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A Foretaste! Transforming Leadership Practices: The Church’s Organizational Life

April 30, 2015

By considering the topic of “transforming leadership practices” we are making the assumption that the organizational life of the church is worthy of our attention both as a theological concern and concern for the fruitfulness of the church’s mission.  Thus we begin discussion of church organizational life by offering a theological vision of community, and then, how this vision of faithful community might become realized within the church’s organizational life.

convo2015logoTwo ways to use this blog to stimulate learning and organizational renewal:

  • Use the questions for discussion at the end of this post with your church leadership team/s to consider both the faithfulness and the fruitfulness dimensions of their work.
  • Come to the convocation in July to explore these leadership behaviors more fully.


A theological vision of community.

christian_commThe koinonia of the Holy Spirit formed by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ offers a vibrant image: a community of openness and engagement which welcomes difference, encourages creative conflict, and nourishes the freedom for innovation. Rather than a warm “soft fuzzy,” this image of community lifts up the radical challenge of loving as God loves: “Christian community is that place where the persons we least want to associate with and those least deserving have a rightful claim on all that we have and are.”1 Thus this image challenges a narrow view of community which seeks an intimate, closely-knit, homogeneous—comfortable—gathering in retreat from the world and public life. Based in the conversion of our fears and anxieties to hope and courage, the community formed by the movement of the Holy Spirit cannot be achieved by human intentions and efforts, however well-intentioned. Christian community is realized only by the creative power, redemptive love, and transformative presence of the Triune God.

As a forgiven and reconciled people, the church is called and empowered to be a sign, a foretaste, and an instrument of an alternative social order: a community where God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Living as God’s people is not a vague, romantic, or idealized dream, but a concrete way of life which has practical and definite consequences: “God’s reign comes when we can regard all strangers as sisters and brothers; when we can embrace those from whom we are estranged; when we can unite in one congregation diverse racial, social, political, economic, and ethnic groups; when we can seek justice for those who are least deserving or lovable; when we are freed from private life, private property, and private commitment and led into public life, public property, and public commitment; and when the needs and concerns of the world’s outcasts are made our agenda for prayer and service.”2

Now – how can a theological vision of community be incarnated within the organizational life of the church?

The Witness of the Church’s Organizational Life. 

planning_conflictUsually when seeking to build an open and collaborative climate—Christian community—the focus falls upon the development of various kinds of “fellowship” groups. It is assumed that within these small face-to-face groups persons will offer and receive support, care, and nurture. Often overlooked is the quality of life within the administrative or leadership groups of the church. Little attention is given to the use of power and authority, the way information is shared, the nature of decision-making, the openness and receptivity of church leaders, the quality of peer relationships, the process of determining organizational goals, or the manner of recognizing and affirming organizational involvement. A distinction is made between formal and informal, work and social, administrative and fellowship groups. Further, concerns for faithfulness or spirituality are assumed to apply only to the life of the informal or social groups, while the criteria of effectiveness or efficiency are to guide the agenda of the formal or work groups.

Yet the church is called to manifest the qualities of Christian love—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience (Col. 3:12)—not only in informal gatherings, but in all aspects of its life and work. In fact, many informal groups flounder because they have not given appropriate attention to organizational skills: participatory decision-making, cooperative planning, shared leadership, and the creative utilization of conflict. Within an impersonal, fragmented, and competitive world, these relational skills do not come naturally. They must be learned, tested, and practiced within a community of people who come together to participate in God’s new creation: an alternative way of living and working together. In the actualization of its mission—proclaiming and embodying God’s forgiving and reconciling love—all aspects of the church must be both faithful and fruitful. In other words, there must be a linkage and correspondence between what the church embodies in its organizational life and what it proclaims in its worship life.

Creating a Climate for Group Development.

