When Ministry Is An Idol

When Ministry Is An Idol

It’s easy to care too much. Time was when an Arsenal result would affect my mood for a few days; my then girlfriend (now wife) would put her hand on my chest during a match and she’d be seriously worried about the speed of the heartbeat she felt. The truth is, supporting Arsenal is an important part of my identity; it was handed down at an early age from my mother. I have one of those romantic first memories of live football at Arsenal with my mother’s father that Nick Hornby would be proud of (1-1 with Watford, Charlie Nicholas missed a penalty but scored off the rebound, since you ask). It had become too important, though. So over time I learned (mostly) to put Arsenal in its right place in my life – something that’s important to me, that I enjoy and care about … but not a long-term mood-altering drug, like it had been.
Of course, one of the things about a mood-altering drug is that once we grow accustomed to life under its spell we can start to fear who we are without it. It becomes a way of protecting ourselves not only from the world, but from ourselves. One of the keys to healing the addictions we all live with is to allow ourselves to be OK with who we are  – and to allow ourselves to be worked on by ourselves and others (and God) in a loving way that affirms us yet calls us on. At its heart, addiction to anything is about idolatry. We are dependent on something (or someone) flawed, that damages us in some way – rather than the God who works for our good in all things. Idolatry is putting something else where God should be in our lives.

When it comes to preaching on idols or idolatry, I sometimes ask the congregation to suggest idols that they think are issues in society today. The responses are usually reasonably predictable: money, sex, sport. Those are the things we good church people can often think of as idols. That’s not wrong – there are people for whom these things have assumed the wrong place in their lives. But I’ll be honest; I’ve yet to meet a Christian in the broadly evangelical church for whom sex is an idol; perhaps sexual purity, but that’s the subject of another post. I sometimes try and prod the conversation: what about family? marriage? church? Could they be idols?

What about me, then? Now I’ve got Arsenal more or less in its place (most of the time), what are my idols? For me  – and I think for many of us in what is loosely, and rather self-importantly titled ‘full time (paid) ministry’ – I think it’s that last word. This doesn’t happen as an instantaneous decision; it’s not as if we make a model of our ministry out of melted down gold; it’s more subtle than that. As I’ve touched on before, evidence of ministry’s idolatrous place in our lives may be slipping out in the form of our over-the-top reaction to criticism or our extreme defensiveness or obsessive controlling. The ministry could be anything, really: (ordained) church leadership, youth work, speaking for justice, writing, preaching, church music (of any era) … The list could go on for a long time. We fall prey to the heresy that God needs us, that our ministry is in some way essential to Him; when in fact it’s a gift of grace which He longs for us to have as part of life in all its fulness, part of our grateful worship back to Him.
Defensiveness is a tricky part of this. I know what it’s like to be publicly accused of something that has no basis in fact. It’s hard to defend the accusation whilst not thinking ‘God needs me here, so I’d best defend this with everything I’ve got’. God doesn’t need me; He wants me. It’s hard to accept the reality that God knows what’s real when people are spreading (and worse, believing) untruths about you. If I react well in those situations, then I’ll confront what’s wrong and do what I need to do to deal with the situation – but I’ll be doing so in such a way that I’m not pretending God’s life depends on it. The Gospel has been around long enough, and God has coped with enough false accusations (against Jesus, for starters), to prove that in the long term His mission of love for the world will not be deflected if a few people believe the wrong thing about me.
How do I know the difference? The truth is that I often won’t; and that our motives and deeds are rarely so easily defined as all-good or all-bad. For me, part of it relates to words spoken over me – words meant with love. When I was waiting to hear if I’d been recommended for ordination in the Church of England my mother (for whom it was a dream to have a son ordained – because she never was ordained herself) said to me ‘I don’t know what you’ll do with yourself if you don’t get accepted’. That was over 20 years ago, and still it haunts me long after my mother’s death. My therapist and I have revisited it more than a few times. In darker moments, I still ask myself: if I lose all this, if it gets taken away from me because of the action of another or my deteriorating health … what will I do? What am I any good for? Then the defensiveness comes; then my God-given calling to ordained ministry has slipped into the place God should assume in my life. I’m holding on to my Isaac, rather than than the one who feely gave me Isaac in the first place.
God, this is a hard one. Another layer of the ‘God doesn’t need me, but He does want me’ dilemma. He can cope without me and you, but chooses not to. He doesn’t define me or you by our ministries or our gifts or our callings or our families or our relationships or our writings or our talks or our worship sets or organ voluntaries or coffee-making or speaking up for those who have no voice or financial responsibility or giving or … All of these matter; all of them we are invited to; commanded to do, perhaps (though maybe it’s less of a command than we often like to make it sound). God defines me and you first, and only, by our status as His children. The rest of it comes from that  – and leads us, and in God’s grace others, back to that basic truth. We are children of a perfect father. If our ministries were for some reason taken from us overnight, God would still be our Father and Mother, perfect in all His ways and endless in Her love.
A fresh realisation of this for me came with our fostering (and planned adoption) of the children who have now been in our care for more than two and a half years. We started fostering, and planned to adopt, not because we need to have children; we didn’t. We simply felt it was what God was inviting us to. I didn’t need children in my life. But I find now that I do want them there; I rejoice in them, I thank God for them, they drive me to prayer and worship like little else I have ever encountered. It would be easy for them to become idols. I am invited to remember that as we have done for them, at some cost, God has done for me at immeasurable cost so that I could be adopted by Him. When that understanding is in its right place, all else flows as it should.
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When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: Reflections On Life And Ministry With Depression

