Fresh expressions: follow the leader? (Al Lowe)

Al Lowe asks how we deal with leadership and team dynamics in fresh expressions of church.

How do we deal with leadership and team dynamics in fresh expressions of church? It's something I have been thinking of a lot in relation to Sanctus1 and Nexus, Manchester.

There are two principles of leadership that I want to highlight:

  • there is not one, good model of leadership; instead there are appropriate and inappropriate ones;
  • nature abhors a vacuum. Where no leadership exists, or it is weak, someone will ultimately fill the gap. If there is no agenda, then one will be imposed.

These points apply quite universally but are particularly relevant for those fresh expressions pioneering in the postmodern waters of anti-control.

Leadership happens in fresh expressions from the very beginning – otherwise nothing would be started and there would be no vision or direction. However, that leadership does not have to come entirely from the pioneer – nor is there necessarily just one lead. As the nature of a fresh expression is dynamic, responding to different changes and situations, it is often best that the leadership emerges from more than one source. What is important is how that leadership emerges, how it is appointed and practiced and how it is supported with good accountability.

A classic model of leadership is the autocratic/democratic continuum. As with most voluntary organisations, there is little room for a truly autocratic style. If things are to grow then people need to feel included, consulted and involved in the decision making. The more individuals are allowed to get on and do what they feel needs to be done, the more creative and dynamic the entity will be. Democracy works well within defined boundaries, which need to be established from the beginning. However, the more autocratic style comes into play, as within any disaster movie, when the ship starts to founder on the rocks. In order to save the community from imminent danger; someone, somewhere has to take charge – and that is not always the pioneer. This is very much supported by my experience of my time both at Nexus and Sanctus1.

I came into these particular teams as the second generation minister. The DNA of the pioneers who started them was still very much part of the way things had been set up, with the result that these established teams were very different in nature. The first thing I had to do was to understand the nature of what was going on and how to influence (not necessarily lead at this stage) for the better. Sometimes I got this right and sometimes I think it was made worse but, in general, something must have worked well.

The nature of what was going on meant recognizing the fact that both groups had existing leadership structures in place:

  • Sanctus1 was by far the more structured with a leadership team which seemed to be working well. However things were not necessarily easy.Within two months of me arriving, three of the leadership team naturally moved on. It was important at this stage to hold things together, without being autocratic, until we managed to get a new team together.

It also became apparent during this transition that, if we were to claim to be democratic then we needed to be more transparent, and this was overcome by subtle changes to what was a 'loose' constitution. In some ways, it has been easier to work collaboratively with Sanctus1 because there was a more open way of working alongside people who understood how to operate within a corporate framework but who could also be creative, knowing the overall boundaries of being a welcoming, serving community rooted in the Christian tradition. Sanctus1 wanted to be creative in the way it told its story about Christ… but importantly it still wanted to tell the story of Christ.

  • Nexus was quite different. That doesn't mean it was wrong (it's important to remember there are no rights and wrongs) but it was simply different. Nexus was highly dynamic and creative – and engaging in an amazing way with the Manchester arts scene. Its organisation was far less structured but, despite this lack of formality, something was clearly established. This was evident in the fact that there was a general manager employed to oversee the Nexus cafe staff and its related activities.

Enthusiasm and passion made up for experience but I found that this did lead at times,to differences in opinion -the biggest of which was the lack of agreement as to what Nexus was about. It was a great art space, great community space, great gig venue but not anything to do with faith, Jesus or mission. It took considerable patience, listening and care, to bring this back onto the agenda. There still remains a tension in how to engage with our fast, postmodern world without losing the sight of what mission is about.

The lack of policy and procedures meant that, at times, we were sailing too close to the wind – and a 'hands off' approach sometimes quickly became a lunge for the tiller as we sailed from one financial crisis to the next. As Nexus has developed, it has become much more structured in order to meet the demands of legislation. The challenge is to allow this to happen but still hold onto the creative spirit that it was born with.

