Tag Archives: missional structures

Open Source Christianity

For the past year I have been reading anything I can find on creating missional structures that release peoples creativity into the community in a way that strengthens and builds up communities.  I discovered a post titled “Chance Favors a Connected Mind…& Leadership Network” by Eric Swanson in which Swanson shares the insights of Steven Johnson about how good ideas form through connections.

If you have read my book, you know that it was Swanson’s proposition that community transformation happens at the intersection of the needs of a community, the calling and capacities of the local church and the mandates of God that lead me to the path that ultimately resulted in my starting Embrace Richmond.  I am living proof of Steve Johnson’s theory that innovation happens slowly as we connect different ideas in new ways.  In taking Swanson’s theory, adding my own experiences and the stories and passions of the homeless friends I met along the way, Embrace Richmond was birthed.  As I have shared in the past, we are a very unique organization and I think most would agree, pretty innovative in the way we do ministry.

Swanson shares two video’s that capture the heart of Johnson’s theory. Swanson sums up Johnson’s main idea saying, “Here’s the big idea: Chance favors the connected mind. Rarely does a good idea emerge from a vacuum.”  The first video is an animated clip of Johnson’s ideas and the second clip is of Johnson sharing his ideas with a group.  Both are excellent.

Last week at the Communities First Association conference, Jeremy Morrman a technologies consultant with Arkeme, shared with our group how program development has changed over the past decade with more and more open source products being developed collaboratively by communities of developers verses through the traditional development process owned and managed by software companies.  The open source platforms are releasing creativity by connecting minds around a particular technological need.  The communities of developers are unpaid and commit to sharing any code they develop freely and openly with others.  These open platforms have resulted in exponential levels of creativity in the field as tens of thousands of people work together with a technology verses just the paid staff of some large software company.  The products created through this method are then offered free of charge to end users.

I have a hunch, as Johnson would say, that if we brought this idea of creative collaborative spaces together with the growing desire of Christians to be change agents in their communities and created low cost, flexible leadership structures, we could significantly reduce poverty in this county. It will require everyone to give freely what they have without looking for ownership or credit.  However these lightweight structures would allow for exponential multiplication of the ideas and thus the potential for a national huge impact.

So instead of Christians looking to paid church staff to coordinate missions events or to non-profits to build programs , we actually create an open platform where people of faith from all across a region regardless of religious affiliation, work collaboratively on a particular issue facing the community without concern for who gets the credit or the need to own the end product. From what I understand about open source projects, the management of a particular project is determined by the group but the end product belongs to the user community.

So, how can we create spaces for collaborative imagination?  Where  can these kinds of conversations happen?  What would a flat, shared leadership structure look like?

As you can see, I have more questions than answers right now but like the turtle in Johnson’s story board, I am on a slow crawl toward a eureka moment.  Your insights just might be the missing piece of the puzzle!  So please share.

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Missional Leadership

Alan Roxburgh in his blog titled “Join the Wild Goose Chase” gives some wonderful insights into missional leadership formation.  He critiques several methods but the one I think most speaks to our current approach is this one

“Throw them in the Deep End and see who survives: The most ineffective form of leadership developing leader but the most used. People are put into big jobs, we watch them flounder, morale erode, and people quit – then do it all again.”

I don’t know if anyone else is in over their head but I know I feel that way a lot.

His proposed method is

“Leadership Action Teams: Leaders group together to work on leadership situations above their current capacities; a coach assist them engage untraveled leadership challenges.”

I think that is pretty much what we are doing with our leadership huddle and our proposed community huddles and I know at least from my perspective it has been very helpful.

I also liked his comparison of today’s missional leader to that of the Celtic missionaries and their willingness to move with the spirit that is wild and untamed and unwilling to comply with strategic plans, man-made methodologies and tactics.

I pray you all get to go on what Roxburgh calls “Wild Goose Chases”.

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A Tribute to Dr. Cecil Sherman

Albert Mohler writing about the life of Cecil Sherman?  I was too curious not to check it out.  As a graduate of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, a seminary formed out of the Cooperative Baptist split from the Southern Baptist Convention which Cecil Sherman was an instrumental part of.  I was a bit surprised to see a post titled “This Man was no Moderate: The Legacy of Cecil Sherman” on Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s blog.   Dr. Cecil Sherman passed away at the age of 82 earlier this week.

