Horizontal leadership, formally known as complex systems leadership, can energize your church by fostering a culture of generative thinking and innovation.
“Generative thinking” is the result of encouraging people to continually and actively consider new and refreshing ideas about how to accomplish the mission of the church or organization.
Fostering such a culture will allow your members (agents) to interact at all levels, learning from one another, offering change possibilities (innovation and adaptation) needed to stay in touch with your constantly changing environment, and assisting the development of emergent new approaches that allow a sustainable future. These actions are functions of what we know as a “complex adaptive system” or CAS – the home of what I call “horizontal leadership.”
Four key characteristics of horizontal leadership have been noted in the previous two articles along with four key core values of millennials. The two lists complement each other well – that is, the four key characteristics of horizontal leadership directly address the four key values of millennials.
But you may ask what “horizontal leadership” is all about. What makes it any different from the typical leadership used by churches for decades?
While there is a large and growing body of theoretical research (complex systems leadership theory) behind the approach, several easy to understand facets of horizontal leadership apply to a church or organization.
The first is organizational learning. Every member (agent) of the church has some knowledge that is critical to the effective, authentic and contextually relevant function of the organization. No one has all knowledge, but all likely have some knowledge. In church, this is why we are a connected “body” of believers – to share the mind of Christ with one another.
Second is interaction. As knowledge is shared among the members, a culture of learning develops. Such learning is critical to addressing issues the church faces in relevant and authentic ways.
Third is innovation and adaptation. As organizational learning is openly and broadly exchanged, innovative ideas and adaptive solutions are arrived at naturally in respect to lesser church issues.
Fourth is emergence. As adaptive solutions are implemented with respect to smaller issues, they shed light on potential changes in organizational policy in a broad sense – changes that can keep a church relevant and sustainable in today’s rapidly changing world.
So, how does horizontal leadership express itself horizontally? This approach works by taking the typical top-down perspective and turning it on its side. Usually, decisions are made by a few at the top who often are well separated – organizationally or by some other factor such as age, marital status, expertise, etc. – from the context of a decision. Horizontal leadership engages those in the decision-making process who are closest to the decision context and gives them opportunities for input and even the ability to create adaptive solutions.
Here’s the “kicker.” In churches, every believer is indwelt by the same Holy Spirit who is intent on communicating the mind of Christ. Each of these believers also is resident in some ministry context in which they have direct experience. Few, if any of them, have all the answers, but all likely have some part of the answer. Together they are capable of finding a godly solution to any ministry issue confronting them. Is this not the biblical mandate of equipping the saints for the work of ministry unto unity and maturity (Ephesians 4:11-13)? Is this not soul competency in its most practical expression?
So what does the leadership in “horizontal leadership” look like? The following is a summary of research by two of the leaders in this field, James Hazy and Mary Uhl-Bien.
Horizontal leadership involves “top-down” administrative leaders in the course-grain oversight of the church. These are the leaders who decide and communicate the vision, values and ethics of the organization. By doing so, they set the boundaries of the organization and determine the height and breadth of the “canvas” upon which the church leaders will paint. They also have the responsibility to adopt effective emergent lower-level adaptations and form them into church policy.
Horizontal leadership also involves “bottom-up” leaders in the fine-grain functioning of church processes and procedures. This is where organizational learning is applied to the multitudes of daily operations that connect the church with its mission. Here innovative thinking and adaptation lead to relevance and authenticity. Generative leadership is every member, youngest to oldest, interacting with the understanding that they consistently have a strong positive impact upon the direction of the church, bringing about change and enhancing its sustainability for the future.
Horizontal leadership builds community through the actions of leaders in the middle who enable generative leadership to interface with administrative leadership. In so doing, community-building leaders create an inclusive, diverse, inter-generational team that directly impacts their work and that indirectly impacts the entire church. Such an organizational community is highly attractive to its members, especially those who may typically be pigeonholed in low-level volunteer positions with little perceived impact – in other words, the millennial.
Horizontal leadership can vitally involve everyone in the church at some point in the decision-making process. All hold the ability to achieve, to develop many diverse relationships, to make a positive impact in the world, and to enjoy the trust of superiors. All are extended the chance to apply what they know toward innovative, relevant solutions that can build a sustainable future. All can be part of an authentic community that truly works together to make a better world.
This is a future-oriented present that the next generation of believers would love to join. In this community framework, many of the inter-generational issues we face in our churches today can be settled in a positive, healthy manner, with all being valued in the process.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Mark Lindsay is associate pastor of education at Shadowbrook Baptist Church in Suwanee, Ga.)