Ten years ago my wife and I decided to gather a few friends together to ask the question, “what would it look like if we took Jesus seriously and began to live out his WAY in our family, on our street, in our suburb, in Australia, in 2001?” I know it’s a familiar question but it began to resonate with several of our friends and before we knew it we had 4 or 5 families and a few stragglers meeting in our back yard every second Sunday.
Lot of new ventures start this way. Someone has an idea that people resonate with and they are able to pull an initial group of like-minded people together. This happens in small businesses, community groups, scrap booking clubs and in the starting of faith based groups. This is the wonderful gift of leadership that ‘self-starting’ people bring to our communities and it should be encouraged and supported.
There is however a serious dark side for these leaders and an obstacle that simply must be addressed if that group is ever going to out grow about 20 people. For my wife and I, it played out like this. We innocently began by conversing about the ideas we wanted to explore with as many people as we could find. Some of these people were genuinely interested and asked if they could join in and we quickly became a group. For the first 2 years, this was great. I functioned as a leader, (without any official status or title of course), and the majority of the others were willing to participate and help when I specifically asked them to. After 2 years though, my wife and I began to run out of puff. Every fortnight the group met at our place which required hospitality, setting up, cleaning up and us being available every week. If we didn’t put the meeting on then it simply didn’t happen. Before long, I had spoken about almost everything that I had to say and was scraping the bottom of the barrel each week to come up with something new. I dealt with all of the difficult conversations, visited people who were sick, tired or upset and generally was responsible for creating and maintaining everything that happened in the group except for morning tea. The end result of all of this was that we felt exhausted, disillusioned and often resentful of the very people who were supposed to be our close knit community.
Eventually we were forced to deal with these mounting issues and came to the following conclusion. All of the people who attended the group had come because they were friends with us. We had great relationships with everyone but they really didn’t know each other. They would come to our place for dinner or to share their issues, but they wouldn’t do that for each other. They would contribute anytime I asked them to, but they rarely came up with ideas among themselves and offered them into the mix. In short, these wonderful people attended a church that I ran FOR them and the longer I went along with that the worse it became. I remember saying to my wife one day, “it’s like we are the hub of a wheel and everyone else is relationally connected through us rather than to each other”. The minute I said that, I knew I had to work out how to get out of the centre.
Here’s what we did.
1) We opened up about what being a part of this group was like for us.
We scheduled a dinner with all of our group and spoke plainly about what we were struggling with. This was a little awkward and I felt embarrassed for even suggesting that this group was held together solely by me. I didn’t blame them for not stepping up and we did not threaten to leave if they didn’t play their part. Instead I spoke about me coming to the realisation that I needed to change the way we were operating or else we were going to self destruct and asked them for suggestions about what they thought we should change. I drew a picture of a bike wheel and asked for their input. Much to my surprise they were just as frustrated by the way we were operating as I was and they offered lots of helpful suggestions.
2) We intentionally forged the cross relationships even if it was forced at first.
One of the suggestions was that they should make a concerted effort to get to know each other better, without my family being involved. In practical terms, we moved our group out of our house and began operating out of 4 different houses. We teamed people up and arranged dinner parties and afternoon play dates where families could get together without us being there. We spent the next 5 sessions meeting in a park so that our kids could play together and the adults could hear each other tell their stories. We asked every person, (including children), to make a CD of their 10 favourite songs and then each week 3-4 people spoke about their CD and why those songs were meaningful to them. At the end of the term we held a party and used all of the CD’s as the backing music. Some of these initiatives felt awkward and forced at first, but they served the purpose of broadening and deepening the friendships.
3) We reclaimed a healthier perspective on the role of leadership.
I had led by casting a vision and creating a path for people to follow. This was a necessary step to get it started but it quickly became clear that a more collaborative process was necessary. We moved towards having a ‘brains trust’ of 4-5 leaders who met 4 times per year to talk about where we were headed and to give a basic frame to our group. This was a voluntary group and anyone could be part of this in one year stints. As a leadership group, we adopted the mantra that, “our job was to be number 1 at being number 2 in the lives of everyone who attended our group”. Almost immediately we had 4 people who were visiting the sick, preparing activities for the kids and leading us in our discussion times. We still firmly believe in leadership and the importance of competent people giving shape and direction to the work we are engaged in, however that leadership must move to a place of being a collaborative, serving and releasing style of leadership if we are to maintain some health and growth.
Of course these 3 things are not meant to be a recipe for guaranteeing success because every group will be different. They do perhaps give some guidance though as to what kinds of things can be done. I still have a lot to learn about leadership but I have become convinced of one thing. The sooner you can get out of the hub of your wheel or invite other healthy people into the hub the better. It can be painful for entrepreneurial leaders to give up some of their tight control over the groups they have created but my experience is that the pain of not learning this lesson is much worse.
Last weekend, our group had it’s annual weekend away and it was attended by twice as many people as were previously involved. All I ended up doing was leading us in a time of communion on the final day. Other people set the date, booked the venue, cooked the meals, ran a party, devised the program, dealt with the money, shared their personal stories, led us in an all age reflection activity, prayed and raised further questions about where we as a group should go from here. And they all did it better than I ever would have.