A Safe Place to Share the Journey

"This community is like a starter to encourage us all to go further. It awakens things in my heart to keep going."

This comment came from a participant in the Leaders Forum, an online pilot project of the Wycliffe Global Alliance. The Forum was designed to facilitate cross-regional reflection and interaction as a core facet of leadership development. The project encouraged genuine sharing among older and younger leaders, as well as across cultural and regional lines. Just as God intended for us to live out the gospel within the multi-peopled context of the church, rather than as independent individuals; so leadership thrives when leaders come together as a community, rather than working in isolation.

The Leaders Forum arose out of a desire to provide a safe and engaging environment in which a small group of leaders across the Alliance could build authentic relationships. Now that the coronavirus has upended the way we all work, an added challenge is how to make such efforts reproducible, especially when travel to in-person events is not an option.

“You can use events to start things or create a vision, but programs are not the way for leadership development to happen,” says Todd Poulter, a consultant who helped with leadership training in the Alliance for several years. “They can be tools, yes, but our goal is to create something everybody can do.”

Emmaus by Janet Brooks-Gerloff, 1992. (Courtesy of Benedictine Kornelimünster Abbey, Aachen, Germany)

A Leadership Development Journey

Seeds for this community were planted in 2013 and 2015 at two global events that were part of an Alliance effort called Leaders Journeying Together. The gatherings brought together leaders of various ages, cultures and levels of experience so they could share freely about their experiences, struggles and journeys. Both senior and younger leaders were asked to set aside titles and rules of seniority and to interact on equal footing.

Somewhat uncomfortable at first, these ground rules resulted in a surprising and for many, refreshing, opportunity for honest interaction and creative expression. More experienced leaders were encouraged to step outside of expectations to be, in Poulter’s words, “faultless, blameless, and consistently competent.” It allowed them to talk about difficult experiences, weaknesses and lessons learned. For some, at the first event held in Kenya, the highlight of the week was hearing from more experienced leaders about the challenges they faced. “Thank you so much!” said one of the newer leaders. “I feel like I can go back and do my job now because I have heard the difficulties that you had to work through, and I see that I’m not that unusual.”

A second event in Turkey introduced the concept of the “Third Table.” Participants divided themselves into two tables: the Global North/West and the Global South/East. Each table answered the question, “What characteristic values from your region would you like to offer as gifts to your counterparts in the Global North/South—to strengthen our community?” The recipient table was allowed to accept, reject or request clarification on each gift. A list of gifts was then compiled to create a new Third Table with agreed-upon values, culture and practices. One participant said he had never before felt listened to by his Global North colleagues in all his years of mission experience. “This is the first time I have been in a meeting with North Americans where we could negotiate,” he said. “They normally just dictate to us—‘This is the way it is going to be.’”

In 2018, a third event was held in Germany to initiate a multi-year, cross-regional leadership development community. Area directors from Africa, Europe and the Americas selected leaders from each region to participate. (A later cohort added leaders from Asia-Pacific.) Relationships were developed and a number of ideas were raised, such as reading a book together. It was difficult, however, to create time in hectic schedules for such a commitment. A Whatsapp group served as an effective vehicle for sharing prayer requests, ideas and encouragement. But organisers hoped for a way to facilitate ongoing sharing at a deeper level.

Going Deeper

Poulter and David Cárdenas, who leads COMIBAM and serves as a facilitator for the Alliance leadership team in the Americas, came up with the idea of engaging a smaller subset of this leadership development community that would interact more regularly. Under the leadership of Mũndara Mũturi, former Alliance Associate Executive Director for Regions and Director for Leadership Development, a pilot project was born. The Leaders Forum began in June 2020 with nine participants—from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Together they represented a range of leadership experience and, of course, cultural backgrounds. Participants committed to reading a book together, and spending up to an hour a week interacting online about what they were reading. They chose Dr Kirk Franklin’s Towards Global Missional Leadership: A Journey Through Leadership Paradigm Shift in the Mission of God, a book that many had already expressed interest in reading.

The goal was to have built-in interaction and not just one-way communication. The group would draw on Franklin’s book as a “living resource,” explored through community reflection, rather than simply being read in isolation. Mi Comunidad, the online forum of Wycliffe Global Alliance Americas, provided a convenient platform for sharing. Participants signed on to the Leaders Forum discussion group to respond to a few questions about the current chapter, and were asked to respond to others’ comments as well. Once a month, they gathered online for a video conference to discuss what they had been reading and how it intersected their leadership life. Participants used their preferred language (in this case English or Spanish), with translation provided by fellow participants.

“It’s really a very simple idea,” Poulter says. “Pick a good resource. Interact on a platform that works. Listen to each others’ experience across very different places, across very different kinds of challenges, and grow thereby. And then look for ways to share your learning with others.”

In alternate months, the group read chapters from Poulter’s upcoming book on Christian leadership, Learning to Lead at the Feet of Jesus. July’s chapter, titled “God’s Primary Instrument,” presented the concept that leaders are the primary instruments that God uses to develop other leaders. “In the same way that it takes disciples to develop disciples who develop disciples, it takes leaders to develop leaders who develop leaders,” Poulter says. “The goal of this pilot project is that people grow through their interaction, and that they pass on what they’re learning to others in their respective spheres of influence.” It was heartening, Poulter says, to hear one participant comment about his initial learnings from Kirk Franklin’s book: “I’m going to share this with my leadership team.”

