leaders in community
Murmuration of many starlings, creating a formation against a clear sky. Used with permission.

The photo is of a starling murmuration, an incredibly beautiful part of the natural world that involves hundreds or even thousands of starlings flying in apparently random synchronized formations without any clear leader. To appreciate it, you have to see the movement, so for your enjoyment and amazement, here is a short video.

I have no idea how these birds coordinate their individual movements, but they are a great illustration of collegial leadership in action, leaders acting in community. With no obvious central control, the entire community acts in concert and does something amazing as a group. What a beautiful concept for the church to adopt for itself. I’d love to see the church dazzle the world with “Christian murmuration” and the resulting good it would accomplish!

The Trinity’s Example

Like every other senior leader, I was hired by a board to provide leadership to a specific ministry. My job security depends upon the performance of the ministry I lead, as does yours. So naturally we must pay attention to our own organizations. However, as Christian leaders we would be very poor examples of living the Christian life well if we ran our ministries in isolation from each other. Here’s why:

The church should be the human version of the perfect community of love that exists within the Godhead. That perfect community has each of the three persons of the Trinity in full relationship with the others, honouring them, respecting their different roles, and acting in perfect harmony. Until God’s kingdom is fully established on earth, the church and its organizations are (or at least, have the potential to be) the best representation on earth of what perfect love looks like….The Trinity is a helpful relationship model for the church, as it suggests that we could think of the work of the church’s various structures as complementary to each other and contributing to a common goal.
John Pellowe in The Church at Work.

It’s really important that we see ourselves as more than the senior leaders of our own ministries. We are also members of a community of ministry leaders, and we would do well on several levels to think bigger than our own organizations. Let’s see what this broader concept of leadership looks like in practice.

Lead Beyond Your Organization

Leading beyond your own organization means that you take into account more than just the factors that matter to your ministry. You also consider the welfare of others. You and your ministry should be modeling love and care for other ministries. It’s the same as we tell individual Christians: Don’t be me-centred, be other-centred. Remember that we work for the same Lord with the same overall mission. Part of the definition of success for a ministry should be that it is a good corporate citizen within the people of God.

I know a very successful Christian fundraiser who doesn’t hesitate to refer potential donors to other ministries if there is a better match between the ministry’s mission and the donor’s passion. This fundraiser doesn’t worry about lost donations, but figures it all comes around in the end.

Here’s an example from my own recent experience of what leading beyond your own organization can look like:

When the Holy Spirit directed me to give the CCCC conference away and merge it with other conferences, I found two partners who had their own conferences which were a good fit with ours. We talked about our goals and how we would define success for this new conference. We thought about the benefits to the ministry community of a larger conference. We discussed the potential risks to our own organizations in a forthright, respectful manner. We were transparent and vulnerable with each other.

I also thought about others who didn’t have a conference to merge, but who might not want to be left out. What arrangement would be perfect for them? Four denominations and eleven ministry associations said “Yes” to an opportunity to endorse the conference as theirs.

This kind of community leadership is informal. Each leader just thinks about what more could be done for the good of our cause and our community by sharing and collaboration. They ask, “What have I got to share with others? Know-how? Connections? Staff expertise? Assets?” They also are willing to give something for the sake of making something bigger happen.

For example, giving away our conference meant that CCCC would share the spotlight with other ministries. We had spent a year designing a bold new CCCC conference and now we are just one of the partners. We gave up control of the most significant face-to-face interaction we have with our members for the sake of demonstrating Christian unity and creating a better conference for everyone.

Other ministries have given up the spotlight entirely. In The Church at Work I tell the stories of Child Evangelism Fellowship Ontario and Power to Change who both gave up public branding of a program so that local churches could promote the programs under their own banners. The programs had greater success than ever because of this change and both ministries saw their missions advance more than they otherwise would have.

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Relationship for the Sake of Relationship

Leading in community means you are not just partnering with other ministries for a specific program or initiative, but that you are actually living in community with them in an enduring relationship.

In The Church at Work, I tell the story of the evangelical churches and agencies of Peterborough, Ontario, who sign a covenant of love and fellowship with one another each year. Their mutual love and ability to work together caught the attention of the mayor, and they were given the chance to start a city-wide after-school program that the city wanted.

The Peterborough group has seen tangible expressions of love between ministries. Some churches helped another church out financially when it got into some cashflow problems, and Youth for Christ and the local Free Methodist Church jointly planted a new church that drew on the expertise of YFC and the ecclesial support of the local church.