While I never had the privilege of taking one of Dr. Sherman’s classes while at BTSR and I honestly have never really followed Baptist politics, I wanted to post my response to Dr. Mohler’s post.  It is obvious that Mohler and Sherman are from opposite ends of the theological spectrum.  However, I found it refreshing that Mohler actually sees the voice of Dr. Sherman and all he stood for as having purpose.  For Mohler, the benefit of Dr. Sherman’s fight was to serve as a means of separating the right (conservatives)  from what Mohler calls the left and allowing for the “reclaiming” of the Baptist convention by conservatives.

However, I see the life of Cecil Sherman from quite a different perspective.  Without the Cooperative Baptist voice, I would never have attended a Baptist seminary and I would have completely abandoned the Baptist tradition.  Cecil Sherman fought to give moderate Baptist’s a voice, a place to belong within the Baptist tradition.  He inspired me not to give up on the Baptist tradition and gave me the courage to speak the truth that God has revealed to me even when it is not consistent with the “conservative” right.

Thank you Dr. Sherman for creating a place where Christian’s like myself can discover God’s word, grow in compassion and love toward our neighbors, and seek to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  I also want to thank you Dr. Mohler for reminding the world that your voice is not the only voice within the Baptist tradition.

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Maintaining Balance

Have you ever felt your life was out of balance?  Have you ever had a season when you were simply to busy to rest and reflect upon your life but later came to realize that by resting and reflecting, your life actually got easier and made more sense?  I have just recently come through a season like this.

This past week Jamie, who leads our Fairfield Court missional community, shared that when our communities gather and the conversation is more spiritual in nature, there is a real energy in the room verses conversations that more focused on the tangible stuff our groups engage in like GED tutoring or planning a clothing give away.  I have also seen the exact opposite happen in groups that spend all their time on spiritually focused things, like bible studies.  Often these groups come alive when occasionally people start to discuss how they can tangibly live out the scriptures in the world.  I think the key is balance.

I just went back to a post that I wrote August 1, 2009, titled “Empowering a Movement” based on a book about Church of the Savior.

This particular quote from the book caught my attention:

“We have found it incredibly hard to hold to the concept of the inward and outward journeys. We early discovered that not many persons want them both. Weighted heavily on one side or the other, most of us struggle intensely to keep these two dimensions in any kind of creative tension in our individual and our corporate lives.”

I think we need to be intentional in balancing these two elements of the journey in our own lives and modeling that balance in our missional communities.  I think Jamie’s observation that when the conversation is rooted in the things of the spirit, the passion and energy is present is because perhaps we have been more heavily focused on the outer journey in our groups.  If we want to get to the core of some of the issues faced by those in our communities, like hopelessness and apathy,  we have to find ways of helping people along in their inner journey.

I would love to hear from all of you regarding practices you have developed that have helped you in your inner journey.

The outer journey is obviously the easy side of the equation for me.  I am a “doer” and I have to work hard at making time and space to simply “be”.  For me, practicing stillness or contemplative prayer in nature has been the most powerful practice for me related to the inner journey.  My time spent on my ridge alone in the middle of nowhere just sitting and soaking in the presence of God does more for my spirit than anything else I have found.  I gain such clarity and discernment from this practice in addition to inner peace and healing.  I experience the same healing presence when I am alone in my kayak.  Sometimes I paddle to spiritual music which can be healing but sometimes God sings to me through the birds of the air.  Today was one of those days…blue sky and God’s love in the subtle breeze across the water.

I took a class in seminary called Celtic Spirituality which met at Camp Hanover.  We would gather in a cabin, then we were to spend the next hour seeking God in the wilderness, then came back to class and shared where we met God.  It was a powerful class!  I learned more about spirituality in that one class than I did in all my theology books.

That has been my pathway to a healthy inner journey. When I neglect this practice, I become unhealthy and the outer journey is simply no fun. I encourage you all to share your own path.  I think it may help us to discern how we can help others find their way while we learn more about one another and how God has shaped each of us.

