Thursday, 4 June 2009

Church Next

In this book Eddie Gibbs and Ian Coffey look at a range of issues concerning Christian ministry in the twenty-first century; looking at transitions "from living in the past to engaging with the present", "from attracting the crowd to seeking the lost" and so on. Inevitably they have a great deal to say in the area of decision-making and I believe that their writing in this area focusses on three key themes: networks, permission-giving and subsidiarity.

It is also worth taking note of their observation that post-modern culture has an impact on the way each individual understands their identity and place in the world: "Each individual has to create his or her own meaning and associate with others to increase his or her power base in a fragmented society of competing interests. Everyone is entitled to his or her point of view, because, for the perspectivilist, what you see depends on where you stand. The world of postmodernists is a world of image rather than of substance. They are concerned with immediate rather than with the long-term, because history is meaningless and the future is too scary and unpredictable to contemplate. Meanwhile, the present is lived out as a tumble of fleeting experiences." (p29) This has an inevitable effect on the way postmodern people engage with leadership and decision-making. In their list of transitions between modern and postmodern Gibbs and Bolger observe a move from "Change initiated at the centre" to "Change initiated at the periphery". The centre is no longer trusted but the margins can be significant if their voice is recieved by the network.

"In traditional and 'modern' contexts it was possible to engage in long-term strategic planning, either because society was stable, or because change was predictable and evolutionary. In the culture of postmodernity, however, change is discontnuous rather than incremental. It comes rapidly and without warning. This culture has been described as a 'plan-do' environment." (p 36)
A very different cultural context requires a very different approach to leadership. Those in leadership positions can no-longer be 'directors' with 'master plans' but must become 'permission givers' who work to release the potential in other people and create an environment in which co-ordinated but fluid action and response can take place. Decisions must be made at the level at which there is most knowledge, skill and relevance, but there is still a role for 'over view' or co-ordination - possibly within a network model.

Gibbs and Bolger note a couple of reports from the evangelical tradition which propose criteria for functional, growing or "missional" churches. These suggest a number of relational factors which would have a baring on decision making, for instance: "The church is a community that practices reconciliation", "People within the community hold themselves accountable to one another in love" (p 56), "A strong, high quality leadership" [?] and "A high level of involvement from skilled lay-workers" (p57).

When it comes to the issue of 'control' Gibbs and Bloger ask the question, "Do denominational leaders disempower others?" (p 73) They note that "Leaders operating within a hierarchical structure see their role as delegating and granting permission. People who function within a network empower and grant resources to those around them without trying to exert control. Controllers bring a mentality of suspicion and inhibit individuals from exercising initiative. They thereby deprive others of the opportunity to grow and mature through learning, through having their faith stretched as they reach for the unlikely and the seemingly impossible. Many valuable lessons can be learned only from failed attempts." (p74)

They observe that those churches who are most closely tied to a rigid hierarchy have suffered most during the twentieth century, but there is a "new reformation" taking place (p 75) which is affecting both new and old churches. This is resulting in significant changes to the way individual congregations are managed and in the way that churches and individuals relate to each other. They suggest, in fact, that traditional denominations are being superceded or suplemented by "new apostolic networks" (p 76) and parachurch organisations.

They describe this as "The age of Networks" (p 83) and observe that there has been a change in the way organisations are structured: "The network-based movement should not be regarded as a place where everyone is free to do his or her own thing. This would simply transform the network into a tangle that would rip itself apart. Rather, it represents a significant change in th edecision-making process. In the hierarchical pyramid, decision-makers are removed from the scene of action and delegate their decisions to the people responsible for thier implementation; but in the network, decision-makers are available when needed to ratify a decision. At the same time they resist the temptation to let decisions float to the top of an organization, emphasizing that each key decision must be taken and acted upon at the appropriate level... Conversely, decisions are often not made in isolation but are communicated to the network for input by anyone who can make a worthwhile contribution." (p84)

Gibbs and Bolger note that networking requires a different approach from those in authority. Relationships, rather than status or position, become more significant. "Individuals who can build strong relationships and expand networks of people are those who relate well to one another and who exercise incredible influence within networks" (p85) - but this has challenging side - "Leadership in a network is precarious because the authority of the leaders can be challenged at any time. Individuals and groups are free to sever their links and to start independent networks" (p85) - although in practice this may be difficult when resources are shared. "When network leaders over-extend their authority or lose credibility, they are likely to find themselves increasingly isolated. Knowing this, they tend to work with supportive teams around them. These teams function not simply as a workforce but as a mutually supportive group of people who affirm one another and relate informally." (p 86)

Gibbs and Bloger quote William Easum: "Relationships and the flow of information are the two most valuable assets of the permission-giving network... The sum of an organization is the sum of its parts plus the relationship between the parts..." (Sacred Cow pp 22-23)

All this requires a significant change in management and leadership style. Delegation needs to be replaced by permission-giving. Control needs to be replaced by mutual accountability. While controllers tend to be insecure and delegate responsibility with out commensurate authority (p87) permision-givers tend to be "secure" and exercise trust. They key facet of relationships between them and others in a network is "mentoring". Organization is fluid and permission-givers "are ambitious for the people working around them and are not intimidated by people more able than themselves. Permission-givers are in the business of growing people, not 'cloning' people." (p 87)

Other key aspects of network leadership are values, training and empowerment. Teams are "self-organizing" and imperminent (p 90). Organizations are decentralised (p 9-91) and only work if there is mutual-accountabilty rather than one-way. (p 91). Gibbs and Bolger observe that networks represent an "open-ended system" (p 91) and have unlimited potential for growth.

Further comments of note:
Team-building skills are an essential skill for professional ministers. (p 108)
"Entertainment is no substitute for participation" (p 162)

Eddie Gibbs and Ian Coffey, Church Next: Quantum Changes in Christian Ministry, Intervarsity Press, 2001.

No comments: