Local Ministry Clusters as Learning Organizations

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By Randy Rowland

Almost 20 years ago now, an MIT professor named Peter Senge, wrote the book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990). 

Calling himself an idealistic pragmatist, Senge envisioned “…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

When we think of Leadership Development Networks (LDN’s), perhaps we should think of an integrated system that serves an entire ministry cluster and frames a cluster as a learning organization. Rather than separate the LDN from the larger cluster movement, it becomes a core part of the DNA of how a movement conceives of itself and grows together in the exponential expansion of the kingdom in the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church in specific and clustered locales throughout the CRCNA.

The possibility is thrilling! Imagine an ongoing learning and training system in which the difference between participant and leader is minimal; where the difference between knowledge and praxis is nearly non-existent; and there is a spirit of unity and growth in which persons at every level and stage of leadership within a cluster are multi-dimensionally co-mentored and multi-directionally mentored on an ongoing basis.

Let’s flesh this idea out a little bit by building on some of Senge’s key ideas about learning organizations followed by a few ideas of how to deliver this within ministry clusters in the CRCNA.

“Expanded Capacity”

We are often limited by our lack of new leaders, and the lethargy and staleness of well-educated but under-contextualized current leaders whose knowledge is deep but not relevant to a changing cultural landscape. We are also limited, as any denomination, by our internal cultural exclusivity which plugs our ears and closes our eyes to the “new contextualizers” who can help us increase our capacity to serve effectively with their challenging and fresh perspectives. An example of this might be striving to understand and apply the concept of being “missional churches” within the CRCNA. This concept must be imported to us and contextualized because it is not in our standard form of thought, at least not within the last 50 years.

“Desired Results”

A co-learning arrangement graciously bids us to “show our cards,” to state our commitments and make covenants to achieve kingdom goals we have not previously imagined. Learning together helps us approach our task of ministry in a fresh and holistic manner. For example, in Seattle, an African-American pastor joins our cluster and begins an affiliation process with the CRCNA. He needs to learn what it is to be Reformed. He wants to learn our language and nuances. At the same time, he can teach us much about non-Western-European cultures, about holistic community engagement and living sacrificially for the kingdom. He also graciously goes on to model and teach us racial reconciliation which transforms us for the good and for good.

“Expansive and Visionary Thinking”

None of us is as good alone as we are together. Taking in ideas and being in community dialogue creates a vision that is gigantic.  Compared to where we can go alone or even isolated in a community of learners who are gathered positionally, a broad community of dialogue can achieve so much more.

One group of ministry sojourners says, “Let’s build fast growing churches that attract many people.” Another says, “but our churches are older and hurting, so what about us?” Yet another group says, “What are you talking about? Church is best defined as transforming communities,” and yet another says, “It’s all about relationships, so the real church is organic and invitational.” Still another asserts, “Leadership is what it is all about, and we need to focus on campuses and young people’s organizations to equip new people for the future.”

What are we to do with this hodgepodge? Senge would suggest that we force ourselves to develop a new and evolving world view that embraces and gives life to all these viewpoints without sacrificing the core mission of the organization…which for the church is making disciples and participating in Christ’s ministry of reconciling and renewing all of Creation to the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Ideas:

  1. Meet monthly and give it a half a day.
  2. Invite existing and older leaders.  Invite younger leaders and potential candidates for ministry representing every tribe and tongue, gender and ministry style within your geographic area, known as a cluster (see paper: Kingdom Clusters, May 2008).
  3. Pick a range and sequence of topics and speakers that challenge people doctrinally as well as in areas of spiritual formation, practical ministry skills for the church today and visioning together.
  4. Eat together. Talk to together. Work in small groups some of the time. Pray together. Get to know one another in increasing depth (see classic book, FIRE IN COVENTRY, Stephen Verney, 1960) .
  5. Allow natural affinities of many varieties to create friendships and co-mentoring relationships.
  6. Use multi-directional co-mentoring relationships to teach church order, church renewal, church partnerships and knowledge needed for CRCNA affiliation.
  7. Be advocates for one another in classis, regions and denominational processes and activities, such as credentialing.
  8. Running an LDN can be as simple a schedule as Seattle uses, or as complex a schedule as “strip learning” wherein each LDN has separate elements such as spiritual formation, CRC polity and practice, Reformed distinctives, ministry skills and perhaps even a separate Bible/theology component. Seattle does it like this and it works pretty well …

2nd Friday of each month - 10am-1pm LDN (attendees: pastors, support staff, emerging leaders, seminarians – total 25-35 per month)

10-10.15 eat, greet, check-in
10:15-10:30 devotional and prayer
10:30-12 speaker plus q&a or small group discussion
12:00-1 pizza lunch with fellowship and discussion
1:00-1:15 closing prayer in small groups
1:15 announcements and dismissal.

And….

Don’t forget to dream about how your group can learn. Contextualize what you do in your situation. Also, consider asking participating churches to contribute money to the LDN to provide meals, rental of space, printed or published resources and stipends for guest speakers. Keep it fresh, make it challenging and adapt as you go to become a dynamic learning organization that participates in ushering in the kingdom of God that is promised as our shared, eternal goal.

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