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Creating a 'Learning Community' in Your Church

By Rob Mackintosh.

Why is it that a team of committed church leaders with individual IQs above 120 has a collective IQ of 63?

A frequent mistake of organisations is to assume that the team will naturally perform up to its capacity and achieve its goals. Common experience shows again and again that this is not so. As Peter Drucker says, all boards have one thing in common: they do not function.2

Boards, whether the PCC (Parochial Church Council) or the 'elders and deacons' or the 'governing body', often range between two extremes, being either too passive or too controlling. Either way, effective teamwork does not happen, crucial decisions about the future direction of the church's ministry are not made, and key learning experiences are missed.

Yet from the outset, the Christian church has been a 'learning community'. Jesus exhorted his disciples to learn - 'take my yoke... and learn' (Matthew 11:29). The word to learn (manthano) is used twenty five times in the New Testament, leaving us no doubt that learning of the love of the Lord, the will of God, the needs of the world which we are called to serve, and the way we relate to one another as the body of Christ, is a lifelong process.

Saint Paul makes it clear that this is not meant to be a solitary experience, but is at the very heart of our fellowship in the body of Christ. We all too easily turn Paul's vivid picture of the body having many mutually-dependent parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-26) into a hierarchy of ministries (vv. 27-31) with the apostle as the top and speakers in tongues near the bottom. The mutual submission envisaged here is the very antithesis of hierarchy (literally, priests ordered by rank), in which the body builds itself up by unique contributions from individual spiritual endowments (1 Corinthians 14:12), so that all may learn and be encouraged (v.31).

Today's effective pastor is distinguished not so much by any single set of knowledge or skills, but by the ability to adapt to and master the changing demands of the ministry, i.e. by the ability to learn. The same is true of the church as an organisation. Continuing success in a changing world requires an ability to explore new opportunities and learn from past successes and failures. Observation suggests that pastors on the whole are distinguished by very strong action-orientated skills, but are very weak on the skills of reflection. Both are needed, and both are part of the process of experiential learning.

In our fast-changing world, Arie De Geus, head of planning at Royal Dutch Shell, suggests:

'The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.'

The church at the end of the 20th century faces unprecedented challenges. While the mainstream denominations patch together new accords, declarations and sometimes mergers, new sectarian groups are the fastest-growing part of the Christian church.

As a threat to both ancient and modern Christian churches and movements, the secular culture is also producing its own New Age answers to people's deeply held religious impulses, spawning hundreds of new movements and groups. The supermarket of faith has grown rapidly into a vast shopping mall of religious experiences.

It is not enough for the church to adapt to the new situation. It must also anticipate the future, following rapidly into the 21st century where God has already pitched his tent and waits for us, and it must redevelop its status as a 'learning community', learning both from God and from its members.

There is much to be learned and rediscovered from the new developments in learning applied to organisations. They give us some of the tools we need to understand what 'incarnation' can mean in terms of our own organisations and structures.

1. How Individuals Learn

People learn in cyclical fashion. They pass between action and reflection, between activity and repose. Managers need to find a way to tap this rhythm - to create time not only to think, but for different types of thought and collective discussion.

The 'wheel of learning' (diagram 1) shows that each stage demands deliberate attention before we move on to the next.

Reflecting: This phase might start with a postmortem of a previous action. How well did it go? Why? How did we think and feel during the process? What underlying beliefs affected the way in which we handled it?

Connecting: Creating ideas and possibilities for action, and rearranging them into new forms. Look for links. Scientists call this the hypothesis generating stage. What new understandings do we have about our world? Where should we be looking next?

Deciding: on a method for action, then

Doing: When you finish the deed, you move immediately back to the reflecting stage.


Following the wheel of learning can ease a group of people out of a constant pattern of low-level frenzy. Practised regularly, it becomes a way of life. People who use the wheel recognise that they learn faster when they move more slowly and reflectively.

