Leadership from the Inside Out — Part II

Posted by Gary Hamel on June 17, 2010

In my previous post, I introduced you to Drew Williams. For seven years Drew served as assistant vicar at St. Andrews, an Anglican parish in Chorleywood, England. When he arrived in 2003, Drew found a church that was big but not growing, and a congregation that was loyal but not energized. Mark Stibbe, head vicar at St. Andrews, challenged Drew to develop a plan that would change this.

On a blustery November night, just a few short months after taking up his post, Drew stood in front of a nearly-full church and presented his strategy. Those hoping for a grand vision were disappointed. Instead, Drew pointed back to the early church. In the first few centuries after Christ, the church had been organized around small, local communities. Drew noted that those early believers had typically met in the biggest house they could find, and when they ran out of room, would subdivide and form a new community.

Drew admitted he didn’t have a precise plan for how to put his idea into practice, but he asked everyone present to think about the kind of difference they thought they could make if they were part of a more intimate community. He challenged his parishioners: What’s your passion? What service-oriented program would you want to start or join if you had the chance?

At the end of his talk, Drew announced that he’d hold a follow-up session a month hence, on December 6. He invited anyone who thought they might be willing to lead an “MSC” – or “mission-shaped community” — team to come along. In his heart, Drew was hoping 12 volunteer leaders would show up, and four weeks later, that’s exactly the number that did.

Some of those who came had a passion for children, others were eager to help the disabled, or the elderly. Drew encouraged his newbie leaders to start talking to others in the congregation, to start recruiting other volunteers and laying out plans, but provided very little direction. When a lay leader would ask him, “How often should we meet?,” Drew would say, “I don’t know, why don’t you pray about that.” When someone would ask, “Where should we meet?,” or “What should our strategy be?,“ he’d give the same answer: “Just pray about it.” Again and again, Drew pushed the responsibility for making the new model work back onto the parishioners—and (Drew believed) onto God.

Drew was clear about one thing, though—every group had to have a purpose that went beyond merely meeting up. Each week Drew met with all of the nascent teams, praying for them and encouraging them to take risks and fail forward.

The first MSC got up and running in January. It brought together a group of members who lived in Watford, a large town near Chorleywood. The group met in a home to hash out their mission, and soon realized that a gaggle of children were playing football in a park across the road. Parents were standing around the frozen pitch, cheering on their kids. Standing on the sidelines were a few dozen younger siblings, obviously cold and bored. Maybe, someone ventured, we could run a club for the all the kids who come out each week and don’t get the chance to play. That plan was rapidly turned into action. Word spread, and soon the freshly-hatched MSC was being asked to run an after-class club at a nearby school. At every stage the MSC members were upfront about their intentions. “We’re going to talk about Jesus, is that OK?” Virtually all of the parents said “yes.”

Another MSC formed up to help people coming out of night clubs at 4 in the morning, when many were a bit worse for wear. Team members would offer the bleary-eyed revelers a cup of coffee or a ride home.

One MSC bought a double-decker bus and turned it into a mobile coffee bar. They’d park the bus in a disadvantaged neighborhood and invite folks in to sip a warm latte in convivial surroundings.

Video was key to making these early successes viral. Drew would film the MSCs at work, play the videos at church on Sunday, and encourage other parishioners to get involved.

In addition to their community work, MSC members were encouraged to gather at least once a week outside of church to worship and plan. In setting up their worship space, most groups arranged their chairs in church-like rows. When they did so, Drew would remind them, “You don’t have to do it this way. You can ‘do church’ however you like.”

Drew’s mantra, borrowed from Mike Breen, was “low control, high accountability.”
Every team was free to set its own mission, but members knew the whole church was expecting them to do something that would make a noticeable difference in the lives of others.
One rule, though, was sacrosanct: once an MSC grew to fifty members it had to subdivide.

Initially, the MSC project had no budget. Drew says that’s part of the reason the program didn’t run into a wall of resistance—he wasn’t pulling resources out of other programs.

For the most part, the MSCs raised their own money—though eventually they were able to draw on church funds for minor operational expenses like renting a hall. At one point, Drew was supporting 30 MSCs on an annual budget of £30,000 (about $45,000).

Despite those early successes, Mark and Drew believed even bigger things were possible. Even as the MSC program was taking off, they were praying that God would put some dynamite under their church—to shake off the last cobwebs of complacency.

The TNT came in the form a major refurbishment that would close the church for 9 months. Rather than find an alternate space, Mark and Drew told the congregation that if they wanted to continue worshipping together they’d have to hook up with an MSC, if they weren’t already part of one. Dissenters warned Drew that this move might slim the church rolls by as many as 200 members. But over the next 9 months, St. Andrews grew from 500 members to nearly 1,000—as fence-sitting parishioners and got infected by the MSC virus.

There were other doubters who worried that giving would go down. When meeting outside the church, MSC leaders weren’t keen to take up an offering. So instead, the church set up a program that allowed members to set up a standing order for a weekly direct debit—funds would be drawn from the member’s bank account and deposited in the church’s coffers.

