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February 14, 2013

The benefits of proximity

Of the 10 members elected to the pastor search committee at my church, four were serving on the 12-member finance committee. Typically, election to such an office signals that one is among the congregation’s most trusted, with wide-ranging leadership experience.

Why would so many of the congregation’s most trusted leaders serve on the finance committee? What does such a circumstance signal about how a congregation or institution clusters leaders? What difference might such proximity make?

Those who study cities and innovation have looked for more than 50 years at the disbursement and density of “human capital.” Early studies showed that when talented people from across various industries live near each other, those cities have higher levels of innovation that spur economic development.

A 2012 paper, “Human Capital in Cities and Suburbs,” indicates that talented, educated people cluster differently in cities of more and less than 1 million. In smaller places, the human capital is denser in suburbs. In large cities, the human capital shifts to be denser in the city’s center.

By analogy, the larger the institution the more important it is to cluster leaders close to the heart of the work. The distances (within a city or a large institution) create conditions for isolation unless there are forces that draw people into life together.

The study of cities indicates that it is not enough to create cross-functional teams dedicated to a project. Innovation requires people with different gifts and experiences who are working on different projects to be in close enough proximity that they share questions, ideas and perspectives. Steven Johnson calls this situation the adjacent possible.

It is a no-brainer to get the best person working on the most important job. But the research on cities presses the question, “Who should folks live near?”

Put another way: On an organizational chart, don’t focus only on who has a particular title, but about the lines that connect people, projects and work space.

Our church’s finance committee is a space where people who care about the music ministry, the buildings, our missions partners, the neighborhood, divinity school students and more bump up against each other. We have a task to do, namely to monitor the congregation’s finances, but much more happens in the room than balancing the budget.

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