From Leadership to Communityship

In my experience, many Christian organisations are characterised by “external pride but internal pain”. All too often, Christian employees are disillusioned when their experience of the Christian workplace falls short of their utopian ideals.

Leaders inadvertently contribute to this through their aspirational branding and sophisticated marketing and public communications.

Hurt, anxiety, stress and conflict normally follows when people discover that the Christian organisation they’ve joined are not exempt from the shadow side of the human condition, ie, power plays, office politics, competitiveness, bias, selfishness, prejudice, hierarchy, conflict, gossip, etc.

Based on his experience with community building workshops, Scott Peckpeck (famed for his book The Road Less Travelled) observed that this happens when group members initially strive to have bonhomie with one another. They do this by covering up their differences and by acting as if the differences do not exist. He calls this Pseudo-community.

Peck helpfully suggests that becoming a productive community is a journey through 4 stages. In his view, leadership is about guiding the community through these stages, ensuring that relationships are not damaged along the way.

The stages are:

Pseudo-community (described above)

Chaos: When pseudo-community fails to work, the members start turning on each other, giving vent to their mutual disagreements and differences. This is a period of chaos. It is a time when the people in the community realise that differences cannot simply be ignored. Chaos looks counterproductive but it is the first genuine step towards community building.

Emptiness: After chaos comes emptiness. At this stage, the people learn to empty themselves of those ego related factors that are preventing their entry into community. Emptiness is a tough step because it involves the death of a part of the individual. But Peck argues, this death paves the way for the birth of a new creature, the Community.

True community: Having worked through emptiness, the people in community are in complete empathy with one another. There is a great level of tacit understanding. People are able to relate to each other’s feelings. Discussions, even when heated, never get sour, and motives are not questioned.

This concept sounds rather similar to Truckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing model of group development, the obvious difference being a spiritual and relational approach to managing change.

Unfortunately, some leaders are reluctant to see Christian workplaces as community, preferring instead to view them as ‘organisation’.

For some, this is because they want their enterprises to be run like a business, believing this to be the professional thing to do, especially in the face of financial pressures.

For others, the narrative of ‘organisation’ provides a measure of control, ie, the justification to only recruit (include), promote and reward people who “fit” (normally this means in their own image!). In doing this, they set up systems that (unconsciously?) exclude, discipline or exit people who, in their view, are not “a good fit”.

Who among us haven’t heard stories about how redundancies have been more about a leader’s inability (or refusal) to deal with difference (style, approach, personality, thinking, theology, worldview, etc) than genuinely about capability or competence of the individuals concerned?

For example, I’ve heard of leaders who actively discouraged the use of the word ‘family’ because associated value of “unconditional loving” would prevent them from getting rid of people they thought to be “deadwood, damaged, useless, trouble makers, odd”, etc, through the disciplinary or redundancy process.

Many Christian organisations seem to be like broken CDs, skipping between Pseudo-community and Chaos stages. A good leader needs to be able to continually guide their community through all the stages. I like to think about this as “curating community” and love to see this appearing in leaders’ job descriptions!

Unlike Peck, however, I am less optimistic that we can ever create True Community. Not completely. Not this side of heaven. I think George Verwer had it pegged when he said at a conference I was at recently, “where two or three are gathered, sooner or later, there will be a mess!”

In this connection, I rather like Rick Warren’s (Purpose Driven Life) call for Christians to learn to live with the tension. He calls this leading with “maturity”.  Verwer calls it “messyology!”

According to Warren: Rick

“Longing for the ideal while criticising the real is evidence of immaturity.

On the other hand, settling for the real, without striving for the ideal is complacency.

Maturity is living with the tension.“

We know that, on earth, perfection is unattainable, so we mustn’t beat ourselves up when we encounter dysfunctional behaviours in the workplace or communities.

However, this should not be an excuse for doing nothing. This is where a relational approach to OD comes in. See my blog on relational practice here.

The challenge for leaders is to innovate and implement relational processes and development activities that are authentic about the real, while stretching their people towards the ideal.

Here are my “high fives” for being a great curator of community:high5

  • Talk less
  • Listen More
  • Notice marginal voices
  • Blend all voices
  • Use all of the above to provide a compelling, collaborative story for going on

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