I could have called this blog community – but I think that would be misleading. Well, perhaps not misleading, but shallow? Superficial? Hollow?

My understanding of community continues to deepen as I travel along this wee journey called life. Recently, I have had two experiences that have returned me to the idea of community and the nuance of collectivity.

The first catalyst has been this month’s edition of Geez magazine. This month’s focus, and perhaps, not surprising has been about collectivity! With all of its challenging articles, reflections, poetry and art a swirl in my head, the second spark was a recent and engaging conversation about Appreciative Inquiry (AI). In the chat, we explored how AI speaks to The United Church of Canada (UCC) in this time of change. Specifically, though its organisational processes are helpful, we discussed the way its philosophical lens invites us to let go of cynicism, apathy and fear.

How these two ideas connect, therefore, have helped shape this musing. As an institution, especially as ministry became more professionalised during the 20th century (some call this modernity), there was an ongoing shift to the professionalization of leadership (ministry).

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not intending to imply that this is good or bad, it simply is how the church (system) organised itself. The challenge – nonetheless – is that the world beyond the walls of the institution have changed (some call this postmodernity). One question, therefore, is how will we respond adaptively and robustly during the significant changes that are occurring in the secular world, in order to share our vision and mission (some call this the Good News) beyond our context?

This is, in essence, a call to review how we understand leadership. This is something with which I believe AI helps. More importantly, it reminds us of a significant history that reaches back to the egalitarian model of the early church. Some have framed this changing context in this way:

Modernity = Sage from the Stage
Postmodernity – Guide from the Side

It is certainly fashionable in the secular world to embrace the word community (some call this tribe), especially in areas of marketing and branding. Yet the early church beckons us to realise this word is less about simple a gathering of people (consumers), but the way the collective is connected. The metaphor often used in the Christian tradition is that the collective includes all the various parts of the body. And – this is the important part – the body cannot function without all parts: there is no one part that is more important in this collectively connected relationship.

Wisdom's Steward

Wisdom’s Steward

This reminder – maybe remembering is more concise – is intrinsic to the AI philosophy. The system (the body), as a collective connexion, possesses the wisdom to respond to the future based on the best that it has experienced in the past. This does not mean continuing to do what has already been done – after all this will only repeat the past and that’s not so helpful moving into the unknown. It’s an invitation to look to the places where previous intention/practice reveal experiences that are extraordinary. Once that wisdom/memories are unlocked/claimed, the exciting task is how to translate that into new and innovative practices!

The intrinsic trust in the community as a connected collective, therefore, ultimately has implications for how we understand leadership. This shift, therefore, can feel threatening for those who have been nurtured in an education and institutional model that places people in the role as the expert, manager and/or professional. To be clear, I do not think this threat is usually about ego, as much as it is about feeling ill-equipped to do one’s work (in the church this is vocational and is referred to as ‘Call) in new ways.

For the collective (such as a congregation) this shift is just as daunting. Often the community has looked to the minister, pastor, or Reverend for direction and guidance in a manner that is now different outside of our walls. To be invited to claim agency or equal part in the collective requires just as much trust in claiming this new role, as it does for those who are confronting shifting from Sage to Guide. It’s not an easy time, to be sure, but it certainly can be exciting!

If you are wondering how, just consider this church specific example: social media.

Social media has revolutionised the world. Political revolutions have been organised through media such as twitter and protests such as #IdleNoMore have reminded people they have both voice and agency. For the church (the UCC), the reality is that to engage in this organic and relational milieu cannot be one person’s job. There’s just too much to do and too many opportunities and considerations for our previous leadership model. How we awaken to the collective response in this one medium, therefore, I suggest speaks to how we might (re)consider imaginative and creative ways to continue to bear light into shadowed places. Ultimately, this is both an honour, and when done collectively, it is a “burden light!”