That Life Giving Feel
| volume 5 | issue 1
The transitional cusp of history in which God’s invited us to serve is one freighted with exhilarating opportunities. In this emerging post-Christian era, incremental change has become discontinuous and quantum, stability has given way to chaos. Such an era demands a new kind of leader, a new kind of team, and a new church ethos. More than ever we need the genius of the Holy Spirit blowing through the collective hearts and minds of leaders intent on the artistry of soul-shaping.
So how do we create an environment, a feel, an ambience that’s pregnant with the expectation that God’s at work, that mediates a contagious hunger for deep personal change, and that also creates a soaring evangelistic determination that produces the regular fruit of new spiritual life? All of us are acutely aware of how churches “feel.” Though our awareness may be subliminal, unconscious, or tough to put into words, the fact remains that we’re all intuitively aware of feel, and almost immediately know a good feel from a bad one.
Several years ago our staff and board—after a reflective exercise—decided that our church feel was one of busyness. We said we were friendly and we encouraged our people to be friendly, but the feel was one of everyone scampering around getting things done but never really connecting with new people. That was an ethos that stood in opposition to our stated values and goals—a painful realization that something had to change. We were discovering what the marketplace refers to as organizational culture, what I’m going to call ethos.
Ethos is that intangible, tough-to-finger feel that attracts or repels people like opposite poles of a magnet. The churches I’ve worked with, as well as the church I currently lead, have revealed several observations:
* Ethos is designed by a team.
* Designing ethos may be the most significant leadership role of a team.
* Ethos is one of the best indicators of church health, and health is the single most important factor in growth.
* Ethos is systemic and organic; it penetrates every nook and cranny with life-giving oxygen or death-bringing carbon monoxide (notice both are odorless and silent).
The Generative Ethos of Our Interior Lives
Most church leaders I know have come to own the value of personal change and deep transformation. But I want to suggest that we elevate the value even further. All we read in the emotional intelligence, deep change, and catalytic transformation literature speaks of the leader’s personal change dynamics being even more important than the great Ps—plans, processes, procedures, and programs. Here’s why. The great Ps are often in place where we find health. But what Ps can’t do is create generative ethos.
The Ps of ministry are merely vehicular, static, and existent. What people are longing for is a dynamic life that’s deeply transforming—something that encounters them, something that’s deeply experiential. In short, people are looking for a church culture that’s generative. They can’t tell you what they’re looking for, but they know it when they feel it. That’s part of the new ministry terrain in the post-Christian era; things are felt, experienced, and embraced more than known, learned, or read. The great Ps need to be in place, but life flows from life-giving leaders who are experiencing morphic transformation themselves. You and I leak our lives, strength, optimism, and faith as well as our fears, pain, stresses, and frustrations. You and I have been entrusted with the mandate to invest in others and create an ethos where deep stuff happens inside. So whether it’s a music team, a hospitality crew, or a cadre of small group leaders, our charge is always the same: Make sure you’re oozing transforming life, and then help people experience God and community in life-altering ways. If you were to ask the average leader how they facilitate experiencing God and community in life-altering ways, many would simply scratch their heads. Concerning followers looking toward leaders, Hebrews 13:7 specifically says, “consider the outcome of their way of life.” This is a direct statement about how our lives as leaders are to create a life-giving ethos.
“The most important job of a leader is creating that intangible called culture.”
—Edgar Schein, author of Organizational Culture and Leadership (Jossey-Bass)
Only life-leaking leaders can create generative ethos—none of the great Ps can. Real change will always and only come from real change happening in leaders. So here’s the question for us as 21st century leaders. If movement inside us is a fundamental impetus to stir movement in others, what kind of movement are we stirring? A generative ethos demands leaders who are deeply self-aware and in touch with who and where they are. More than that, a gener-ative ethos requires leadership always be in the aha of self-discovery, new map writing, and constantly reconfigured life roles and patterns. Leaders must experience profound change because it’s that constellation of kneading experiences and catalyzed core changes that can’t help but leak, and in so doing create a generative culture.
“The first responsibility of every leader is to define reality and lastly to say thank-you.”
—Max DePree, retired CEO of Herman Miller
The tricky part of all this is us coming to reckon with how humbling and intimidating it is to be responsible for the life-change potential of others. This translates to the growth and movement in our private lives being the primary catalyst or magnet that attracts others to life-change. I think we’ve all seen people emerge from the sidelines to serve because they so deeply want to use their gifts for God. My private thesis is that using their gifts for God is only part of their real drive and motivation; it points us toward the broader venue for gift expression. But if you listen to peoples’ stories, it’s not the cleaned classroom, the prop they built, or the Sunday school class they taught that seems to most excite them. There’s almost always a two-fold theme that emerges. People deeply desire to contribute an important brush stroke in a larger picture that God’s painting, and they’re looking for leaders creating a certain type of community where they can belong.
