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Leadership Blindspots and Non-institutional Missional Churches

Monday, 3 December 2012  | Geoff Westlake

Recently, Andrew Olsen showed me some leadership blind-spots which I would have benefited from had I known about them earlier! I don’t think I’m alone.

1. Human nature defaults to pecking order and scapegoating.
This is why groups of good people, that started well and co-operatively, ended up devolving, drifting apart, “losing interest,” or loudly arguing, fracturing, or ending. I thought that with the Spirit’s help, good will, logic, and conscious conversations, would win over. But it’s the sub-conscious fallen brain that short-circuits us. We THINK we differ on “the issues,” but IN FACT as soon as there is a group loyalty there is a subconscious drive for our place in the pack, and to protect and galvanize our pack by expelling “threats.” This sinful human nature lies at the base of all our conflicts, our groups!

Maybe some missions failed because we trusted each other to be good, and failed to properly acknowledge our sinful human nature.  

2. Human nature needs managing by good civic ground-rules
Everyone knows what is right - it’s just that we struggle to do it. So we need to answer three basic questions, and shape the civics. 

  • ”How do you want the meetings to be?” (Safe, not talking over the top, honest, etc.)
  • “How do you want us to relate when apart?” (Respectfully, listening, honest, friendly, etc.)
  • “How do you want the leader to conduct the group?” (Keep us on task, safe good processes, etc.)

Now the civics are recorded: the leader is accountable to the group to make the group behave well; and bad behaviour triggers a compulsory, authorized response.

Many leadership systems are based on ideal behaviour – these ground-rules handle bad behaviour by authorizing the scapegoat leader!  

Maybe some missions failed because we failed to set up solid ground rules that manage sinful human nature. 


3. Parallel Thinking Grids overcome Oppositional thinking
Our default way of solving differences is firing sound-bites of opposite viewpoints at each other. It’s very inefficient, and creates adrenaline in no time, which in turn impairs our ability to think anyway!

Alternatively, we can be led to park our views, and contribute in parallel sequences: “lets all look at the pro’s of the default together; now the cons; now the pro’s of the new idea; now the cons; what insights can we now see; what design steps are apparent.”

If we discuss things in parallel, we table far more information on both sides of the issue, every viewpoint is properly heard and empathized with, and so we stay emotionally together. Research shows that brainstorming by using a parallel thinking grid gives you 5-10 times more useful info, than brainstorming “pro’s and cons” normally, much less oppositional arguing. The “value-finding” part of our brain is different from the “hazard-finding” part. The thinking grid makes you stay in one part for an extended period, which triggers spiralling creativity. Plus, participants stimulate each other’s better ideas.

A parallel thinking grid is a powerful tool for managing sinful human nature, creating better thinking. I wish I’d known that earlier!

Maybe some missions failed because we used oppositional thinking and failed to use parallel thinking modes enough. Love, respect, listen, submit to one another.


4. Leading requires many skills to be learnt
I under-estimated the complexities. I had two tools – prayer and logic. I thought if God prompted and it made sense, that would win the day and all would follow. All I had to do was be clear. Wow – how naive! Even the skills of establishing good civics, and parallel thinking, would have helped.

But there’s more: value-creating questions; shortest possible time negotiation; naming thinking and social processes; techniques for stimulating imagination; delegation; reflection; conflict resolution; and the ability to teach all this too. I did not know of these, let alone how to do them. And that’s just getting a team to work together! Then there are the complexities of getting the tasks done – the interplay between the setting, the staff, the clients, management of operations, admin and logistics, communications and command, strategy planning and execution, priorities, stages of formation. Don’t panic, it’s not an endless number, but it’s far bigger than I knew.

Did Jesus have a handle on all that stuff? Well, now that I think about it, yes he probably did. I don’t mean he formed a company, but he had a wide repertoire of those skills and more. Moreover, as he was shaped in prayer, he learned from the Father which tools to use when. That’s divinely savvy leadership!

Maybe some missions failed because we had too simplistic a model of what to do. 


5. Teams Dysfunction at different levels
Patrick Lencioni gives this pyramid of dysfunctions of a team: 

                                                            5. …Inattention to Results.

                                                4. …Avoiding Accountability, causes p

                                    3. …Lack of Commitment, causes p

                        2. …Fear of Conflict, causes p

            1. Absence of Trust causes p

As soon as these were named, I could suddenly see them in groups I had been a part of before. Until that moment, they had been invisible to me, buried under layers of justifications, the groups “just weren’t working.”

Maybe some mission groups failed because there was dysfunction at one layer affecting all the layers above. Jesus had all these right.


6. Flat leadership structures do not mean laissez-faire
Laissez-faire means “let act” without constraint. That’s not flat leadership, that’s just flat! No leadership. That can be OK in a partnership where there is mutual initiative, but when more people are involved, relationships become more complex, group-loyalty engenders pecking order in the fallen-brain, we need ground-rules, and parallel thinking grids, etc. Trust has to be worked at, otherwise the weeds of fear and sinful human nature will choke the garden of community. 

Flat leadership is not an oxymoron. The group can defer to each others’ expertise in different areas, there can be a co-ordinating leadership that asks questions and facilitates the whole group expertly, without dominating. That kind of leadership has to be conscious, or else it will be blind-sided by the above issues.

Maybe some missions failed because there was no leadership, leaving them defenceless against the entropy of sinful human defaults.


7. Hierarchy can be used to serve
If you have a hierarchical leadership structure, you can use it to serve, or to dominate. From the Arbinger Institute we learned about “out-of-the-box” thinking vs “in-the-box” thinking. This terminology is not about creativity, but empathy. Being “in-the-box” is relating to people from within your own frame of reference. Being “out-of-the-box” is relating in open-hearted ways, being other-centered. It’s the mindset that says no to manipulation, and yes to service. Conversely, in-the-box thinking can turn the most gentle method into heartless manipulation. Being out-of-the-box is an important overlay to all leadership skills. In all things, love.

Maybe some missions failed simply because leaders were “in-the-box.” 

The non-institutional, missional church movement seems to have gone quiet lately, with many start-ups ending, and many leaders scratching their heads. There may be many practical reasons why, not least the fragility of non-institutional movements. If institutional churches fail to handle these leadership issues well, they become toxic. If emerging churches fail to lead well, they die. 


Geoff Westlake is a national coordinator of Outreach And Church Ministries, and since 2003 has been the volunteer leader of the Cheers Neighbors’ Network, a non-institutional, missional-church outreach in Perth WA.


Les scarborough
December 4, 2012, 7:16AM
Geoff, A very powerful engaging article. I have stepped back from my involvement with John mark Ministries Australia wide..many of your points surfaced in my interaction with denominations and churches.

My wife and I are now learning afresh in a mssional community ..a simple organic mssional church..seeking to learn at our age relating to the unchurched and dechurched.However your issues unfold in the community..(four years on the journey).We have just revisited the core values over the last six months..very helpful evaluation to consider our blind spots and where we have deviated during this time.

Thanks for your insightful article.

Les scarborough
Chris Currie
December 5, 2012, 11:55AM
May I draw your attention to the Book "The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives" by Peter Scazzero with Foreword by Leighton Ford.

It may not be easy to track that book down.
If you cannot find it, then "Emtionally Healthy Spiritually" by Peter Scazzero would also be helpful, but tells less about Scazzero's life.
John Yates
December 9, 2012, 12:18PM
Thanks, Geoff, keep up the provocation. The complexities of human motivation, usually subterranean, can be overwhelming

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