Testimonies can be powerful, which is why they are something of a Christian ‘thing’. Especially amongst we who call ourselves (charismatic) evangelicals. You know the sort of thing – in a worship service or conference, a person will tell his or her story about dramatic change in their their life, attributed to God in some way. These are true and genuine – be they physical healing, emotional healing, general life change as a result of an encounter with God, or the like. There’s good reason to find these helpful – they remind us that God is living and active and able to actually do stuff here and now; that prayers get answered and change is possible. There is a caveat; like a diet that entirely consists of steak (only for example, nothing against steak), it’s good for a few meals, but if that’s all we eat we’re going to get into trouble. I mean to say this: that if the only stories we tell are stories of total transformation, healing, overcoming and victory then we’re only telling part of the truth. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these testimonies are untrue; it’s just that they’re not the whole truth.

This applies in any area of ministry and life in general; healing ministry, social justice, finances. It could be anything. We need to tell other stories alongside the stories of victory and change. As is often the case, a self-confessed addict can be helpful here; he will speak of himself (if he’s wise) as ‘a recovering addict’, not ‘a recovered one’. Healing and freedom for the recovering addict is a daily, ongoing, repeated journey. We all need to tell stories like this – of the processes and journeys, the struggles and failures and repeat visits in our lives. I come to this as a minister and church leader; there is a pressure and expectation to be strong; to be healed and from my own healing to heal others. Don’t have needs, I’m subtly told – or if I do, don’t express them. It’s been fed back to me on previous occasions that I must never respond to a congregant who asks the ‘How are you?’ question with anything less positive than ‘Ok’ or ‘fine’ so that people won’t be put off from telling me their stuff.

My therapist, who’s not a Christian, helped me see the absurdity of this. Is the leader really expected to have no wounds or problems? People know I sin, right? The thing is, I never have a day where I’m OK or fine; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, which means that every single day for over 20 years I have had pain of a minimum of 3 out of 10 on the pain scale, along with other symptoms. I also live with ADD, chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, dysgraphia and dyspraxia. I am never OK; essentially in being asked to say I’m OK when I never am is asking a minster to lie about how they’re doing in order to make things easier for the person they’re speaking to. We all know lying is sinful; so this represents a request to your minister to knowingly sin to make it easier on you.

Nonsense. Understandable nonsense, but nonsense all the same. Not being OK doesn’t mean I can’t hear your stuff; in fact (unless it’s a really bad day, which means I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed to see you in anyway), for the Christian my wounds and pain make me more able to understand your wounds; we are, after all, healed by, not in spite of, Christ’s wounds (as well as His perfection; His perfection means that your minister as well as you don’t have to be perfect). It’s what priest and author Henri Nouwen and others have called the ministry of the wounded healer.

 

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All of this is a very long way round to talk about Mark Meynell’s book ‘When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend’. He’s a relatively conservative theologian and minister from England, who for a long time now has lived with depression and PTSD. This book is his story; it’s subtitled ‘Reflections on Life and Ministry with Depression’. The Christian, and especially the evangelical, conversation about mental health has improved a great deal recently, but there is still a way to go. This book will be an important part of that, as much because of what it doesn’t do as well as because of what it does do. It tells the author’s own story, offering Biblical reflections along the way; it offers hints and tips and suggestions – but never solutions. It doesn’t suggest his experience is universal; quite the opposite. The author is wise enough to let his specific story be his and his alone – and to allow us to through that understand our own stories; to see where they connect and diverge from his. It’s not the story of victory; it’s the story of a still-ongoing night long wrestle with a being who may be an angel or may not – but God is there; it’s just that it’s hard to see in the dark cave of mental health pain (to use the author’s own image of the cave). When you’re in the cave you can’t tell if it’s night or day outside; let alone if the one you’re wrestling happens to be God. The author attaches no guilt to that; he simply gives some idea of what has helped him. Some sense of direction of where to look, which way to turn to find the light.

