Chris Edwards - Arrow 3 (1999 - 2000)
Bishop of North Sydney 

Without question, today's organisational challenges have made recurrent innovation a requisite part of church life. Yet most of the innovation seems to be largely geared toward enhancements in ‘technology’, such as developing better Sunday services or redesigning church administration systems. How many church council meetings (or elders and deacons meetings) are dominated by property matters, or improvements to the audio visual equipment, or the latest ministry program fad? I do understand the need and importance of boosting this ‘technology’ but many ministry teams work on this so much they overlook a crucial dimension of church life: leadership.

More specifically, ministry teams often seriously neglect addressing the ways in which their leaders relate to the wider church, envision strategy, and most fundamentally, they neglect to develop an effective course for their leaders’ personal and professional growth.

How did such a broad notion as innovation get reduced to improving Sunday meetings and piecemeal strategies that focus on improving functional systems and not on equipping people and especially leaders for the work of the gospel?

I am convinced we need to seriously consider comprehensive approaches to innovation and leadership. We need especially to consider how, as leaders, we stay connected to those we seek to lead. It requires a degree of accountability and transparency as well as an understanding of how leaders can cultivate alliances and partnerships that will help them develop themselves (as well as others) as leaders. In short, we need to work on leaders.

We need connected leaders

On a recent trip to the UK I was amazed by a flock of swallows. It looked like a flying inkblot. A mass of living pixels swooping and soaring, flying at full speed suddenly changing direction and formation and then settling into a clump of trees. And they never hit each other. They have such a high sensitivity by nature. They are invisibly wired together, connected to protect each other so they can survive.

It's all too easy for us to lose connection. We live in a culture whose focus is on the autonomy of the individual and it is easy to be blind to the reality of the emotional connections we have with one another. What we think is an autonomous action is actually something that has an impact on others. What we assume as a ‘right’; things we are entitled to, may well disconnect us from those we are commissioned to lead. Connected leaders understands how their behaviour and choices affect others.

Being connected takes self awareness and discipline. It takes a generosity of heart and love. Gifted leaders sometimes find it hard to be self aware. They have blind spots. Being accountable to others is vital for connected leaders. Christian leaders must live with transparency and authenticity in a community of grace and truth. These communities need to be places where the leader is allowed the safety to reflect on the nature and quality of their leadership.

There are tools available for leaders to reflect on their leadership and measure self awareness. A simple 360 Degree  Feedback review is a process by which people receive confidential feedback from the people who are around them. For church leaders this typically includes those considered to be the elders in the church, peers, and direct reports. A mixture of about eight to twelve people fill out a feedback form that asks questions covering a broad range of competencies and behaviours.

The person receiving feedback also fills out a self-rating survey that includes the same survey questions that others receive.

Once all the results are collated and compared the blind spots can become clearer. Alignment and differentiation in the results will highlight where they might be lurking and once they are identified plans can be developed to address them.

More thorough psychometric assessment tests can also be helpful. The DiSC System has been popular for years now but other more complex assessments are also available. They consider motive and giftedness as central factors and so have real implications for recruitment, individual development, career planning and performance. The Saville Wave consulting system is a good one among many.

This level of accountability can be hard for leaders. It can also be liberating.

If a leader lacks self awareness and becomes disconnected; if their lack of self awareness or self discipline means they impact others in ways they are blind to, they will become disconnected and they will invariably fail. And their failure will be an example of their lack of integrity which is essential in leaders. If however they are able to identify the blind spots and to become more self aware then their behaviour can be altered and connections maintained. People will connect and follow, especially when the leader presents them with an engaging vision, and they will become loyal.

Connected leaders articulate vision

Far too many churches have set vision aside in recent times because it's too ‘commercial’ or business like. Long time members I speak with often recall setting a vision statement in a frame on the wall in the church hall back in 1990-something when businesses seemed to be doing this sort of thing. But nothing really happened - ‘so we won't do that again.’ When asked, people are quick to tell you the vision didn't work.

