A Seat at The Table: Negative Space, Part II, The Art of Doing Nothing

A Seat at The Table: Negative Space, Part II, The Art of Doing Nothing March 21, 2012

I wrote last month about the value of ‘negative space’ in worship settings, but the same principle has similar effects in the life of the larger organization.  Of course most reasonable people would look at flat churches, offer an exasperated sigh, and say, “Organization?  What organization? I don’t see any!”  And while it is true that there is a lack of top-down structure, even grassroots emergence churches will often naturally employ the use of negative space to get certain jobs done.

At Common Table, it tends to work this way:  individuals see a need for something, and say so.  As these voices start to harmonize, the leadership team– whose main purpose is to be attentive to the church and to protect its heart– will take notice and begin to clarify the need.  They will work to define it; to understand its parameters.  There might be a need for a different format for organizing the Sunday workflow, or a new way of doing service projects, or a financial concern, or an entirely new program of ministry.  But instead of leading some kind of charge, the leadership team will pull back a bit and simply organize the conversation that is brewing about the new thing or the reform that is needed.  At some point, the team will communicate, “We are seeing the need for a kids program,” or “It is becoming clear that our financial situation is untenable,” or whatever.  The need is made clear, though the solution to the problem is not.  Instead, there is simply space made for a solution to come to the fore, organically.  This might happen quickly, or it might take months or years.  It might require lots of collaboration, or there might be one person who quietly makes it happen.  It might be painfully difficult, or all of the pieces might fall effortlessly into place.

This negative space is created when the need is identified.  The expectation then is that an individual or group will take ownership of the problem and begin working toward a solution.  Which process will invariably involve ongoing feedback from the larger group, but it is feedback that is tempered and respectful and deferential, since everyone else realizes the need for the folks taking action to be granted some freedom and empowerment to creatively resolve the situation.

Of course, in the case of extremely urgent needs, an ad hoc group will be convened, or an especially dutiful person will jump into the fray and find a solution.  But in the case of each of these top-down and/or forced fixes, the solution is only temporary– the structure erected will need to be torn down at some point (or left to crumble) so that a more enduring solution can be established.

It is a lot of work, and a lot of mess.  But it also generates a lot of creativity and ownership.  Supplying solutions in this way organically integrates the best people in the right places.  The people who step up are almost invariably the right ones for the jobs, and the solutions they find are amazingly exciting and durable. The hardest lesson for those of us with worrying tendencies or those who feel some sense of responsibility for all organizational systems to work flawlessly is that we need to sit with our discomfort and simply wait.  We’re learning that in church, sometimes the best thing to do when faced with an important need is to do nothing.


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