Knitting together life, liturgy and leadership
Bert is an intentional community in the South side of Glasgow that has been going since the 70s and gets its name from a local street. What pattern of life together has enabled them to stay strong for the long haul?
Knit one, slip-stitch forward, purl two together. Knitting is a topic dear to my heart. The end product can be from patterns, or out of one’s head. It can be adapted for different sizes and situations, using different colours and shapes, or using new wool or scraps. It can be frustrating and at the same time endlessly fulfilling. Bert, a lay community I’ve been part of for nearly 40 years, is to me like knitting. We are a small rag-tag collection of 16 adults who meet in the Southside of Glasgow for weekly worship, sometimes twice a week if our kids are involved, plus meals together and socialising. It started in the late 70’s when there were a number of groups working out models of Christian community. Bert keeps going where many of the groups we were in touch with then no longer exist (with the notable exception of the Iona Community).
A secret recipe?
And the question often asked of us is “why do you think you are still together?” I think there are a number of reasons. Like the aforementioned knitting there have been patterns for doing things which have had to be adapted to suit changing circumstances. Our original vision was that Bert would be very local. We started off with all of us living in East Pollokshields and a notional geographical commitment: that we all lived near enough each other to carry a pot of soup. Over the years we have had to change that to accommodate different housing needs. Flexibility has been important.
We are different in our colours and shapes. Literally different in shape! And at the moment not literally different in colour, but metaphorically in terms of interests, skills and contributions. And therein lies a key. Our differences have been used to give strength and durability by utilising everyone’s skills and gifts. The picture of one body and many parts is one that we have referred to often over the years and that has had to be for us more than reading the passage and absorbing it as an interesting metaphor. We have consciously, but in a very low key way, had ongoing verbal, physical and practical acknowledgement of gifts. So, writing gift cards to each other saying what we appreciate about each other, or naming gifts publicly either as part of a collective exercise or in relation to something that needs done. We have a home-knitted liturgy around the theme of gifts and acknowledging each person’s gifts, which we pull out on occasion.
Leading from the middle
Underpinning all this is a high degree of trust in each other, and a commitment to the community. This is foundation for how leadership functions. Leadership is rooted in our conscious awareness of each person and their gifts. Of leaders, we have none or perhaps 18! As one member said, ‘We have communal leadership of trust and humility which means that everyone and no one is a leader’. Because no hierarchy exists people have become confident about offering what they have. They know that they will be supported if asked to do something difficult and people readily combine skills to make things happen. As another member offered: ‘I would amend the old Socialist strap line a little as follows; “from each according to their ability or interest, to the community according to its shared needs, values and plans.”
In most churches leadership is traditionally given to the person with theological training. But what qualifies them for leadership more than the person who is a good listener, a good organiser, a creative worship leader or a whizz with kids? All of these gifts are valuable and essential. However, if churches are to be organic then different gifts are needed at different times. How different would churches be if the most theologically literate took a back seat and were there to be consulted, rather than lead for the front? How would that help develop critical thinking? Theologians are important and thankfully we have one. He waits to be consulted in a way that is supportive, non-judgemental and considered.
Hosts not heroes
Our style fits with Margaret Wheatley’s thinking on leadership as ‘hosting’ not ‘heroes’ . She argues that if someone is visionary, charismatic, trustworthy and has good ideas, then people will follow in the hope that this leader will sort things out and lead everyone in the right direction. One of the problems with this model is it doesn’t enable people to look at shared problem solving or becoming involved in issues that affect them. How often have we heard folk say, ‘that’s the minister’s job’? Wheatley would respond: “It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us. It is time to face the truth of our situation - that we’re all in this together, that we all have a voice - and figure out how to mobilize the hearts and minds of everyone in our workplaces and communities.”
The leader as ‘host’ pulls people in from across the organisation and facilitates meaningful conversations that bring about new insights and activities. The terminology is new to me to me but the concept is what we have been trying to live out for years. It has served us well to date. Everyone has meaningful contributions to make. We might not all agree all the time but the skill is to enable each voice to be heard with the same authority and be taken with the same level of seriousness. For what it’s worth, in Bert I think we have got that bit just about right.
To get back to the knitting, equality of leadership means that no one is on a pedestal and anyone can be told to disappear and ‘stop rippin’ ma knittin’!’
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