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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Running Around in Circles

For the past three years, The Episcopal Women's Caucus has embraced a new way of leadership. We call it "Circle Leadership".

It's a new way of imagining religious organizations, but it's hardly a new idea. Some religious orders of women in The Episcopal Church, like the Community of the Holy Spirit and the Order of St. Helena have been modeling themselves like this for over a decade.

Ann Smith
Perhaps the one doing the most work in this revolutionary way of thinking about leadership is Ann Smith and Circle Connections, the organization she helped to found.

Ann is a feisty activist, visionary and spiritual teacher who, for years, lead the "Women's Desk" (Women in Mission and Ministry) at "815" - that would be 815 Second Ave. in NYC, the home of the Episcopal Church Center.

So, what is, Circle Leadership, exactly?

When Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies spoke about circular models of leadership at the recent Kellogg Lectures at The Episcopal Divinity School last week, she mentioned this concept as part of what the church must embrace if we are to bring about the 'courageous change' that the institutional church so desperately needs.

Bonnie Anderson
In her series, titled "Courageous Change: What it takes, and how it happens," she said "The church needs to be a movement. Right now we are an organization. We have a critical mass of 2 million ministers."

You can download her exciting, provocative, challenging lectures at her website here. (Bonnie has agreed to be our key note speaker at the Triennial EWC Breakfast at General Convention. Stay tuned!)

There are not many books or resources describing how this concept works out, practically and pragmatically. The closest one comes to this is to look at the work of "Circle Connections".

I'll get back to this incredible organization in just a bit. First, a word about "Circle Leadership" vs. "Leadership Circle" - an important distinction to make

When you google "Circle Leadership", what invariably comes up is "Leadership Circle" - two very different things, in my mind.

The easiest way for me to explain that is visually.

A 'Leadership Circle' looks more like the image to your left. Individual leaders stand together in something that sort of looks something like a circle.

Each person is still in his or her individual circle of authority and power which they may leave to engage with other leaders who are connected with them in some way. Some of the connections are formal, others are more informal.

In my mind, some businesses operate on this model. It's also a way to conceptualize 'social networking' which has been made more available through the technology of the Internet. 

Another way to conceptualize a "Leadership Circle" is to imagine a sort of "Knights of the Round Table," with King Arthur firmly ensconced in his throne at the head of the table, but everyone else having an equal place of honor.

The authority is still centralized, but there is greater sharing. Sort of like the Presiding Bishop in the House of Bishops. Or, the Archbishop of Canterbury as the 'primus inter pares' - the first among equal at the meeting of the Primates in the Anglican Communion.

Mind you, I'm not saying that these are "bad" models of leadership. I'm saying that they are traditional, albeit, male models of leadership.

I'm saying that these are, for me, anyway, models of "Leadership Circles".

I'm saying that's the way many churches and church organizations function. My experience is that they do not facilitate true Christian community - the community of 'the beloved' of which Jesus speaks. 

At their worst, this leadership style creates isolated silos, where everyone stores up their own treasures and only ventures out in order to bargain or negotiate or barter for goods or service.

Many churches are places where their members love to say that "everybody is welcome" - but then they don't know what to do after they say 'Hello' - albeit warmly - except to give them a pledge card and ask them to serve in some capacity that only benefits the institutional church.

They can be places were people love to say "we take care of each other" - but not the way Jesus said to love one another as He loved us, much less to treat our 'neighbor as ourselves'.

Women lead differently.  Well, if given half the chance and their 'drothers'.

Circle Leadership, at least as I understand it, looks more like the image at the top of this post. People are holding hands, circled 'round the globe.

They are connected, each to the other, in mutual concern for "Mother Earth" and her children and creatures and creation. They share a common vision and a common goal, but each works it out in her own location, coming together in smaller circle as often as possible for mutual support, encouragement, inspiration, participation and assistance.

