Church as a learning community – some thoughts…

This blog is adapted from an article a great friend and colleague, Carol Walker, and I wrote sometime ago. Please do add your thoughts, comments and suggestions.

Carol and I were wondering what could help churches become more ‘movement’ than ‘monument’? Most people would say “a visionary leader”. Perhaps. However, where this has happened, we’ve noticed that this tended to perpetuate the ‘one man’ ministry model.

As our conversation progressed, we began to imagine that applying the concept of the ‘church as a learning community’ might lead to such a transformation.

For this idea to work, we felt that there was a need to re-frame the traditional understanding of ‘learning’ from a discrete activity to something that goes on all the time, involving everyone. In other words, “learning as a way of being”. This refers to the whole person – to something that goes on constantly and that extends to all aspects of a person’s life – it involves all our levels of awareness, including our unconscious minds.

People make sense of social realities through a process of co-construction, in specific spaces at specific times. We gain words and explanations from one another, and then reject or hone these in the light of fresh encounters and experiences. In this way knowledge is co-created and built on by ‘learners’ as we shape and build mental frameworks to make sense of our contexts and challenges. (Inter)connecting conversations, enquiry and listening to one another respectfully is thus the essence of a learning. In this sense, learning is inherently communal – it emerges out of a process of interaction.

In our view:

  • Knowledge that brings about lived activity is not something that can simply be transferred in a linear way (eg, from teacher to student or preacher to congregation) but rather it is something that people work interdependently to develop. This relational process fosters active learning as opposed to passive learning, collaboration over competition and community over individualism.
  • Knowledge generation, acquisition, and sharing is a relational (social) activity that involves communal ‘sense and meaning’ making.
  • Learning involves deep listening… of being open beyond one’s pre-conceptions and historical ways of making sense. There are two aspects to enquiry, the asking of questions and the listening. There is an art to asking questions. However, ‘how’ we listen is equally important.
  • Healthy and productive relationships comes from “valuing listening” not “adversarial listening”. We noticed that listening can very often be adversarial! We listen in order to debate, so we look out for what we don’t like, for weaknesses, to identify problems. A valuing approach to listening, on the other hand, looks out for what makes positive contributions. How is the offering helpful, creative, and significant? In this way the positive contribution can be woven into the final decisions; what is problematic can be left behind. In doing so, participants will feel heard and valued.
  • The immense diversity of the world reminds us that Christian mission is always about learning!

 ‘The Ephesian Moment’ is a phrase used by Andrew Walls to describe the social coming together of people of two cultures (Jewish and Hellenistic believers) into Christianity in the first century, This led to a distinctive new Christian lifestyle that corresponded with their ethnic and cultural differences. For Walls, the Ephesian moment has come again.

“Developments over several centuries, reaching a climax in the twentieth, mean that we no longer have two, but innumerable, major cultures in the church. Like the old Jerusalem Christians, Western Christians had long grown used to the idea that they were guardians of a ‘standard’ Christianity; also like them, they find themselves in the presence of new expressions of Christianity and new Christian lifestyles that have developed or are developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to display Christ under the conditions of African, Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Latin American life. And most of the world’s Christians are now Africans, Asians or Latin Americans.”

The power of inquiry

“An answer is always the part of the road that is behind you. Only questions point to the future.”  Jostein Gaarder

The theory…

Good questions are catalytic and generative. They stimulate thought, curiosity, learning and are able to open up possibilities.

Identifying meaningful questions is an art that can be cultivated and learnt. The right questions can lead to the proverbial ‘paradigm shift’ and bring about transformative change.

Rather than write a long blog about the power of inquiry, I thought I’d just give some examples of what, in my view, are generative questions.

“How do questions shape our reality?

“What is lost when we just take majority decisions and don’t hear minority voices?”

“How do we create meetings (conversations) modelled on how people naturally communicate?”

“Why are we re-creating ways of talking (conferences, meetings, forums, committees, etc) that limit our creativity?”

“Why are we not bringing in the collective intelligence of hundreds of people but rather choosing over and over again to just listen to a few expert voices?”

On second thought, perhaps it is more about developing an attitude of curiosity rather than the questions themselves but I think a combination of the two is essential for anyone wanting to facilitating change.

I always try to ask questions at meetings but this is countercultural. More value seems to be placed on the person with a lot to say and who seemingly has all the answers and solutions.

Rather than listening to respond, I make myself listen in order to ask questions that open up alternatives or possibilities.

