Wave Rider, Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World
By: Harrison Owen

Many of us know about or have actually experienced “Open Space Technology” as a way to self-organize a large group into smaller groups around topics of interest. Although utilized mostly in nonreligious venues, some religious denominations in recent years have even used Open Space, as it is often called, as a way to do their national general assembly.

The four principles of Open Space are an essential part of its character, and apparently, its power:

  • Whoever comes are the
    right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • Whenever it starts is the
    right time.
  • When it’s over it’s over.

In a typical Open Space event, folks identify topics in a “marketplace” by giving a description of each topic and a meeting place and time for the discussion. Then, using the principles outlined above, the whole group breaks down according to the topic(s) that interest them. It is common for people to “vote with their feet” when a topic no longer sustains their interest or they decide they are interested in another topic.

The richness of the experience is that Open Space often breaks down the conditioned patterns that occur in meetings that can make many of us skeptical of the value of meetings. The self-organizing aspect of the Open Space approach frees participants to follow their energy and to contribute from an energized place. Often the result is a creative exchange of ideas and initiatives that already have supporters mobilized to carry these ideas forward.

Harrison Owen, the developer of Open Space Technology and an Anglican priest, attempts to take Open Space to a new level of influence beyond this way of organizing events. In Wave Rider, he takes a long-view perspective, reviewing the history and unfolding realization of why Open Space works in the way it does. Something clicks for him when he makes a connection between biologist Stuart Kauffman’s work on Complex Adaptive Systems, Peter Vail’s High Performance Systems, and his own Open Space Technology. Before the reader gets too lost in this intergalactic convergence of “systems,” Owen is able to encapsulate his hypothesis about the connection:

  • All human systems are self-organizing and naturally tend toward high performance provided the essential conditions are present and sustained.

With that said, he provides the hinge to the second part of his book, which explores the practices that leaders can employ to provide the “essential conditions” for high performance among the people they are leading. He introduces a metaphor for a leader in such an environment, the “Wave Rider,” in this way:

Wave Riders are curious people possessed of an innate capacity to go with the flow, constantly seizing upon opportunity when others see no possibility, or even disaster…

Owen points to Gandhi as such a leader—a leader who, in addition to his tireless efforts, knew when to “simply be there in the present moment, apparently doing nothing” but in reality accomplishing enough
to change a nation.

Owen concludes the book with a “Wave Rider’s Guide to the Future,” in which he outlines eight essential steps for the role. Here he introduces practices that are transferable by any leader to any group or organization—maybe even congregations.

The usefulness that this book may have in the religious world is not immediately apparent. In my estimation, there are some generative guidelines here that might be particularly useful for the religious leader who is so attached to results that he or she does not contribute to the conditions that can actually bring them about. There are some antidotes here to the “control freak” in any of us that allow us to see the dead end to which the illusion of control actually leads. There are some self-corrective principles that allow a leader to get a big-picture perspective on how lasting and sustained performance actually occurs within human organizations. And there are self-corrective insights and practices for those of us who tend to do more and more and miss out on the actual accomplishing power of presence—and being with our congregants or members in a way that can promote their ownership of significant actions.

For the purpose of helping leaders reflect upon their own deep assumptions and images of leadership that guide their actions, this book is useful. I cringe to think how Owen’s “Wave Rider’s Guide to the Future” would stand alongside denominational guidebooks with such titles as the Book of Discipline or a Book of Order. What they have in common may be a deep recognition that in spite of all our efforts to control and predict as leaders, there is a realization that comes to us that:

The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)

Consequently, Owen offers some practical guidelines for providing the conditions for a creative spirit—The Spirit—to do its work in how a leader leads.

Larry Peers
Senior Consultant
The Alban Institute

Longing for God, Seven Paths of Christian Devotion
By: Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe

“Christian spiritual formation is a God-ordained process,” say Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe, authors of Longing for God. It shapes us to “take on the character and being of Christ himself.” From that premise, Foster and Beebe identify what they call the seven primary paths to Christian devotion: the right ordering of our love for God, the spiritual life as journey, the recovery of knowledge of God lost in the Fall, intimacy with Jesus Christ, the right ordering of our experiences of God, action and contemplation, and divine ascent. The authors do not declare these to be the only paths to God, only commonly embraced historical paths. No one path is all things to all people, they say. “Indeed, they overlap and intertwine and mingle with each other,” and each of us is at different places along different paths throughout our lives.

Foster and Beebe explore the paths through commentaries on the writings of twenty-five well-observed theologians, philosophers, and saints—and one anonymous writer—whose lives spanned periods from the second to the twentieth centuries. These writings echo through the centuries to form what they call a “theology of spiritual growth that has been proven to work.”