Taking a Biblical illustration, we can see this process at work in the life of David, particularly at the point where he encounters Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. He is young, and had spent most of his time on his own herding sheep and goats in the wilderness. Here his personal learning of God was of a very practical nature. David killed lions and mountain bears with his own hands, and knew how to live in radical reliance on his God.

When he learns of the presumption of this 'uncircumcised Philistine', David reflects on his past experiences with God in the wilderness. He knows that God is the God of Israel, from his tradition, from his Scriptures, and from his own experience. David knows nothing of the arts of war, the protocols of battle, or what natural wisdom dictates can or cannot be done.

He tries out a number of possibilities. The armour given to him is too big and a hindrance. He cannot fight a conventional battle with conventional weapons. Nor does he have to.

He seizes on a method of action, creative and unorthodox, retaining the element of surprise against a technically superior enemy. When the action is over, David is able to reflect again, growing even more in the confidence that God was with him, so that Saul promotes him as commander of his army.

The place to begin is with personal mastery, and the starting-point is always with ourselves. Personal mastery means gaining a special level of proficiency. Another term used to describe this is 'personal trustworthiness'.3 As 2 Peter 1:5-7 says, '... you should make every effort to add virtue to your faith, knowledge to virtue, self-control to knowledge, fortitude to self-control, piety to fortitude, brotherly affection to piety, and love to brotherly affection.' (REB)

People with a high level of personal mastery are able to realise consistently the results that matter most deeply to them - in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art. They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning. Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality more objectively. This is the learning organisation's spiritual foundation.

The root of this discipline lies in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. The discipline of personal mastery begins with clarification of the things that really matter to us, and with living our lives in the service of our highest aspirations.

2. How Groups and Teams Learn

Like individuals, church organisations develop distinctive learning styles. Pastors and churches can explicitly manage the learning process. Most churches have two controlling bodies. One is the governing board of elected members and church officers (treasurer, secretary and so on); the other is the pastoral team. The ability of both to learn, and to manage the learning process together, is crucial to the effectiveness of the church. The discipline of team learning starts with 'dialogue', the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine 'thinking together'.

Note the difference between this and the more usual process of general, unstructured or open-ended 'discussion', which is more often side-tracked by the interests of the articulate few than led by the needs of the church community to find its vision or focus its mission on the outcomes of specific areas of ministry.

The discipline of dialogue involves learning how to recognise the patterns of interaction which undermine learning - such as patterns of defensiveness. Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organisations, and that includes our churches. Unless teams can learn, the church as an organisation cannot learn.

Learning organisations are possible because, deep down, we are all learners. One important lesson is to discover how to undo the fragmented view of the world which we receive through formal academic disciplines. New disciplines are needed. In this context, a 'discipline' is a developmental path for acquiring certain skills or competencies. To practise a discipline is to be a lifelong learner.

The Team Learning Wheel

Each point on the individual wheel has a team equivalent (diagram 2). The 'reflection' stage is 'public' because it takes place around a common table. People talk about their mental models and beliefs, and challenge each other. As common ground is established, the team can come to a common and unified understanding.

This brings in the stage of shared learning, or shared insight. 'What is it we know?' Then comes joint planning or joint design. Finally there is coordinated action, which need not be joint action - it can be carried out independently by members of the team thousands of miles apart. All the time spent reflecting, building shared meaning, and jointly planning turns the action into a smoothly operating initiative.

Those are the two most critical stages. Besides helping to coordinate team activities, the team learning wheel continually reminds a group of its own weaknesses in a way that compels the team to compensate for them naturally.

Most teams tend to short-circuit one or more of the steps. Some teams continually leap off in new directions without reflecting on what they've already done. Others remain stuck in the reflecting and deciding mode, and miss the learning that comes from active experimentation. Others feel comfortable brainstorming, but never focus their attention on deciding on one alternative.

Charles Handy4 points out that the key role of leaders is to keep the 'wheel' moving. It requires a willingness to understand mental models of people with learning styles other than your own. The most powerful teams have representatives from all four styles, and these are teams in which members pull their hair out with frustration over the diversity. The challenge is learning to value that diversity, and to help the team pace itself through the wheel.

