Centered Set Values: A Better Way

Are you a leader? Rarely do leaders actually feel like leaders. People think of someone as a leader when he or she starts leading, despite how he or she feels about leadership ability. The truth is all of you are leaders… or at least have the opportunity and even responsibility to lead.

If you’re married, it’s your spouse. If you have children, they are who you should be leading. If you’re a student, there are classmates you can lead. If you’re employed, there are coworkers you have the opportunity to lead. Leadership is vital in every environment!

Therefore, a lot rides on how we choose to lead the people and the organizations in our circles of influence.

The way I lead is heavily informed and influenced by the way Jesus led. Something that has recently occurred to me about the teachings of Jesus and the way he led people is that Jesus only drew hard lines against those who drew hard lines. With the broken and hurting people he encountered, I see him extending a lot of invitation. However, with the religious leaders who were drawing hard lines for Jesus and others, I see Jesus drawing hard (if not, harsh) lines.

So what can we learn from this, especially if you are attempting to follow Jesus?

Well, there is a bit of digging we have to do, but after we uncover some concepts and language around them, I think we’ll all be on better footing to lead people than we were before.

Check this out:

Back in the 1970’s a cultural anthropologist named Paul Hiebert wrote a book in which he discussed the concept of “Bounded Set” vs. “Centered Set”. His theory is that people tend to organize, or group, in one of two ways.

7Centered Set (left side): A flag representing a set of values is figuratively staked in the center. People then self-select (through their behavior) their proximity to center. People act in ways that reflect the stated values and move closer to center or their decisions demonstrate movement away from center. The key indicators of an individual’s relation to an organization are both proximity and direction.

You have probably experienced this in your own family, for example. If a child is not exhibiting a stated value of the family, such as forgiving a sibling who has hurt him or her, that child is not told to pack her bags every time she chooses not to forgive (in a healthy family). Rather, she is coached/disciplined in a way that encourages her to exhibit forgiveness; which moves her closer to center.

The determining factor is behavior. When it comes to the stated values at the center, a person can ascend mentally and acknowledge vocally, but unless acting in accordance with the values, there is no movement.

Bounded Set (right side): A list of behavioral patterns or criteria is created and you must meet all criteria to be in. If not, you’re out. The bounded set is well-defined and simple to delineate. A potential example of this is the job description. Many descriptions have a list of tasks that need to be completed. If a person in the role accomplishes these tasks within the timeframe and manner instructed, then he keeps his job. If he doesn’t, he is fired.

Another way the bounded set is applied is through labels, such as membership. If an individual does what is required to earn membership within an organization, then she is in, and she enjoys all the privileges that accompany her membership.

What does this have to do with leadership??

The other pastor at Multiply Church (Pastor Casey) and I have chosen to approach our leadership within the community of Multiply Church through Centered Set values vs. a Bounded Set. We have a stated set of values and behavioral patterns that are Biblical and healthy. At the same time, we have no membership to speak of. Therefore, there is no official IN or OUT.

This is messy stuff, but we think it’s what Jesus modeled so bear with us!

The dangers of this approach are numerous. If someone believes himself to be close to center, but his behavior demonstrates otherwise, there is a risk of misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the community. Also, if someone is proving to be close to center, there is the danger that she might feel a sense of hierarchy or entitlement. And if center itself isn’t clearly understood, then NO ONE knows what’s going on or what’s expected!

You starting to pick up on the messiness?

Even with all the potential pitfalls, there are still some great and Godly things happening. First of all, entitlement has no place, because there is no “in or out”. Secondly, there is no opportunity for lack of ownership. If behavioral patterns alone indicate your proximity to center, then no one can rely on someone else’s behavior and claim it as their own. No longer can we say things like, “Our church does _____” or “I love how our church serves _____,” because if the individual is NOT doing it, it doesn’t really count for him or for her, does it?

How do the implications of this approach strike you? I hope you take the time to consider them as you lead in your…

  • local church
  • neighborhood
  • office
  • family
  • circle of friends

Do your behaviors and actions demonstrate close proximity to center? Are you moving closer or further away?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this leadership concept and if you would like to see more evidence for this being the method Jesus used, comment below!

4 thoughts on “Centered Set Values: A Better Way

  1. Very interesting – and messy indeed. I ‘see’ a lot of Christians with the Bounded Set mentality. I believe it’s much more effective to start at the core of the Christian faith…belief that Jesus Christ IS the living God. Then broaden the context of that belief. Too many say you have to believe ALL contextual references before you can be ‘accepted’ as a Christian, thus making it easy to say No.

    Professionally, its easier to work in a Bounded Set environment because it’s easier to ‘check the boxes’ However, the Centered Set can be very subjective which requires trust in your supervisors and the ‘system’.

    Just my $0.02


    • I think you’re spot on, Aaron. As a specific expression of the church, we are operating on centered set values because we believe it emulates the model of Jesus. For our faith, Jesus is the center.

      And the temptation as a leader of an organization is always to operate from a bounded set, because it is easier and less messy!

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Aaron!


  2. Very well said. It is indeed messy and dynamic. Takes a lot of self leadership and self awareness to live into this model but its potential for the leader and those impacted by that leader are huge.
    Hope life and ministry are good for you and your family. Ken Lyon


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