The World Needs Leaders Who Can Empower Rather Than Control

Open Source Activists

By J.R. Kerr
Leadership Journal - Christianity Today

A shift is occurring among the new generation of church leaders. We are thinking and leading differently than the generation that preceded us, but I didn't recognize the extent of this shift until a worship service one Sunday morning a few years ago.

I was sitting in the front row with the senior pastor. He was increasingly uncomfortable with the sound mix in the room and the way the worship was being led. He got out of his seat and walked to the back of the room to adjust everything from the lights and sound to the length of the songs. At one point he actually signaled the worship leaders on the platform that it was time to end a set. He then asked me to go back to the sound booth to make another adjustment.

I froze. I just could not do it.

The founding pastor's expectation that I be involved in everything—even acoustics—was part of a leadership paradigm that had left me weary. It assumed I was supposed to have some degree of control over every part of the church, supposed to have the answer to whatever problem arose. One day, I had a string of meetings that kept me from my office most of the day. Upon my return I met five people whose jobs had come to a halt because they needed me. They all had the information and the skills necessary to do their work, but they lacked the authority—the necessary space—to lead.

This kind of organizational environment expects leaders to know and control virtually everything in the life of the community. Of course we included volunteers in our work. We gathered them into "task forces" focused on a particular issue. We wanted them to feel ownership for the ministry, but we also wanted the task force to meet with a pastor or elder to get a clear picture of the vision and then execute the plan as instructed.

As the source of vision and the leader of task forces, I was increasingly the center of attention and I was increasingly uncomfortable with who I was becoming. This highly centralized and hierarchical view of leadership also left me exhausted. I was tired of trying to convince people to care about stuff, tired of cajoling leaders to give one more night out, one more dollar, or one more skill to the church and its vision.

So when the senior pastor asked me to adjust the sound in the worship service I literally stopped in my tracks. I thought to myself, I cannot keep doing this. So I quit. I quit trying to convince people to do what I wanted. I quit pretending to have all the answers. I quit the "task force" leadership model I had been taught.

From force to source

Over the last few decades, a generation of significant pastors and leaders has encouraged us to raise the bar of leadership within the church. They have drawn heavily from corporate and secular models, and they have elevated the values of excellence and efficiency. But my generation has grown skeptical of these values and the leadership principles that produced them. They are increasingly seen as too corporate, too controlling, and the source of too much consumerism within the church.

My generation is hungry for something more than the 15 principles for building a better team or the 21 reasons why you should be a servant leader. They are not content filling a role on a task force for church growth. They are hungry for more. They want a voice. They want influence. They are a generation that isn't content receiving a vision; they want to be part of shaping and creating the vision. My generation believes in open source influence.

Open source is everywhere and it is changing the world. Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat documents the way open source is changing how software is developed and how news is reported. Past generations went to a trusted authority, like the Encyclopedia Britannica, to find answers to their questions. The new generation logs on to Wikipedia, an open source web encyclopedia that doesn't just provide answers but allows users to contribute their knowledge as well. And the Apple iPhone now has thousands of user-created applications available as a result of becoming an open source platform. The younger generation expects to participate in the creation and formation of products and organizations in a way earlier generations simply did not.

A ministry friend relayed a story that captures the generational shift we are experiencing. He was out to lunch with a volunteer leader from his church to discuss the next layer of the vision for the ministry. After listening for a while, the supporter said to my friend, "You know I am a huge fan of your ministry and I will always support you, but we only hear about your ideas and dreams. We have ideas and dreams too. We have thoughts about how to carry the kingdom of God forward. When do our visions, dreams, and ambitions for ministry get heard?"

My friend retold the story with tears in his eyes, but I felt sick to my stomach. I realized that I have been that kind of leader. I have been the pastor who creates just enough space for people to feel part of the team, but not enough to actually give them authority to shape the direction and look of our ministries. That is the difference between leading via task force and leading via open source. Task forces see people as a way to implement leaders' ministry ideas. Open source sees people as the source of ministry ideas. One model requires leaders to control; the other model requires leaders to empower.

A call to create

I joined the staff at Park Community Church in Chicago with a desire to implement this new way of leading. We were first inspired to actually try an open source approach by Not For Sale, an abolitionist movement working to end slavery in the modern world, and the film Call + Response, which focuses on the same issue. Both the organization and film advocate a decentralized, open source structure to empower a generation of activists.

