One of the words that I use to describe the experience of a great leadership team is: Sobornost.
It is actually a Russian word which is title of a book written by the founder of Madonna House, Catherine Doherty. Literally, if you were to try to translate it, it means unity.
But the reason that I chose to follow Catherine’s suggestion of sobornost is because the word unity doesn’t quite contain all the fullness of meaning that sobornost does with respect to the experience of unity. This experience of a great leadership team is much more that simply a unanimous vote on specific topics.
So let me first share with you some of the fuller meaning of this word: sobornost.
The word in Russian expresses a deeper concept than just unity. It is a unity “that has passed through the gospel as a ‘gathering factor’” (p.11 Sobornost, by Catherine Doherty). It is a gathering where there is a deep unity among Christians. They are like-minded in discussion, prayer, and decisions so much so that there a sense of holy-ground – that Christ’s presence is there bringing about a deep unity.
It doesn’t mean that everyone had the same opinions during discussions or that there weren’t misunderstanding but that the Spirit of the Lord gathered everything together into a deep unity.
In fact, the most appropriate example of sobornost is the Trinity, the deep and all-encompassing unity that exists between the Father, Son, and Spirit.
It involves challenges and difficulties at times. It means following in the footsteps of Christ. Catherine writes: “But in order to live the Gospel, one has to move through the life of Jesus Christ. It means abandonment, being rejected, being crucified. There is no sobornost without crucifixion, because it through pain that one acquires that deep knowledge that has nothing to do with book and education…that deep knowledge given by God ad by God alone that builds the foundation of unity.” (p. 12)
Sobornost was experienced at Pentecost and in the early Church. The disciples were of one heart and one mind. And we experience sobornost as a result of the Pentecost that we experience in our lives as leaders in CCO.
Sobornost is also in many ways a mystery of the union between God and his people, and between peoples. Sobornost involves surrender – an acknowledgement of who God is and who we are – and it involves humility. The great example of this is Mary’s fiat – her “Yes” to Lord: “Be it done according to thy word.”
Sobornost is something that involves surrender to God and which leads to and exchange of hearts with Him and my brothers and sisters in Him, and ultimately enlivens an authentic dignity as a son and daughter of God – chosen by the Father and chosen by our brothers and sisters.
Sobornost experienced in CCO
Now you have a fuller sense of “sobornost” – this deep unity – which may seem completely unattainable if it were something that we needed to achieve. However, it is the exact opposite. It is not something we achieve, but rather something we receive.
In CCO’s leadership team, I believe we experience this sobornost in many ways. It is not always perfect, but it is a grace that the Lord has blessed us with and one I think He invites all to experience. Sobornost is given for all Christians because it is an experience of the life of the Trinity.
We have experienced this in CCO’s leadership team in many ways in our fellowship and in our discernment. At the start of each of our times of Off-site Review Meetings as well as Strategic discussions, we begin in humility to seek the Lord’s ‘word’ and to listen. There isn’t an agenda, meaning we are not trying to find a Scripture to fit a given situation, but rather we are just open to whatever the Lord might bring up. Sometimes it is nothing, but many times there is a passage of Scripture, or a sense, or a word that is shared which might be applicable for a person, for CCO, for the Church, etc.
An example could be the creation of a thematic goal (a yearly rally cry or motto – see Politics, Silos, and Turf Wars by Patrick Lencioni) and what came clearly and what didn’t. In one of our meetings we spent 2 hours talking through what the action points should be under each of the defining objects. There were a lot of suggestions but it just wasn’t clicking. So we stepped back for a moment and paused for prayer. Afterward two members of our team both made comments about how in a previous meeting we had felt that for this thematic goal, we wanted to involve the staff in a way that hadn’t previously happened. In keeping with what we felt the Spirit was saying about “next generation leaders”, we needed to have them involved. It was apparent at that moment that we didn’t need to finalize the action points, but simply plan for a time at the annual National Staff Gathering to work on it with the staff. We all felt and knew this was the right thing to do – sobornost.
Another example could most easily be summarized by the word, “woosh.” During a long meeting one day, I was sitting down slouching with my legs crossed. I am a somewhat tall person, and as I was getting uncomfortable, I changed positions with my legs and must have come close to kicking one of the team members, to which she added the sound effect “woosh!” Well it didn’t take long for others on the team to soon add the “woosh” sound effect every time I changed the positions of my legs and everyone had a good laugh. But the thing about it is that the “woosh” sound effect continues and has become a part of the tradition of our gatherings. There are other traditions such as favourite foods or certain individual’s abrupt departures from discussions to go to the bathroom, only to return inspired with a new revelation. All of these little goofy experiences are really elements of authentic fellowship and holy goofiness – sobornost.
One final example from the CCO leadership team. At a planning meeting a number of years ago, while discussing some planning items, some personal issues came where there had been some misunderstanding and hurt between myself and team member. At a certain point some things were shared which both brought us to tears and prompted the other members of the team suggested that they step out into the next room for a while and let us talk through things. We spoke and listened and cried and forgave. We came to better understand each other and to trust each other more. In the midst of what could have been very damaging and hurtful, the Lord brought about peace and trust – sobornost.
These examples are somewhat limited and there are many, many more that I could share, but I hope they give a sense of what God is calling each teams to live – sobornost – unity in fellowship and discernment – firstly with the team that you are a part of, and as well with the team that you lead. It takes time and it isn’t something that you can “do” or manufacture. As I mentioned before, it is a gift to be received from the Lord, one which is already present in each of you in the presence of the Trinity which dwells in you.
Principles for Leaders in Fostering Sobornost
But there are some principles or guidance that I can give you in going about fostering sobornost. As leaders, it is our role to seek to foster an environment where sobornost can be experienced. In that regard, I want to give you 8 points to consider:
- Understand that God wants to share this profound of the Trinity in your teams (the ones you are a part of and the one’s you lead).
- Make space in your meetings for the Spirit to speak – have times of prayer with no specific purpose
- Enable the opportunity to share your struggles and challenges and pray for each other personally.
- Seek God’s specific word also as you enter into team planning, discernment, decisions, etc.
- Spent non-meeting time together (meals, activities, fun, goofiness).
- Be open in the midst of discussions, especially if there seems like a block, to pause and pray for insight.
- Listen for the voice of the Spirit speaking in each other and for what resonates in a unified way in everyone.
- Be committed to patience in finding that resonance. Sobornost is not a science. You grow in understanding with time and experience.
While “sobornost” might not be a word that you will use in your everyday conversations, it is one that I hope can penetrate your hearts as leaders. It might seem like an odd word, but I deliberately choose to use it because it is a word that is a bit mysterious.
This concept of unity in Spirit is much more than consensus or unanimity. It is a deeper and fuller experience which includes mystery and thus is appropriate seek a truly deep leadership team unity found in the mystery of the Trinity and an experience of “sobornost”.