From Spider to Starfish Churches [3of4]

Starfish X-Ray, Category:Starfish Category:X-rays RadiogramImage via WikipediaThis series is focused on The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Brafman and Beckstrom. Come check it out every Wednesday in June!

We talked the last two weeks about how churches (along with major businesses in society) consolidate their resources when they feel like they are losing ground. This is called a spider response, because it makes them more spider-like as they concentrate more and more power in the head. What is needed instead is a starfish response, where you reach out to more grassroots kinds of ministry.

How can church leaders move their churches to become less spider-like and respond more like a starfish, with decentralized, grassroots efforts?

It’s simple. Stop being a leader and start leading.

In The Starfish and the Spider, the authors make the case for a different kind of leadership: catalytic leadership. A catalyst is any element or compound that initiates a reaction without fusing into that equation. For example, nitrogen and hydrogen together will do nothing. But if you add iron and they become ammonia. Great analogy right? Where we are gonna find leaders of that quality to radically change people? Here’s the fun part: The iron is unchanged, and ammonia has no iron in it! Just the presence of iron facilitates the chemical changes.

So, catalytic leadership is the type of leadership that changes people’s lives, but does not seek to integrate into them, or become a part of them. This is wild territory for churches. Church leaders so often have their churches become dependent on them: it’s not a meeting unless the pastor is there, no hymns can be chosen unless the music minister chooses them. Leaders like and abhor events to hinge on their presence, and our denominational systems focus leadership squarely on the pastor.

The easiest way to explain is to compare two movies: Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. In The Sound of Music, Maria joins and stays with the family she is charged with. In Mary Poppins, Mary cares for the family…then leaves on her umbrella. Instead of leading her family forever, she inspires them to change, then moves on.

This fits exactly with what Hugh Hewett of TownHall.com is trying to say when he writes about the Death of the Alpha Leader

This is a world in which documents handed down by well-meaning alpha males result in a stifled yawn. However, this same world moves to the edge of their seat upon realizing that the responsibility to change the world need not be their legacy or burden. On the contrary, the creation of culture is the calling from which history speaks.

Servant leaders have the ability to provide a new type of leadership. A collaborative mentoring and releasing of people with varied and mystical gifts in order to create culture. Alpha leaders value control, servant leaders value collaboration. Alpha leaders value individualism, servant leaders value community. Alpha leaders value affluence, servant leaders value influence.

So, what are the characteristics of a catalytic leader? The authors identify several characteristics of this kind of leadership:

  1. Genuine interest in others.
  2. Numerous loose connections, rather than a small number of close connections.
  3. Skill at social mapping.
  4. Desire to help everyone they meet.
  5. The ability to help people help themselves by listening and understanding, rather than giving advice (“Meet people where they are”).
  6. Emotional Intelligence.
  7. Trust in others and in the decentralized network.
  8. Inspiration (to others).
  9. Tolerance for ambiguity.
  10. A hands-off approach. Catalysts do not interfere with, or try to control the behavior of the contributing members of the decentralized organization.
  11. Ability to let go. After building up a decentralized organization, catalysts move on, rather than trying to take control.

Think of the ministry possibilities that can come from catalytic leadership!

  • If orders come from above, then it takes work to motivate the masses. But if the masses get excited about it on their own, then ideas can take off. This is antithetical to spider churches as leaders want to control what is happening. By ceding control, fresh ministry options can come forward.
  • From the checklist, #5 “Meet people where they are” assumes that when you give advice to someone in a counseling setting, you are creating a power hierarchy. Pastors may want to assume a peer relationship where they inspire change without being prescriptive or coercive.
  • From the checklist, #1 “Genuine interest in others” can mean that if you don’t find disciples around you, you aren’t asking the right questions. Everyone is passionate about something; find out what!

The takeaway from this post is this: The most powerful aspect of catalysts is that they are not interested in creating empires…they are interested in sparking movements. To this end, catalysts are better at being agents of change rather than guardians of traditions. You may be playing with dynamite, but find or become a catalytic leader, and people will come for miles to watch you burn.

Thoughts on catalytic leadership? Welcome to our visitors, and comments are welcome!

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