Well that may be true in some cases but in a number of places I have visited I was not convinced the fault lay with the vision but with the way the vision was articulated. What tends to happen in most churches is that a small group of people decide on a vision. Then, having laboured to get the words, there is an announcement made, a sermon or two and a printed copy  gets left to hang on the wall. That's it. And that’s a problem. Too often the vision is not being shared beyond the leadership teams - and even when it is, it is shared in ways that people do not engage with it.

Church visions need to be constantly and regularly articulated. Vision statements serve as signposts pointing the way for all who need to understand where the church intends to go. Simply putting them up like wall paper is a waste of time. By articulating a vision through networks within the church, the connected leader has the opportunity to not only describe the direction or goal, but also allow people to engage in developing the means of accomplishing it.  The vision will guide people's behaviour and the church’s activities. Vision should be a picture of the future for which people are willing to work. A well articulated vision is a compelling picture of the future that inspires commitment. It answers the questions: Who is involved? What do they plan to accomplish? Why are they doing this? Vision therefore does more than provide a picture of a desired future; it encourages people to work, to strive for its attainment.

Connected leaders articulate the vision in appropriate ways regularly and consistently so the loyal members of the church who are willing to follow their lead know where they are going and will steward their gifts to enable the church to progress towards the goal.

Of course these future goals are tied to an erratic series of changes. Taking people there will require leaders to be learning, developing and growing themselves.

Professional and Personal Development and innovative leadership

Leadership is hard work. The number of church leaders deciding to move out of leadership is growing. This is not surprising. Leadership is hard work! And it is hard because it requires influence: directional influence in the sense that it imparts inspiration towards others; tactical influence in the sense of functional execution; and, spiritual influence in the way connected leaders model a dependence on Christ as they follow him.

This brings us to where we need to be innovative. We need new ways to do this. Simply doing what we've always done will not bring the changes the church needs to reach its goals and to survive in an erratic future. Innovation is a novel advancement that shapes the church: personally, culturally, behaviourally, systematically and spiritually. As I said earlier churches are good at (perhaps notoriously good at) being innovative with technology. The introduction of innovative styles of service on Sunday, the innovative use of electronic media or an innovative welcoming and integration program are all pretty typical. Churches have been quick adopters with many of these but very slow to be innovative with their leaders.

Innovative leadership requires a leader to increase in two fundamental areas: capacity and competency. Capacity describes areas like the development of complex thinking, the ability to take multiple perspectives, empathy engagement and personal resilience. It is very subjective. Competency accounts for a leader’s proficiency in hard skills. It describes the leader’s ability to organise, absorb and apply facts. It is far more objective.

If connected leaders are going to grow in these areas then they will need to be supported by a community of people who will invest in their leaders’ development in both the objective and subjective areas. Leaders need to know where they need to grow. If they are going to increase in capacity and in competency then they need to be self aware. As Ed Friedman observed in his book, “Generation to Generation” the overall health of any organisation depends primarily on the people at the top. He says the key to successful spiritual leadership has more to do with a leaders self awareness and their needs than with their ability to motivate others. They need to be developed and a plan for their development is essential.

The components of a personal development plan are so varied it is impossible to record them all here. But I would like to suggest a simple path that I have found helps the innovative leader to develop in both competency and capacity.

  1. Create (reconsider) your compelling vision
  2. Do a thorough analysis of your situation and strengths
  3. Plan the journey; assess your current location and determine what areas need to be strengthened; where learning needs to take place
  4. Build a team around you and communicate regularly in transparent ways; be accountable to them and agree what that accountability will look like
  5. Take action – establish measures and goals
  6. Embed innovation

The plan needs to be visited and reviewed annually.

Innovation cannot get reduced to improving Sunday meetings and piecemeal strategies that focus on improving functional systems. It must be applied to equipping people and especially leaders for the work of the gospel.