And in all this is the team dynamics that always play out when a group is formed. People have different views, priorities and passions – and there are individuals who try to influence outcomes, some in an open appropriate manner and others manipulating behind the scenes. Some members of the group seem to be more involved than others but each member of the community brings something to the whole. The dynamics change every time a member of the team leaves or a new one joins but, in these changing groups, there is the sense that we are heading in the right direction – even if, at times, we may still discuss exactly what that means!

Sanctus1 and Nexus Art Café – update Jun13

Al Lowe gives the latest news on what's happening with Sanctus1 and Nexus in the heart of city centre Manchester.

There have been quite a few changes in recent times. Nexus Art Café is an independent charity so we experienced quite a shift in emphasis when the charity manager, as the person who also ran the café, decided not to return from maternity leave. We then recruited a new person but altered the focus of the role so that it now concentrates on Nexus as an arts venue and the official job title is that of art and venue coordinator.

That change has allowed us to refocus on where we are in terms of Christian spirituality: it has released us from any inhibitions in assessing the stage we have reached in our journey and what we are doing as part of that journey. It has given us a good nudge in the right direction.

Nexus Art CaféAnother outcome has been for Sanctus1 to think of Nexus as a 'legitimate' place to be linked with. The café is now more financially viable than it has been previously, so again, Sanctus1 feel happier merging with something of worth – rather than thinking they have taken on a liability.

This is all part of Sanctus1 making the gradual move towards being missional. We have seen some of the fruit of that when Sanctus1 recently contributed to an art exhibition at Nexus.

As well as our weekly service on Sundays and Wednesdays, Sanctus1 is also involved in:

  • Spirituality Film Nights

    These are run every month by Nexus Art Café (supported by Sanctus1) on their big screen in response to a survey about spirituality.

  • Halfway

    This is a joint venture between Nexus Art Cafe and Sanctus 1 and takes the form of a short weekly mediation, lasting about half an hour and designed to bring some spiritual relief and relaxation in the middle of the busy week.

  • Going Deeper

    A small group offers deeper discussion about what is happening in our lives and try to find God in what is happening. It meets twice a month at Nexus.

  • Sub

    Sanctus1 provides spiritual covering for a small group of Christians exploring their faith through the lens of alternative sub-cultures. Meeting every few months they spend time with a subject, often in a location that compliments the subject matter. Sub has also run services at Greenbelt over the last few years and will be doing so again this year.

Nexus events boardSanctus1 had struggled a little bit with a mission identity but things are moving on and we have now employed a children's worker for four hours a week to be with the children on a Sunday morning during the Sanctus1 gathering. That's great but when you start employing people you have to be aware that it is something which can challenge your constitutional status. That was certainly the case for us and, as a result, we needed to address the constitutional relationship with Nexus. Both constitutions highlight the promotion of the Christian religion so what we do has to be seen as mutually beneficial.

We are in the throes of getting to grips with the terms of the new constitutions; that's complex because we have a number of interested parties in that, including the Nexus trustees, the Manchester Methodist Circuit, the Diocese of Manchester, Sanctus1 and of course the people involved with Nexus.

Identity has turned out to be a major issue at Nexus as well during this time. The way it had been set up meant that there was some confusion about what it was, along the lines of 'it can be whatever you want it to be' but if you don't have a clear agenda, people will create their own agenda. But you can't be all things to all people so a lot of what we've been going through recently is reclaiming that sense of Nexus identity.

Nexus - donations boxPreviously we were giving out quite mixed messages and there was a sense that we were hoodwinking people who wanted to volunteer as to what we are all about. It became increasingly important for us to make clear that we are not just an arts café and we're not simply a community centre.

It means saying that this is what we are about but doing it in such a way that it creates a lot of scope for creative lateral thinking. As long as what we do doesn't interfere with the 'promotion of the Christian religion' within our constitution, then why not do it?  We are just creating more opportunities to engage with a view to some people then wanting to open up faith discussions. I would say it's important to let people have free rein to develop these creative ideas and from that we can hone the sense of community and be stepping stones into commitment.

The results of all of this in terms of relationship between Sanctus1 and Nexus are:

  • less suspicion between the two organisations;
  • some joint ideas associated with prayer groups and events;
  • letting Sanctus1 have a little more ownership of the Nexus space.

