Releasing polycentric leadership in a facilitated learning community.

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There are certain time periods when change is inescapable. Take the Industrial Revolution, for example. Virtually overnight, the structure of society was shifted when people flooded from rural industry into cities and factories. Institutions, governance and culture had to transform in order to meet the needs of a very different societal landscape.

In his new book, “Creating A Missional Culture“, J.R. Woodward points out that we are entering the Digital Age, a time period with unique challenges and opportunities. He describes some of the ways churches need to respond to the broad cultural changes of this new era. One of the gifts Woodward gives us is the call to polycentric leadership in the church. He urges the church to move beyond hierarchical leadership models – which don’t sit well with the digital generation, who are sceptical of centralised power structures. Instead, he encourages the church to nurture and release the five kinds of equippers to act as cultural architects, developing a culture which empowers and activates all of God’s people to be involved in ministry. He goes on to describe how Jesus embodies each of the different ministry roles; apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher.

My husband and I have had a chance to see polycentric leadership in action – occurring quite spontaneously and naturally within an interactive, participatory church setting. After six years as lead pastor, Kevin-Neil grew tired of positioning God’s people to sit in rows as a passive audience. He now runs church as a facilitated learning community – a place where everyone interacts and participates, and where the leader is a facilitator, not a performer.

Each week at Fresh Start Community, we see people empowered to discover and use their God-given ministry gifts. They don’t even realise they are doing it. If you come and sit alongside me next week, you’ll be able to work out who’s who. You’ll recognise the prophet when he speaks words which hit deep in your heart, and leaves you with something profound to think about and work through. You’ll see the evangelist coming into the room, surrounded by any number of newcomers – always making everyone feel welcome and connected. You’ll work out who the shepherd is – she’s the one who notices the tear in another’s eye, and slips out of her seat to come alongside them to offer support. You’ll know who the teacher is when she speaks up and clarifies a concept that baffles the rest of the group. My favourite one to watch is the apostle – the one who empowers the others to find their gifts and use their voice to build each other up. None of these people are paid to take these roles. Not many of them have formal qualifications. They’re just using their natural gifts, because the environment releases them to do so.

God never intended the burden of ministry to rest upon one individual. He created each of us with different skills, abilities and gifts. Church should become an environment which recognises and nurtures our ministry gifts, and empowers us to use them to minister to each other and to a world in need.

9 thoughts on “Releasing polycentric leadership in a facilitated learning community.

  1. Pingback: Tomorrow’s church – Part 4: Connecting through story. | Church in a Circle

  2. You know Kathleen, Iv’e been pondering this since you first posted this. First, it’s wonderful that the search is on by many for their gifting, and I especially like that the motive is simply to serve and minister, not achieve status or position. But in our circles, and I bet its not much different most places, its unusual to find a leader like your Kevin-Neil who is a remarkably Christ like figure to humble himself to be a lowly facilitator. As a matter of fact, there are many, many little groups or loners who are nowhere near having any meaningful fellowship, mentoring or hope of it.
    An article like this may discourage them more than they already are, as they think of their lonely or difficult place of torment. I haven’t read Woodward’s book and maybe he addresses it, but this article elicited a question in my of how to effect these changes in a church where there may even be resistance by leaders to it?
    This was my situation for many years.
    First, I didn’t fully comprehend then as I do now that the resistance was a spiritual blindness, on par with the Pharisees, about whom Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”.
    I used to argue with God about that because Caiphas said “There, we’ve heard Him blaspheme from His own mouth”, knowing full well that they were jealous of Jesus popularity.
    But of course, they didn’t see the bigger picture, which was that all of God’s people, and humanity were guilty of killing Christ.
    The thing is that we don’t need to wait for a leader to effect change in our circles, no matter how insignificant we think we are, or how small our circle is.
    Our expectations of change, often informed by well articulated scholarship and rooted in deep or long frustration, may snare us to adopt a position of ‘perfect or not at all’.
    But we can encourage one another to make ‘one inch changes’ and learn to live with ‘two steps forward, one back’ as we suffer long with one another’s humanity.
    We don’t have to have a definable church outline, structure, leadership or missional purpose. We can be a total mess, and in the gutter, and still be about our Father’s business of being changed into Jesus image.
    We’re given permission by God to just be kids, running around, not contributing anything important to anyone of note, unless He has clearly equipped and sent us.
    He told us to be like lilies in the field, not toiling or spinning, not concerned with growth, just to shine and be beautiful for Him.
    I suspect that’s how we’ll truly develop the ministry gifts we so dearly desire, and need in the church, when we give up building, fixing, correcting, tearing down and generally doing God favors by helping Him.
    I know you mentioned that you’ve returned to a regular church, and similarly, we are no longer in a fellowship as we were. I see God’s hand in this.
    I also see almost every bible character who made a dent in the kingdom, go thru hell and high water as they journeyed to the celestial city.
    Iv’e lowered my expectations of what church ‘should’ be to embrace any brother or sister, however dirty, unorthodox or Pharisee like they may be, and in similar fashion, hope they will embrace my quirky and difficult personality.
    I think that’s what Jesus means when He says that when we are weak, then we can be strong in the power of His might.
    And that’s when He will endow us with the gifts we need, as we produce the fruit He wants to eat of from our daily sacrificial lives.
    blessings dear sister.

    • Hi Greg,

      I think I hear you saying that God will give us the gifts we need, when we get on with the messy business of doing His will in community. I’ve certainly experienced this in my life and seen it in others.

      I like your current definition of ‘church’ – embracing the least of these. It sure was Jesus’ way!

      We do attend a “normal” church on Sundays – but it is small, and local, and many of the people there are also our neighbours, and their kids go to school with our kids. Our pastor is a very good man, open to new ideas, and he even did a fully interactive service last Sunday, which went down really well. We believe this is an important season for us to be involved with institutional church.

      During the rest of the week, my husband and I are both involved in several other “groups” which are far more organic, interactive, and highly relational. For myself, I believe the smallest unit of ‘church’ is family, and I get my main dose of “fellowship” from my daily de-brief sessions with my husband, and over multiple cups of tea with my sister.


      – Kathleen

      • I actually think the largest unit, as well as the smallest unit of church is also the family, and it is both biological and in Christ. I also think there was more to the statement ‘you and all your house will be saved’ than just those in the dwelling We’ve separated family from being the church, turned family into clients of a monolith called church and then redefined it to be nuclear, rather than everyone across all generations. Institutions have not only taken over the responsibility for us, they’ve adopted us as their children, and become our father, mother, brother and sister. Jesus challenges this by saying we are each others family, and we limit that to be positional, but He meant it to be even more than biological.
        If we can successfully explain to the industrial institutional mind in our brethren that, like John at the foot of the cross, we are to take His mother (and brother, sister etc) into our own homes, family and lives, even when His own biological brothers were duty bound to care for her, then we can see a revolution of love in the church. Until our love transcends our own blood and includes those bought with His blood, we will struggle unnecessarily to build community.

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