Creating Open and Relational Communities

By Peter Benedict and Miriam Chickering

Leaders can create open and relational cultures of trust where self-determining communities flourish and participation and empowering is normative.

Peter Benedict and Miriam Chickering met at Theology Pub, a monthly book club hosted by River Heights Vineyard Church (RHVC) at a local bar. This essay shares key concepts and practices that have created open and relational culture in service organizations. We’ll share examples from RHVC and Nurses International (NI, a non-profit organization). We define open and relational culture as a self-determining organization where people practice listening to God and to each other; where people share the pursuit of faith, hope, and love; and where everyone’s voice matters. In this culture the leader’s goal is to create the conditions for flourishing in the community, and in each member, through shared relationship and discernment. Tasks are important, but secondary to people; it turns out that this can be surprisingly efficient in accomplishing the actual work of the organization.

The Benefits of Open and Relational Community

Open and relational community has driven growth, drawn volunteers, and increased our budgets. Our services reach a broader cross-section of our cities (RHVC) and the world (NI). We have found our model successful across generations, from Boomers through Gen Z. We believe this model can be useful in any organization, empowering leaders to grow in diversity and effectiveness.

At RHVC and NI, we ask people to give away time, money, and resources to create good in the world. At NI volunteers often do what they do at their day jobs, but for free. At RHVC, people watch kids, clean, cook, and welcome all kinds of people (addicts, people with mental health challenges, etc.). If open and relational leadership and community have inspired a growing number of people to give away their time and money to our organizations, how much more could this model empower for-profit organizations?

Models for Effective Dialogue

Open and relational dialogue depends on members that can speak and listen well. River Heights teaches a prayer model that grows these skills, emphasizing listening to God and listening to the person before praying aloud. Nurses International uses an operational framework called Listen, Learn, Serve, Share that works similarly. These tools emphasize dialogue that empowers service. Martin Buber’s “I/Thou” relationship of equals, perceiving one another rightly in the presence of the Other, is the foundation for these models.

Shared Values

Open and relational culture depends on shared values that permeate the organization’s relationships. At River Heights Vineyard Church our values are: the presence of God, loving relationships, diversity, and service. Nurses International values faith, hope, and love, emphasizing diversity and sustainability as reflections of these values. Emphasizing and revisiting these values regularly helps us keep our cultures open and relational through growth.

We Pray with Hope

At RHVC, we pray “Holy Spirit, come.” Over time we grow in seeing and hearing what God is doing, because the Spirit does come! This builds hope within the community, helping us approach our work and prayers with expectation.

At Nurses International we’re trying to make sure that every nurse in the world has access to the educational materials needed to provide excellent patient care. We hope together in a God who can help us accomplish our task. Team members who are comfortable with prayer pray together, and we can all hope together in the mystery of goodness and beauty in the world.

We Engage Everyone

We tell our members that everyone can participate, and then consistently teach and model that “Everyone gets to play.” As leaders we’re responsible for the structures that empower members to share leadership, and we leave space for the community to discern and direct its steps.

We Do Stuff Together

The quality of our relationships determines the openness of our culture, so we create structures that grow the connections among our members.

At Nurses International we have “Open Sky” meetings. We ask team members to share their hopes and dreams for the work that we do together. We ask, “If we could do anything, what would it be?” or “If resources weren’t an obstacle, what would we do?” We also have annual retreats where we spend several days at a camp dreaming and playing together. Playing together is crucial to building understanding and care.

River Heights has a monthly meeting that includes extended worship, a short message, and prayer ministry among those who attend. During prayer ministry we start with the community waiting on God together and offer everyone the chance to share what God might be saying. God’s guidance comes through community members ranging from servant leaders to members with mental health issues, addictions, etc. When someone shares a prayer or vision that starts with “I think…,” that is treated as an opinion, but when someone shares “I believe God is saying” or “I hear God saying,” it is treated more seriously.

Self-determining Communities: A Three-Step Process

We follow a three-step process during times of critical community discernment. This process has been used for leadership transitions, considerations of potential mergers, building campaigns, and expansion plans.