Obvious? Not entirely. What we’re saying is that the type of community that coalesces around us as leaders is directly related to the type, amount, amplitude, and magnitude of the transformation going on inside of us. Healthy leaders produce healthy, interdependent communities and teams; unhealthy leaders produce the opposite. In short, people are attracted to that intangible, God-present, can’t-quite-explain-why-I-love-this-team dynamic called a generative ethos. Generative ethos is that hard-to-articulate set of feelings people get when they’re around you and your team. This generative ethos is almost exclusively birthed in the transformational experiences you’re currently enjoying with Jesus. Your vitality with him can’t help but leak. My experience is that once people finally have roots in the team, only then do they come to conclude, “I’m here for deeper reasons than singing, playing a musical instrument, or teaching little ones.” Early on they simply can’t bring to expression exactly what’s so attractive. This is all the more reason for you and I to be oozing contagious health.
The Generative Ethos of Our Church Culture
Most people have seen a flock of geese flying overhead. As they fly there’s no grand leader goose, no chairman of the gaggle, no senior or lead goose with a staff of followers. The geese can’t call ahead for a weather report, can’t predict obstacles they’ll meet, can’t commission Barna to do a trend report, or read Sweet on the latest insights into the position of their flight trajectory within postmodern culture. Yet their course is true, fluid, innovative, team-owned, and progressive—they’re a flock.
Complexity theorists, whether of the fuzzy logic sort, quantum mechanics theory sort, or free market digital economy sort, describe this order in the midst of chaos as “order without careful crafting.” This is exactly the context in which we’ve been called to do ministry. You and I have been called into one of the most complex, innovative, potentially creative zones in all of history.
“I design space. Space spawns ideas, ideas bring change, change is the essence of life.”
—Frank Gehry, architect
Kevin Kelly on the new economy, Gary Hamel on business strategy, Frank Gehry on architecture, and Margaret Wheatley on leadership have all demonstrated that in the midst of constant change and innovation, certain foundational questions must always be asked. In other words, order emerges out of simple rules. Many leaders try to design flight plans for their far-flung flock rather than work to create conditions that would help their flocks get off the ground and on their way to new shores. One approach is static and mechanical, the other dynamic, open-ended, and organismic. In 21st century ministry contexts, we need to spend time designing environments where creative options, new ministry opportunities, new ways of accomplishing life change, or emergent ideas for reaching people can be identified, massaged, synergized, mined, sketched, and sculpted. One of my primary roles as a point leader is “ambience artist with a view to catalyzing cool and creative ministry concepts.” Simply stated, I must be a context innovator rather than a content inventor. I’m with Gehry; we’re space designers, space definers. It just so happens that the space we work with is intangible space—interior and organizational. This is where thinking through what’s going on in your interior life becomes so important. If we aren’t creative, fresh, and deeply changing, then those qualities won’t leak on others.
So what are some of the things that go into ethos designing? Many things could be listed, but these five emerge over and over again in my experience.
Observation #1- “Beyond rational” expectations are what fuel kingdom building.
“Now to him who is able to do outrageously more than all we could ever dream or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. “
—the Apostle Paul to the Ephesian Christ-followers, Ephesians 3:20
Paul seems to be saying that with God at work, beyond rational is substantially different than unreasonable. If we were to go around our congregations and ask, “What would be out-of-your-mind expectations for growth this next 12 months?” what would their answers be? Furthermore, what would the staff team say? Do we know what we’re measuring in terms of growth? Are we sure what health systems produce growth in the body? Growth is the natural outcome of health. What indicates success? failure? need for improvement? The fact is most people will have either uninspiring expectations or will be totally uncertain of what would constitute health or growth.
Our beliefs will set the upper limits of what God can accomplish through us. This isn’t because God doesn’t want to exceed our wildest expectations; he clearly does. We can’t progress further because we see nothing beyond our expectations. Another way of saying this is that people will respond and move toward audacious and even extravagant pictures of a possible tomorrow, but having no pictures beyond what we sketch, they have no idea what’s next. We set the contours, textures, and the seeming potential of reaching it. People will never move beyond that picture no matter how digitally beautiful it may be. Those who are led well will rise to the images, sounds, and smells of the future. There is a leadership caveat, however. Convincing people that it’s reasonable to strive for beyond-rational goals is tricky leadership business. Mere exhortation isn’t enough. You have to have a track record of examples to show it’s possible to experience not just incremental growth (whatever the measures being used), but quantum, outrageous growth. Scripture is full of such examples; our personal lives are as well. You must become a master storyteller. When these kinds of creative expectations hang in the air and are in the deep structure of your leadership DNA, you’re designing an enviable ethos that will attract people.
Observation #2 – Our “who” definitions need stretching and wordsmithing.
Visionary leadership understands that language which is used to express core values, mission, and vision gets stale, familiar, and tired with time. Who are we? This is the most fundamental of all questions the staff team can ask. How we answer that question determines the content and conveyance of vision. Language is everything in this age of storytelling. The need for a powerful poet is never more necessary than now. This is where ingenuity, reflection, tracking compelling phrases, and spending time recasting the old in updated fashion become so important. Few things create ethos in the 21st century church than fresh renderings of the destiny toward which we’re heading. How we answer the “who are we” question determines whether or not we search for unconventional opportunities and innovative possibilities. Caution is appropriate here. We must never define ourselves by what we do. What we do isn’t a visionary statement, only a catalog of current behaviors. We know the church isn’t about Sunday morning services or small groups. But what is it about? Ethos is feel but it can be expressed in words, metaphors, and images of who we think we are and where we think we’re going.
