On Resisting Oligarchic Leadership in the Emerging/Missional Church

Mark Van Steenwyk is at it again: questioning the emergence of oligarchy in organizations like Emergent and Allelon. He points to a wonderful article by Ginny Hunt (cited by Len at NextReformation here) where she gives 5 principles for allelon (greek for “one for another”) based ways of organizing. These five principles are:

1) Power should be used to help others become powerful. This is the opposite of what usually happens. Power usually begets more power, but in the Kingdom of God, the citizens seek to use power to equalize power.

2) Power should be distributed as widely as possible among individuals and organizations. The law of oligarchy says that power usually concentrates in the hands of a few people. While there will always be varied degrees of power within human organizations, we ought to work to diffuse and decentralize power where possible.

3) Hierarchy in social governance should be reduced to a minimum. Kraybill uses the analogy of a ladder to demonstrate social hierarchies. He says the ladder should be flattened out. As that happens, coordination and cooperation replaces domination.

4) Authority for leadership should be freely given by the led. Leadership should not be imposed on a group nor self-appointed. Leadership naturally arises when it is freely given by the ones being led to the leader in response to the leader?s servant posture.

5) The Christian perspective looks down the ladder. The normal human tendency is to climb the ladder as quickly as possible, but the followers of Jesus work to serve the powerless at the bottom.

I find these principles a compelling formulation for Christian leadership for our times. I find Mark’s comments timely as groups like Allelon and Emergent head towards new stages of their development. Of course, to some extent, all organized efforts, will find it hard to resist the spatializing forces of American distribution, media and business. I consider myself a friend, supporter and participant in Emergent and Allelon. I love both of these organizations. I know they will listen to Mark on this. At the same time, inevitably, these organizations, as they gain clout and media force, become a vortex for a forming oligarchy. Media exposure, publishing influence tends to shape ego. Forces emerge that constantly push and tug names into becoming a “club” where people are vying and (dare I say “competing”) for visibility. I don’t know if we can blame Emergent or Allelon or other organizations for this. Or at least single them out. For at least they are talking about it. Nonethless, it makes me sick how I inevitably get caught up in these games. I see others doing the same and it makes me want to puke. In the last few weeks, as I’ve had meetings, telephone conversations, and long walks, I have been asking myself how I can resist these sickening temptations into these COMPETITIVE POSITIONING games within many national organizations of clout (not just Emergent or Allelon).

For me, I am convinced … that I must resist these urges. For these games are so easy to fall into. And I believe these games distract from and sometimes even derail the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. For me, this kind of resistance, and keeping one’s humble focus on the kingdom work set before me, requires spiritual formation. I’ll suggest quickly a few regular practices for such spiritual formation.

1.) The Lord’s prayer every morning, every night, and during the day, when I go on those long walks with God. I say it verbatim. Then I say it in my own words. Then I have silence. The phrase “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done, on earth (right here in this) as it is in heaven” is a key moment of spiritual formation for me.

2.) Allow fellow leaders, younger, less experienced, and with less education and knowledge than yourself to have authority in your life (by the Spirit). For me, it’s most often a co-pastors group at our church. And then, EVEN WHEN they tell you things about your life and ministry that you know is bogus, “eat the crap,” sit there and take it, and pray over it for days. This happened to me last weekend. I still think they were wrong on alot of things. Nonetheless I learned some things about myself. Furthermore, just the act of submission formed me a little further into the kind of leader Ginny talks about above. And it gained trust and empowerment for others.

3.) Never make unilateral decisions in a church. We have a Worship Committee which dialogues about our spiritual life at “the Vine.” I regularly say around the church verbally that I “never make unilateral decisions” just so I’ll never be tempted or allowed to. Normally, unless there is a doctrinal issue at stake (this takes explaining), I or the other pastors are automatically over ruled when “three or more agree” against us.

4.) Never stop inquiring about other people’s gifts. If you see someone doing something well and with graced power, ask about it, name it, push them forward, empower them. I do this alot at “the Vine.” Many times encouraging people has resulted in some failures (not moral ones). I personally don’t think this is bad. For people have learned more about who they are in the Kingdom and are more ready to go to where they are called.

5.) All pastors should have to do some dirty work. As busy as I am, last week I shopped for groceries at midnight Saturday for our church wide potluck Sunday. Matt (another pastor) took care of the septic problem at the church building. People in the church are always telling me that as a busy pastor/professor, I should give up the details. I should, but not all of them. These menial tasks are what teach me that I am in, part of and a servant of the Body.

I’ve got more. But what about the rest of you? Any spiritual formation practices for resisting Oligarchy?


PS .. don’t forget Pernell Goodyear at Up-rooted on Third Places Thursday 7 p.m. at the Vine.
Also … I’ll be reviewing Vanhoozer’s Everyday Theology next up.

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