The “Snowflake” Church | Forum for Theological Exploration

The “Snowflake” Church

By: Ella Auchincloss
September 29, 2011

Last September, Arrington Chambliss and I attended FTE’s VocationCARE: A Deeper Look retreat in Atlanta, GA. We had been invited to learn about the VocationCARE work for churches and spiritual communities. We were interested because of collaborative work we are doing with young adults and congregations. We were learning the tools of VocationCARE to carry back to our Life Together and Leadership Develop Initiative teams that are working to revitalize church communities through intentional community and team-based missional leadership practices.

In one particularly memorable session, we were asked to envision what the church of our dreams and strivings would look like. We were asked to be specific—as if we were walking into this church for the first time.

I imagined the beautiful stone Episcopal Church at the end of my block in a suburb of Boston, MA with its front door painted bright red and always open. The sign at the front of the church was almost too full of information including such offerings as: “God’s Economy: Learn of New Forms of Collaborative Economy” and “Walking the Jesus Way through Contemplative Prayer.” The sanctuary was free of pews and its high-rise pulpit presided over a big open space. On this weekday, there were bicycles parked in the narthex. Big tables were set up in the broad space and young people were alive with work, planning for a social justice action in partnership with other churches in our town. This church was a hub for action, a learning lab for mission and, most of all, a place to pray and worship in a way that prepared people for building the Reign of God in the local community.
There was food, music, sporadic altars and a space for quiet contemplation in the midst of the busyness. The Old Parish House was converted to dorms and a common room for the young adult “social-justice ministers” who had become the lifeblood of the church. Young adults had come for a year to learn the intersection of the prayerful and the prophetic. The elders of the church were committed to supporting these young adults. The young people learned about what meant to walk the Jesus Way cultivating loving relationships with God, themselves and their neighbors.

“ For me, this message translates into a bold messianic hope that the next messiah will take the form of a team bounded in love and a passion for justice. I believe this is the church Jesus taught us to build. ”

In the vast undercroft was a free health clinic, operated by the storied surgeons and prominent doctors who have faithfully attended this church for many years. There was an office that opened once per week where people could receive free legal advice, staffed by our lawyerly parishioner’s, some of who have argued cases before the Supreme Court. On that same day, the parish team of investment professionals held a clinic to help people who had been affected by the foreclosure crisis. A group of retired men operated a church van that regularly transported people who needed our help to our church. Other members cooked and served soup in the vast kitchen and parish hall for all.

In many ways, Sunday was the quietest day of the week for this church. It was a time of contemplative worship and prayer, followed by a time where the laity were invited to reflect in small groups led by other trained laity about where they found God in their work, school of families and lives that past week. Each person was invited to share. There was a common respect for group process and this was the glue that joined them into a web of Jesus-loving disciples. The church school was its usually busy place. The teachers were the primary evangelists for this way of understanding Jesus.

The story of God in scripture was interwoven with the many stories of faith, hope and love embodied within the 100-year history of this congregation. Reflection and action were inseparable and people considered themselves more pilgrims on a journey than members of a church.

I began to imagine the Church using the “model of the snowflake”1, where each function of the whole was taken on by a team. Each team was grounded in a clear sense of purpose, bounded by clear norms and expectations and where everyone knew their role, duties and responsibilities to the team. Each team had a coordinator and a chaplain. These coordinators and chaplains were spiritually formed by the parish leaders. All the ministries of the church were connected by the relational commitments of team. The church itself was messianic. The church of my dreams is a church that is living into the fullest version of itself—using the gifts it already has to bring God in Jesus to the local community.

This dream led me further to explore the question: what kind of ecclesiology and leadership structures are needed to allow this church to emerge? There needed to be an ideological shift from “Church as Refuge” to “Church as Missional Epicenter”. The intense focus on “priest as the center” needed to be completely re-imagined. Seminary education needed to change as did the entire discernment process for Holy Orders. The work of understanding group process and developing strong teams needed to be woven into the fabric of leadership formation in the church.

By the grace of God, my team and I have been given a chance to explore these questions by a forward-thinking Bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. We have created a program to teach these skills to congregational teams of comprised mostly of lay leaders. Our best teams are those where the pastors or priests do not take everything on themselves. They understand their call as one that is about empowering others to do the work of building the kingdom of God.

I have been graced by finding partners in this journey at FTE. FTE’s mission to “strengthen Christian ministry in the world by strengthening the quality of its leadership” is very much in sync with our own. FTE’s Stephen Lewis and Courtney Cowart’s work with VocationCARE has been instrumental in helping us develop the pedagogy for our leadership training. They have given us a creative space for dreaming and have collaborated with us in realizing our dreams.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. 
The next Buddha may take the form of a community.” For me, this message translates into a bold messianic hope that the next messiah will take the form of a team bounded in love and a passion for justice. I believe this is the church Jesus taught us to build.

FTE has an important role to play in supporting communities that are experimenting and living into this vision. FTE can provide the container, tools and support for a growing movement of Christian leaders who are working to bring this church alive.

Ella Auchincloss is the Founder and Executive Director of the Diomass Leadership Development Initiative and educational adviser to the Diomass Life Together Intern Program. She is a member of the Leading Change Network led by Marshall Ganz at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
1. The Snowflake is a model of Team Structure, one of the five leadership arts, of Professor Marshall Ganz’s Community Organizing Curriculum. The snowflake is built upon Ganz’s definition of leadership: “Leadership is accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty”.
Photo (cc) via Flickr user Thom Watson

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