The claim is being made that the form and style, process and content, attitudes and practices of the church’s administrative groups are a vital and creative way both to develop and express Christian community. These groups are called to cultivate a spiritually enriching and personally supportive climate for their life and work. Indeed, it is usually within these groups that persons learn the organizational skills needed to develop and participate in the study, support, and service groups of the church. The challenge is to cultivate a trusting and supportive climate which moves beyond a defensive and competitive “business” orientation.

climateExtensive comparative research has identified six key characteristics of work groups which release the energy, stimulate the motivation, and utilize the gifts of persons as they engage in planning and carrying out the ministry of the church.3

Supportive. The group provides an opportunity for persons to discover their gifts, utilize them in service to God’s church, and have their personal self-worth and importance affirmed. All of the interaction, problem-solving, and decision-making activities of the group occur in a supportive atmosphere, even when there is strong conflict. The commitments and goals of the group are formed through an open and interactive process which involves all group members. The group leader uses leadership practices which communicate that all members of the group are important persons who can make a valuable contribution to the group. Group processes are employed which encourage cooperative interactions rather than competitive ones which pit the concerns and interests of members against one another. Recognizing the importance of their work, and affirming the need for the wisdom and gifts of all concerned, group members are eager to help one another develop to their full potential.

Receptivity. The group actively seeks and uses the knowledge, opinions, concerns, experience, and ideas of all members. The group leader and each member are genuinely interested in any information on any relevant matter that any member of the group can provide. Members feel free, and multiple opportunities are made, to talk openly with the group leader and with each other about matters related to their common life and work. A climate is cultivated which enables the sharing of the diversity of histories and dreams. Receptivity is furthered in the group by continually clarifying group norms, encouraging the expression of differing views, listening and learning from one another, avoiding too-early solutions, building on partially-formed ideas, and affirming the contributions of others.

Teambuilding. Members develop an relational climate of cohesiveness which results in a commitment to the aims and objectives of the group. Members are skilled in interpersonal and group dynamics and processes. The group has been in existence sufficiently long, and has spent enough time together, to have developed well established and relaxed working relationships. New members are intentionally welcomed and incorporated into the life and work of the group. Members seek to surface and confront potential areas of conflict—as opportunities for enriched learning. The cohesiveness of the group is not the result of conformity or uniformity, but of the unity which comes through exploring, sharing, growing, and working together. Members of the group are highly motivated to abide by the major commitments and to achieve the important goals of the group.

Performance Emphasis. There is an accomplishment-oriented atmosphere in which members are willing to set goals that are high. Having participated in their formation, all members accept willingly and without resentment the goals and expectations the group has established for itself. The group seeks and prizes creativity and attaches a high value to innovative approaches and solutions to its problems. The leader and members believe that each group member can grow and stretch. Evaluating their work according to their shared commitment to the mission of the church, the members of the group are highly motivated to achieve the important goals of the group.

Work Facilitation. Members of the group intentionally seek to support and help one another in carrying out their work. Members give each other the help they need to accomplish successfully the tasks and goals set by the group for each member. The style of working together ensures that the feelings, concerns, and needs of each member are given the attention by the group which they deserve. All members are encouraged to share fully and frankly with the group all the information which is relevant and of value to the group’s activities. Members are knowledgeable of and utilize communication processes in ways which best serve the interests and objectives of the group. An intentional effort is made to identify, nurture, utilize, and affirm the diverse gifts of all members.

Decision-Making. The processes of the group ensure all members fully participate in making the significant decisions that affect the group. The group generates and shares the information needed for decision-making, allows sufficient time for exploration and discussion, makes a free and informed choice, and builds internal commitment to the choices made. The group is flexible and adaptable: ideas, feelings, goals, and attitudes do not become frozen. Members expect and are strongly motivated to influence one another and are receptive to being influenced by other members. Consensus methods of decision making are used which enable the group to explore a range of options and seek to combine various persons’ ideas into an optimum solution, rather than pushing for a “win/lose” vote on what may be a minimally acceptable solution.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Why is it important to pay attention to the quality of the church’s organizational life?
  2. What do you perceive to be the differences between the formal and informal groups in your congregation?
  3. How are the qualities of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience manifested within the organizational life of your church?
  4. How do you think the six characteristics of work groups reflect or contribute to Christian community?
  5. In what ways would you like to strengthen the quality of life and work within your congregation’s administrative groups?

1 John H. Westerhoff, Living the Faith Community: The Church That Makes A Difference (Harper & Row, 1985), p. 21.

2 Ibid.

3 These characteristics are adapted from Rensis Likert, New Patterns of Management (McGraw-Hill, 1961) and Rensis and Jane Gibson Likert, New Ways of Managing Conflict (McGraw-Hill, 1976).




Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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