I ask that we embark in this sharing with a gracious spirit, a spirit that respects each contributors journey as valid and equally true as any other person’s journey.  My prayer is that while we may not all have the same practices, we all can respect the practices of others and the fruit that each practice yields.

So, where do you encounter God most powerfully?  How do you find inner peace and healing?

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Simplifying the Complex

In my experience ministry is messy.  Can it really be simple, straight-forward and focused?  Our leadership team has been going through a strategic planning process and one of our leaders suggested we read the book “Simple Church” by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger.  The just of the book is that you should have a clear mission and that programs should be aligned in a “process” that leads toward the fulfillment of that mission.  This is nothing new, we all know the importance of a clear and focused mission.

What was a bit different about “Simple Church” was the emphasis on the “process.” The official definition for a “simple church” given was a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. The examples given in the book of process focused mission statement was “Love God, love others, serve the world.” (p.38)  The emphasis of a “Simple Church” structure is on movement through the process.

While Embrace is not a “church”, our goal is similar; individual and communities transformation.  Our mission is to “Prevent and End poverty and homelessness in the city of Richmond by engaging, equipping, and empowering people of faith to do works of service”.   It is our belief that if we unite people of faith from across the city around the issue of poverty; we will help prevent and end homelessness in Richmond.

Embrace is a bit unique because we are working with two different demographic groups; homeless and at-risk individuals and people of faith largely from the suburbs; our goal being to unite the two in a way that both are transformed.   We often use the metaphor of a bridge to depict our ministry process with the goal of the two sides of our ministry uniting in the center of the bridge and then individuals being empowered to move back and forth as cross cultural missionaries thus transforming both the urban context and communities of faith.

Our “process” for ministering to each side of the bridge is similar; 1) Engage in service through large group events (Faith Works Program), 2.) Equip potential leaders through missional communities (Community Works) ; 3.) Unite leaders who then empower one another through mentoring (Dream Works) and 4.) Release proven leaders to expand the ministry by empowering them with employment as urban missionaries (Just Works).  I never thought of our programs and mission from the perspective of a “process” but I can see how this would be very helpful.

I do have one issue with the “Simple Church” approach.  It is too simple!  There is the assumption that spiritual growth is linear; ie has a designated starting place and ending place.  The example given is that people come to love God, then love their neighbors, then serve their community.  However, I believe growth is a bit more complex and more circular with access points throughout the process and the process being an unending journey.  I have seen the spiritual journey depicted through a spiral type design and I think that is a better image than a baseball diamond or a straight line.  Each stage we go through we get nearer and nearer to the core of our faith.

Overall  “Simple Church” was an interesting read and I pray the insights we all glean from the book will help us better focus our ministry efforts.  I encourage the rest of our Embrace team to reflect on our “process” and how our current programs fit into that process from both sides of the bridge.  How are people moving through that process?  How do we know the process is working? Are there activities that do not fit within the process?  Is there a smooth handoff between programs and activities that insures people know the next step in the process?  Has the process been communicated and is it clear? I encourage you to post your thoughts and insights on this blog or to raise them in your group huddles.

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Tracking Strange Creatures

Every chance I get, I retreat to our small cabin in the woods perched atop a steep ridge overlooking Fish Pond Creek near Prospect, Virginia.  Last week the snow and ice on top the ridge was nearly gone but the snow along the creek bed remained.  As I walked along the creek, I saw clear tracks in the snow; raccoon, deer, dog, tire tracks of a trespassing neighbors four wheeler.  I was able to identify all the tracks except the ones in the pictures above.  It looked like a bird track but it was very large (the yellow in the picture is a standard size post it note) but also deep indicating a heavy animal.  It has three long distinct “toes”, for lack of a better word.  So what is my strange mystery creature?  Other than its strange footprint, it left me no clues.