Reflecting Together

Leaders sharing what they’ve learned has been one of the key themes in Alliance leadership training efforts. Mũturi gave direction to these initiatives, and participated as well. Mũturi challenged leaders with the question, “Are you a pipe or a bottleneck?” Many leaders are a bottleneck, he said, meaning that what comes in just stays in the bottle. Leaders, he said, need to be more like a pipe, letting what they have learned flow freely to those they lead.

In their first video Zoom call, several Leaders Forum participants said they already knew that mission belongs to God, but it was good to be reminded. As one person noted, “When we lack an understanding of the mission of God, we become very focused on structures, numbers, buildings and activities” instead of the mission itself. Another confided that he struggles with being driven to constant activity. “I realize especially during COVID-19 that God is still carrying out his mission even when I cannot be nearly as active as I would like to be.”

Another participant said that in his haste to accomplish things, “I’m not sure if it is coming from the Lord or from my own strength. This opportunity to reflect helps me to curb that tendency and to become more of a reflective practitioner.” One leader commented on the importance of reflection for learning and growing: “I see leaders around me leading on empty because they are not taking time to reflect.”

Cárdenas said to the group: “As I’m listening to all of you, what I’m hearing is that Kirk’s book is a platform for reflecting together. Our challenge is how do we impact others with this new way of leading?” The overflow has already begun, not only within the Alliance but in broader ministry connections as well. One leader invited people at a virtual prayer meeting to reflect on what it means to be part of God’s mission. Another leader who helps lead a youth group at her church has begun to pour into the lives of several young leaders so that they can develop, lead and grow.

One participant voiced urgency: “For the mission movement here in our region, we’re not intentional about sharing leadership with the next generation, and preparing for the future.”

“As leaders,” said another person, “we are encouraged to help younger leaders understand the world around us, things like how to lead through a crisis.”

“You don’t have to be an expert leader in order to invest in others,” another said.

A Safe Place to Grow

Several participants commented how helpful it was to have a safe place to be vulnerable with other leaders. One person said in a video conversation, “In my context, the only way to be a respected leader is to hide who you really are for the sake of your reputation. You are unable to acknowledge or share weaknesses because then people will disrespect you. But here, in this group, I am able to tell the truth about who I am as a leader.”

“Culturally we don’t talk about these things,” said another leader. “This is the only place I have to interact about being a leader. In the other contexts I’m required to be a leader, do things, give out, etc. This is a place where I can reflect on my practice as a leader, my exercise of leadership and learn from other leaders.”

Poulter comments: “The goal is that they will in turn be able to create safe places for others, and that they will create a leadership ‘counter culture’ within their own environments wherever the prevailing value system of what it means to be a good leader is built on an unbiblical foundation. To have enough courage and hope from interacting in this little group to create that same culture with leaders in their context.”

As Dr Joshua Boganjoko, International Director of SIM, writes in Rethinking Leadership: How African Village Traditions and the Bible Point Toward Renewed Leadership

“…In my own discipleship journey, I have begun to grasp the influence of my origins on my leadership values and practice, and how the Holy Spirit, through the Word, can both use and transform my rich heritage as well as that of others.… But to fully understand and appreciate the impact of deep-seated, cultural models, it will be necessary to engage in Holy Spirit-led reflection, to compassionately yet critically examine where we are….”

“Our challenge is to move away from a corporate style of authoritarian leadership to a community environment of love,” said one participant.

“Leaders must create the environment in which others can thrive,” adds Poulter.

Leaders Learning Together

Seeing candid interaction take place through this pilot project was gratifying for the organisers. A community began to emerge. Leaders engaged with ideas related to God’s mission and biblical leadership. They reflected together on what they were learning and how they could apply it as leaders. “It is rewarding for me to be able to strengthen my life as a leader,” said one Forum participant, “not in doing, but in being, and in influencing others.”

God may bring any number of results through this experiment, but one clear takeaway is the confirmation that leadership development happens best in community, not in isolation. And while there can be value in hosting vision-shaping events and larger participatory gatherings, sometimes using a format that is “small enough but big enough” is the key to nurturing relationships and honest sharing. Our current context also requires finding creative ways to connect that fit peoples’ busy schedules and post-COVID reality.

One hope for creating an Alliance leadership development community, out of which this online forum was spawned, was to create a format that could be sustainable. As Poulter says, “Leadership training becomes sustainable when a leader passes on to other leaders who pass on to other leaders. They don’t need money to do that. They don’t need materials. Their curriculum is their life. Their curriculum is the Scripture.”

“During this pandemic,” one participant said, “we are not leading from our desk in our office. We are leading from our kitchen table, from our house. We need to be real people, not leading from our titles and our organizational platforms only, but from our reality, our daily responsibilities. We are ordinary people who have to change diapers and wash dishes. This is the kind of real leaders we have to be.”

Photo: Elyse Patten

An Instrument in the Night

This pilot online community provided a simple model that could potentially be adapted in various contexts. Perhaps the first step for leaders is realizing they cannot lead on their own. It not only takes a community, but it takes reliance on Jesus. As one leader put it, “I feel like … I’m an instrument in the night. I don’t see very clearly sometimes what I need to do. God doesn’t show me the whole vision. I don’t know where I’m going. … I want to become closer to Jesus, to recognize his voice because my experience tells me I’m not able to do the things that are required of me as a leader. So it drives me to Jesus.”

Story: Gwendolyn Davies, Todd Poulter
Assistance from Jim Killam

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