Shared Leadership: Lessons from YCWI

Post Author: Molly Field James

Kelly Boubel Shriver (left) and Molly Field James (right) during their terms as co-chairs

After serving three years as a co-chair of YCWI, I am beginning my third month as “just a regular board member.” I am loving that I get to spend my final year on the board with the fabulous women of the editorial group. It is a joy to have the opportunity to lift up the voices of our members and to educate the world about the experience of being a YCW. And I even get to write occasionally!

While I am happy and excited in my current role, I am also aware of what is missing. I am no longer the co-chair. Serving in that capacity, I had the privilege of working with Kelly Shriver and shepherding the organization through some tremendous growth and transformation. It was time for me to step down, and I don’t miss all the challenges and responsibilities of that work. It is nice to have a little break from it. What I do miss, though, is the collaborative nature of that role.

As often happens, when you no longer have something, you become all the more aware of how wonderful it was. I have been reflecting on the gifts of collaborative leadership lately, and my most valuable insight has been that I can carry those gifts with me in the rest of my ministry. I might even be so bold to say that the model of collaborative leadership practiced by YCWI has some lessons for the whole church. Here are my top five reasons that collaborative leadership is a gift. I hope they are helpful in your context.

Shared Decision Making

In our three years of leadership, Kelly and I had some hard decisions to make about changes in the organization and about handling situations when someone broke the community covenant for our Facebook group. These decisions required a lot of prayer, discernment, and some difficult conversations – not unlike our daily lives as pastors. The gift, however, was that I didn’t do any of that solo. I had a teammate. I had someone with whom I could discuss challenges honestly and openly. And when it came time to have the difficult conversations and to take responsibility for decisions we made, we got to do that together too. Nothing sat squarely on either of our shoulders; it belonged to both of us.

Peer Leadership

I would imagine that many of us started our careers as associate or assistant ministers in a congregation, working for a more senior minister. Hopefully for most of us that job was an opportunity for shared leadership where we were given a seat at the table, some responsibility, and our input mattered. But even if it is a fabulous relationship, there is still a power differential and the buck didn’t stop with us. The gift of the co-leadership model of YCWI was that it is a peer relationship, and there is no power differential. There is a particular gift in working side by side with someone who is in a similar life stage as you are and who knows the particular challenges of that. It also meant we were both at the beginning of our careers and could support each other with an eye to the future.

Location Doesn’t Matter

Kelly and I have never lived in the same state, and for one of our three years we weren’t even in the same time zone. While being together in person was always a gift, it was not a necessity. The ease of communication – phone, email, text, video call meant that we could work together whenever we needed to do so. While it helped to see each other once or twice a year in person, I also discovered that it is possible to build trust and relationships virtually.

More, Better Ideas

Kelly and I have lots of similarities – we love polity, structure, deadlines and clear expectations. We have high standards and deep faith. And we tried to keep our senses of humor vibrant, particularly about ourselves. Our similarities made us great teammates, but we are also very different. We come from very different backgrounds, and we see the world differently. This means that we were able to enhance each other’s ideas. There were two of us, so we had more ideas and then our shared insights always made them better.

Improved Well-Being

Kelly and I are both currently in calls that we love and that challenge us in excellent ways. That we are in a place of being excited about our jobs and joyful about ministry generally is in no small part due to the other person. The particular gift of shared leadership is that you don’t have to go it alone. When one of us had a challenging week or even a challenging month, the other could pick up a bit more. Unlike the statistics on so many of our sister and brother clergy, we were not at risk of burnout. We had each other. Whether it was the sharing of mundane tasks or holding each other in prayer when life threw a curve ball, we were able to boost each other’s well-being.

Now, I realize very few of us are in a position in our ministry to completely share a role, and authority the way we do at YCWI; nevertheless, I still think we can find ways to access many of the gifts of this model, whatever our context. We can create intimate colleague groups (local and/or virtually) with a high level of confidentiality and trust to who can help us to be our best selves, and who can bounce ideas around with us. We can engage in collaborative work with those who are in our local context: clergy colleagues and lay leaders. We can invite others into our decision making and ensure that we never have a difficult conversation alone. Even if our current call doesn’t provide it, we can create our framework and habits of leadership that enable us to thrive, because we are not the only one.

Molly Field James is an Episcopal priest who serves on the Bishops’ Staff as the Dean for Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. She holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Exeter (UK). She holds a MDiv from Yale Divinity School. She is an Associate Priest at Christ Church Cathedral and Grace Church in Hartford, Connecticut. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at Hartford Seminary and the University of St. Joseph. Previously, she has served as a parish priest and a hospital chaplain. Her husband, Reade, is a mechanical engineer, and they have two children, Katherine who was born in October of 2010, and Halsted who was born in April of 2014. In addition to ministry and education, Molly loves cooking, reading, films, lifting heavy things (aka CrossFit), and spending time in the splendor of God’s Creation.

Image by: Molly Field James
Used with permission
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