I came here to my cabin in the woods to spend some time reflecting and praying about where God is leading Embrace and myself in the coming year.  I fell into homeless services related ministry very much by chance.   I met a homeless woman while in seminary, she had a need, I met her need, she had a dream of helping others and together we set out to help others transition out of the shelter into their own homes.  For the past five years, I have been focused on “What we do”; offering furniture, employment assistance, transportation assistance, missions opportunities for churches and emotional and relational support to people in crisis.

However, today I am here reflecting on the question “What are we?”  That is a much more difficult question.  I am reminded of the old superman line “It’s a bird, no it’s a plane, no its Superman!”  From afar some would look at us and say Embrace is a “human services agency”, if you get a little closer you may think of us as a “mission’s organization”, but those that are closest to us see something even more mysterious, they see “the family of God on mission together.”  They see at the heart of Embrace what my associate sees as the perfect definition of the church; “a community of hope committed to the belief that love wins.”  The bible says you will know us by our fruit or in this case by the tracks we leave behind.

A few weeks ago our staff gathered for a time of sharing praise and concerns and the number one praise related to the relationships that we have with one another and with the communities we serve; relationships are our tracks.  If you spend a week with us, that is what you will see, relationships built on the belief that love wins, even in some of Richmond’s darkest communities.

If we were a pure “human services agency” the fruit would be measured in outputs and outcomes; number of families served, number of items distributed, level of family stability achieved.  While we care deeply about the families we serve and their well being, the heart of Embrace is not what we “do” for the families as much as it is our “being” present in the struggle with them.

As an Executive Director, part of my role is to figure out how to fund the work we are doing and funders want “measurable outcomes”.  I started off this fall trying to get my team to focus on measuring the outcomes they were producing so that I could apply for funding and it has been a real struggle.  My team just wants to love people and they don’t want to document it, measure it and report it.  The more I push to get them to function like a human services agency the more strife and unrest and division there has been.

But the reality is that if we do not produce, track and measure the outcomes, we cannot get foundation or grant funding and my little team will not be around to be a family next year.  So the market is telling me I have to look like a duck, walk like a duck and fly like a duck but Embrace is more like an platypus; part duck, part mammal or our case part human services part community of faith.  From the congregational side of things we hear that because we are not “Methodist” or “Baptist” or “evangelical” enough we cannot receive funds from some Christian groups.  So we are too Christian for secular funds and to secular for Christian funds.   I know we are producing incredible outcomes simply by bringing hope and light in to some of Richmond’s most underserved communities but hope is hard to measure and relationships are hard to quantify, market, and sale to funders.

Over the years, I have struggled with this battle to make Embrace easy to define.  Some wanted us to focus on the furniture piece and become a “Furniture Bank” arguing that we could better define our place in the market if we did that.  Others have wanted us to be more evangelical and focus more on bible study and “leading people to Jesus”. While both goals are admirable and good; neither captures the heart of who we are which is found in building relationships and community through shared mission.  The “what we do” or programs and activities are simply a means to an end.  My Associate Director, Joe Torrence, helped me see this week that the “outcome” is community; a place where love really does win.  Our Board Chair, Becky Qualls, helped me see that creating community around shared mission brings unity of the Body of Christ and that somehow God’s spirit moves powerfully when we are united across race, class, and geographic barriers thus unleashing a powerful movement of God’s spirit which all of us have seen but none of us can measure and report.

I have developed a real affection for that strange creature who roams my creek bed.  I kind of like odd ducks; creatures that stand out from the pack.  I think perhaps it is OK for Embrace to be that odd duck that simply defies identification.  If we can easily package ourselves in a nice tidy box, I know we would raise more money and I know we would have better name recognition and be able to market ourselves better and thus raise more money, but then we would cease to be what we are; an odd bird roaming the banks of poverty looking for those we can pull from the rushing waters.

I think odd ducks like Embrace are increasingly falling prey to funding challenges and we are a near extinct breed.  We are a throw back to the early days of Christianity before “human services agencies” existed; back when all people of faith saw it as their privilege and obligation to care for the sick, the poor, and the oppressed.  Our society has so focused on specialization that we have cut the heart and faith out of caring for the poor.  We have so focused on efficiency and productiveness that we do not take time to simply be present with one another.

