An Apostolic Learning Community for Post-Christendom

In times of rapid change, the learners inherit the earth,
While the learned find themselves well equipped
to live in a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer

If the fall of Christendom and the shift from modernity to post-modernity are the two primary conditions of our time, together they generate the conditions that push us to consider the requirements of a leadership and learning community. We live in a time of wildly increasing complexity and the explosion of information. No single wise leader, nor even a small team, not even an isolated apostolic team, can master these conditions. Any organization which would thrive in this new world must learn to maximize its learning potential, cultivating knowledge and flexibility across boundaries and cultures by becoming a learning community.

This requires a new kind of leadership, and a new relation between leaders. During the predictable environment of the industrial revolution it was possible for one or two experts to analyze a situation and set direction from the top. In the complexity of our time this is no longer possible. We must find ways to harness the knowledge and good-will of entire tribes of people in order to find our way forward. And we must decentralize decision making power in order to maximize adaptability and the speed at which we can respond to a changing environment. There is no way forward in the missio Dei apart from liberating the power of informal networks. Sally Morgenthaler writes that, “Groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning because each member is bringing less and less to the table. Homogeneous groups are great at doing what they do well, but they become progressively less able to investigate alternatives..” (“Leadership in a Flattened World,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007, 183.)

In one of the studies of learning communities in Tasmania in the late 90s they described the leadership vision of a dynamic learning community like this: “leadership is a dynamic and collaborative process in which leadership roles are not defined. Here, leadership is a group rather than individual process dominated by a designated ‘leader’. Leadership is therefore created as individuals and groups interact and collaborate.” (Kilpatrick, Falk and Johns. “Leadership in Dynamic Learning Communities.” Tasmania: University of Tasmania, 1998). In this view, a perspective developed in the midst of increasing complexity and rapid change, leadership is a process and something more like an intervention rather than the characteristic of one or two individuals.

The most powerful organizational learning and collective knowledge sharing grows through
informal relationships and personal networks—via working conversations in communities of practice. (Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections: The Science of Sustainable Living. New York: Random House, 2002)

In Ephesians 4 language, “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting
ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” 916). It is the point of connection that is critical. We have to connect every part of the body in a healthy way to the other parts so that the gifts can function appropriately to bring maturity. Looking through the leadership lens we could recall the words of Mort Ryerson, chairman of Perot Systems:

“we must realize that our task is to call people together often, so that everyone gains clarity about
who we are, who we’ve just become, who we still want to be. If the organization can stay in a
continuous conversation about who it is and who it is becoming, then leaders don’t have to
undertake the impossible task of trying to hold it all together.” (Quoted by Margaret Wheatley in “Goodbye Command and Control.” In Leader to Leader, July, 1997)

A second requirement that pushes us to consider the value of a leadership/learning community in
transitional times is mutual support. Many commentators have described the place we are in
today as “traveling off the map.” When we are off the map we feel insecure, and are apt to default to
familiar answers and familiar ways – precisely when we should lay them aside in order to become
learners. As John Paul Getty is rumored to have quipped: “in times of rapid change, experience is our
worst enemy.” Our need for security can sabotage our ability to learn and adapt. However, if we travel
together into the unknown, we can reduce this tendency even as we increase our ability to learn by multiplying the effective listeners and observers.

Even young apostolic types are subject to oppressive local conditions. It’s tough to develop in an area of giftedness when few of your friends understand your passion or share your vision. Instead, you are likely to seek familiar places and familiar roles, roles that are easily affirmed and understood within existing systems. I worry for young leaders who too quickly seek to fit within the constraints of established churches. They miss the opportunity to be equipped by the Spirit for the future of the church. But where can they find mentors? Too many apostolic types have themselves given up hope or “hung up their guns” in despair.

The experience of the small community examining quantum particles in the 1920’s is a lesson in the challenges of traveling off the map. The physicists discovered properties of matter that made no sense within existing frameworks, and even their language failed them. Many experienced this as an intense emotional crisis. But they were not alone! “If we dream alone, it remains merely a dream. If many dream together, then it is the beginning of a new reality…” (Elisabeth Fiorenza quoted by Rosemary Neave in “Reimagining the Church,” Women’s Resource Center, NZ. Study Leave Report, 1996). And from their intellectual and emotional crisis emerged a new field of science, and new insight into the nature of created reality.

Important discoveries nearly always take place within a wider “community of practice.” By analogy consider the properties ascribed to the VLA in Sorocco, New Mexico. The VLA (Very large Array) is a series of radio lenses featured in the movie Contact. The radio lenses are synchronized, so that they work together to increase the resolution of any signal they track. The listening power of the lenses doubles with each one that is active. This is a great analogy for a leadership/learning community. When we collaborate, submitted together to one Lord and one purpose, we increase our faith even as we increase our ability to see – to gather knowledge and so to respond and adapt effectively to the changing context around us.

A huge component of cultivating imagination is cultivating safe environments to explore new questions
and new challenges. This requires a “creative commons,” a safe space where we leave the safety of our
offices and roles and titles and become vulnerable together. We must listen together to the rhythms that lie just beneath the surface, and we must take the risk of moving outside the safety of our fortress walls into our neighborhoods. It is as we go out together, vulnerably “taking nothing for the journey,” free of the limits of our old frameworks and expectations, that we may hear the Spirit afresh and learn the questions that will bear fruit for the next generation.

While much of this networking can be non-local, some of it must be regional. We need at least occasionally to “eyeball” another leader who faces challenges similar to our own. Moreover, the opportunity generated when regional leaders meet together is to begin to form an apostolic network that can work together for something like a “city church.” The brokenness of our ecclesial experience is not only local, but regional. The Body of Christ exists in a matrix of giftedness and authority that is expressed in local bodies, but also in a region. We have lost most of this knowledge, and with it unknown potential, when we lost (or marginalized) apostolic leadership in favor of sola pastora. Sacramental integrity demands that we explore new ways of relating local pastoral leadership with something like a regional apostolate – one that is ecumenical, relational, and covenantal.

So this task initially falls to leaders. The first step in opening a creative commons is leaving behind the tacit agreement that we will not express our fears and anxieties around change and leadership. To the extent that these hidden agreements are not expressed they limit our ability to grieve the loss of familiar places and to explore new territory together. We become bound by realities we cannot name and assume those boundaries are communal norms. Roxburgh and Romanuk write, “Missional leadership involves recognizing these barriers and facilitating articulation of habits and practices that block the capacity to name what is experienced.” (The Missional Leader. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006. 77.) One of the key functions of future leadership is to name these tacit realities while offering hope that God’s future is truly among us if we have the eyes to see.

In his primer in theology Barth tells a story about a series of lectures given in the postwar ruins of the Kurfursten castle in Bonn, Germany. In the summer of 1946 Barth began his lectures. Every morning at seven they met to “sing a psalm or a hymn to cheer us up.” By eight o’clock “the rebuilding of the quadrangle began to advertise itself in the rattle of an engine” as the engineers went to work to restore the ruins. (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline. New York: Harper Perennial, 1959. 7.) This is where vigorous theological work is always done, in the ruins of an old world with hope for a new.

The leadership community thus creates a bridge between two worlds. One intention is to move away from
traditional definitions of power to generate new kinds of partnerships, new leadership “spaces” and a
“culture” of leadership, as opposed to the pyramidal structure where decisions flow down and trust and
hope flow up – where learning is never maximized and the average leaders is isolated. This exploration will require courage and intentionality, but the beginnings are obvious in many regions. And the Spirit of God will go before us.