One can always sense the presence or absence of leadership in the learning process. Where a 'field' of competence and learning exists, individual efforts are enhance and reinforced. A 'field' in this case is an unseen pattern of structure that is nonetheless real enough to influence behaviour. Developing a field that encourages learning is the primary task of leadership, and perhaps the only way that a leader can genuinely influence others.

Effective leaders recognise that this role requires great attention to designing the emotional ambience of the leadership field, and to developing the capacity to sense its boundaries. If we build a strong field, other key people will come on board themselves.

3. Surfacing and Making Explicit our Mental Models

It is during the connecting phase of the learning wheel that our mental models are brought to the surface. They are vitally important, because these govern our understanding of what reality is, and the way that things work. These are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even picture or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.

Institutional learning enables leadership teams to change their shared mental models of the organisation, their markets, and their competitors, and this is so whether the organisation is ICI or the small rural church.

The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward - learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. This includes the capacity to carry on 'learningful' conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively, opening that thinking to the influence of others. Mutual trust is needed to achieve this, and flows from each team member's personal trustworthiness and commitment to the team, 'eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' (Ephesians 4:3).

4. Building Shared Vision

The capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create needs to be continually extended. Where there is a genuine vision people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.

Given a choice, most people opt for pursuing a lofty goal, not only in times of crisis, but at all times. What has been lacking is a discipline for translating individual vision into shared vision - i.e. a set of principles and guiding practices. Vision cannot be dictated to people. It must be 'owned' by those who will have the responsibility to implement it. Without it, the people perish. (Proverbs 29:18 KJV)


5. Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking is called the 'Fifth Discipline' by Peter Senge, because it underlies the four learning disciplines of Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Building Shared Vision, and Team Learning. It is a framework for seeing 'wholes', patterns and interrelationships, rather than fragmentary parts. It is the discipline that integrates all the other disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice.

Vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.

A learning organisation is a place where people are continually discovering how they can create their reality, and how they can change it. 'The only thing that counts,' wrote Saint Paul, 'is new creation. All who take this principle for their guide, peace and mercy be upon them.' (Galations 6:15, 16 REB)

All corporate and institutional human endeavours are also systems, drawn together by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions.

6. The Need for Metanoia

To grasp the meaning of 'metanoia' as used in systems thinking is to grasp the meaning of 'learning', for learning involves a fundamental shift or movement of mind. Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we recreate ourselves. This then is the basic meaning of the 'learning organisation' - an organisation that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future, through adaptive and generative learning, learning that enhances our capacity to create.

Questions for Consideration

1. Arie de Geus, head of planning at Royal Dutch Shell, said 'The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.' How does this relate to the fast-changing environment in which the church (national or local) finds itself? What lessons are there for your church?

2. What aspects of Self Mastery/Personal Trustworthiness do you most need to pay attention to? What spiritual resources do you draw upon to keep your vision sharp and focused?

3. What are the components of the mental model which you have of the relationship between the church and the world? Does this differ significantly, do you think, from other members in your church leadership team?

4. Do you and your leadership team have a shared vision of the future, and a shared mission to bring it about?

5. What 'sticking-points' do you experience in achieving an effective team? What steps can you take to reduce or eliminate them?

6. In what sense can we say that 'through learning we recreate ourselves'?


1. The term is taken from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline (Century, 1990).  Return

2. Peter F Drucker, Management Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (New York, Harper & Row, 1974) p.628.  Return

3. See Covey, Stephen, Principle-centred Leadership (Simon & Schuster, 1992).  Return

4. Handy, Charles, The Age of Unreason (Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1990).  Return


The Reverend Rob Mackintosh is Rector of Girton College, Cambridge and has been Coordinator for the Clergy Leadership Programme at Ridley Hall, Cambridge since September 1995. He was formerly a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town.

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You are reading Creating a 'Learning Community' in Your Church by Rob Mackintosh, part of Issue 5 of Ministry Today, published in October 1995.

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