We decided to host a showing of Call + Response, but because of the film's open source philosophy, we approached the organization of the event differently. In fact we decided not to advertise or market the event apart from mentioning the issue in my sermon just days beforehand. This violated everything I had been taught about executing successful church events. We created no event requests, no video announcements, no flashy marketing or event management tools. Everything was word of mouth through social networking websites.

I had no idea what to expect when the night of the event came. To my surprise over 300 people attended. But our experimentation with open source didn't end there. We also designed the event itself with an opportunity for participants to lead. The gathering concluded with a different kind of invitation: "If the reality that there are 27 million slaves in the world bothers you, then we invite you to help us create a response as a church." This was more than a call to respond—it was a call to create.

What happened next was remarkable. People responded in a way that redefined my understanding of what leadership in the church can look like. Within weeks after the event, volunteers created a new organization called Traffick Free and began to plan a week of awareness events in Chicago. The original gathering of 300 from one church has now become a network of thousands from multiple churches committed to making our city slave free by 2020. This has all happened without the church staff in control.

After one Traffick Free event at a local bar, a member of the Chicago Police Department's human trafficking unit pulled me aside. "How did you do this?" she asked. "How did you get over 200 people to come together to talk about this issue?"

"I didn't," I said. "All I did was focus on empowering a few key individuals. They did everything."

That is the heart of open source leadership. If it had been my responsibility to launch and manage a human trafficking awareness ministry, it would have been squeezed into my schedule between preaching and other pastoral responsibilities. But these open source influencers not only gave the issue more time and passion, they were also able to open doors in our community—like utilizing bars for meeting spaces and developing partnerships with legal offices and speakers—that I never would have been able to as a pastor.

The Traffick Free leadership team is now getting internship requests from high school and college students. They are even receiving letters from senators committing their support. Right now the Traffick Free team is meeting to determine what's next for the ministry. The best part is I'm not in the meeting with them, and I don't need to be. They are able to dream bigger and think more innovatively without me.

From off limits to no limits

Learning to release control and share influence with others may be one of the most sensitive and difficult changes to make in your leadership style—at least it has been for me. In the past I have started a church task force with a very clear goal in mind. The task was decided upon before the group was ever convened, and their efforts were largely limited to that task. Again, this pastor-centered, controlled vision approach to leadership is what I had been taught. But inevitably the group would stray beyond the boundaries established for the task force. They would see an obstacle that needed to be removed or a related issue that should be addressed, and they would be told, "Sorry, that is off limits."

How many times have those two words, "off limits," impeded the work of the kingdom through God's people? What if nothing was off limits? What if people were allowed to speak honestly and directly about the opportunities and challenges they see? And what if we gave away some of our control, trusting God's people to develop their own vision and not just execute ours?

After our positive experience with the Call + Response event, we tried to make a shift toward open source leadership with our singles ministry. The group had been gathering on the first Thursday of the month at our facility for a primarily social purpose. In recent years efforts were made to change the core focus of this ministry to be more external and missional. These changes were attempted by a pastor who was responsible for overseeing the singles ministry. Nothing worked. So we decided to try an open source strategy.

We gave a group of ten singles the freedom to do whatever they wanted with the ministry. This was a huge shift, and I had to repeatedly convince them it was okay to make decisions without my input or permission. But once they really felt empowered, the group changed the meager social gathering of singles into a cultural gathering called Elements that is having an influence all over the city of Chicago. Every month they meet in bars, coffee shops, designer boutiques, and anywhere else they can find available space to discuss issues that matter to our city and Jesus. Elements is drawing together believers and non-believers and developing greater trust and understanding between the two groups. The team has even invited speakers from around the country (who are willing to travel on their own dime) to lead the conversations.

The singles ministry is now having an amazing influence in Chicago, but it's not because of me or any other pastor at Park Community Church. The credit goes to Mike, Lisa, Audra, Andrew, Natalie, Meghan, Dave, Carole and a host of others who have given vision and leadership to this project and others like it. They have built a city-wide ministry with no real budget and very little publicity. All we gave them was permission.

Leaders like the ones I've mentioned are evidence that the world is changing. This new generation sees themselves and their potential differently. They don't require titles and positions to influence the culture. This is a generation of social activists, artists, and leaders who intend to accomplish great things for the kingdom of God. Our responsibility is to make space for them, and that requires thinking differently about how we lead.

J.R. Kerr is the singles/teaching pastor at Park Community Church in Chicago, Illinois, and founder of the Aitreni Group for Social Change.

A leadership that empowers is like the wind. As it blows, it awakens idle windmills, sways the branches and leaves of trees, and it makes windchimes sing too.