On the Way of Generative Conflict – Leadership as Mutual Submission (Eph 5:21)

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At the “missional communities learning commons” this past Saturday (you can read about here and here), Geoff Holsclaw, one of the pastors with me at Life on the Vine, talked about “generative tension” that springs from multiple co-pastorship. He talked about how the conflict that comes from leaders discerning and leading a community together generates far more growth, creativity and discernment into the future than a singular Senior pastor type leader at the top.
I believe this is incredibly true at Life on the Vine. I could tell you stories where I had blockhead ideas that I thought were “the Way” we must go. Nonetheless I listened, learned and submitted, and a much better way emerged. It takes learned practices of patience, courage and mutual submission. I have a rule, in my own leadership. I lead, I discern, I put forth (sometimes with great force) the way in which I see we must go forward. Then I listen. Then I respond. If after a while, there are three or more firm dissenters, I back off and discern with the leaders another way. The community at Life on the Vine has been incredibly inventive in the Spirit and gone places in a short period of time out of this kind of Spirit-led vitality among its leadership on Wednesday nites (our church leadership meeting every other Wed nite) despite all its faults and (sometimes) uglier moments.

Such an openness to generative conflict also models a kind of community for the rest of the community to see. I believe this is important because I see generative conflict as an essential characteristic of the entire missional community. For there must be an openness and a learned practice of engaging difference first within community and then outside it. For it is in these kind of eventual generative encounters with those who are outside the community (and the gospel) that the gospel becomes enfleshed and true conversion can happen. This profound notion of generative conflict is so life giving; yet everything in modern privatist individualist society works against it. It is very hard to describe. And so I offer this quote from the great archbishop of Canterbury:

The late Don Hubert van Zeler of Downside Abbey told the delightful story of a North Welsch convent where the garden gate had at some point in a chequered career been reversed – so that the side facing inward now read “Private” in large letters. The cloister was being warned to keep its distance from the privacy of the world. This reversal is no bad symbol of the necessary revisions in our understanding of peace. The “world,” the unregenerate, uncritical life of most human societies, is the place of private, isolated existence, fear of facing the cost of decision and involvement – haunted by the fantasy of “peace” … withdrawal … shrink from tension…. In contrast, the cloister abandons privacy for a solitude which forces people to confront their fear and evasiveness and so equips them for involvement by stripping-down of the will…. It is a lifestyle which at one level invites conflict (beyond self-protection and self-gratification), the conflict of which the rest of society is afraid, in order to allow a more truthful and courageous humanity to emerge. And the peace of the cloister lies in and through this particular battle. Rowan Williams Truce of God p. 63 (via Roman Coles p. 187).

I could go on about why most evangelical churches, I have known (and I’ve been among many of them), resemble miserably the kind of conflict resolution so apt in “the private isolated existence” of human society. But I won’t. Instead I have hopes that missional communities we dreamed about last Saturday will show the way to kind of life together pictured by Rowan Williams in the quote above.

Are there any examples/stories out there of “multiple leadership in mutual submission” that could help us walk in this direction? Are there any missional communities, missional orders experiencing this kind of generative conflict (I know you mennonites must know what we’re talking about)? I believe it takes deliberative teaching/leadership. Any help on this out there?

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9 responses to “On the Way of Generative Conflict – Leadership as Mutual Submission (Eph 5:21)

  1. Dave, told you I’m not on your blog roll, come on, make me famous (jk)!

    Thanks to you Geoff, Aaron, and Matt for your presentations and hosting us for the day. I enjoyed being with you all and getting the opportunity to see the mustard seed type of work that God is doing through your community. Peace.

  2. I had a good time at the gathering as well (as did the entire Fort Wayne cohort!).

    We have been struggling to figure out the multiple/team leadership thing for awhile at Heartland (the “host” church for our missional community). It has definitely been a learning curve for the leaders as well as the congregation, because we transitioned from the “Senior Pastor and Assorted Underlings” model… it takes awhile for everyone to get used to it, but it’s been very fruitful.

  3. I learned a bit about this on a traveling worship team I was the leader of two years ago. I always thought I had the best way of doing things, which I did – if everyone in the audience was like me.

    The members of my team helped us to reach those we were to be ministering to by telling me that I was wrong, and by offering their suggestions. It was a growing experience for me, and I’m sure it will benefit me in future leadership!

  4. jr … ok, ok … I’ll take care of that … especially since it usually takes me three years to make any changes to the blog. PS God told me (during the Eucharist) you are supposed to just forget about all other opportunities and come hang at the Vine for the next ten years … so we’re waiting.
    Ben … enjoyed the time with the gnag from Fort Wayne … and think you should organize the next one of these things … it only took a few hours.
    Dan ..sounds like a great team … that’s encouraging to hear.

  5. Dave,

    My experience with co-leadership went both ways. On a personal level, my co-pastor and I sharpened one another to an unbelievable degree. On a ministerial level, that’s about all that happened. However, I hesitate to blame our lack of momentum on the co-pastor phenomenon. It merely was time-consuming, considering our past theological and ecclesiological differences [Methodist, Baptist (me) vs. AG (him)]. A key problem for us was joining in partnership without (a) having a common supportive sending body, and (b) having established a tight-knit core group before deciding to “launch” (our launch was essentially forming a house church and investing ourselves in our neighborhoods). I will never again plant a church without being sent by a “mother church”, nor will I plant without a team of people who would die–and live!–for one another.

    Aside from the anecdotal evidence, however, I see strong evidence that co-equal leadership in terms of role/function is not most effective in terms of mission. Hierarchy serves the Church and the missio Dei, if it is handled rightly, which includes adequate “checks and balances”. If the “head pastor” is a true, humble servant, he will seek the insights, admonitions, and accountability of others. Those who do this, while keeping their own hearts pure before the Lord, succeed in their ministries. Those who hoard power and lead authoritarianly stifle the work of the Spirit and prevent good fruit from being born. Not to give kudos to the megachurch phenomenon, but Andy Stanley and Erwin McManus are shining examples of this.

  6. Wonderful post brother.
    Keep up the great work and blogging.
    I have added you to my favorites and will be reading regularly.
    I pray God will bless your ministry in a big way in 08′.
    In Him,
    Kinney Mabry

  7. Though not on the missional/emergent radar, the Plymouth Brethren are multiple leadership congregations; decisions typically made in their assemblies by consensus.

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