Sanctus1 - chaplainsAnother major development is our involvement in the Methodist Church's Chaplaincy Everywhere course. We have taken the opportunity of engaging with Jonathan Green, Chaplaincy Development Project Officer on the Methodist Connexional team. We ran some teaching on the subject for interested community members and we now have six lay chaplains – and me – in Afflecks Palace, a Manchester landmark and an 'eclectic emporium of indie commerce'. This Manchester landmark includes tattoo parlours, a 'pagancraft' centre, and vintage clothing outlets.

There are another three or four people who want to get on board and we'll be running further training in July with the aim of expanding the chaplaincy work across the city's Northern Quarter. There's no doubt that chaplaincy is offering very special opportunities for engagement with the local community and the great thing is that if people want to take the next step and meet somewhere we can point them in the direction of Nexus and Sanctus1 as a place to be.

Nexus Art Café SignI have been here nearly four years and I would say it is only in the past twelve months that we have seen Sanctus1 and Nexus working so closely together. Finance is always an issue and the café doesn't pay my stipend but it is now generating an income. As an independent charity, this means we are in a better position to apply for external grants. We had agreed funding from the Diocese and the Circuit for five years – the Diocese has now agreed to a further two and the Circuit is looking to do the same, though that decision still has to be ratified. Personally I am going through reinvitation stationing this year so we'll have to see what happens in 2014.

Sanctus1 – update Apr10

Manchester-based Sanctus1 has inspired many since appearing on expressions: the dvd – 1: stories of church for a changing culture. Based at Nexus art café, it reaches out to those living and working in the city centre. Over the past few months, key leaders have moved on and it is proving to be a time of transition for everyone. The new leader of both communities, Methodist minister Al Lowe, explains why.

I joined in September last year when the Anglicans and Methodists here decided it was a good time for a joint ecumenical appointment. As a result I became the leader of both Sanctus1 and the Nexus art café communities. I was very much aware of the heritage of both as Cris Acher had overseen Nexus as a space for encounter since it was opened in 2005 by the Methodist Church in partnership with Sanctus1.

But Cris moved on this year and so did Sanctus 1's Ben Edson. Many fresh expression churches are focused on one particular leader and their gifts but what happens when that leader is no longer there? How do we cope? Transition, how we manage it, and sustainability will play a very important part in my work in these early stages.

I have to look at the benefits of Sanctus1 and Nexus working more closely together because for me it's all about discipleship, growth of discipleship and depth of discipleship. Nexus is a place where you can come and explore without coming across Jesus too much. Historically, after a while, a few people started stepping across into Sanctus1 as somewhere which looks to continually refresh its ways of doing worship but somewhere along the way, Sanctus1 has become a bit of an introspective community. We need to be more outward looking there, have an increased sense of mission, and more of a focused idea on who we are and what we are doing.

Concentrating on discipleship rather than on building church is key. The idea of 'church' carries so much baggage these days, and – as far as I'm concerned – when two or three are gathered together then Christ is there. If you grow discipleship you are more likely to grow church rather than saying we have to have five hymns and Communion and it has to be done this way. The challenge for us is to put a structure together so that we are less introspective.

Sanctus1 - masksWe still seem to have a core of eight to 10 people at Sanctus1 and there is a lot of come and go but that is the nature of the generation we serve. As part of the changing pattern since the community first got off the ground, we now offer Sanctus on Sundays because the young professionals who first came to us now have children of their own. They were telling us, 'Wednesday night used to work for us as a meeting time but it doesn't any more.' So we decided to launch on a Sunday morning and meet at Nexus for a 10.45am start followed by lunch at 12. What goes around comes around! Basically what we do is a repeat of the Wednesday material but we also have a crate of toys and a little bit of interaction with the kids. The ongoing challenge will be to offer something for those children as they move on from the baby and toddler stage.

People say, 'It's nice to see something on a Sunday morning'. It’s not quite a radical idea is it?! Just goes to show that not everything we do in established Church is wrong, it's often just not pliable enough to move forward and meet the needs of people where they're at.