Circle Leadership is more organic to women. We have always come together in a circle of some sort - around the fire, gathering at the village well, in corn and wheat and cotton fields and rice paddies, in our homes around the kitchen table and with our families.

We have been pressured to function in our circles under the assumption of a predominantly hierarchical model of structures and leadership. It is a ‘top-down’ model that is still the structure found in most schools, churches, organizations, corporations, businesses and in traditional families.

In the hierarchical model there is a top, a middle and bottom. The top is the CEO (bishop), president, principle, director and in traditional families father. The top knows best and tells others what to do.

There is a middle. This is the manager (priest), supervisor, teacher chairperson and in traditional families mother. The middle conveys the decisions and messages from the top to the bottom. They make sure those on the bottom do what they are told.

And, there is a bottom. They are the workers (deacon), members (laity), students (seminarians), and in traditional families children.

According to Circle Connections, The Circle Model . . .
. . . is a more collaborative model that has room for an emergent design. It is an egalitarian way of being with one another where everyone works together and is honored for their gifts. The power, the resources, the decision-making, and the work all are shared. This ensures full participation, personal growth and unlimited creativity.
In Circle:
+ There is no top and no bottom, just one fluid dynamic system
+ The network is formed around a common passion
Leaders emerge naturally and only inspire to direct and make the group cohesive. They act as a guiding part of a greater whole, not as a director over.
+ Groups are more fluid and act from a common commitment to.....
Circle Principles
+ Self-sustaining
+ Reorganizations happen organically all the time and are easy.
+ Conflict resolution and Win/Win Communication is innate in the structure
Allow me, if I may, to give you a few recent examples from our last few Caucus Board meetings.

We had decided that tasks such as facilitating the meeting, setting the agenda and keeping the minutes for the meeting would be done by different people on a rotating basis. This seemed to us, at least at the time, to be a good way to begin to share responsibilities and get the circle rolling, as it were.

A few board meetings ago, someone suggested that it might be time to rotate responsibilities. After a bit of discussion, we discovered that the women who had been taking minutes and setting the agenda not only did it well, they actually liked what they were doing.

Someone asked each of them, "Would you like to continue?" And, the answer from both women was "Yes." We agreed to check in with them in a few months to make sure they didn't need a break or a change.

Now, that may seem like such a small thing as to be inconsequential. I would argue, however, that it is part of the dynamic fluidity of Circle Leadership.

Another small example: The annual membership and fundraising letters have, traditionally, been written by the President (now Convener). Last year, we decided to ask one of the members of the Board to write the membership letter. That worked so well we are repeating the pattern this year. Another member of the Board will write the membership letter. We are working on a similar pattern for the fundraising letter.

Each person on the board, as she feels called, is stepping up to claim her own voice and call others to support the work of The Caucus by joining us in membership and financial contribution and projects.

We hope to be able to call people to daily prayer while at General Convention, using services written and led by our members which include expansive images and languages about God and God's people.

We are working on ways to create smaller circles of participation and leadership. We have an editorial advisory board and are working to implement a "Next Generation" board of younger women, to teach them about Circle Leadership and empower them to continue the work of The Caucus.

Finally, in our last board meeting, we talked about General Convention and whether or not we were going to have a booth there. We discussed our assumptions about pros and cons, finally deciding to have a booth but the focus of our work there became much more clear in our conversation.

Through that clarity, one member of the Board said that she would like to coordinate our presence at the General Convention booth. She has found a way to use her skills and talents in a way that will help us all and The Caucus.

With her decision, the energy that was released on the board for other board members was both remarkable and palpable. There are now more people on the board who are stepping forward to do other things in accordance with their own gifts and talents.

And, I think we're better able to let go of the things we feel we "ought/should" be doing because it was a measure of organizational success/productivity in the past.

Oh, it's not perfect, by any means. We have neither found "Nirvana" nor "Utopia". We are still struggling with our own internalized assumptions about structures of organization, built over a life time of experience as well as our own present day interfacing with hierarchical organizational models.