The authors have two main purposes. One is to explain the paths. The other is more ambitious and complex. It is for their readers “to awaken and grow in [their] knowledge, understanding, and commitment to God and to wrestle with the depth and riches these writers present.” The authors do an excellent job of achieving both of these objectives. They relay the practical and powerful messages of great thinkers and doers who were not always understood in their times, and they do so in a way that is intelligible for today’s readers.

The authors capture with ease such complexities as the logic of George Fox, the devotion of John Calvin, the discernment of John Cassian, the focus of Martin Luther, the discipline of Ignatius of Loyola, the guidance of Benedict of Nursia, and the journey of George Herbert.

The book is divided into seven chapters, one for each path. In each chapter the authors comment on the contributions of three or four writers whom they believe exemplify ways to rediscover one of the paths. Each section concludes with a summary of the various writers’ contributions and a prayer inviting the Hol
y Spirit to touch the reader with greater understanding and engagement.

Longing for God also features three appendices: “Pre-Christian Influences on Our Life with God” touches on a handful of writers of Old Testament and Greek themes. “Christian Women and Spirituality” sketches ever so lightly the biographies of twenty-seven women. “The Contribution of the Eastern Orthodox Church” gives similar light treatment to thirty-three men. The limited coverage of a broad range of religious thinkers in the appendices shows that, by its nature, a selection process excludes excellent options.

Wayne E. Groner
Community of Christ
Springfield, Missouri

The Missional Church and Denominations, Helping Congregations Develop a Missional Identity
Craig Van Gelder, editor

Missional and denominational have become words that you wouldn’t use in the same sentence. The authors of The Missional Church and Denominations seek to change that, but (thankfully) not by introducing yet another push for new programs and innovative outreach. Instead, editor Craig Van Gelder and the authors in this volume offer a deeper diagnosis of the ailments plaguing modern denominations, naming the lack of clear, shared identity, doctrinal confusion or even ignorance, avoidance of theological reflection on organization and practice, and an obsession with regulation and control. But the goal of this book is not to see the end of denominations but rather to think “through what…denominations might look like if they were to take seriously the DNA that is inherent in a missional understanding of the church.”

The turn from settled denomination to missional church requires more than a new set of clothes. It requires a renewed attention to denominational “genetic code” that lies far beneath the surface. Drawing the reader into conversations with history, theology (particularly ecclesiology), missiology, and contemporary studies of organization and leadership, the authors offer therapy that dives deeply into the lives of denominations, pushing beyond what they do and moving further into who they are. This leads to the possibility of change beyond structure or process to more fundamental categories, such as assumptions, ways of thinking, and imagination itself, shifting the focus from “technique” to theology. The church must do no less than imagine itself differently, not as God’s static territory but rather as “missional,” sent to participate in the mission of the Triune God, the missio Dei, already in progress, unfolding in the world.

This treatment plan is presented in two sections, the first offering broader historical, theological, and theoretical engagement with the rise of denominationalism and the development of the missional church conversation. The essays by Van Gelder and Alan Roxburgh are key to understanding the historical development of denominations as well as their identity crises in the context of modernity. This frames the second half of the book, which applies missional theology to specific denominations, addressing Episcopal, Lutheran (ELCA), Evangelical Covenant, and Baptist (General Conference) contexts. Despite the fact that not all denominations are specifically addressed, these chapters turn out to be useful representatives from across the Protestant spectrum, and thus other denominational traditions will surely find themselves (and their issues) in these portrayals. Finally, an epilogue helpfully displays one denominational leader’s experience with making the kinds of root changes discussed throughout the book.

This is not a “how-to” book, and one hoping for an easy read or a clear action plan will not find those here. But anyone who has labored in denominational ministry, in the congregation, or in judicatory structures will know that there is no quick fix for the issues we face. Consequently, these essays take us exactly where we need to go—namely, into a re-engagement with history, as the story of how we got where we are, and theology, as the discourse that reminds us who we are and to what we are called. Thus, this is a book less about what to do and more about how to see, to think, and to imagine differently. For a church seeking to embrace its mission in a changed world, it is a step in the
right direction.

Jeffrey Conklin-Miller
Duke Divinity School
Durham, North Carolina

Borderland Churches, A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living
By: Gary V. Nelson

Dr. Gary Nelson is the general secretary for Canadian Baptist Ministries and vice president of the Baptist World Alliance. In this book he defines missional as a new way of viewing the church’s role or function as being a missionary movement in our world. The church, Nelson contends, is a community of God’s people that defines itself and organizes its life around its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world.

“The idea of the Church living into the community,” he says, “is captivating churches.” We have lost our “missionary existence.” Today, Nelson says, we need to be challenged to struggle and to be personally challenged by living our faith in the borderlands where “Christian faith, other faiths, and unfaith intersect.”
This is a new way of visioning the church and its mission. Nelson focuses on Psalm 137 for insight into the challenges of “singing a new song” in the world to which God has called his people. He also notes that the church tends to go slowly when it comes to meeting new challenges in culture and community, and he suggests that to do so is simply to decide not to change at all, and to instead let our world run ahead of us, with no sense of urgency. Urgency, Nelson insists, is a necessary key to being missional.

