When I was freshly out of school at a mere 18 years of age, I spent a year with an organisation called African Enterprise on a youth evangelism team named Foxfire. The team’s mandate was a combination of evangelism, leadership training, and reaching teens with a positive message about life.
It was an intensely uncomfortable year for me where I was pushed into situations that I would never have dared go near otherwise, but I learnt a lot about myself and the world outside of my sheltered, suburban life in Cape Town. I also grew a lot – and I’m not just talking about my hair, which grew disconcertingly far past shoulder length that year. In a relatively short space of time I learnt a huge amount about leading an exceptionally diverse team, being a mentor to others who are on a similar journey to me, and working as a leadership team within a much broader community.
After this intense year, I headed off to Cornerstone Christian College to study theology with a particular focus on pastoral leadership. This was also challenging, but in a very different way – I was quickly forced to come to terms with the fact that my faith had, until that point, been almost entirely experiential with very little theory or study to support it. Luckily I was about to have all the academic study I could ever hope to handle thrown at me over the course of my three years there.
While the theology side of my degree was fascinating and eye-opening, it’s the pastoral leadership aspect that’s relevant here. When I started studying, my plan was to ultimately end up in church leadership as a profession, but by the time I finished I had other feelings about it all. Through some handy connections I landed a job as a web developer at a local agency, as that line of work had always been a passion of mine, and felt that my degree had, professionally speaking, been rather pointless (although personally it had been hugely rewarding).
I was mostly correct for a while – a degree in theology and pastoral leadership doesn’t really have anything to do with coding. Even when I switched my focus to community work more recently, I still didn’t give my studies much practical credit. Only in the last few months has it hit me how my year on Foxfire and my years at college, coupled with working in web development for so long, have actually been the perfect preparation for the community management role in which I am now working. It’s almost like this was actually what my studies and career thus far have been logically building towards – something that has only become clear to me in hind sight.
This has been a hard-won truth for me, but I’m glad I’ve got here in the end. Community management, particularly within an open-source project like WordPress, shares many of the same values and ideas as pastoral leadership.
Talk about leadership in any pastoral context and the idea of ‘servant leadership’ will be espoused. Where a traditional leadership model is all about the leader exercising power over those under them, a servant leader focuses on the well-being and growth of the people and communities to which they belong. Servant leadership focuses on sharing power, rather than hoarding it, and putting the needs of others in the community first.
Having worked in a community management role for a while I have seen how this concept is the only way to effectively lead within a community, particularly in the context of an open-source project like WordPress. Community management isn’t about hoarding or exercising power – it is very much about making sure your community is cared for and growing while distributing power to as many capable people as possible.
This is something I have a special focus on within the WordPress Community Team, in the form of the Deputy Program where we train up community members to work on the leadership team alongside us.
Pastoral care is all about building relationships with people, something that is also at the heart of community management. Whether you’re managing an open-source or corporate community, your goal is to form relationships with the people around you and guide them in their path to contributing towards growing the community even further.
My year on Foxfire was a particularly effective training ground for this, as many of the young people we served were in desperate need of a caring relationship to help them grow. The interpersonal skills I learnt that year have become invaluable in my daily work now.
This is an outworking of building relationships, but it is a distinct aspect that involves training and guiding on top of forming those relationships. In pastoral care this would be known as ‘discipling’ and it amounts to the same thing – working directly with individuals in your community to help them grow in their knowledge, understanding, and skills.
Mentoring is an essential part of any pastoral leadership position and the same goes for community management – if you want your community to have any kind of longevity, you need to be raising up its members to contribute and get involved.
Being able to communicate effectively is a pretty useful life skill in general, but in both pastoral leadership and community management it is the crux of the job. If a community leader is unable to properly communicate their ideas or vision then they’ll struggle to get others to go along with it.
A large part of our job on the WordPress Community Team is to communicate with community members, organisers, and deputies about a whole range of things. Getting these messages right is so crucial that we never publish any announcements without others on the team reading through our drafts and working together to make it as clear as possible.
Empathy is tough – true empathy where one deeply understands another person’s feelings is not a common trait. Nevertheless, this is something that pastors and community managers alike need to work towards when listening to the members of their community.
This is the crucial flip side of effective communication and is incredibly powerful when done correctly. On the WordPress Community Team we often need to talk with people who feel slighted by other members of their local community. Whether they’re in the right or not is irrelevant at first – what we need to do is to truly understand what they’re dealing with and help them mediate the situation together. It is a role that requires deep empathy to perform appropriately, no matter how difficult that is at times.
On the Foxfire team, I spent a large amount of time leading a group of people who were not only older than me but also significantly more experienced and skilled. I hadn’t heard of impostor syndrome at the time, but that’s definitely what I felt throughout the year. It was incredibly difficult and uncomfortable, but it taught me a whole lot about leading and managing a team.
While I’m now working in a predominantly online community, that team management experience has proved to be incredibly useful. A community as broad as WordPress constantly puts me in contact with people who are far more qualified, experienced, and skilled than I can ever hope to be, but that doesn’t mean I can’t continue to lead them. I’ve already mentioned servant leadership, which puts the focus on the people in the community and, with that model in mind, it’s far easier to understand how you can lead a team regardless of your skill or experience.
Thinking all this through has given me a refreshing perspective on the work that I do and how I can be more effective in the WordPress community. I’m sure there are plenty of other areas where pastoral leadership and community management intersect, so feel free to share some more ideas in the comments.