A few degrees of separation? (James Karran)

Thursday, 30 May, 2013

James Karran explores why leaders need to be 'outsiders' in their own community.

My most burning passion in ministry is to see communities of committed disciples that are authentic, real and honest. I long to be part of a place that is safe for people to come and be vulnerable, where they don't have to fear being used as guinea pigs by a bunch of amateur spiritual physicians who want to heal, save and liberate everything in arms reach.

In order to facilitate this environment as the leader, building relationships is crucial because without deep relationships, the community will never develop the intimacy needed for vulnerability.

But vulnerability is difficult. We have all been hurt and bruised in our stories, and the mind rebels against this idea of letting its guard down in case the bruises are ripped open to become deep wounds. Unfortunately, in so many people's experience of church, this is exactly what has happened. So we play at being vulnerable, we pretend that we are sharing our true and honest 'prayer concerns' with each other; knowing all the while that those things most important to us, those facets of our beings that are darkest, most messed up and most broken - those are things we could NEVER tell anyone. The potential pain is too great.

So, deep relationships are important. However, it's not as simple as that because there is real danger associated with it.

A leader wants to create relationships within the community so they throw themselves into the friendships, meeting up with folk for coffee, organising social events and cinema trips, nights out, meals - anything that would create the fertile ground for relationship to grow. This community becomes their main friendship circle, they invest in its members - and the members invest in the leader and each other. And it begins to work. Deep and real friendships grow. Vulnerability begins to emerge. The dream is beginning to be realised.

Here's the danger. In the midst of this process, somewhere in the milieu, the leader loses perspective and sense of purpose. The friendships become the goal; the reason for their necessity is forgotten. The little community is happily revelling in its own insular reality where everyone loves everyone and 'we' look after each other, where the universe is fine as long as we stick together. It becomes harder and harder to see anything outside this circle of loveliness.

The community becomes gated by walls of its sense of shared vulnerability. When it comes into contact with 'outsiders', the in-jokes and private conversations give a clear, if unintentional, message, "Sorry, if you're not one of us already you really can't be one of us, unless of course you prove to be 'our kind of person'. Then you can definitely be one of us". And because the leader is as much in the mix of all this as anyone else, there is no one to recognise what is happening. The community has become a clique.

This is something that I see as especially relevant to fresh expressions of church because the leaders are trying to start communities from scratch, often with a strong emphasis on relationship, so the temptation to get 'sucked in too far' is high. Also, many fresh expressions may be outside normal accountability structures; it is therefore less likely that the danger will be spotted (or understood) by those to whom the leader should be accountable.

I've come to the conclusion that a few degrees of separation between the leader and the community are necessary, and it is painful for me to say that because it is painful to do. Someone has to stand slightly outside the circle, to keep watch for the waifs and strays who God brings along, to remind the community of its purpose. This may mean that the leader will always feel slightly like an outsider in their own community, and possibly the other members will feel that of the leader too. Perhaps this is one of the burdens of leadership. I wonder if Jesus felt something of this as his lads were getting to know each other, laughing, joking and hanging out? I don't know. I do know though that the leader has a calling and responsibility, one that can weigh very heavily at times.

This is one of the hardest lessons I've learnt doing this pioneering ministry lark, and one that is a constant struggle to get right. But if vulnerability and relationships are still key, how does one facilitate these while maintaining something of a separation? Haven't quite figured that one out yet...

About the author: 

James Karran is helping to lead the Llan community in Cardiff.


A very relevant article. I agree that a degree of separation is implicit to any leadership role, because to lead requires the leader to actively be seeking to see further and be ahead of the led.

It's also dependant on whether you're an extroverted or introverted leader. I would suggest that the former are more at risk of what you suggest. My own experience of being an introvert leader is o that sense of being on the edge. I believe that this liminality can make one more open to external stimuli, though this is clearly a generalisation.

Loneliness is the reality for those of us on the outside. What I imagine feels incredible from the insiders perspective is perceived to this outsider as a club in which one must strive really hard to gain access. I've been to numerous so called missional expressions in the states and hear their pastor bragging about the life giving nature which members of the ministry experiences, yet if the community is only friendly to the core folks or certain people, the outsider is left alienated and eventually stops attending. This is unfortunately my reality. How many weeks much I stand around with my 2-year old for 5, 10, or more minutes and have nobody even say hi? Why is it that when I ask the pastor for info about house churches / community groups, that he sends me to a web page instead of a member or leader of the group. Why don't people invite me and others into their community group? How many people do I see entering the "church" alone and leaving alone? Why do I see this in many churches? I'm not necessarily seeking an answer, but desiring the question to linger for those in community, hoping they will take notice of the experience of people that love Christ (or perhaps those that don't know Him) and who are at your doorstep desiring community.