The way the Peterborough churches and agencies work together today developed over a long period of time during which they regularly met to worship, pray, and build relationships.

One thing that I did a few years ago, and am in the midst of doing again, was to invite local ministry leaders to give devotionals at CCCC staff meetings and tell our staff about their ministries. We each get to know the other a little better and we can continue the interaction by adding their ministries to our weekly staff prayers.

One of the benefits of being in relationship with other leaders is that it proves that it doesn’t have to be “lonely at the top.”

Collegial Community Leadership

The way the starlings fly in formation comes to mind when I think of acting collegially with other leaders and their ministries. Collegial leadership means thinking not just of your own ministry, and not just of other ministries individually, but thinking of the community of ministries as a whole.

The most inspiring story I came across over the past year of reflection on the church came up in several history books. In the 1940s, a small group of Christian leaders who understood the times and who saw the big picture, got together to create the modern evangelical church. They were looking for a third way between Protestant liberalism on the one hand, and fundamentalism on the other.

Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, Charles Fuller, Carl Henry, and seven others were committed to evangelism, but without factionalism, separation, and judgmentalism. They believed the church should bring a distinctive and respectable Christian voice to the intellectual debates of the day, and they thought Christians should be socially and politically active. “They were fully committed to maintaining and promoting confidently traditional, orthodox Protestant theology and belief, while at the same time becoming confidently and proactively engaged in the intellectual, cultural, social, and political life of the nation.”1

Out of this group came the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, Billy Graham’s crusades, most of the major Christians agencies that are so well known today, graduate schools, publishers, and on and on.

It took a group of ministry leaders who could think much bigger than just their own ministries to set the evangelical church on a course that carried us forward for seventy years. They had to think of the entire movement and what it needed. These eleven leaders provided the intellectual capacity to strategize at the macro level and then they used their networks to the fullest to set the strategy in motion. What I really like about their thinking is that it was holistic, unselfish, and bold. They didn’t screen out ideas as too far-fetched. If they made sense strategically, they were worth pursuing. They did all this with no formal organization or specific leader. They just made it happen!

Today, their basic strategy is still correct but cultural influences, especially individualism (which is encouraged by our emphasis on personal salvation), have sapped the evangelical church of the vitality it once had.2

The leadership that Billy Graham et al provided in the 1940s is the kind of leadership we need today. We need leaders who once again will be sector thought-leaders, providing the evangelical church with a fresh, bold, radical vision for strategy, and then lead us in the hard work of building the infrastructure to make it happen.

Three practical things you can do are:

  1. Educate yourself on the nature of the evangelical church today and the issues it faces in the current environment. Find other leaders to discuss the issues with.
  2. Rather than thinking of associations within our sector as service providers to you, with membership to be justified as a business transaction, think of them as coalition builders who support your cause. They could use your help. Your membership dues are not an expense! They are an investment in the welfare of your ministry’s sub-sector and they can potentially give your cause a much higher profile than you could achieve on your own. I especially recommend the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada for its role in representing the entire evangelical sector to the public.They represent us so well and are highly respected for the quality of their research and proposals. EFC deserves the support of all evangelical ministries. So, participate in the life of the associations you belong to, and help them promote your cause.
  3. Look for great Christian thought leaders who have ideas of consequence for the church. Spread the word about them. Share their posts and tweets. Do what you can to get their message out. Most ministry leaders are so busy leading their ministries that they don’t have a whole lot of time to give to reflective thought and critical analysis of the big picture. Thought leaders have done this work, so make use of their ideas in your own ministry. Pass their ideas on to your own staff and let your team develop ways to implement them.

You Can Be a Leader in Community

It’s easy to become a leader in community. Just be friendly! Reach out to other Christian leaders. Share a meal. Visit their office. Invite other ministry leaders to dream with you. Explore how you could accomplish more together for the sake of the entire ministry sector and the cause of Christ.

If you are one of the leaders who can potentially provide informal leadership to the sector, then step up and find your like-minded colleagues. If you don’t think you are that person, then find those people who are, and give them your support.

Key Thought – Christian ministries are a community and need to act as a community.

  1. Christian Smith in American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving
  2. Personal salvation is core to our beliefs, but we need to balance the individualism inherent in that belief with the mission of God that flows from Genesis to Revelation, which is all about community and our part in it.

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An exploration of Christian ministry leadership led by CCCC's CEO John Pellowe