I think, however, after three years, this idea is finally taken root and is beginning to grow, showing forth its first, small blossoms which, we trust, will begin to bear much fruit.

Sometimes, it feels a bit like traveling between two foreign lands, complete with different language and currency. I suppose that's because that's precisely what we are doing.

We have become 'resident aliens' of sorts - living in a hierarchical world and church but attempting to find our way into a more circular, shared reality.

It can be a bit disconcerting at times. It can feel as if our value as an organization is 'less than' because it is not 'traditional'. We don't 'fit in' easily. As a matter of fact, it's even hard to describe what this Circle Leadership model is and how it works without providing some images of what that looks like.

The Circle Connection site maintains that
"Circles provide the common ground for all to be truly heard and offers a respectful way of coming together to find new solutions to problems, co-create new resources, events and programs, and close the gap between opposing sides. The Circle Process shifts the focus from ‘forcing’ and ‘power-over’ to ‘allowing’ and ‘power-with’.
Through Circle:
+ We become better communicators
+ Build healthier relationships, deepen trust, and appreciate differences
+ Become more compassionate decision makers and problem solvers
+ Develop more balanced, meaningful, and passionate lives
+ Contribute to our communities
+ Expand our authenticity, build confidence and a empower healthy self esteem
It seems that the challenges we face today are calling for a shift to a more gentle and conscious way of being with one another if we are to connect and create a new earth."
It seems to me that Jesus practiced Circle Leadership. Here's but one example:

When there was a gathering of thousands (four? five?) of people who had come to hear Jesus, his disciples wanted to send them away. "We don't have enough to feed everyone," they lamented. (Matthew 14:13-21) Jesus said, "What do you have? Go and see?" (Mark 6:32-44)

Educator, author and Quaker, Parker Palmer, maintains that this was the first recorded community organizing event in history. It's not that there wasn't enough food for everyone to eat. It's that, once Jesus got everyone seated in small circles (Luke 9:10-17), they began to see what they might have to share with each other.

This is the only miracle story reported in all four gospels (see also John 6:5-6:15), and all four evangelists tell us that, not only did everyone eat, but that there were baskets of bread and fish left over. That's what Circle Leadership can do.

It has been said that every revolution begins in a circle of people conspiring - con/spiring = breathing together.

I'm hoping that this little essay will begin to start a wider conversation in small, revolutionary groups, about the way women lead and the gift and challenges this new style brings to our church.

I'm hoping that we can re-imagine a church where the leadership is more circular in shape and form and practice. 

Imagine a church where all people - women and girls, men and boys of every race, ethnicity class and physical ability - can come forward to make a positive change in the world - in their families, neighborhoods, communities, churches, temples, mosques, organizations and, yes, even governments.

Imagine a church where all God's people can dream dreams and take the risk of exchanging their diverse perspectives and wisdom to bring new systemic solutions to old intractable problems.

Imagine a church where people initiate community projects, grow partnerships, and catalyze collaboration.

Imagine a church where, while we're waiting for The Parousia ("Christ will come again"), we discover that we are the one Jesus has been waiting for.

Imagine a church that stops running around in circles and initiates or joins one.

Just imagine what that might be like!

I'm thinking it may look more and more like the Realm of God, complete with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, and all the company of heaven running around in circles above us and beside us singing, "Make way! Make way for the image of God!"


Jeffri Harre said...

"Imagine a church where people initiate community projects, grow partnerships, and catalyze collaboration."

This is what they've been talking about at the Church Center since shortly after Katharine Jefferts Schori arrived. Yet they're still running around in circles not getting there.

It's also part of the reason my position was eliminated.

Ah well, no change comes without some pain.

walter said...

Yes, Elizabeth, how wonderful it is to imagine a Dialogue among Breathings where the doors of our hearts are kept open in the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused: how very wonderful it is to love with the door of our hearts open.

Walter Vitale