Mark Meynell is also a good theologian, with a teacher’s gift for making complex ideas accessible without ever simplifying them. His use of the Bible is nourishing, well-thought through and personal. His use of one psalm in particular bought me up short, in all the best and most healing ways. I rather think I share with him some taste in music (and films?); I reckon he’d be fascinating company over a beer.

This book will be a friend to many church leaders like me; it will be a challenge to many church members. Over the 8 plus years I’ve been at my current church, my congregation have grown more accustomed to my weaknesses and inadequacies; sometimes that has infuriated some people (including me); sometimes some of us have found it healing. That doesn’t mean I can’t be better or wiser at this, or that I don’t have anything to learn; it’s just that weakness seems to be something God works through, rather than in spite of. (That’s actually in the Bible, it turns out). As the prophet Michael Smith sang: “Wear your scars like medals”.

Will we tell better stories, then? As leaders, will we tell the stories of our struggles and pains? Will be OK with not being OK – and saying that; and through that allowing healing to come? Or will we play to the image of alpha male strength, people-pleasing by never walking with a limp despite the excruciating pain? Of course, if we try to not limp when the pain is too much, eventually we won’t be able to walk any more; and then people really will get hurt. But that doesn’t stop us defaulting to the presentation of health; to presenting the image of being the sort of fine that people think they need in us.

We’re not made to be idols of shiny OK-ness for the sake of the ease of conscience of people in our communities. We’re made to be fellow disciples; perhaps with a sense of where we’re going, trained and gifted and set aside to help point out some things that others may miss. Those things include our own inadequacies; as much for our own good as for the good of those we lead, let’s let go of pretence about ourselves towards God and others. It’s OK for a leader not to be OK, and to say that. Mark Meynell’s book will be a significant companion on that journey for church leaders and members alike.

Glenn Close In The Wife: Thoughts On Being Clergy And Having A Wife

As is so often the case, the real drama is in the silences. In The Wife, Glenn Close plays Joan – a woman who had been a promising potential novelist but whose career became subsumed when she married her teacher Joe. Early in the film we come to the two of them, now relatively aged, awaking to a phone call with the news that Joe has been awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature. As the news is broken to Joe – with Joan listening in on another phone – the camera shifts to Joan. She barely moves – but her face speaks volumes, hinting at layers and depths of varied emotions that imply a kind of darkness that can’t be named, but longs to be. It’s an astonishing piece of silent acting from Glenn Close, which is echoed throughout the film by similar moments. She is attentive to Joe’s every need (both as they travel to the Nobel Ceremony, and in flashback to the early days of their relationship); but something is trying to emerge, but also stay hidden. Christian Slater plays Joe’s would-be biographer, who thinks he can see there’s a secret to come out; and we uncover it with him.

To say more would be to spoil the film; it’s often comic, but really it’s a drama about ambition and frustration, about marriage and the challenges facing the wife of a lauded man. The film’s present day is 1992; it would be tempting to say that things have changed, but I’m sure many of us can understand that in much of life they haven’t.

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At least, it often seems, they haven’t changed in the church – which is where I have worked for all my married life (save the first two years of our marriage, which was spent at seminary). When I was training for ministry (in the late 90’s/early 00’s), women had been welcomed to priestly ministry in the Church Of England for some years – though it’s only relatively recently that the glass ceiling to women becoming Bishops has been broken. Nevertheless, at the seminary I attended (chosen as much for geographical location as any theological conviction of mine), the support group for the spouses of students was very much a wives’ group. I can’t now remember the official name of the group; but there were a grand total of 0 female students training there for ordained ministry; many (though not all) of the staff and students at this conservative college did not agree with the ordination of women, and often said so – loudly and publicly. So it’s little surprise no women trained alongside me. My loss; though I suspect not theirs.

Never mind, though. Other parts of the Anglican church were better. Right? The network I was most committed to at that time contained few, if any, high-profile female church leaders. Platform speaking engagements were largely for male church leaders; women from para-church groups; or were wives of male leaders of (large) churches. These large churches were spoken of as being led by ‘X and Y Surname’ (husband and wife) where the husband was the ordained leader. The wife would often be on the large paid staff team; though sometimes not. She would sometimes be still be spoken of as leading the church with her husband, despite not being paid by the church, not having a formal input in the decision-making and only being involved in church life, like any other member of the church would be. Now it is fair to say that in this network things have got much better in these regards; I’m sure some would say there is still a way to go – but it seems much that is good has happened.

It’s true, however, that the role of clergy wife and clergy husband remain very different. My wife has been invited to chair Women’s Fellowships, sing in the choir (until someone overheard her singing), do the flower arranging. She’s not done most of it; whilst she was unable to work for Visa-reasons when we came to Cape Town, she did volunteer much time to the church; but things have long since changed. The same expectations or offers are rarely made of clergy husbands. Married women who are clergy speak often of a church’s inability to see that she must be ‘a wife, a mother and a clergywoman’; a similar expectation of a married clergyman does not exist.

The problem seems to be that inherited models of church leadership and gender roles within church and family have not kept up with a changing society. There’s also another, subtler pressure. In many churches – especially larger, suburban ones – excellence is a spoken or unspoken value. Professionals who are members of these churches work in businesses where excellence is prized; so churches have to imitate that. That’s expressed in many ways; but not least in the role of women. Either a clergy wife must be fully involved in ministry – paid, or not – to ensure it all happens; or she must sacrifice much of her time and career in order for her husband to meet church expectations. One theory goes that excellence in anything requires around 10,000 hours of committed practice; for that to be a reality someone must take care of the rest of life for the one who aims to excel. That’s almost always a woman, like Glenn Close appears to be in The Wife; doing everything behind the scenes whilst her husband is lauded across the world thanks to his 10,000 hours of labour. It never seems to be mentioned that by definition, as the man achieves his greatness thanks to the 10,000 hours given to his craft, the woman has invested the same amount of time in un-lauded areas. Behind every great man … the expression goes (the tag line of the movie is a clever play on this, especially in light of the film’s ending).

It’s patriarchy writ into the fabric of family and career, of course. The church is slowly learning to let go of it, but whilst it slowly learns the ministry of women in church, business (or wherever) suffers and stagnates as the woman’s call is seen to be to follow and enable the husband’s call. Doesn’t Ephesians say a woman should submit to her husband?

Well, it does – but that was written 2,000 years ago; and it seems to ignore that at the start of that section of Ephesians the invitation to all of us, of whatever gender, is to ‘submit to one another’. So this assumes a husband also submits to his wife in some way; in fact, so submissive is he that he is expected to be willing to do for her what Christ did for the church (to die). More of that passage is about the responsibilities of the husband to sacrifice (and to submit) and of Christ’s love for the church than is ever said of the wife’s responsibility to submit – which in any case is never defined; presumably the better to be re-interpreted within each time and place. But the Bible has usually, over 2,000 years, been written, translated, taught by and written about by men – so it’s no surprise, really, that these attitudes and interpretations continue as the norm in many places.

As a married male church leader I speak to people like me. Are we willing to submit to the calling of our wives? Are we willing to say ‘no’ to posts, opportunities or potential avenues of church life in order for our wives to fulfil their calling – as we have so often expected them to sacrifice to us. I’m not talking here about motherhood and the ‘traditional’ housewife – though not to dismiss and denigrate that if that’s what both feel is best for their marriage. For most of my ordained life, my wife has had paid employment too. She has a calling too (of course she does; every disciple does). We also need a second salary – especially now with children. So my wife follows her calling and gifts in the world; social enterprise, academic research, photography  – and other things; one of those other things is motherhood, but it’s by no means the only one. So, as sometimes she has had to say no to opportunities to enable my ministry, so I must also, equally, say no to some things in order to enable her ministry. If I were looking to move to a large, busy church (which I’m not), maybe I would have to rethink my plans because of my wife’s career and calling. Maybe a church shouldn’t be busy (or maybe even large? that’s to discuss another time, I think)? Too often I, and men like me, can be entitled in our expectation of our wives to sacrifice, to give up, to say no, for our sake. Of course, we say and think to ourselves that it’s ‘for the Gospel’; failing to notice that our wife’s calling is as much ‘for the Gospel’ (whatever that means) as mine – maybe even more so if she’s not spending all day in the church office.

This needs saying to us: male, married church leaders must say no (sometimes to the church, sometimes to ourselves), that our wives may yes to God’s invitation to them. If something we say no to must still be done, then God is big enough to cope with our no; and if the church complains … well experience seems to suggest that if the no is repeated often enough and for long enough, the point is taken.

God can cope without us; God can also cope without our wives. He can cope without all of us; but too often we have just assumed He can cope without our wives, or can only cope with them within very specific parameters. To misquote The West Wing, let’s let God be God; let’s be strong enough to say no, that our wives may say yes.

Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Church In The Mess

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Pavlova was always one of my favourite deserts. It was a regular Sunday lunch pudding; my mother was a dab hand with meringue-making (which, it turns out, is not a common gift); the crispy-chewy product would then be slathered with cream and fruit of some description: berries, apples, bananas, oranges, kiwi … the list goes on. Simple, but memorable. All the better for it containing fruit, and therefore being healthy. It was something of a shock to discover that it’s not a dish of British origin – I just assumed it was, coming as it did for us after a traditional English Sunday roast. It turned out it was Australian; but my deep-seated desire to beat Australia in sports was nevertheless glad to acknowledge that this was a good desert anyway. Later, however, I discovered that the British had co-opted the pavlova, and put their own twist on it in the form of Eton Mess. Named after that most private of private schools, it’s all the elements of pavlova mashed up into a mess in one small pudding dish. I’m sure someone will try to tell me why it’s radically different; but it’s not. It’s just good old-fashioned English co-option of another culture. The same part of me prefers to it to pavlova as likes to take ice-cream and mash it up into a semi-solid state, all the better to mix with sauce. The mess just seems more tasty to me.

