Why Collaborative Ministry? An Australian’s Story


In the early 2000’s, about four years into my ministry as an Anglican Priest, I started to seriously doubt my leadership capacities and probably came close to slipping into depression. I had been working in a series of financially struggling parishes with small congregations.

Although I’d been given pretty good formation as a “minister of word and sacrament,” I hadn’t really been formed in what a distinctively Anglican form of community leadership might look like.


My previous career and first degree was in business, so I just autopiloted to what I’d seen modelled by leaders in business—as well as the way I’d observed clergy operating during my years as a layperson. I would summarise this as “heroic” leadership.

That is, I felt the onus was on me to set the vision, and be first out of the trenches, inspirationally calling the troops to follow. Either this, or to be prodding apparently passive people into action (a Bishop later told me that these roles were precisely what the Bishop’s crook was designed for – to either haul (crooked end) or prod (blunt end) recalcitrant sheep).

It’s a strong biblical image but also a patronising one. Australia has a lot of sheep, and they are not well-known for their intelligence or resourcefulness!

My endlessly loving and patient congregations bore with their young priest while the parish bills continued to mount up. But I was working too many hours, responding to my own inner drivers for success, and worrying about what would happen to “my” congregation if we were shut down through “my” failure. Both my family and my mental health suffered.

I don’t think I’m alone. A well-respected laywoman in the Australian church wrote to me recently to say how many exhausted and resentful Anglican priests she comes across.

The Need for Collaborative Ministry

It will be immediately obvious to the reader that I was not operating in a “collaborative” way in my leadership.

To be collaborative means to “co-labour,” or “labour together.” It’s a contemporary short-hand way of expressing a New Testament vision of church ministry as a creative, mutually-formative relationship between:

  1. “ordained/authorized” ministries (picture St Paul and other apostles preaching, teaching, laying hands on new leaders and then moving on) and
  2. the ministries of all the baptized through the gifts of the Spirit (Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12).

Certainly, within Anglicanism, the roles and relationships between these ministries have been debated through the centuries (see Stephen Pickard’s Theological Foundations for Collaborative Ministry (2009)’

My observation in the Australian church is that clergy are still largely trained to be heroic leaders, running what can look like a ‘franchise’ operation of church. The corollary is to psychologically condition laity into believing that they hire a professional (by putting money in the plate) to be “the minister” while the laity help with ministry as they can.

This is structurally reinforced through clergy licenses being issued in the language of “Rector” (ruler) or “Priest in Charge.” None of this is “wrong.” It has served us till this point in history, but is now coming under stress.

One of the drivers (in parts of the Anglican Church in Australia) towards renewed interest in collaborative ministry has been the rapid decline in church participation, associated with demographic shifts towards a secular, multi-faith and globalised society. A practical question for church leaders is how to be the church is this changing environment. Frankly, the “crisis” starts to bite when clergy can’t be paid and old buildings can’t be maintained.

“Ministering Communities”

One collaborative initiative which I was closely involved in was called “Ministering Communities in Mission.” In different parts of the Anglican Communion it has also been called “Local Ministry” or “Collaborative Ministry.”

Initially developed in rural & remote areas, Ministering Communities is an approach to church which draws inspiration from the ecclesiology of the early church along with learnings from missionaries such as Roland Allen (English Missionary to China, “Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or ours”) and the Catholic, Vincent Donovan (Christianity Rediscovered: an Epistle from the Masai), who both tried to rethink mission in new contexts, without importing all the assumptions and structural forms of an entirely different culture.

In critiquing one of our own assumptions, an Australian Bishop phrased it like this; “The definition of a Christian Community is notthe capacity to raise $120,000 a year!” (a basic budget for priest, rectory and worship centre).

Although precipitated in many ways by practical structural challenges, like how to pay clergy and keep churches open, the Ministering Communities vision is based on a deeper underlying narrative drawn from the early church, which has some similar features to the 21stCentury church.

That is, what does the church look like when it is a marginal and minority missional movement, in contrast to the long-standing Anglican narrative of being an established church for all citizens in a geographic area in a society which is at least nominally Christian? It has been important for us to keep returning to these underlying principles rather than revert to structural crisis management and problem solving.

The national network of Anglicans which worked on the vision (from the Dioceses of Nth Queensland; Willochra; Tasmania, Newcastle and Perth) between about 1998 and 2010, learned a great deal about Collaborative Ministry which continues to be applied in new ways today.

Three Lessons Learned

For me, there have been three significant learnings, which I frame as epistemological lenses (“head, heart, and body/hands”) for deepening collaborative practice in the church.

Moving to a more collaborative approach is not, initially “what” we do (structure and role) but HOW we do everything. It is a mindset more than a model.

1. The Head

Firstly, the cognitive lens (“head”). This relates to how we think about who we are and how we articulate this in language. It includes the stories which encapsulate our purpose and identity—what is important to thisgroup of people in this place and time?

It also includes the articulation of guiding theological constructs which we consciously or unconsciously prefer over others. These theologies will not only affect the way we perceive the purpose of the church, but will have implications for the way we conceive collaboration and the nature of ministry and who is belongs to—the clergy and/or all the baptised.