Being missional does not mean simply tinkering with the machinery, or changing just for change’s sake; it is understanding that we live in two worlds—the one, now old, to which we cannot return, and the other new and foreign to our sensitivities.

The question that Nelson seeks to answer in this book is simply, What does it mean to be the church in this time? The Christian church in North America no longer occupies a central or influential place. What is required, he says, is a profound shift toward taking the church into the world, replacing the “you come to us” framework with a “we’ll come to you” approach. Since our God is a sending God, then the church must be obedient, and be a sending community.  How we visualize the church affects our approach to ministry, the way we develop strategies and programs, and the way we visualize relationships with one another both inside the congregation and outside it, in the community of neighborhoods.

 “The wave of the future in Christ’s church will be built on people who both understand the sacred and high privilege of being a called out community peculiarly living a life of virtue together and at the same time, are willing to pour themselves out to the world. These are people who no longer see some places as secular and others sacred, because they realize that all territories are sacred places where God is at work.” Nelson argues that we must be passionate, mobilized, and energized by the implications of the gospel on our lives in such a way as to seek to be a people of kingdom ethics empowered by the Spirit to live differently both as a community and as a people in the world, so that we create an atmosphere in which people ask, Who is this God you serve?

This book should be read by all pastors and congregations who find themselves in this new borderland landscape, and who seek to discover a new way to do/be the church in our time.

R. Wayne Hagerman
Springfield West-O’Leary Baptist Church
O’Leary, Pr
ince Edward Island, Canada

Relfections on My Call to Preach, Connecting the Dots
By: Fred Brenning Craddock

Fred Craddock is one of the great preachers of our day. Now in his eighties, he remains the kind of preacher that other preachers love to emulate or just hear preach. One of the premier advocates of inductive preaching, Craddock is known for weaving stories together in such a way that the listener is able to “overhear the gospel.” It’s an effective method, but it takes great skill and practice to pull off, lest a sermon end up as a disjointed collection of stories and anecdotes with no end point in mind.

As one might expect, Craddock’s autobiography, Reflections on My Call to Preach, is full of stories. Indeed, if you’ve heard him preach you’ll soon begin to hear the tone and cadence of Craddock’s voice in the printed words. You’ll be amused and moved by these stories, all of which are personal and ultimately pertinent to the question at hand.

This is an autobiography, but the author only takes up his first eighteen years of life. As we read on, we learn that until college he went by his middle name, Brenning. We learn about the poverty of his early years, his loving but dysfunctional family, and the important place words had in that family context. If you enjoy Craddock’s sermons or earlier books, this one needs no further recommendation. Simply take it up and enjoy.
This book is a joy to read, but there’s more to it than simply the telling of a life story. More importantly it is a meditation on the call to preaching ministry. As Craddock inductively explores his own calling he invites others to look inward and discern their own sense of call. As we start out on the journey, we’re led to believe that there could be just one primary influence, but as we move forward we discover that there are many points of influence, dots that need connecting, whether they be family, friends, pastors, teachers, or youth leaders. With so many mainline Protestant clergy coming into ministry in mid-life, these stories may seem odd and otherworldly. Indeed, our aging seminary student-bodies raise questions about why young people no longer seem to hear calls to ministry as they did in Craddock’s day.

The influences on Craddock not only led to his call but also formed the kind of preacher he would become. His father was a man of stories who introduced the power of words to his children (even if many of the stories were rather fanciful). His mother was devout and conservative in her theology, but she was also a socialist and a pacifist. From his Sunday school teachers Craddock learned to treasure the Bible and take it to heart. Both the relationship with his siblings and his school experiences led to a need for privacy and a strong interior world. Church camp gave him the opportunity to explore his faith and sense of call. And the clergy in his life offered both examples and encouragement. Though his pastors were influential they were not as influential as either the Sunday school teachers or the church camps in instilling in him a sense of call. Most of those who influenced him encouraged his call, including his mother, but had he listened to his guidance counselor, who suggested that his short stature and the tonality of his voice didn’t lend themselves to preaching, the world would never have experienced the gifts of this master preacher.

If one steps back and looks at the church through the lens provided by this wonderful book, one will discover that several important elements in Craddock’s work of discernment are either absent or of negligible influence in the modern mainline church. Beyond family influences, the most important contributors to Craddock’s sense of call were church related, more specifically Sunday school and camp. Both of these institutions are either in decline or play little role in forming a sense of call to ministry. In reflecting on Craddock’s own sense of call, we are invited to consider how and where the next generation of church leaders will hear their call to preach.

Robert Cornwall
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan