Monday, 8 December 2008

Lasagne, Priests & Online Communities

Very near where we live is a small Pizzeria & Trattoria.  Run by Italians it serves great home-made pasta and good pizzas.  We eat there a lot - not just because of the food, how near it is, or its reasonable prices.  We eat there because they recognise us, seem pleased to see us, talk to us, find us seats - and even gave us a Christmas present last year.  There's relationship.  It was the same with the Indian restaurant where we used to live - a warm welcome, a Christmas card and present, and frequent visits from us.  And we're getting there with the Indian restaurant we now eat at in Oxford.

In each of these, there's a person around whom it all revolves - who sets the tone, leads the welcome, engages in conversation.  Manager or owner, this is who the staff follow in how they treat us and other customers.  And the person who, you sense, binds the staff team together.  All very obvious, I guess, but I've been thinking about the impact of this, and how the same principles of hospitality and a person at the centre flow through into other areas.

It's the same in many church communities, where the priest or minister isn't just a teacher, isn't just a pastor, but is a welcomer and community gatherer - the person around whom the community coheres.  They set the example for small / cell group leaders - again individuals around whom smaller communities form - and who can create and sustain those communities as powerful places of safety, change, faith, and growth.  The food element is also there - with the centrality of the eucharist / mass / communion - celebrated by the priest as a meal that brings the community together.  

Talking and working with the founder of an online community last week, I was struck by how they sought to function in the same way.  This person does most of the invitations to join the community; they're at every event when community members gather.  I compared this with other communities / networks I know, and was struck by the way in which that's often the founding principle, but how it can easily fade over time.  Networks / communities grow and commercialise, and - especially if the founder leaders move on - there's an understandable concern to minimise dependence on any one individual.  So, the emphasis shifts to managing and facilitating relationship through specialist roles and process.  And long-established members hark back to the way things used to be - despite the fact that (objectively) the community is offering them more, and delivering it more professionally.

So, maybe the model we need for leading commercial communities (online or not) needs to learn from restaurants and churches, as well as from more corporate process.  Does there need to be a person around whom the community coheres?  Does the CEO have to be as much a maitre'd or 'mine host' as a business person?  Should they look to learn from the parish priest as well as business gurus?

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