I find mess generally appealing. Not physical mess per se – I’m neither especially messy in my surroundings, nor especially tidy (maybe my family would disagree…). I don’t like dressing smartly; I feel most comfortable in jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. Ties annoy me; I don’t mind my Sunday-morning clerical collar, as long as I can carry it off in some slightly disordered way. I don’t think in a clean, ordered way – this is in part down to my ADD and my learning disabilities. I find it hard to plan a rigorous, logical train of thought. I can make associations between ideas; I then often find that I have to backtrack to enable anyone listening to me (and, often, myself) to see that there is a very good reason for what I said, it just wasn’t immediately obvious. I didn’t inherit my Dad’s mathematical bent in all sorts of ways; in particular, I can get very bored with ‘showing the working’, as teachers always insisted we do. I have to, often, however; in my preaching I’ll let ideas marinate in my head, then write down notes of a structure  – which gives a skeleton to my ideas, and makes it look much more ordered than it ever was in my head at the beginning of the week’s preparation.

The same is true of my leadership. I’m not a great planner; I’m not a systems person. It’s not that I think they’re bad – it’s just very hard for me to get into them. I’ve had much leadership training – most of it emerging from suburban, professional men who often lead suburban churches full of professionals. These programmes tell me the strategies and – yes – programmes that help to ensure healthy and numerically growing churches. I’ve learned much from these; but I’ve also learned it’s hard for me to lead and work that way.

So I lead in a kind of strategic mess. I have a fairly firm idea of the sort of place I want to get to; I’m not too sure of how we’re going to get there. I have a few people alongside me who are better at the structure than I am; they’re the sort of people who can help me see the route on the map that might be most helpful for the general sort of destination that I have in mind. The church I lead is in a messy kind of area. It’s predominantly urban; but there are aspects of suburbia to it also. There’s much poverty, and many on the cusp of poverty; there’s a good number in a quite high-powered jobs too. Then there are students, who are in their own special kind of category. Over the years we’ve been here, many programmes and courses have crossed our minds; few, if any, of them have been the right idea at the right time. We meet together three times a week – twice on a Sunday morning, once on a Thursday evening – much of the rest of time we leave people to do their own thing that God has called and shaped them for, and to ask for help if they need it.

This mess can be unnerving; unnerving for me, even if it feels more natural. The liturgical tradition of which we are a part helps gives some structure and safety, rounding off a few of the rough edges I may leave untended. The church order of Anglicanism can do that too – though we’re an odd church, in ‘association’ with Anglican structures, whilst not fully part of them. Maybe that’s why I can find myself a good fit with this particular church. It can be unnerving for members too; sometimes people will join a church because it offers something different. Our church does – but after some time, the seeming lack of structure, the mess can expose raw edges in us all and we can start to bump up against each other. That’s not always pretty – and sometimes people end up finding a different home. We could do better – and next time, we try to do so.

We also, though, need to be true to who God shapes us to be. When people find a home with us, they express that they like – or have learned to like  – the mess and informality. It seems to allow people a way to be themselves, to change at their own pace, and to discover who God has made them to be, rather than to be a cog in a church machine that seems to exist to keep itself going.

The fact is that too many of us – ministers and lay people alike – are hurt, burned out, worn down by church life. I’m as much to blame as anyone. We don’t seek to be a church for everyone – no one church is going to be home to everybody; but we do seek to be a church that errs on the side of space rather than structure, improvisation rather than planning, mobility rather than staticity. We are church in the mess, for the mess; serving a God whose Spirit hovered over the formless void and who specialises in bringing order of chaos. We may get more wrong than we get right; but in his mercy, God works for good. This may not be what every church is invited to be; but I wonder what would happen, what new things might emerge, if more of us church ministers made our home in the mess; seeking to control less, and see what might come as a result. As society urbanises at faster and faster rates, this mess will become the context of more and more ministry. Maybe there’s a call to freestyle, to improvise a little bit more in the future that’s arriving in our cities. Anyway; for better or worse, this is who we are and under God’s grace, who we seek to be.

 

God Doesn’t Need Me: Reflections On The Children Act

 

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Over the years I’ve heard many different definitions of leadership. Servanthood, shepherd, influencer, pastor, teacher (there’s a fierce debate  – really – as to if there should be a hyphen between those last two. Only Christians could make a debate out of a hyphen). And so on. One that stayed with me – and I can’t remember where I heard it, so apologies for not sourcing – is something like this: that leadership is the art of being comfortable with the fact that you’re always disappointing somebody. I’ve found that to resonate; and I’d add to it that I’ve needed to learn to disappoint the right people at the right time. If you’re leading more than one person, then at least one person is going to be in some way disappointed with you most of the time. There are two people to add to that picture. One is the leader herself – most of us find that we often disappoint ourselves, and live with a permanent frustration that things aren’t as they could or should be – and it’s our fault (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). The other is God; if we’re in Christian leadership, then we often sit with the nagging sense that God must be a bit miffed that we’ve let Him down again (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). All of this is why Christian leaders need all of the following: close friends, people who pray for us, mentors, spiritual directors, therapists, holidays, fun, and a dog. None of these insulate us against crashing and burning; but they give us a good shot at avoiding it.

By all these definitions, Emma Thompson’s character in The Children Act – a new film adapted by Ian McEwen from his own novel – is a leader with whom most of us could connect. She spends most of the film becoming aware that she has disappointed, is in the process of disappointing or is about to disappoint someone  – not least herself. She’s a high court judge in London, ruling on cases affecting children. Many of them are the headline-grabbing, soul-wrenching moral dilemmas; which conjoined twin to let die, and the like. The case at the film’s centre is of a 17 year-old Jehovah’s Witness boy who is refusing a potentially life-saving blood transfusion. He’s days away from turning 18, when the choice would be entirely his; but by law, a 17-year-old can be forced to take treatment against his will. To help settle the case, Emma Thompson visits him in the hospital – an unconvential act that’s probably highly unprofessional, made plausible by Thompson’s brilliant, subtle performance. She makes her ruling around halfway through the film – the rest of which deals with the fallout. Alongside all this, early in the film her husband (Stanley Tucci in a quiet and humbly powerful performance) tells her he loves her but wants an affair due to a lack of intimacy.

At this point it’s worth pointing out a few things about Ian McEwen’s work. He’s brilliant, of course; he often sets up a plot with great economy and not a little wit but then doesn’t seem to know how to make it all end plausibly (prime example, Saturday; a plot which collapses under the weight of its central, clumsy metaphor). He also doesn’t appear to be a great fan of religion; and he’s not a great screen adapter of his own work. This book and film are an improvement on much of that, even if the ending still feels as somewhat contrived as it did in the book. Religion isn’t exactly given a fair-hearing, but it at least feels somewhat understood here; there’s a devastating moment (for Anglican clergy) when one character is asked ‘Are you a Christian?’, to which he replies ‘I’m an Anglican’. In that short exchange lies a thousand truths.

Whatever choice Emma Thompson’s judge makes in the cases and marital decisions before her, she’ll disappoint someone. The film ends on a touch of hope, but given all that goes before, it’s a fragile kind of hope. Clearly there are many brilliant leaders who don’t profess to know God and who survive and even flourish in the experience; for me, as a Christian leader, the question remains:  Who do I disappoint? How do I deal with my own disappointment in myself; the disappointment others feel in me; the disappointment I think God must feel? Where do I take it?

For a start, I need to take it to all those places and people (and dogs) I listed earlier. But as I said, none of these are guarantees against failure – public or private. I think the key lies in taking to heart the fact that God doesn’t need me.  I meet many leaders – myself included – who are prone to thinking God/the church/the world needs us. The truth is God needs no-one; but in his incredible, scarcely credible love and grace he chooses to involve us anyway. It’s not that God needs us; it’s way better than that. He wants to involve us. We’re not essential; so when we screw up (which we do), when we die (which we will), when we sleep or go on holiday or have fun  (which we have to – though knowing some leaders you wouldn’t know it), the world and His plan will carry on regardless.

So the pressure is off. Ever met a defensive leader, one who flies off the handle in blame or self-recrimination at the merest hint of failure or criticism? I have  – I am, or can be, one. The effect can be devastating; as a result of knowing one for a few years, I ended up with PTSD and was suicidal. That can all stem from thinking we’re needed; that God somehow relies on us. He doesn’t. How arrogant and self-aggrandising it is for me to think that an eternal God who broke the power of death would need me. No. He doesn’t need me. And that’s OK. Because He wants me and chooses me because of Him, not me. Because He loves me.

That needs to be enough for me. If I let it penetrate my soul – daily – it will be enough. And it can be enough for you also.

Leadership Lies: Build The Church You Want To Be Part Of

woman carrying baby at beach during sunset

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Assuming you’re not the sort of church leader who only spends a short amount of time at any one church, on the face of it there seems to be much that’s understandable about this. After all, it would be a hard experience to be part of a church for, say, 10 years, and for it not to be the sort of church that you would want for yourself and for any family that you may have. A disconnect in spirituality or theology between the leadership and the church can be a jarring experience that can lead to painful conflict, and to more than a few people (leaders included) leaving a church jaded, cynical, wounded and finding their faith ebbing away. It’s potentially even harder for church members if that disconnect exists in a church located in an area where there are few (if any) others to choose from: if you want to be part of a church community and don’t have a practical choice as to which church that is but find yourself alienated by how the leader is shaping the church, then it can be the sort of experience that asphyxiates faith like a slowly building carbon monoxide leak.

