James Karran explores why leaders need to be 'outsiders' in their own community.
My most burning passion in ministry is to see communities of committed disciples that are authentic, real and honest. I long to be part of a place that is safe for people to come and be vulnerable, where they don't have to fear being used as guinea pigs by a bunch of amateur spiritual physicians who want to heal, save and liberate everything in arms reach.
In order to facilitate this environment as the leader, building relationships is crucial because without deep relationships, the community will never develop the intimacy needed for vulnerability.
But vulnerability is difficult. We have all been hurt and bruised in our stories, and the mind rebels against this idea of letting its guard down in case the bruises are ripped open to become deep wounds. Unfortunately, in so many people's experience of church, this is exactly what has happened. So we play at being vulnerable, we pretend that we are sharing our true and honest 'prayer concerns' with each other; knowing all the while that those things most important to us, those facets of our beings that are darkest, most messed up and most broken – those are things we could NEVER tell anyone. The potential pain is too great.
So, deep relationships are important. However, it's not as simple as that because there is real danger associated with it.
A leader wants to create relationships within the community so they throw themselves into the friendships, meeting up with folk for coffee, organising social events and cinema trips, nights out, meals – anything that would create the fertile ground for relationship to grow. This community becomes their main friendship circle, they invest in its members – and the members invest in the leader and each other. And it begins to work. Deep and real friendships grow. Vulnerability begins to emerge. The dream is beginning to be realised.
Here's the danger. In the midst of this process, somewhere in the milieu, the leader loses perspective and sense of purpose. The friendships become the goal; the reason for their necessity is forgotten. The little community is happily revelling in its own insular reality where everyone loves everyone and 'we' look after each other, where the universe is fine as long as we stick together. It becomes harder and harder to see anything outside this circle of loveliness.
The community becomes gated by walls of its sense of shared vulnerability. When it comes into contact with 'outsiders', the in-jokes and private conversations give a clear, if unintentional, message, "Sorry, if you're not one of us already you really can't be one of us, unless of course you prove to be 'our kind of person'. Then you can definitely be one of us". And because the leader is as much in the mix of all this as anyone else, there is no one to recognise what is happening. The community has become a clique.
This is something that I see as especially relevant to fresh expressions of church because the leaders are trying to start communities from scratch, often with a strong emphasis on relationship, so the temptation to get 'sucked in too far' is high. Also, many fresh expressions may be outside normal accountability structures; it is therefore less likely that the danger will be spotted (or understood) by those to whom the leader should be accountable.
I've come to the conclusion that a few degrees of separation between the leader and the community are necessary, and it is painful for me to say that because it is painful to do. Someone has to stand slightly outside the circle, to keep watch for the waifs and strays who God brings along, to remind the community of its purpose. This may mean that the leader will always feel slightly like an outsider in their own community, and possibly the other members will feel that of the leader too. Perhaps this is one of the burdens of leadership. I wonder if Jesus felt something of this as his lads were getting to know each other, laughing, joking and hanging out? I don't know. I do know though that the leader has a calling and responsibility, one that can weigh very heavily at times.
This is one of the hardest lessons I've learnt doing this pioneering ministry lark, and one that is a constant struggle to get right. But if vulnerability and relationships are still key, how does one facilitate these while maintaining something of a separation? Haven't quite figured that one out yet…