For the past several years I have been part of a handful of different church ministries. What I’m about to discuss here, however, reaches beyond ministerial leadership and into any type of endeavor.
I’ve been reflecting on James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations. The subtitle says it all. Surowiecki has provided a helpful book along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference or Levitt and Dubner’s Freakanomics. Wisdom of Crowds is a smart book that makes us think about group dynamics, leadership, and the sheer complexity of the world in which we live. It is a book about an idea–the idea that all of us are smarter than one of us. You might say, “duh.”
If you accept the maxim that all of us are smarter than one of us, the question immediately becomes this, “how is one able to tap the collective wisdom present within diverse groups of people?” Such a task is difficult, as anyone in leadership can attest that collaborative efforts commonly produce only the sum of their parts–and seemingly nothing more. Some of us may be able to recount a time or two when a group we were part of did seem to generate more than perhaps was thought possible. The wisdom of the crowd was tapped, and the collective decision which resulted was better than what one person–or even a small group of persons–at the top of the hierarchy could have discerned.
One aspect of Surowiecki’s discussion that I found interesting was the importance of diversity in groups for making sound decisions. When a group becomes homogeneous, “they are great at doing what they do well, but they become less able to investigate alternatives.” It is possible to assemble a “dream team” that excels in one way of operating, leading, or generating certain types of concepts or ideas. Once that group reaches the peak of excellence in leadership, they move on to perfecting their particular way of doing things. The world may be changing around them, but the group becomes insulated and too homogeneous, thus leaving them unaware of adaptations that should be made.
Perhaps I’m being too vague. As far as this relates to church leadership, I think of large, booming churches that have committed themselves to excellence. Once such churches reach the pinnacle of perfecting their method, they constantly face the challenge of innovation. Someone within the organization must constantly be pushing the creative envelope, encouraging those on the leadership team to expand their thinking, remain sensitive to the people who are part of their communities, and adapt and change in order to best communicate the gospel. This isn’t easy. Once you perfect a form of church or a style of leadership, both the elders/pastors/leadership team and the congregation can become comfortable with that style. The decision to remain static will ultimately lead to decline, as the world outside of the homogeneous group continues to change. As was the case with the American car industry in the 1970s and 80s, who “manag[ed] its way into economic decline,” it is possible for church communities to maintain and manage their organizations into decline and even death.
One way to avoid this, I would argue, would be in agreement with Surowiecki’s claim that “Bringing new members into the organization, even if they’re less experienced and less capable, actually makes the group smarter simply because what little the new members do know is not redundant with what everyone else knows”(31). You must be careful in who you include on your team, however, as “cognitive diversity does not mean that if you assemble a group of diverse but thoroughly uniformed people, their collective wisdom will be smarter than the expert’s.” He goes on to say that “if you can assemble a diverse group of people who possess varying degrees of knowledge and insight, you’re better off entrusting it with major decisions rather than leaving them in the hands of one or two people, no matter how smart those people are.”
I admit, most of this is fairly common sense. In my experience, however, I have seen churches commonly rely on the expert–most of the time this is the Sr. Pastor or a small group of paid pastoral leaders. These people may be able to make good decisions on a fairly consistent basis. As church organizations become increasingly hierarchical, however, much of the congregation becomes passive and distant from the way in which decisions are discerned. Direction is entrusted into the hands of the few, rather than through created spaces within the life of the church where the Holy Spirit can be actively guiding the totality of the body. In large church communities, how many stories have you heard of “bottom up” movements of the Spirit, where a movement among a layperson or a group of lay persons eventually permeates the life of the church? I would love to hear those stories. Most examples I see of spiritual leadership are done in a top down fashion–the pastor or a small group of leaders spell out a vision, and hope that the people as a whole come on board.
The bottom line in my argument is this: how do we tap the wisdom of the crowd within a church community? How do church leadership bodies maintain diversity within their structure, allowing for people who represent differing viewpoints and perspectives to have a meaningful voice in discerning direction? One answer to this question, surely, is to continue to emphasize evangelism. If new Christ-followers come into the fellowship of believers, the church should pause long enough to hear their perspectives and be attentive to how this person sees the world. How might the perspective of new Christ-followers help us to more effectively minister and communicate the gospel to the world?
There are no easy answers. I would hope that church leaders would reflect carefully on the cognitive diversity which has been gathered in their decision making bodies. Would you say that diverse viewpoints are represented? Is the congregation able to discern, as a whole, the direction of the church, or is it in the hands of the experts? Are we tapping the resources of the entire body, among whom each member has been gifted with the Spirit of God?
Perhaps I see the church as far more organic than our Western, specifically American, lenses regarding the way that organizations should be structured will allow. When I read the New Testament, however, I see a group of people who are sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit and have a simplistic enough structure to allow for collective wisdom to be shared and acted upon. There are clearly leaders within the Jesus movement, but all involved seem to be actively engaged in mission, not maintenance. The group seems to become increasingly diversified, and because of this fact it is radically engaging new understandings of reality. The life of discipleship I read about in the New Testament seems to be vibrant, alive, and on the move. It is my hope that the church communities of today would exhibit this same type of life.
What do you think?
Grace and peace.
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