I must confess, as an Executive Director this is my job; to produce the best measurable outcomes possible with the limited resources that I have.  However, the ED and the Pastor side of my role are constantly at war with one another and I have simply grown weary of the battle.  I give up!  I refuse to be an ED anymore and choose to put back on my Pastor hat.  If we suffer funding losses, loose some of our team mates to budget cuts, so be it.  I have to trust that this is all God’s doing in the first place and if we are meant to have all our team members in the coming year, I trust that God will raise up donors to help make that happen.

My hope is that some of you reading this may have an affinity for the platypuses and a longing for an expression of the Christian tradition that simply seeks to be faithful to the biblical call to care for the poor through presence, faith and love.  Please consider helping to preserve our species by becoming part of our family.  While we need financial supporters, we also need your prayers and your faithful service.  Are you an odd duck?  Do you feel called to join our little family and go on mission with us?  The first Thursday in March, we will start our next Unity Works session.

In Unity Works we will introduce you to the waters of homelessness and poverty in our city through the experiences of some of our odd family members who have somehow by the grace of God escaped those rushing waters.  Please prayerfully consider joining us on this journey.

My prayer this day is that over the next year, I am able to fully let go of the Executive Director role and be allowed to simply help build communities of faith where love wins and inspire people to join this family of odd but faithful birds.

By the way, if you know what creature made the tracks I found, please let me know!

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Empowering a Movement – A search for missional structures

slssLogoServant Leaders, Servant Structures

Elizabeth O’Connor

http://wp.theoblogical.org/?page_id=3782

Insights from Chapter 1

I have been seeking to discern how to build organizational structures that foster creativity and unleash the missional imagination of people seeking to follow Christ in tangible ways in our community.  Church of the Savior is one of only a handful of Christian ministries I have found that has achieved this objective masterfully.  In Chapter One of Servant Leaders, Servant Structures, available in full at http://wp.theoblogical.org/?page_id=3782, Elizabeth O’Connor provides us with insights into the history, successes and struggles in the formation of Church of The Savior and the many missional expressions of the church which have emerged out of this gathering of faithful Christ followers.

Below are a few insights I found interesting.

O’Connor shares that “In time [founder Gordon Cosby] was to believe even more deeply in ordinary persons who, in turn, were to believe more deeply in themselves. This is probably why the community that has come into being under his leadership gives so little attention to credentials.”

Paradoxically, this community which takes so little notice of degrees gives inordinate attention to education. In every eleven-week semester… classes dealing with some aspect of the inward-outward journey are offered. They vary in content and focus, and range all the way from “discovery of self” to journalizing and contemplation. Most of the classes are conducted in the manner of a seminar with each student presenting findings from the application of the week’s assignment in the living out of his or her life.

Gordon Cosby was to say that this concept [annual recommitment to the disciplines of the church], perhaps more than any other, was the one destined to be the most helpful in retaining integrity of membership.

As we grew in our understanding of silence, we gave more emphasis to the contemplative life. When we become too busy, Dayspring is always there as a reminder that there is no true creativity apart from contemplation.

If the church was to find servant structures, the small groups had to be formed around focused and defined missions with each mission also committed to an inward journey of prayer, worship and study.

Gordon Cosby still feels that the churches, in their quest for structures that nurture life in people, must know that they are venturing into new territory, and that the resources for their exploration rest in the tremendous untapped potential of their own people. The difficulty is that we so often lack confidence in ourselves and in our companions and search for the answers in some other place.

In his preaching and in his conversation he was reminding his own little band that the call of God was a call to create a new kind of community that would be distinguished by its humanness. It would be so human that those in it would do whatever was needed so that everyone in the world might be free. He was reissuing the call to which we had first made response. Later he was to tell the moderators of newly formed mission groups, “A time comes in the life of every group when it loses sight of its goals and must choose them again. Your job will be to sound again the call, to be the bearer of the vision-articulating it in your own life and helping others to see it.”