There was one fact, however, that no one could argue with. The new, community-based approach to church was getting folks off the sidelines and into the game. It was also unleashing a ton of latent leadership talent. Here’s how one MSC leader, a woman who was profoundly deaf, described her role:

I can honestly say that leading an MSC for the last eight months has been the hardest and most challenging thing I have ever done – parenthood aside. In running the MSC I have discovered a lot of things about myself. Some I knew already and others are fresh revelations. I am not a brilliant administrator, neither am I a preacher. I don’t think I am a worship leader or a kids ministry leader but I have had to do all these things and more at some stage or another and I discovered that I can passably lead prayers, make OK coffee, improvise a kids session, preach if necessary, [and] impart difficult decisions.

Once the church re-opened, Mark and Drew realized St. Andrews had now grown too big for its building. For their part, many of the MSC members had secretly hoped that the renovation work would never be completed, since they were enjoying the adventure actually doing something, rather than being “nailed to a pew.” By this point, most MSC teams were meeting twice a month for worship and at other times to carry out their mission work. When team leaders asked Drew, “Do we really have to come back to church?,” he told them, “Pray about it and do whatever you feel led to do.” Everyone, though, was encouraged to show up on the fourth Sunday of each month for a time of “celebration.” To accommodate the entire congregation, the service was repeated four times during the day.

Turns out, there’s a month each quarter that contains five Sundays, and these, too, became occasions for church-wide meet-ups. Typically, the format was conference-like, with guest speakers and presentations focused on the practical challenges of doing good in the world. Church services are held at St. Andrews on other Sundays, but there’s no expectation that everyone will attend. Whatever the agenda, though, MSCs leaders are always welcome to stand up and pitch their project.

While the MSCs multiplied opportunities for leadership and service, there were those who feared the new model might undermine the unity of the church as a whole. There was a risk that as members became more tightly knit together within their teams, they might also become less connected to the larger congregation. Mark and Drew wanted communities, not splinters.

A weekly newsletter was one of way connecting members. Each week Drew sent out a note updating MSC leaders and asking for prayer requests. Periodically he also brought all the leaders together to set priorities and identify new opportunities. Over time, many of the MSCs set up their own websites and this became another mechanism for keeping people informed.

Other common touch-points included a church-wide teaching guide used by all the MSCs in their weekly worship discussions, and a compulsory training courses for MSC leaders and members.

There were, of course, hiccups. Occasionally an MSC leader would fight tenaciously for a project that was only marginally effective. Another source of friction came from neighboring vicars. The CoE is divided into geographically-defined parishes and some vicars raised objections when they learned that a St. Andrews team was operating outside its local franchise. In hindsight, Mark and Drew admit that they might have done more to anticipate these objections and smooth feathers along the way. Nevertheless, after witnessing seven years of growth and impact, there are few at St. Andrews who would opt to undo the MSC experiment.

As Drew says, “this is a radically different model of doing church. It’s one where not every program gets established and blessed at the center. It’s one where the authority doesn’t trickle down, and where the spokes of control don’t run out from the center.” It is, though, a model that has been amazingly effective. In once representative month, more than 106 outreach projects were conducted by the MSC teams.

By the time Drew left St. Andrews, in 2009, the congregation had grown to more than 1,600 members. Drew contrasts this with the “before” snapshot: “In 2003, we did back-to-back carol services at Christmas, with a great orchestra and a gifted speaker. At both services we invited people forward for prayer, and everyone stayed seated—no one came forward. I thought, this is as good as church is ever going to be. It was an exemplary piece of ‘attractional’ worship. We had drained every church within 40 miles, but it was all transference, no new growth. Everyone who was sitting there was already a Christian. I thought, we would have been better to break the congregation up and send them out caroling. It was just clear that this model wasn’t working.”

Drew goes on: “Before we started the MSCs, we had a whole Sunday devoted to children’s work, and the point was to get more volunteers. People wept at the end of the service. And yet we had zero response. It was so depressing. When we started doing the MSCs, people had to step forward. And suddenly, people realized that they had a gifts, unexploited talents. In the culture of excellence, people felt under-qualified. Once they were in an MSC, they had folks they could work with, other amateurs who said, ‘Come on, we can do this.’ These were friends rooting for you.”

There are many lessons that could be drawn from this experiment in management innovation, but for now, let me suggest just two. First, if you’re a formally appointed leader, and you want to turn sheep into shepherds, you have to step out of your leadership role and say to people, “I don’t have a plan, what’s yours?” This is humbling. But only by doing this will you release the latent talents within your organization.

Second, you have to let people find the work that best suits them—this is the key to building a community of passion. If you force people into pre-determined slots, you’ll get slot-shaped contributions; you won’t get bold and innovative contributions. It’s pretty simple, really. If you want the unexpected, you have to give people the freedom to do the unexpected.

Now, can you run an airline this way, or a semiconductor fab line? I don’t know, but I bet you can run parts of it like this. One thing I’m sure about: if you want to fully take advantage of the extraordinary talents that exist in your organization, you’ll need to ask yourself each day, “What can I do to make this place feel less like a hierarchy and more like a community?” And here’s the good news: you don’t have to be the Archbishop of Canterbury to get started.

So, dear reader, a few questions. Do you think Drew’s ideas have any relevance for your organization? If so, what would you do to build some communities of passion where you work? How would you start? What levers would you pull?



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