The soil of community

What kind of church leadership do we need in the new era?

In this new era, many church leaders are finding that their training did not equip them for this moment. Missional leader Alan Roxburgh shows why leadership needs to move on from the twentieth century “professionalised” ideas of ministry and become attentive to the movements of the Spirit in the neighbourhood.

Since at least the end of World War II, we have been absorbed into the remaking of society around the industrialization of everything. This has affected the churches too.

In the 20th century, denominational and congregational systems were uprooted from community and neighbourhood. Theological colleges formed a professionalized clergy class to match the new bureaucratic elites of this industrialized society.

Our experiences of isolation are, in part, shaped by the pandemic; however, this crisis isn’t the cause of our disconnectedness. If we are to hear the hope into which the Spirit is inviting us, we have to pause and ask: How did we get here?

We have lost our rootedness in one another. A helpful metaphor in framing what has happened to us as a society comes from James Rebanks’ descriptions of industrial farming and its effects on the land and its people. [1] The soils of the local and the wisdom of the everyday have been dessicated by dependence on expertise, professionalization and the methods of industrialized success. It is now all about growth, management, control and outcomes.

Like the introduction of the chemical fertilizers that eroded, thinned and depleted the “soils” of the local farm, the soils of community were desiccated. Experts and professionals, increasingly distanced from the local and its wisdom, now shape the life of congregations.

Somehow, somewhere, we seem to have lost our sense of belonging and connectedness. But this overarching sense of loss of community isn’t the only story. The Spirit of Jesus is at work in our neighbourhoods, fermenting a new kind of community in all kinds of unexpected places.

If we are going to be leaders who cultivate the soil of community, deepening the roots of connection, then isolation and disconnection won’t be solved with more programmes, tactics or techniques. We will need to let go of the “right plans” that know the “right outcomes” in order to shift our attention to what the Spirit is forming amongst us and our neighbours.

Community and rootedness grow out of this attending to the Spirit through a covenantal attentiveness to the other and their stories.

This is not a “tactic” for gaining data or innovating new directions. It is a way of being with others that notices, names and gives voice to the life of the Spirit continually at work among us. It means a difficult, radical shift in how we are to be God’s people together that requires us to let go of techniques and expertise to create space for vulnerability and accountability.

There are no tactical fixes here. In this moment of bewilderment, exhaustion and profound sense of loss, the Spirit has never stopped calling all creation into the embrace of God’s Kingdom. Specifically, the good news is that we have not been abandoned to ourselves. We are not alone and lost even though we’ve drunk deeply of professionalization and all its techniques for success.

We seek community. It will come as we learn, again, to listen with and discern what the Spirit is gestating among us as congregations and in our neighbourhoods. This is not wishful thinking. It’s betting our lives that God is making things new, right where we are.

What kind of leadership do we need going forward?

In the six minute video below, Alan proposes four simple steps for a different way of leading:

  1. not with answers, but with a posture: that of trust, hope and confidence that God is present and at work on the ground bringing life
  2. with an attentiveness to the stories that then emerge within this hopeful context, calling forth from these an imagination for what God is doing
  3. that gives permission for an invitation to experiment, responding to God’s actions
  4. that celebrates the presence of God experienced in our stories and experiments as we worship, pray and share scripture together.

Find out more and get involved at The Leadership Project.

You may also like to explore two deeper reflections on leadership, by Alan Roxburgh and Martin Robinson:

Leading in a New Space – Part 1

Leading in a New Space – Part 2

Alan Roxburgh is a pastor, teacher, writer and consultant with more than 30 years experience in church leadership, consulting and seminary education. Alan has pastored congregations in small town, suburban, and inner city urban settings. He has directed an urban training centre and served as a seminary professor and the director of a centre for mission and evangelism. Alan teaches as an adjunct professor in seminaries in the USA, Australia and Europe and has active working partnerships in the UK. He is the author of many books on missional leadership, and with Martin Robinson is the co-author of Practices for Refounding God’s People: The Missional Challenge of the West. He is founder of The Missional Network, co-founder of Journal of Missional Practice. Originally from Liverpool, UK, Alan lives in Vancouver, Canada. For more about Alan, click here.


[1] Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey James Rebanks