To demonstrate collaboration is to enlarge the circle to create more community, engage a variety of perspectives, develop a shared vision, and work together to respond to the hopes and needs of others.
In It Together
CEO, Rockhill Mennonite Community, Sellersville, PA
“Many years ago I was part of a group interested in starting an elder college concept. The variety of ideas, the willingness to listen to each other, and the openness of all the participants to providing the needed resources to make things happen was really inspiring. It worked because there was a vision that everyone believed in and egos were not part of the decision-making process.”
Early Anabaptists were collaborators in how they approached being a faith community. They believed collaboration was not only a good thing to do but was central to what it meant to be a faithful Christian. Early Anabaptists insisted the Christian life is not simply internal and spiritual but is lived in communion with other people in time and space. To be a Christian one must be part of an actual, visible community of believers. Another way to think of this is that one cannot be an individual or solitary Christian; one can only be a Christian as part of a community. Life in community calls for collaboration – intensely and often. A faithful Christian is seen as one who collaborates both inside and outside the faith community.
One way to understand collaboration from an Anabaptist organizational perspective is to acknowledge that there are many stakeholders that make up the community of the organization. These stakeholders should not be invisible in organizational life, but should be actively made visible and invited to engage in the life of the organization in ways that make sense to them. Such stakeholders include the board of directors, employees, leadership, those served, donors, church bodies, family members, vendors, government agencies, payers, other health and human service organizations, the general public, and more. A leader can easily slip into thinking that his or her perspective on the organization is shared by everyone else or is the “correct” perspective. Truly collaborative efforts begin with learning how best to invite participation and then listening well as the group embarks on its work together. Additionally, allowing unhealthy power dynamics to go unnamed and unchallenged prevents genuine collaboration, intentionally or unintentionally consigning certain community members to invisible status. Some of the power dynamics that leaders must attend to include those related to racial, gender, ethnicity, class, and other social identifiers, as well as to people’s positions within the organization.
- List the stakeholders in your organization. How are these members of your community “visible” in everyday decision-making and operations?
- What policies and procedures do you have in place to ensure that people who are easily overlooked in the organization and constituency are enabled to participate in decision-making and direction-setting?
- Effective collaboration is hard work. Bring to mind a successful collaboration you were part of. What actions and attitudes helped make it successful?
- Clearly-understood and agreed-upon roles and goals are key in collaboration. How good are you at empowering collaborative teamwork on this basis?
While other groups during the Reformation period used the phrase “priesthood of all believers” more readily than did early Anabaptists, the concept that all believers have access to God – without need of a mediator other than Jesus – resonated with Anabaptists too. God is able and desires to communicate directly with all people, they believed. As such the priesthood expanded to include all Christians. Priests had carried special authority and decision-making responsibility with regard to interpreting Scripture and hearing God’s voice. Anabaptists understood the entire Christian community to be tasked with interpreting Scripture and discerning God’s way. This called for interdependence, shared learning, and working together.
In collaborative activities each of the persons or parties involved (teams, departments, organizations) brings unique knowledge, skills, resources, and abilities to the task. Just as each person could receive spiritual insight and be a “priest” along with others, each party in a collaborative effort brings unique understanding and gifts that can benefit all. The leader’s job is to help identify and operationalize what each person has to contribute to the task at hand. The leader does not need to have all the knowledge, skills, or abilities, but is able to bring forth what is needed from those engaged to accomplish the task. Stating a general openness to input from collaborative partners is not enough. The invitation to participate must be communicated in a way that respects a person’s need to understand things like who is responsible for making the decision or getting the work done, what are the power dynamics of the group, and how will my input be used? José Ortíz, reflecting on his experience getting oriented to leadership roles on the General Board and the Hispanic Concilio Nacional of the Mennonite Church, said, “I thought I was coming to the holy of holies where Mennonite Church policies were made. Once there, however, I was kindly told that policy was shaped in congregations, ‘at the grassroots level.’ Sometimes I believed it, sometimes I doubted.” (Reflections of an Hispanic Mennonite, 47)
- What people, skills, or positions do you gravitate toward when you pull together a team? Consider looking beyond the usual circles and inviting diverse people with diverse knowledge and skills to be directly involved in your next important collaborative effort.