It’s relatively straightforward to make structural changes to churches in the face of decline (training local ministry teams; shifting clergy roles to being ministry enablers; part-time paid roles; parish amalgamations). We did all these things.

But such efforts are usually futile if they conflict with underlying narratives about what is important. As someone has said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

As well as naming of our own stories and guiding theological constructs, it can be useful to hear stories from other places. For example, in Perth we invited several speakers from around the world who had developed the Ministering Communities in Mission vision in large rural and remote areas, to share their experiences. This provided encouragement and inspiration to churches in some of the huge rural areas in Australia.

We also create, consciously and unconsciously, stories about our society/context.

One story which is now widely held by social analysts is that we are living in a period of unprecedented complexity which is destabilising for people socially, psychologically and spiritually. Much of what we took for granted in the way systems operate (stability, predictability, control) is dying and something new is emerging although we don’t quite know yet what it looks like.

One temptation is to avoid anxiety by fiercely holding on to structures that have worked in the past, forgetting that they themselves were based on particular contextual assumptions. This can show up as a kind of organisational life-support.

Another temptation is to be overly reactive and “scapegoat” the existing structure as “the problem.” Perhaps the old structures arecrumbling, but jumping too quickly into a structural/programmatic change can not only do emotional violence to people but can be a way of avoiding the more difficult conversation about identity/culture which is the source of our predicament.

And yet, sometimes having the courage to hold our nerve and allow things to die is a prerequisite for the emergence of new life.

2. The Heart

The second lens is the “heart” domain, in which I include contemplative prayer, self-awareness, emotional maturity, and reflective practice.

At times of organizational and societal stress we (formal leaders and members of congregations) are very likely to experience the activation of what Thomas Keating calls our “Emotional Programs for Happiness” (psychological needs for safety, belonging, control, to fix, to be right). Another frame for understanding such dynamics is Rene Girard’s work on mimetic rivalry, competition and scapegoating (finding someone to blame for our situation).

Unless such dynamics are noticed and dealt with at an “inner work” level, they will, with pretty much 100% certainty, go underground and sabotage relationships and change. Reflective practice processes are a standard part of clergy training in many dioceses, but I think these could be more usefully extended to parish councils and leadership teams.

I also believe that we need to teach contemplative prayer (meditation) as a standard part of clergy and lay formation—not only for its benefits as prayer, but also for its spin-off effects in developing psychological/emotional maturity.

3. The Body

The third lens is in the “body” domain and refers to embodied nonviolent practices of deep dialogical listening, leading to calm, focussed, intentional action.

As many leadership and management theorists  are noting, no one person or group is smart enough, or has enough knowledge, to deal with the massive complexity of the 21stcentury. Only collaboration can deal with mind boggling complexity. Some significant examples include David Cooperrider & Suresh Srivastva’s Appreciative InquiryDave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework, Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology, and Otto Scarmer’s Theory U.

If we are “labouring together” then we need to listen to both our fellow “labourers, and the broader community in which we live

  • How do people in this place hear and articulate the good news?
  • What do we care about?
  • What are our passions and gifts?
  • What does this say about what we value?
  • What is enabling or disabling our collaborations?
  • What are we noticing about what is going on in the society around us?

The Dean of an Australian cathedral wrote these words to me as I prepared this post:

“[collaborative leadership] is the leadership style that creates the space that allows for emergence.Collaboration allows the first order ministers (the baptised) to bring their wisdom and experience to bear in the formation of ministry practices and responses which emerge out of the context in which the community finds itself.”

This particular Dean has replaced strategic planning with periodic Open Space Technology meetings to which anyone and everyone is invited. This creates a space for the Spirit to move in a diverse congregation in a large and complex city.

As new life and initiatives emerge, people are given lots of permission to experiment, prototype and collaborate. This approach also gives permission for people to wind back their hyperactivity, to rest and to be set free from the toxic anxiety to perform, as well as the frenetic busyness, that affects so many churches.


In this article I’ve shared some of my experiences as a leader trying to move to a more collaborative approach to life and ministry as an Anglican Christian – a transition which author Margaret Wheatley describes as a shift from ‘hero to host’.  Although I’ve posed some ideas, I know from my coaching work that it can sometimes be very hard to think our way into new ways of being (since it was those thought processes that got us into our current position). Sometimes it is more useful to embody our way into a new way of thinking—and this can be as simple as sitting in a circle to listen and speak.

In my experience,  “circle” (Open Space Technology and Talking Circles) is the primary “architecture of collaboration.”I have seen numerous leaders in the church talk about collaboration while sitting at a high table talking at rows of disempowered people (or self-empowered people quietly hatching revolutionary plots).

I have observed startling shifts towards a greater practice of collaboration through groups learning to use circles to engage in dialogue. It is through dialogue, in circles, that the Spirit finds space to move. As Timothy Radcliffe has said, “The Glory of God always shows itself in an empty space.”

This could be a very good place to start for anyone wanting to experiment with a collaborative way of being.

Published on

February 11, 2019


Michael Wood

Michael Wood has been an Anglican Priest for 23 years. He currently serves as Chaplain to the University of Western Australia and works in private practice as a professional supervisor of clergy, leadership coach, facilitator and teacher of dialogic processes.

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