Collective Intelligence: Reshaping Congregational Leadership Models

“In the last few decades much research has proven the superiority of group decision making over that of even the brightest individuals in the group.”
Alan B. Krueger,“Economic Scene,”The New York Times,7 December 2000

“Excellence exists only in the variety and quality of our interactions.”
Edwin Schlossberg, Interactive Excellence: Defining and Developing New Standards for the Twenty-first Century, © 1998

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting
to meet together...” Holy Bible, Hebrews 10:24-5

Management researchers and social scientists are confirming what many of us intuitively know (and chafe against at times): people make better decisions together than they do apart. A new phrase describes this experience of “putting our heads together:” Collective Intelligence. I’ve seen it several places now. Sally Morgenthaler includes a section on Collective Intelligence in her cutting edge article in An Emergent Manifesto: “Leadership in a Flattened World: Grassroots Culture and the Demise of the CEO Model”. Daniel Goleman, I hope you are proud. Leadership and management gurus are extending your Emotional Intelligence model to the larger collective.

You’ve experienced Collective Intelligence. You have a great ministry idea for your congregation, bringing it to the missions committee meeting. You paint a glorious word picture of kingdom building ministry and wait for the affirmations to roll in. Another person reflects on your picture, and adds a paint stroke. Yet another person smudges the images, for a messier, yet more genuine missional approach. Another person then connects all three paintings into a major ministry that’s far superior
to your original proposal. You are left thinking, “I thought it was good, yet this is far better.” Sacrificing your personal agenda in view of this new picture’s beauty is no problem. That’s Collective Intelligence at work.

With only slight reflection, we recognize Collective Intelligence as a threat to our traditional pastoral leadership model. Search committees, thirty years ago, would ask a candidate what the candidate’s “program” for the church would be if called to serve there. The candidate would articulate a “program” and the search committee would consider taking it on (along with the candidate).

Now savy pastoral candidates ask the search committee about its vision for ministry. When the church’s vision is described, then the candidate and church can decide if there is a ministry match (or this is done by the denominational body). The traditional pastoral leadership model rests on a hierarchical and authoritarian model of leadership, excluding the Collective Intelligence phenomenon.

I’m afraid the business world is ahead of the church here. The most successful companies know that self-managed teams are more productive. “We have known for nearly a half century that self-managed teams are far more productive than any other form of organizing. There is a clear correlation between participation and productivity. In fact, productivity gains in truly self-managed work environments are at a minimum 35 % higher than in traditionally managed organizations.” (Margaret Wheatley, “Goodbye, Command and Control,” Leader to Leader, July 1997). Many congregations espouse a team philosophy, yet few actualize this approach when the chips are down.

What’s this mean for clergy and congregations? Part of the answer is right before us, in the real time living. What are you learning as you lead? How does your current experience inform your leadership model? I believe it means that even we church leaders can’t get away with worn out leadership models for much longer. Those who persist with the traditional model will find themselves surrounded by fewer people. On the other hand, exciting days are ahead. The church is rich in resources: people. Many congregations embrace theology facilitating interaction, sharing, and conversing. More clergy are becoming experts in group processes, helping the passion rise to the surface. Leadership competencies like developing others, teamwork and collaboration, interpersonal influence, and conflict management are growing essential (auxiliary competencies in the traditional leadership model). More ministers are adopting the coaching model for congregational leadership, finding their loads are lighter and their ministries more expansive. Clergy are discovering Collective Intelligence is a friend to the mission of the church. May we be open to God’s Spirit, wherever we find God’s movement.

Mark Tidsworth,
Pinnacle Leadership Associates