As someone who’s been in full-time paid church leadership for 17 years, I’ve been to several seminars and read more than a few books that tell me that as a leader I need to build a church that is the sort of church I would join if I was living in the area and looking for a church to go to. In addition to the reasons just mentioned, the argument goes that if I’m to encourage members to commit to a church community and invite others to join it, then it would be hypocritical for me to do so if I wouldn’t commit to the church myself in their position. It’s hard to argue with, and to a certain extent I don’t want to. If I had a fundamental disconnect with the dominant theology or practice of a church I was invited to lead, then I would have a choice: put up with it (which would be very difficult to square with my conscience), try to change it, or not do the job. If a church is on a path to death, then clearly something is going to have to change unless all present are in agreement that what’s required is a good death (and there’s no shame in that  – we believe in resurrection, so allowing a church to die so something new can emerge is a noble calling). However the truism that the leader must build the church the leader wants to go to is rarely aimed at theological fundamentals or practices that are at the heart of the church’s life. They’re more stylistic, fringe issues that make the leader feel safe, comfortable and at home. I’ve seen more than a few churches being broken apart as the leader seeks to bend the church he’s (and it’s almost always him) leading to the shape of his will. The result is a church that he and people like him like; and very few others.

At the risk of death by a thousand qualifications, it’s clear that after a few years of one person’s leadership, a church will inevitably reflect aspects of that person’s character, theology, practice and preference. To a certain extent that’s unavoidable and natural. More often, however, this maxim is preached by an alpha male sort of leader; the sort who I once saw spontaneously (I do wonder if that should have been in quotation marks) play wrestling with his leader mate (yes, really) on the stage of a leadership conference attended by thousands as part of an in-joke only about 20 were privy to. Oh how I laughed. I found myself thinking; you wouldn’t have seen women leaders doing that.

There’s the rub. For around 2,000 years church leadership has been mainly male. Inevitably, therefore, material on church leadership has been delivered by (usually white) men; the images and metaphors have been male-centric, appealing to the idea of the alpha male leader, courageously leading a church into an unknown future only he can see. Men telling men in leadership to be the sort of male leader men like to think they should be. Clearly God has done some good through all this – as God always will – but much harm has been done also; it’s way past time for a change. As more women (slowly) are oh so graciously permitted to step into a church leadership, we need paradigms of leadership that redress the balance. It’s also hard to square what we know of Jesus with the image of the courageous alpha male leading towards the future that has been revealed to him; after all, the real Jesus begs to be released from suffering and doesn’t know when He’s returning.

What paradigms are we left with? Well, we should let women develop them. This mustn’t be the leadership manifestation of mansplaining. One metaphor I’ve found illuminating, however, is that of the midwife. I’ve never given birth, nor been present at a birth; but it seems clear to me that the midwife’s role is to assist and create an environment into which the emerging new life can be safely born. In this metaphor the mother giving birth is the Holy Spirit, the church leader is the midwife working with the natural processes of the Spirit, the church is the baby being born. The leader with her knowledge, experience and training must listen carefully, patiently and attentively to the signs from the Spirit and the church emerging, blinking and wailing into life; and of course there are times when she must act decisively and even urgently. There’ll be blood, sweat, tears and screaming in the process of delivery; but it’s not as a result of shaping a church to a leader’s will, but rather a by-product of a new life emerging from the natural rhythms and work of the Spirit. The leader works; oh how she works. But it’s not for her; it’s for the mother.

Like all metaphors, it will break down at some point so mustn’t be pressed or stretched too far. It’s a visual aid, nothing more and nothing less. But we need more of them that are less alpha male, coming from an altogether different place. Those with more knowledge or experience of the process of human birth must correct or add to what I have started here; and we who are men in leadership must allow women in leadership to develop more, newer paradigms of leading a church that allow a new way of being. And we men must be willing to work with those new paradigms ourselves, as for so long we have expected women to work within almost exclusively male paradigms for 2,000 years.

After all, not for nothing does the Bible present the church as the bride of Christ; of course, an exclusively feminine image. It’s almost as if the Spirit planted that in the pages of the Bible, and was waiting for men in leadership to catch-up.

Leadership Lies: Money Follows Vision

u s dollar bills pin down on the ground

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m now nearly 17 years into the journey of being paid to lead churches. Over that time I’ve read a lot of books and blogs, listened to a lot of podcasts, and had a lot of conversations about the art of leadership in the context of the local church. Some of those have been helpful, some of them haven’t been; some of those that I thought were helpful at the time turned out not be; some of those that I thought not to be helpful at the time turned out to be rather insightful. I’ve also said and written more than a few things about leadership myself; some of which I still think, some of which I don’t.