Step 1: The core leadership team discuss, pray, meditate, and reflect on the issue individually and together.

Step 2: We present the results of our discernment to our wider leadership teams. Sometimes the results include a sense of a clear path forward, but often we’re not sure which way is best. At River Heights, volunteer leaders pray together around tables, with each table recording what people are hearing or sharing. At Nurses International, several people meet in person while the majority join from locations around the world through video conference. Written feedback is compiled for sharing with the wider community.

Step 3: We then invite our entire network into community discernment. We share the results of the first steps, invite everyone to pray, and open the microphone or group chat to anyone willing. A leader will facilitate, helping people to finish or get back on track if needed, but this rarely happens. This has worked with people who are located in different countries and time zones, with people from vastly different cultures and socioeconomic classes.

Community Discernment can be Slow and Scary

We have also found that the use of community discernment creates the high levels of engagement and investment that have produced a thriving church and growing non-profit. This model is also less nimble than a top down leadership structure. Decisions can take months. This model often feels scary as well!

Peter: I’ve opened the microphone numerous times to people who I thought were going to wreck what we were doing. I’ve always been wrong so far, but the moments leading up to those times of sharing can be challenging.

Miriam: Though the model is less nimble, the decisions are shared with the entire community which creates a sturdiness and a shared buy-in. I was facing significant financial pressure when I declined a recent merger, but the team came together, and donations were made to ease those pressures.

The Benefits

This practice of everyone engaging in community has consistently produced better outcomes than the best strategies we could have devised. It has served well through seasons of leadership transition, expansion, and increasing diversity. Both our organizations have experienced numerical growth throughout.

Community discernment allows us to value our differences rather than mistrust them, even when those differences could be painful. I (Peter) serve with an older friend who’s a Tea Party conservative, and he often remarks about how amazing it is that he and I get along so well. I see this across our church: people may not be sure about the value of one another’s differences, but they don’t care as much when we’re doing the work God has given us. Over time, common work leads to trust.

We Reflect

Miriam: One of the challenges at Nurses International is that our work is so big, no one person can do this work alone. Even a growing network can’t do all the work. This means that we have to grow leaders who can continue the work independently. Open and relational communities give everyone a chance to play and invite everyone to shared responsibility. This really means that each person is given the opportunity to grow in their ability to lead and create positive change. Many of our team members have started and completed degrees, pivoted in their careers, begun businesses, and grown tremendously during their time with us. Part of the way that I evaluate Nurses International is by asking myself, “How well are we doing as an incubator for educators and leaders?” “How well are we loving the people who are giving so much of themselves to make the world a better place?” When people are loved, they grow, and this growth results in their greater empowerment.

Peter: It’s possible my church has been riding a wave of good luck and/or unspoken processes that have manipulated us into a place where the results of our community discernment are more due to luck or human interactions than God’s guidance. It’s possible I’ve overlooked a bunch of challenges or drawbacks to this model that would cause it to fail anywhere else, and eventually will cause us to fail too. But so far, this model has been joyous, helpful beyond our hopes, and fruitful. So, I offer you this model as a testimony of God’s faithfulness, and encourage you to try it as God leads, modifying whatever you like to fit your community and culture. In the end, this depends on a God who speaks and cares where we go. We trust that everybody gets to hear and share what God is saying. We continue to pursue and grow in willingness to let go of the kind of power that often accrues as we lead. I think it’s worth it.

Peter Benedict is the lead pastor at River Heights Vineyard Church in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. He earned his undergraduate degrees at Grand Canyon University and is planning to attend seminary next year. His hobbies include home brewing, recreational and theological reading, cooking for friends, and motorcycle rides on beautiful days.

Miriam Chickering is the CEO of Nurses International, an organization that provides free curriculum to healthcare educators in 86 countries. Chickering is a co-author of two books and of academic research articles related to work in global education. Her hobbies include interdisciplinary creative endeavors—most recently the creation of a Modern Midrash workshop and a new modality to assist therapists and clients called Implicity.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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