There are many challenges we face as leaders, such as:
- Burnout and loneliness
- Similar burnout and loneliness among others who lead with us
- Lack of new leaders
- Lack of vision or creativity and resulting struggles with casting a vision
- Lack of buy-in for our vision
I believe that one simple thing can provide solutions to all these challenges: the practice of collaboration. And I’d like to share the story of how I began to learn it.
A few years ago, I returned to the U.S. after a mountain-top experience visiting my homeland of Australia. Although my time there was wonderful, the tearful goodbyes and return to my life in the U.S. awakened my grief at the loss of home and family. The many hours spent beach-combing for exquisite shells there remained with me, and I found myself wandering my inner-city Cincinnati streets and continuing the same habit of collecting – not shells but broken things. I didn’t realize that I was doing it until things began gathering in a box by my back door.
During this time, a friend invited me to make art for his counseling center for inner-city kids. I knew that such art needed to be honest about the challenges of life but also hopeful. So it seemed fitting to make something out of the junk I’d gathered from the same streets where these kids live. I began to see the trash in new ways, no longer signs of something discarded but opportunities for something new. My habit of collecting broken things changed with my new perspective—I began looking for the perfect piece of glass or green bottle cap to complete my creation. Somehow—and I don’t know exactly the moment it happened—I began to be drawn into the re-creation.
As I began to see the potential for healing and hope in this repurposing of junk, I wanted to invite my community in some way. The city was still recovering from race riots, and tension had become a normal part of life in the neighborhood. So I considering making more of this art and having a little one-woman art show.
But I’m glad I didn’t. If I had, then I would have missed the opportunity to learn the power of collaboration. I realized that the power was not in looking at the art but in creating it.
And so I created “The Collect: A City-Wide Trash to Art Event.” Through local media, I invited local folks to donate their junk at any of six cafes across the city. Among the treasures offered, we got a watch-band collection and box of camera lenses and a pair of old shoes. A team of 18 artists chose the trash that most inspired them and transformed it into amazing art, which we auctioned for charity.
During this six-month process, as I worked with local media, cafe’s, artists, and neighbors, the project took on the color of many stories and became so much more interesting and multi-faceted than if I’d done it alone. I started watching how we all felt a little homeless, how we all longed to belong somewhere. I had an opportunity to hear stories of how others were also taking what felt broken—in themselves and their communities—and were finding new ways to create something new.
By the end of this collaborative process, I felt part of something. I felt home.
If I had just done a one-woman art show, I would have tried, and probably failed, to solve my problems alone. I would have missed the opportunity to let the community shape the idea. Instead, I invited others to see behind the scenes, to join the process. Although I started it, I lost track of whether I was making it or it was making me.
We think the product is the point, but community grows in the process. Our call as leaders is not to show our plans but ourselves.
As pastors, we think it’s our job to fully shape a five-year plan and sell it to folks. But what if we brought people into the process much earlier and allowed them to help shape the vision? What if we trusted that the best ideas grow from the community and that, when folks help shape and execute ideas, there’s no point at which we have to push for “buy-in”? Might we feel less lonely, less burned-out? Might the ideas be bigger and more beautiful? Might they connect more with our communities (since that’s where they grew)? Might the process of working together itself develop leaders and community?
Beyond all this, the most beautiful part of collaboration is this: one of our deepest human longings is to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. When we have a seed of an idea and plant it in a community, we get to watch it take on life and color which we, alone, could never have created. In collaboration, the folks in our community get to enjoy the unfolding with us, watching God in his creative element. Whatever we’re making takes on the story of the soil from which it grows. Although we were the instigator of this idea, we can look over the life that grows from it and know it was bigger, more beautiful, and more multi-faceted than we could have created alone. We feel a small part of something large. And there is no shame in the smallness. It’s a moment as transcendent as taking in the stars on a clear night or singing in a choir when we feel our connection to one another and to God.
Collaboration is permission to be human, together.