Recently I’ve started thinking about some of those things I’ve heard and said myself, and realised that I need to revisit them, take them apart and expose them for what they are. Lies. Well, maybe lies is a bit strong – I don’t think many people actively choose to tell untruths in these matters; but untruths, that like all the best untruths carry an element of the truth in the same way that an inoculation carries an element of the disease it’s designed to protect you against. Hence this series of blogs, of which this is the first. When I say ‘series’, by the way, what I actually mean is more like: ‘One or more posts that I’ll get round to as and when I think of them’. As usual, my writing is more about my own processing of ideas to help me clarify what I actually think – if they help someone else along the way, then so much the better.

So to the first statement with which I wish to raise some issues. Three words: “Money follows vision”. I’ve no idea who first coined it, but it’s prevalent in some circles, and I’ve said it myself. It’s often used when a leader is trying to get a particularly faith-stretching, expensive project approved by the necessary committee. It’s a way of saying – yes, I know we don’t have money for this at the moment, but this a great vision, and God will provide (through His people, of course) because the vision is compelling. The money is duly raised, thus proving that the vision was compelling and from God and therefore God has provided (through His people, and sometimes a bank loan). At core it seems to say: God will provide where the vision is from Him. Hard to quibble with, surely?

No, it’s not. It may carry an element of truth in richer, often suburban areas, where there church members have relatively stable jobs and incomes; but move into poorer areas and the truth is somewhat more complex. For the last eight and a half years I’ve been leading a small-ish church in Cape Town, on the cusp of an urban/suburban divide.  Cape Town, as you may know, is a city of contrasts. It’s often cited as the most economically unequal city in the most unequal country in the world. If you have plenty of money, Cape Town is a wonderful place to live. If you are poor, it’s a living nightmare. My church has people in it who have good, stable jobs; it also has people who live right on the edge of the trapdoor that would send them tumbling into poverty. We have a Thursday night community based around supper, where many of the members sleep outside; for various reasons, the trapdoor opened beneath their feet and they couldn’t cling on to solid ground.

Amongst these groups (those on the edge of poverty, those on the streets, those in informal settlements or townships) I have met many people with powerful, compelling, Godly vision. In a sense, one has to have vision if you live in or on the edge of poverty; avoiding the trapdoor, or surviving once you’ve fallen through, requires nimble thinking and creative action that would shame many leaders and entrepeneurs with more loaded bank accounts. However, money hasn’t followed their vision. It has largely trickled away to the visions of richer, larger churches and projects in safer and more comfortable areas.

If you are trapped in poverty, or in avoiding the trapdoor, your options are closed down. You don’t have the time or the energy to build networks and make connections that might one day yield financial fruit; you’re too busy putting food on the table each day, or making sure there’s enough electricity to keep the lights on in church that Sunday. Whatever great business ideas you may have, whatever creative outreach projects God has laid on your heart, they easily get lost in the daily battle to say alive and just keep a church or a life ticking over.

Here’s a thought. What if the role of the money in the richer churches was to flow towards the vision of those with less? What if, rather than employing another staff member, a church in the safe suburbs walked in relationship with a church in the unsafe inner-city and funded a drug project or a social outreach worker, or whatever God had laid on their hearts?

This is not a new idea; the New Testament seems to suggest it and some churches in different places in the world are doing it. But what if the over-resourced really caught this vision? What if ,instead of planting 50 people into another young adult rich area and claimed explosive kingdom growth instead of actually acknowledging it’s really just sociology, a small handful of people, at the invitation of those in the poorer area, came and walked and worshipped alongside those with less – blessing the church with agenda-free time, abilities and money?

The church I lead was blessed with this around 7 years ago. The people we received were few in number but large in heart and responsiveness to calling. It was – and still is – a hard journey. Some have, for various reasons, found the mess and blurred lines of church amongst the marginalised too much and have needed to return to a context more like what they are used to. This is a calling, a calling that emerges out of agenda-free relationships between leaders, churches and individuals. The question we must face  – especially those of us who lead well-resourced churches – is something like this: ‘Do we give space and time for the calling to be heard? Will we lay down our dream of a church that looks successful for a wider calling of kingdom-shaped fruit to be borne that draws no attention to our own leadership? Will we allow my church’s money to follow a vision in another place? Will we support the social entrepreneurs struggling to survive, the leaders trying to keep the lights on and worried for the house-holds struggling to put food on the table? Will we forego a staff member here to nurture the slow growth of kingdom vision there? Will we die to self, that others may live? Will we respond to the life-giving invitation to take joy in seeing the vision we have flourish amongst those on the margins?’

In the answers to these questions lie the subtle, troubling difference between success and fruitfulness. May those who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.