05 May 2011
Shifting from Institution to Networks: The ELCA LIFT Report
One of the promising aspects of the ELCA LIFT report (some background here in my previous post) is its urgent call to begin to understand our church, not as a monolithic institution, but as a collection of overlapping and interconnected networks.
It “calls for immediate attention to this church as a grouping of networks. Caring for these networks, some of them virtual networks and social networking relationships, is an immediate necessity.”
Further, it recommends that we “initiate ways to encourage congregations, synods and partners to develop flexible networks for varying purposes, recognizing these networks can increase collaboration and connections across this church and include emerging leaders from all parts of the ecology.”
This is incredibly helpful and I want to make some suggestions about how we might do this.
A Church Network Theory
In his book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, Douglas Rushkoff does an excellent job at identifying the “biases” of technologies and digital media.
For example, he explains that since the internet was originally designed to withstand nuclear attack, it wasn’t housed in one centralized place, but spread out across networks, which connect from node to node, user to user, peer to peer. Thus, he argues, the internet (even before Facebook) was biased to be social - peer to peer - and it best used in that way.
The church shares this bias. Before there was a centralized Church of Rome, there was Paul traveling all over the Mediterranean world, sending letters from one congregation to another: from node to node. The church itself is biased toward networks.
What the report suggests to me is that perhaps the institutional model of church, into which we have evolved, actually plays against the way we are predisposed or biased to (and best) behave.
We, as a church, have been institutionalizing networks and, in the process, often stifling them - their flow, flexibility and creativity - and keeping them alive far past their usefulness.
We have long assumed that this was the role of a synod and denominations - to create and control networks. However, we see in studies on network theory we see that networks usually arise on their own out of need, necessity, or affinity. (Isn’t this how denominations began?) These networks are flexible and may come together and may only last for a time, as long as it is useful and meaningful to the members involved.
Leaders care for - or curate - these networks. They don’t necessarily create them. Their role is to make these networks visible so be people can connect to them. Leaders enable discovery.
In a world full of networks, both in-person and on-line, enabling discovery is a crucial role for leaders in the church, particularly for synods and synodical leaders. And this isn’t new. We do this in many ways already, mostly through personal conversation, small groups, and print publications. Now with digital social media we have the potential to do this much more effectively, broadly, and much more visibly. We can connect tens, hundreds, even thousands people at one time.
Part of the problem here is that a synod generates or shares so much news and information that it all becomes a blur. It is hard for any one committee, team, or person get heard. It is hard to foster sustained attention. (Synod communications would actually be more effective if it communicated fewer things more consistently.)
So, how do we enable discovery? Personally. Socially.
The way to avoid being drowned out is through personal sharing - leveraging our own personal social networks.
Each synod staff member should have a social media platform that works for them: some combination of Facebook page or profile or both, blog, and, since they visit so many congregations and groups, geolocation like Foursquare. They can tell countless stories of local congregations, ministries, and networks through their check-ins, blog post reflections, links, and pictures.
In this way, leaders can enable discovery of ministries, networks, people, and ideas. Do that and we’ll take care of the rest. If we’re intrigued we’ll friend, like, and follow.