We formed classes in Christian Vocation. In these classes we were taking a deeper and longer look at the whole matter of call as having to do with the transcendent-the being grasped by that which is greater than we. We began with the basic assumption of the New Testament that there was no way to be the church except by the call of Christ, and that there were a number of dimensions to this call.  The class dealt primarily with the fourth dimension. If the church is a sent people, where was Christ sending each of us?  The call was to move out-to discover where we were to lay down our lives-to take up the stance of the suffering servant, and make witness to the power of Jesus Christ’s work in us.

Actually call was to come to most of us through the ordinary events of life, which were to be extraordinary events because we brought to them a new quality of asking and listening.

Our sermons, classes, and conferences were all concerned with helping others to hear call and discern gifts. We found ourselves so often asking, “What would you like to do?” is a question we still ask indiscriminately-of the very young and the very old, of poor and rich, oppressed and oppressors, and then we listen very carefully and take with utmost seriousness what a person says.

We worked out a procedure requiring every mission to be confirmed by the Church Council. This never meant to us that everyone had to be enthusiastic about every call. Oftentimes we have had to be willing to let another move even when we have large reservations.  Our learning to do this with a certain degree of ease, probably more than any other factor, accounts for the proliferation of mission groups in the community of The Church of The Savior.

We have found it incredibly hard to hold to the concept of the inward and outward journeys. We early discovered that not many persons want them both. Weighted heavily on one side or the other, most of us struggle intensely to keep these two dimensions in any kind of creative tension in our individual and our corporate lives.

[When Cosby was] asked, “What do you think the future of the church is?” He replied, “I have never had a helpful answer to that question. Have no idea. I do not know what the judgments of God are or what will be the breakthroughs of God’s power.” Then he stopped for a long pause and added, “I do not need the church to have a visible or successful future in order for me to feel safe as a person. I’m glad to leave it to God’s sovereignty. It is his church-not mine.”

To fight for integrity of membership within existing structures is certainly extraordinarily difficult, but there is hardly any path that frees one from that struggle. In all of us something powerful is at work which seeks to remake the new concepts into the old. “Community” can quickly be changed into “conformity,” and “call” into “duty.”

The inward-outward structure of the mission groups defines the church as a servant people called into existence to be the community for others.

What we did at that important juncture in our life was to face the importance of structurally implementing a description of “Who we are.”[as defined by their disciplines]

The Council as the governing body of the church was reorganized as a “Mission Council,” comprised of two representatives from each confirmed mission group, who served in rotating order for a period of a year. Representatives reported to their groups what transpired in Council meetings. Any decisions made were binding on the whole membership. When the Council determined that an issue was of such nature as to require confirmation by the total membership, a general congregational meeting was called.

Our mission group structures are tougher and more durable because they have had to cope with the financial dimension. A group responsible for its own finance is not likely to close shop for the summer or to show laxity in ways that it might if someone else were footing the bill. Furthermore, when the money is ours we relate to the whole sphere of economics in a way that would not otherwise happen. This became increasingly evident as our missions in the inner city placed us in the midst of the poor. We returned to our homes at night feeling less easy with our own life styles.

In our small church community the mission groups began to multiply. They were structures that Gordon Cosby had helped to form and that were, in turn, forming him. Although his life was given to working with all the small groups, he was a member of only one, subject to its covenant, under the authority of those whose gifts had been confirmed, his heart and mind enlarged and stretched by commitment to the few. He believed too passionately that strong leadership existed within all the groups. He was, however, and still is available to any group as guide and counselor. Sometimes he is called in at points of crisis to be a reconciler. More often he counsels a group in the early stages of its formation when members are defining their strategy,

The mission structure gave us a people to companion us in our individual freedom movement. Everyone struggles to break away from the oppressive inner structures that make us all prisoners of one kind or another. We need a people to journey with us out of our own Egypt into the broad land that is promised to all who believe in Him.

Summary of Insights that I think may be helpful in empowering a missional movement in Richmond

  1. Commitment to integrity of membership by insisting on a high level of commitment to defined disciplines which shaped corporate identity
  2. Strong commitment lay leadership and belief in ordinary people
  3. Strong emphasis on education around both the inward [contemplative] and outward [missional] journey
  4. Missional groups as the organizing structure [Mission Council] and mission as organizing principle; unwavering commitment to the church as sent people existing for others

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