(this article was originally posted at VERGEnetwork.org, where I'm a regular contributor)
About 18 months ago, I stepped away from my position at 3DM as the Director of Content. While some of my time went to overseeing the development of content and resources, the majority of my time was spent building and leading Learning Communities designed to train, consult and equip pastors in all kinds of churches; helping them put discipleship and mission at the center of everything their communities do.
As I stepped back into local church ministry at Summit Church, my strong sense was that the Lord was asking me to take an extended time away from any kind of writing and training beyond my own local context. In fact, it’s only been within the last month that I feel like God has been nudging me back to that world.
And so speaking as someone who simply leads in a local church, seeking to equip, empower and release God’s people into their mission in His world, it seemed appropriate to first share some of the things I’ve learned in the last 20 months (which while not being the largest sample size, is still a good, sizable ‘chunk’ of time).
Moreover, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the best learning comes through the many, many mistakes you make. Much, if not most, of what I’ve learned are the mistakes we’ve made along the way.
#1: LEADERSHIP FUNCTIONS DIFFERENT IN EVERY CONTEXT
This seems like a fairly intuitive one, but it’s shocking to me the way I didn’t consider this in the first 6 months I was leading at Summit. Our church is unique in that we don’t have a Senior Pastor; rather, we are led by 5 elders, all of whom have the exact same amount of power in their ‘vote’, who lead the church. There is no ‘first among equals;’ everyone is exactly equal.
Moreover, while we have three campuses, we choose not to use video and instead have campus pastors and a rotating central teaching team who preach live each week. While certain leaders are more tied to a campus than another, it’s set up to not be personality or celebrity driven. It’s the antithesis of that.
I will easily admit that this sounds great on paper, but took a great bit of time to understand the practical realities and nuances in practice. I’ll also readily admit I’m still learning how this works! But I think about how my first 6 months I simply functioned with the kind of leadership I’ve always been accustomed to, all the while thinking I was adequately contextualizing.
It was a good reminder that no matter how similar or different from what you’re used to, there’s always nuances in how leadership functions.
#2: TOO MUCH TOO FAST AND IN THE WRONG WAY
It’s a common story: The new leader comes in and without doing too much listening or observing the context, they start to make all kinds of changes to achieve the vision. And while I don’t think that’s exactly what happened with me….a version of it certainly did.
It’s funny. At this point in time, I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve coached to make sure you take your time, understand the culture, listen a lot and then discern the way in which God is leading any changes you are making.
I did all of that….and it still wasn’t close to slow enough.
When you factor in the on-the-job-learning that goes with discovering a culture that lives out interdependent leadership (see #1 above), it’s a brave new world. Even as I attempted to be patient…I should have been far more patient and moved slower.
#3: IMPLICIT VS. EXPLICIT
I want a culture where it’s normal to see disciples of Jesus running around whose lives look a lot like the lives of the people we read about in the New Testament. (That should be normal, not the exception).
One of the things I’ve always emphasized over and over is that ‘Language creates Culture.’ If that kind of ‘normal’ is going to happen, we need a language that’s intentional in creating that. One of the reasons my wife and I were really drawn to Summit in the first place was because this understanding was already at work there. They’ve been very intentional with their language and it’s created a very specific culture. It’s fantastic.
But one of the biggest things I learned in creating a Discipling Language there is that all cultures have things that are explicitly stated as well as implicitly stated. And you can screw up quickly if you’re not on the same page with those things.
One on occasion in the native discipling language we were developing, we shifted from an explicitly stated reality to an implicitly stated one and it raised all sorts of red flags. I was changing the culture in a way that I wasn’t even meaning to change. And it was so subtle.
All this to say…the subtle nuances of culture matter a tremendous amount. I’m learning to constantly look for those nuances. And before this experience, I’d never really thought through IMPLICIT and EXPLICIT shifts that much.
#4: THE PILOT PROCESS IS A NECESSITY
After reading those first three, it probably sounds like the first 18 months at Summit were pretty rough. In reality, it really wasn’t. We definitely had some bumps and bruises along the way, but I could not be more excited about where we are in the process and what the process has produced. I think the process worked/is working, though we certainly could have navigated the process better.
One of the things I’m most grateful we did was utilizing a ‘pilot process.’ What I mean by that is that before we multiplied any new language, processes or vehicles (like Missional Communities) into the wider culture, the elders and senior staff used ourselves (and families) as guinea pigs first.
I think that’s informed by some bedrock convictions I have about leadership:
• We should never ask the people God’s entrusted to us to do something we aren’t doing ourselves.
• Don’t simply lead from a place of theory. Lead from a place of practice informed by theory.
• Leaders go first.
The idea that anyone would release a new kind of vehicle for discipleship and mission without first testing it out, experimenting with it, trying it out to see what things must shift in their culture…I just don’t understand that.
Reading about something in a book is wildly different from leading it in reality.
One of the things we did right was taking a year to really try out different things before beginning to multiply it out. And even then, it’s not the ‘fully formed thing.’ We aren’t there yet. We are multiplying what we think God has confirmed for his people, in this place, in this time.
#5: LEARNING MUST BE FRESH
This is almost a PART 2 of #4. But it’s a personal one. You see, I was coming off a three-year stint of primarily coaching, equipping and training pastors who were on the front edges of pioneering ministry. I loved it. I was good at it. We saw a lot of fruit from it.
But other than the local Missional Community that Elizabeth and I led, we weren’t able to be terribly involved in our local context. There just wasn’t time. We weren’t able to pioneer and innovate and try new things in practice to continue our own learning. Sure, we could wax and wane philosophical on new innovations in theory, but in many ways, we were teaching on what had already been learned.
This isn’t to knock theory or theorists. But to say when it comes to training for discipleship and mission, it could not be more important that we try new things in real life.
Perhaps what I’ve enjoyed most from the last 18 months is that the process of learning in real time never stops. I love that we are pioneering new things here at Summit that have never been done before. I love that we have made mistakes because it means we are risking something worth going after and mistakes are part of the process. I love that over the next few years we will trying out and experimenting with things that we are learning from the church in India to see what things translate here.
I love that we are trying to understand what it means to be faithful with the people God has entrusted to us, but with the same universal call we all share: To make disciples who make disciples.