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Lurkers welcome

Vital Congregations wraps up its seven-part series with a spirited session on empowering servant leadership

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Nikki Collins is national coordinator of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement. (Photo by Randy Hobson)


LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Nikki Collins has been aware of the concept of empowering servant leadership since her high school days, when a teacher brought in a prominent community leader to speak to Collins and her classmates about what it means to be a servant leader.

“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” said the national coordinator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities. “But I knew he was well-respected in the community.”

Collins was the guest Wednesday for the Office of Vital Congregations’ final online installment on the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations.

Here’s how Collins thinks of empowering servant leadership, a term coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970: We know everyone is created in the image of Christ, that everyone is given gifts to build the body of Christ, and that every gift is needed. “As leaders, our task is to equip and nurture and support members,” she said. “God calls some of us to the task of ministry, but it’s never just about the pastor. It’s about identifying and equipping the servants and leaders among us.”

Collins said she likes the way Paul puts it in Romans 12, as it’s offered in The Message: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life — your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life — and place it before God as an offering … Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”

“That’s where our call to servant leadership is really clear,” Collins said.

At this point, Collins and Vital Congregations staff opened the hour-long webinar to comments and questions from the nearly 50 participants. To the question, “What are you experiencing?” one participant wrote, “At a time such as this (the name for the series of VC webinars), we need the skills and abilities of all to shape and reshape the new normal in churches as well as society. Everyone has a gift to give if we enable them through our own efforts as servant leaders.”

Another participant said she identified new leaders in the congregation “with the skills and gifts for this time — tech skills, phone supportive conversation, shopping for others and sewing masks. The older generation (as another participant wrote) may be willing to turn over the reins to a younger generation now.”

“It’s really important to actually do the ‘empowering’ during this time and always,” wrote another participant. “Sometimes we hold the authority too close to the vest. As others have said, this time has forced some of us to unleash the power and authority to new (and younger) folks.”

While “we’re becoming clear about the tech skills we need to do church in a dispersed, scattered space,” Collins said servant leaders should also “think about identifying leaders who can cultivate skills in others. That way we can create a more vibrant eco-system of leaders.”

She recalled a coffee mug she recently saw, which sported a message written by a Presbyterian pastor: “Welcome to the virtual Presbyterian church,” was the wording on the mug. “Lurkers welcome.”

That reminded Collins of new worshiping community she founded as a coffee shop. “Sometimes customers would choose to hang out and lurk,” she said. For several months, one man sat at a table in the corner as the coffee shop closed and worship was about to begin.

“Over time he worked his way into the community at a pace that felt comfortable and safe to him,” she said. He’d just been through a divorce “and felt displaced in society as a newly-single middle-aged man,” she said. “When he felt ready, he joined the community. I was never more grateful that was the setup we had.”

Social media platforms including Facebook Live and Zoom are “much the same,” she said. “People can lurk and sit in the corner” while, for example, taking in online worship. Collins called that “the value of lurking.”

“I think of the lurkers as Zacchaeus, who lurked in the tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus — the Jesus he couldn’t see because the crowd that was following him were in the way,” Collins told the group.

Before praying, Collins concluded the webinar with this story: a colleague is serving a congregation that’s not streaming weekly services during the pandemic. Instead, this pastor was asked to mail a copy of his sermon each week to congregants with no internet access and email the sermon to those with email.

What this pastor soon learned is that one parishioner would fetch his sermon out of the mailbox each week and meet her neighbor, who belonged to another church, across the backyard fence they shared. There the two would read each other the respective sermons.

“That’s the sharing of the gospel,” Collins said.

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