Thank you for that reminder. Very well-said and relevant. We too often overlook the ones looking...

But is that not what 'clergy' are? A separated professional leader? I have sympathy as I manage a team of midwives, there are elements of stress which have to be managed and dealt with. This requires you standing in a position where stress is projected at you and you are meant to 'deal' with it. I have lived in Christian Missional community once, and trust me it is stressful..... Where does that stress go? Sometimes it needs a slight 'outside' view to analyse and help.
To summarise, you cannot help somebody out of a ditch if you jump in with them.

Thanks James. As a missional leader (in an inherited model of church) I too long for authentic, honest and real relationships within community. However, I have found that there is a degree of enforced separation that comes through expectations. These expectations are varied. For example, to be a perfect orthodox teacher in line with people's inherited theology, or to perform a robed and venerated priestly function. Sadly, in many cases, the inherited church structures reinforce these expectations.

Strangely though I have found that glimpses of authentic, honest and real relationships have come from those that are vulnerable themselves and these people tend to be those on the outside edge of the church community. That in itself speaks volumes to me about where authentic missional expressions of church might be able to take exist.

So... in my experience there is little place for being vulnerable as a leader of an inherited church community and this leads to frustration, isolation and stress. We cannot possibly live openly and honestly under the constant expectations of others.

Perhaps we need to remember that as leaders, our place is very much subordinate to our true leader and Lord, Jesus Christ. Perhaps we need to foster new missional communities that are Christ-centric rather than leader-centric and have realistic expectations of the leadership from the outset?

There is much wisdom here, keeping the balance between vulnerability and openness Nd becoming a clique is difficult. To that end we need to cultivate our own support networks who will hold us accountable and ask the hard questions. We need to be friends and guides and those who listen beyond the community and don't let it settle. I suspect that without degree of separation by the leader the whole community would stagnate.

Interesting article. After 20 years in local church leadership much of what you have written certainly rings true. I think that there are issues of scale and function that determine the degrees of separation. In more established churches, informal, relational methods are supplanted by more formal, management tools as the pastor increasingly acts as CEO or manager, as well as pastor/friend. This can lead to a number of problems in terms of loneliness,burn out, accountability & even abuse of power, yet it also allows the leader to occupy a prophetic role, standing slightly apart from the community in order to challenge it from a degree of separation. This can cause resentment (I still have the scars on my back),yet is a key role as a community grows & develops.
The other issue is one of vulnerability. Grove Pastoral Series 71 & 72 produced some excellent pamphlets on top down & bottom up leadership many years ago. Get hold of them if you can. I think that we inherently take on many assumptions about hierachical, top/down leadership models far too uncritically. Jesus' leadership was essentially kenotic - the way of the servant - washing feet & laying down his life for his friends. You can't get more vulnerable than that!

James I think you need to change your passion.

Partly because the creation of communities of committed disciples will inevitably create barriers between those who feel that they are nearer the soft gooey centre the community and those who feel they are on the edge, between the "committed" vs the differently-committed, the disciples vs the think-they-are-disciples and the vulnerable vs those who won't or can't be vulnerable ... (and the amateur spiritual physicians vs the professional, vulnerable types?).

I think a simpler model to direct one's passion is this: aim personally to have vulnerable, committed, disciple-like relationships with other people; and for each of those relationships, aim for that person to have the same passion for relationships beyond themselves.

How about this, don't aim to create communities - communities are ponds. Go for waterfalls.

The center of a community is not with the leader in front. Effective leadership is about serving water in a cup to those who are thirsty. Servant mission ministry is all about sharing, caring and being able to manage support without loss of faith for both parties. Seek to bring aid to all who are ready or not to hear God's love.

Robt Drummond's book on addresses has taught me the best value of leadership is with the circle as a Shepperd would be in his flock. Offices are for offical's and people who need titles. Mission ministry is for those of use who take people to where they want to be. Taking people to where you think they need to be is called relocation. Not a suitable alternative.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
We use spam protection. View privacy policy.