The practice…

In my experience many people (those who’s opinions are seldom sought) appreciate the collaboration that such an approach engenders but some (usually those who’s voices are legitimised by status) may not!

I used a variation of one of these questions at a meeting where an influential member of staff wanted to implement an initiative that he had heard about. He talked about running “vision casting” conferences, and bringing in experts on the subject to speak at these conferences, etc.

At an appropriate time, I asked what we would potentially lose if we only asked the ‘good and the great’ for their input and not use the significant talent, knowledge and experience of our own people? This question caught the imagination of others at the meeting and the intervention changed the trajectory of the conversation.

I thought it was a significant moment that illustrated the power of inquiry.

However, the person with the idea told me afterwards that he wanted his ideas to be simply accepted and implemented and that my intervention made the situation overly complicated and changed the essence of his suggestion.

This was in stark contrast to feedback I received from others who felt that the intervention helped generate support for the idea because it (a) addressed the issue of contextual appropriateness and, (b) generated ownership for the idea by invoking the collective wisdom of the group.

The Blame Game

I never liked watching “The Apprentice” but my family loves it. So I thought I’d give it another try, but had to stop watching after 10 minutes, when Sir Alan Sugar said to a group, who lost a particular challenge… “Go away and find out who’s to blame”.

That is a cameo of traditional macho management that takes its values from the playground and the marketplace.

The following is a description of the show from the Personnel Today blog:

“Sugar revels in his role of business demigod and wields his stubby finger with relish each week, and the audience figures suggest that this celebration of blame his gripped the nation.”

The blogger goes on to share his opinion that like ‘greed’, ‘blame’ is good… and that we (HR) should do more it!

Hang on. Let’s hit the pause button. Or better still the ‘reflect’ button in our minds.

What kind of society do we create by this kind of thinking?

  • Identify who is to blame.
  • Get rid. Replace. Tell them off. Give them what for.
  • Discuss the problem and find the solution.
  • Get in a consultant/expert in to solve the problem.

My sense is that this leads to (and maintains) a macho management, negativity, dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, blame environment.

It’s not jut conceptual. This ‘worldview’ encourages certain types of behaviour. In a blame culture, people behave in blaming ways. These behaviours are self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. It breeds a suspicion, politicking, backbiting, draconian organisational practice and non-risk taking. In these cultures, feedback such as “you should do better next time”, and even training and development events are seen as threats.

I am now going to make a bold claim!

We can change our social world by changing our organising grammar to:

  • Let’s discuss a helpful process for creating change.
  • How can we inquire into and build on the best of what is?
  • What can we help people to learn?
  • How can we value everyone’s contribution?
  • Who else, amongst us, do we need to involve?
  • What processes do we need to put in place to help us improve continuously?
  • How can we develop, coach and mentor people through a project?

In the words of one of my favourite song, its ‘more than words’. It’s about an attitude and a particular perspective on life and how we want our human communities to be (including our work communities).

In the workplace, this counter-cultural way of thinking can potentially help our organisations become more life-giving and supportive places to be. This in turn leads to productively, innovation and creativity… through a sense of collaborative endeavour.

In my humble opinion, this approach is more likely to lead to the achievement of organisational goals than a culture based on shame and blame. Who would you rather work for… Pixar or Amstrad – take your pick.

In a Christian setting, we could and should go further by asking ourselves… “How might we create a ’forgiveness’ rather than a ‘blame’ culture”? What can we do to enable and help our people behave in constructive, encouraging and forgiving ways?

Developing Christian principles for Leadership, Organising and Learning

Part 2: The importance of philosophy and assumptions about people

The second instalment of this series is over to you!

I would love to hear your views on how the following two bible verses…

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”. Gen 1:27

“…I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions”. Joel 2:28

… should influence:

1. The culture (“the way things are done around here”) and ethos of a Christian organisation;
2. It’s model/style of leadership; and
3. The way that jobs are designed.

Please post your thoughts in the reply box below.

Of course, as “saved sinners”, Christians, all too often, get it wrong. Our ‘love-hate’ relationship with Christian organisations is brilliantly illustrated by these quotes from the Anglican Common Prayer Book:

“The church is a whore, but she is our mother.” Augustine

“The church is sort of like Noah’s ark. It’s a stinky mess inside, but if you get out, you’ll drown.” Anon

However, there must be good practice out there, that we can be inspired by, and learn from. If you know of any, please do post these as well.