- How often do you ask: ”Are the people who are most affected involved at all key points of the decision-making process?”
- Anabaptists often have strong convictions, and differing convictions have caused some people and groups to part ways with each other. How can you lead in ways that leverage differing perspectives to strengthen collaboration rather than end in separation or frustration?
Historically Anabaptist churches and organizations have been especially creative in collaborating to meet human needs. Some traditions and practices include: Mutual Aid — Because of a focus on creating a new visible community that carries out God’s mission on earth, many Anabaptists have emphasized mutual aid, which is another way of saying people helping each other in practical ways. Mutual aid happens as people share home-cooked meals with those who are sick or in distress, give a ride to an appointment, or provide child care. Among the Amish, barn raising is a mutual aid tradition: when a barn is destroyed, neighbors collaborate to build a new barn. Inter-Anabaptist agencies – Anabaptists have a long history of starting organizations that cross Anabaptist-related denominational lines. Just a few are Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite World Conference, Everence, MHS, and Mennonite Economic Development Associates. Each of these organizations collaborates with three or more denominations like the Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Church USA, and the Mennonite Brethren. And many of these organizations collaborate across national and ethnic boundaries, partnering with Anabaptist churches and organizations around the globe. Economic Sharing – Anabaptists have had an impulse to share economically with others. One approach is that of the Hutterites, who for over 500 years have had a common economic structure without individual ownership of property. Other examples include fraternal insurance companies and Everence, a financial services organization that serves the church. Intentional Christian communities such as Reba Place Fellowship near Chicago and Urban Village in Pasadena, California have been local efforts of sharing life, including some degree of economic interdependence between households.
One result of Anabaptists’ collaborative impulse is the desire to include others in a task, decision, or initiative rather than to go it alone. Individuals and organizations routinely look for opportunities to work with others and develop relationships, to assume that doing it with others will have a better result than doing it alone (whether as an individual leader or as an individual organization.) The impulse is also to find ways to include the voices of those served by the organization, not only those with positions of authority.
- How strong is the impulse to collaborate within your organization (teams, departments, etc)? How strong is the impulse for your organization to collaborate with other organizations? Why so?
- What traditional barriers to collaboration can you reach across in order to accomplish something big for the benefit of stakeholders in your organization and beyond?
Important concepts for successful collaboration:
- Seeking the participation and engagement of all parties affected, but especially voices from the margins
- Active multi-directional communication
- Sharing of authority and decision-making
- Common commitment to a shared mission and vision
- Recognizing how the parts fit into a larger and emerging whole
- Clear methods for feedback and conflict management and transformation
- Using convening processes at all levels to involve the “right people at the right time with the right issues”
- Seeking the advice of at least three people or groups before making a decision.
Collaborative activities are important internally (within an organization) and externally (between organizations). Many of the same concepts apply to internal and external organizational collaboration, but application may need to be different.
Sometimes leaders in Anabaptist organizations are so “collaborative” they do not actively advance the mission of the organization. They can become so involved in the process of seeking input, finding common objectives, or developing consensus that they do not accomplish their desired results. A tendency towards over-processing can also make leaders slow to deal with abuses of power, inhospitality, or other problems. A collaborative approach is not an excuse for having weak and inactive leadership. Nor does it mean that for every decision a group must reach consensus. Because collaboration is highly valued, some organizations mistakenly view conflict as a threat to collaboration instead of as an important part of a rigorous collaborative process. As such, many Anabaptist-related organizations have not studied and practiced how to approach, work through, and emerge from conflict well. Conflict avoidance leads to disastrous results and limits organizational faithfulness and effectiveness. Some Anabaptists have had difficulty working closely with others, including other Anabaptist groups. While they have valued community and mutual aid, Anabaptists have a history of not working with others who they think do not believe or practice faith in a “correct” manner. This pattern also impacts Anabaptist-related organizations. Learning to appreciate differences and still seeking a common goal continues to be a challenge for some organizations.
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