Fresh expressions: follow the leader? (Al Lowe)

Monday, 3 March, 2014

Al Lowe asks how we deal with leadership and team dynamics in fresh expressions of church.

How do we deal with leadership and team dynamics in fresh expressions of church? It's something I have been thinking of a lot in relation to Sanctus1 and Nexus, Manchester.

There are two principles of leadership that I want to highlight:

  • there is not one, good model of leadership; instead there are appropriate and inappropriate ones;
  • nature abhors a vacuum. Where no leadership exists, or it is weak, someone will ultimately fill the gap. If there is no agenda, then one will be imposed.

These points apply quite universally but are particularly relevant for those fresh expressions pioneering in the postmodern waters of anti-control.

Leadership happens in fresh expressions from the very beginning - otherwise nothing would be started and there would be no vision or direction. However, that leadership does not have to come entirely from the pioneer - nor is there necessarily just one lead. As the nature of a fresh expression is dynamic, responding to different changes and situations, it is often best that the leadership emerges from more than one source. What is important is how that leadership emerges, how it is appointed and practiced and how it is supported with good accountability.

A classic model of leadership is the autocratic/democratic continuum. As with most voluntary organisations, there is little room for a truly autocratic style. If things are to grow then people need to feel included, consulted and involved in the decision making. The more individuals are allowed to get on and do what they feel needs to be done, the more creative and dynamic the entity will be. Democracy works well within defined boundaries, which need to be established from the beginning. However, the more autocratic style comes into play, as within any disaster movie, when the ship starts to founder on the rocks. In order to save the community from imminent danger; someone, somewhere has to take charge - and that is not always the pioneer. This is very much supported by my experience of my time both at Nexus and Sanctus1.

I came into these particular teams as the second generation minister. The DNA of the pioneers who started them was still very much part of the way things had been set up, with the result that these established teams were very different in nature. The first thing I had to do was to understand the nature of what was going on and how to influence (not necessarily lead at this stage) for the better. Sometimes I got this right and sometimes I think it was made worse but, in general, something must have worked well.

The nature of what was going on meant recognizing the fact that both groups had existing leadership structures in place:

  • Sanctus1 was by far the more structured with a leadership team which seemed to be working well. However things were not necessarily easy.Within two months of me arriving, three of the leadership team naturally moved on. It was important at this stage to hold things together, without being autocratic, until we managed to get a new team together.

It also became apparent during this transition that, if we were to claim to be democratic then we needed to be more transparent, and this was overcome by subtle changes to what was a 'loose' constitution. In some ways, it has been easier to work collaboratively with Sanctus1 because there was a more open way of working alongside people who understood how to operate within a corporate framework but who could also be creative, knowing the overall boundaries of being a welcoming, serving community rooted in the Christian tradition. Sanctus1 wanted to be creative in the way it told its story about Christ... but importantly it still wanted to tell the story of Christ.

  • Nexus was quite different. That doesn't mean it was wrong (it's important to remember there are no rights and wrongs) but it was simply different. Nexus was highly dynamic and creative - and engaging in an amazing way with the Manchester arts scene. Its organisation was far less structured but, despite this lack of formality, something was clearly established. This was evident in the fact that there was a general manager employed to oversee the Nexus cafe staff and its related activities.

Enthusiasm and passion made up for experience but I found that this did lead at times,to differences in opinion -the biggest of which was the lack of agreement as to what Nexus was about. It was a great art space, great community space, great gig venue but not anything to do with faith, Jesus or mission. It took considerable patience, listening and care, to bring this back onto the agenda. There still remains a tension in how to engage with our fast, postmodern world without losing the sight of what mission is about.

The lack of policy and procedures meant that, at times, we were sailing too close to the wind - and a 'hands off' approach sometimes quickly became a lunge for the tiller as we sailed from one financial crisis to the next. As Nexus has developed, it has become much more structured in order to meet the demands of legislation. The challenge is to allow this to happen but still hold onto the creative spirit that it was born with.

And in all this is the team dynamics that always play out when a group is formed. People have different views, priorities and passions - and there are individuals who try to influence outcomes, some in an open appropriate manner and others manipulating behind the scenes. Some members of the group seem to be more involved than others but each member of the community brings something to the whole. The dynamics change every time a member of the team leaves or a new one joins but, in these changing groups, there is the sense that we are heading in the right direction - even if, at times, we may still discuss exactly what that means!

About the author: 

Al Lowe is a Methodist minister and leader of Sanctus1 and Nexus, Manchester.

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