participate in the life of the body. They must not be cut off in a sanitized world that is totally unlike the life that their “followers” have to live. For this reason, I strongly believe that leaders in self-organizing bodies should work only part-time for the church, and should also work in another part-time job that keeps them connected. In this way, the culture of the paid professional minister is diluted. If the minister is going to step down for a few days each week to pay the bills, who’s going to step up?

This is the second implication. Not only must leaders participate fully in the life of the body, but others must be invited to participate in leadership too. Self-organizing leadership is distributed leadership.

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Within any body, and corporation, there will be different people with different areas of expertise. In a self-organizing body it is vital that members are not only aware of what their gifts are, but are also affirmed in those gifts and given permission to lead in situations when those gifts are being exercised. The current model of the “one great leader” is given credence by the training systems we have in place: One person is sent away to seminary, where they are loaded up with every tool any church could ever need, and then parachuted into a community like Superman to lead them. If we are truly going to have successful local, incarnational bodies, then we are going to have to change the way we train our leaders. Instead of loading up all these skills to one person, how about distributing this same training among a whole team of leaders? In that way, if one person is lost, only one skill set needs replacing.

Again, a culture shift needs to take place. Rather than leaders being multi-gifted, leaders need to be those who facilitate other people’s gifts. It is fascinating to read through the literature on self-organizing systems and read about this principle of leaders as facilitators; it is nothing more than the principle of servant leadership that Christ gave to us.

This principle applies to communication too. The easiest way to spot leaders used to be to identify those who spoke. The preacher/priest was the sole voice—who else could be the leader? In the self-organizing church, the leader will not communicate as much as facilitate communication. They will spot interesting connections and put people in touch with one another, then step back and lets them get on with it. In this way, leaders in the new model are constantly trying to devolve power, and constantly seeking to avoid the power potential building in and around themselves that so easily accumulates when one is the central node through which all communication occurs.

Leadership in self-organizing systems must be participative and distributive; it must seek to facilitate communication and the exercise of gifts. It is not a figurehead position. It is not heroic. And, finally, it must also be disturbing.

All living systems die if they stop evolving. Any living system that is in total stasis, in equilibrium, is, by definition, dead. So it is a leadership task to “disturb” the system from time to time, to take it out of equilibrium and thus force it to re-engage with life. The leaders who said “peace, peace” when there was no peace only led people into death. The Temple authorities plotted Jesus’ death precisely because He was disturbing the static equilibrium of the law they lay so heavily on people’s shoulders. Jesus disturbed it precisely because He knew it brought death. He critiqued the Temple with its top-down hierarchies and unbending, uncaring leadership and opened His body, releasing this virus of the Spirit, creating a new community where we all “have access to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18, TNIV).

It is our turn to be faithful to this radical, participative, incarnational vision. If we are leaders it will be hard to step down a little from the limelight. But, for the sake of the health of the Body, we must. If we have been passive followers, it will be hard to step up to our gifts and responsibilities, but, for the sake of the Body, we must too. The time of heroes is over. The time of abdicating our responsibilities is over too. The time for the body of Christ to stretch its limbs and use every sinew and faculty has come.

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