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Thursday, March 01, 2012

nextchurch, pt 3 - open sourcing

I want to reflect on the alternative models of discernment that were used at the NEXT conference.  And let me say up front that while this is a general critique, I do mean it to be a friendly critique.  I am interested and fascinated by these models, and saw how much energy and involvement and creativity they unleashed.

BUT... I don't believe that they were an expression of true community.  And I think if you asked anyone involved, whether in planning or participating, experiencing true community would be a very high value in these processes.  So, why do I say this?

On Tuesday morning we engaged in a large-scale open source (corrected - thanks MMD) model in which people were invited to name (actually to "shout out") topics around which each was willing to host a conversation.  The leadership indicated that there were some "plants" (ok, I guess, if it's to get the ball rolling; at a certain point, too many plants kind of bypasses the open-ness... but we didn't know whether there were 3 plants or 23; in hindsight, I might have suggested to the leadership that they risk not priming the pump or saying, "We'll suggest 2 to get us started, but are looking to you to fill this out.")

About 1 second after they announced this method of topic-naming, I tweeted something like, "I'll be interested to see how this works out between the extroverts and the introverts."  Now, I'm not super-shy, and will speak up when needed, but with very little notice, it would be highly unusual for me to stand up and shout anything in a room of 600 people.  What WAS helpful is that this process went on for some time, with perhaps 40 topics named.  I did finally reach a point where I felt like everyone who had even a small desire to name a topic probably could have.

So I chose a topic (which I shall not name)... and went to find the group.  And the leader had moved from the identified location.  So by the time I located the group, the circle was closed and conversation had been going in earnest.  They invited me in and I listened hard to figure out exactly what the topic was and where the conversation was.  Enter extrovert/introvert dynamic #2... for the most part, three folks in a group of eight dominated the conversation, including steering it in a pretty narrowly focused direction that was a lot of "here's what I'm doing at my church."

So here's what's going through my mind...
  1. I'm white-male clergy in a mostly female group; I've learned to listen first and talk second 
  2. I am fairly introverted and am not prone to blurting out my thoughts ahead of others
  3. I was really not interested in a "and here's what's going on in my church" repartee (that was distinctly off-topic even though the process wasn't rigidly topical; I was going to do my part not to take us further in a direction I wasn't interested in going)
The 'host' jumped in a few times to broaden/redirect the topic, but did nothing in terms of inviting conversation from the quieter members of the group.  And I guess, who could blame him; the parameters of "hosting a conversation" were not really defined other than the initial naming of a topic.  I suppose some are more effective hosts than others.  I did appreciate that the two quietest members of the group (other than me) did invite my comment at the very end, and I thanked them, but I wasn't looking for a last word; rather a better opportunity to participate throughout.  (And honestly, I'll take some responsibility here; I wasn't interested in the direction the conversation took and I got a little distracted thinking about the whole group dynamic.)

I don't share this to say, "poor me."  In fact, I was fine and appreciated the opportunity to be a part of this process.  Rather, I'm thinking through the strengths and weaknesses of models like this and wondering if:

a) other more introverted folks had similar experiences and;
b) if there are strategies in such a model to include more of the community rather than give the vocal/engaging people priority

One such model of inclusion might be to integrate Twitter or (old-school) written comments/questions into the process so that "speaking up" isn't the only way to participate.  Or perhaps at the beginning; invite EVERYONE to write a topic on a card and then share it with two neighbors.  If you are fired up about your topic, then shout it out.  If you aren't that vocal but one of your neighbors is; maybe they'd jump up and shout on your behalf.  I don't know... this is new to me and I'm thinking out loud.  But I look forward to checking it out some more.

Finally, I will add this observation.  In 2008, I was a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.  Part of that process is being assigned to a committee and I was assigned to an "experimental committee" on using a consensus model for decision-making.  It was a (widely noted) disaster.  In trying to offer constructive feedback, I suggested that such models (and I'd extend this somewhat to the model at NEXT) works best with smaller groups who have established some trust.  That General Assembly committee not only didn't have trust, but was struggling with distrust of each other and the process.  At NEXT, there was a much higher trust level, so I found the extrovert/introvert dynamic more prominent.  I wrote to the GA committee chair that I could well envision using such a model with my session or another church group where we had high trust, personal relationships, etc...   I think in settings with relative strangers, additional preparation or strategies need to be used to make the open discernment models more effective than what I have experienced so far.

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