Recently, in preparation for a staff team retreat, we all wrote “A Manifesto for the Future” answering this question: “If God got involved with your ministry area and team and outrageously blessed it, what would it look like?” The question was intentionally vague, without time frame or other parameters. Those manifestos were winsome and reduced us to tears at what God might like to do in us and through us.
Observation #3 – Creativity flourishes best when innovative and indigenous models are the goal.
We know that 85 percent of the population can take a program out of a box and implement it. An additional 10 percent can adapt the “out of the box” program and apply it to their context. The remaining five percent are the innovators. The five percent are committed and convinced their context will be best served by creating ministry models and paradigms indigenous to their local culture. Cloning the latest flavor of the month or copying the hottest insight from an article isn’t ministry at its best, nor does it create a life-giving ethos. When the core leadership team deeply believes that the best ways of doing ministry are yet to be discovered, and unpaid servants on the team are just as capable—or maybe more so—of uncovering those kinds of insights, you’re creating generative ethos. Lead pastors and staff teams must cultivate habits of creativity, such as reading outside of typical ministry disciplines, learning to mind map, engaging in whole-brain games as a staff team, building staff solitude into the rhythm of the calendar, and learning how to design synergistic interactions. All of these things have stretched me as a point leader. But several years ago when it became evident to me that I must innovate fresh models of ministry and our staff must lead the way, it demanded of me a catalytic role in fostering this kind of ethos for the staff. Innovative expectations have become contagious as the staff team has in turn modeled and passed it on to the leaders they’re developing. The result of this ethos is that we have no votes, elections, or committees of any sort. We have new ideas and they’re instantly tried. Some fail, some succeed. That’s the ethos of innovation.
Observation #4 – Listen to fringe people and ideas.
The tendency in any business, group, or church is to disregard the input of the neophyte. Rightly so…they’re new and don’t yet know the ropes. Not so fast, though. The very fact that they don’t know the ropes puts them in the position of having new eyes on the situation, new ears, new sensibilities, as well as the audacity to speak about things we’ve become immune to, desensitized to, or not risky enough to address. The most helpful people in our churches are those who’ve been there less than two months. Most great ideas, inventions, scientific breakthroughs, and innovations came from the fringe, not the mainstream. Look at Einstein, Mozart, DaVinci, and any others you’d like to insert. Not one was normal or mainstream. They all questioned convention, the status quo, and asked why a hundred times.
Keep your ears open; better yet, ask the fringes to give you feedback. Most great ministry insights come from the fringe, not the center. The center is too stable, too surrounded by the pedestrian, and too expected. The fringe is ecotonic, ragged, open to the environment around it, and easily adaptable. To create this kind of ethos, our ministry teams and church-at-large have to become hotbeds of innovative activity. Let me say it again—we must be context innovators rather than content inventors. Realize this isn’t a statement that the fringe ought to always be followed or even responded to. This is a profound recognition that fringe people and ideas are at times brilliance on the margins looking for a pipeline to expression. The wise leader knows discernment is up to him or her. What are you hearing, seeing, and feeling from the fringes? Ideas, insights, nuggets? Jot them down. Mental ink quickly fades! To encourage this within the church is to create an ethos of openness, creativity, and inclusiveness.
Observation #5 – Catalyze change initiatives from the pull of tomorrow instead of the pain of today.
This is one of the hot issues that creates life-giving ethos—the powerful pull of what could be. Most organizations and churches may be most guilty here—change based on current crisis or pain. As a result, churches anchor change to pain and ultimately dread. Change could just as easily be anchored to exhilaration and opportunity, and therefore craved. There are only two primary rationales for change—a sense of being pulled toward a destiny, or a problem that makes change mandatory for pain reduction or survival. Ejection from the present due to pain is never change at its finest. Usually this looks more like an attempt at scattered survival than organic life-giving movement.
“Change happens when we become discontent enough with the status quo to actively take steps out of our pain.”
—Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Here’s an important principle: Growth is always more costly, in almost every way, when you’re being pushed from the status quo due to pain instead of being pulled to a preferable tomorrow. The cool and calm of current peace is always a better posture from which to orchestrate and anticipate next moves. You must be pulled, not pushed. In my experience this is the single biggest momentum feeder a church can experience. You want an ethos of anticipation and excitement? Anchor change to the Holy Spirit’s next wind of opportunity.
So which will it be: ethos designer or content creator, ambience architect or information injector? God’s invited us into a particular historical and geographical context. His invitation is to move our churches to the creative edge of ministry here and now. And yet…creating life-giving feel isn’t intuitive or easy. It’s hard work and requires different kinds of skills. Let’s be creators of generative space so people can come to full life-development in Christ and the church can reach her full, transformative impact.
Ron Martoia is a transformational architect, speaker, author and on distance staff with 5 churches throughout the US, his first book was Morph! (Group Publishing, Inc.), He has two books releasing soon, Static, coming out March of 07 and Yearning in March of 08.
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