When Prayer is a Struggle by Kevin Halloran has one of the plainest covers of any book on my shelf. But with a title like that it doesn’t need an eye-catching cover. The words simply resonate. They are words in season. I suspect many think that the subtitle should read: A book especially for (insert your name).
I find prayer a struggle. Not always, but often. And if you were to audit my praying, then you might wonder about the quality of my relationship with God. The good news is that I don’t have to pray. I’m not being marked on the length, depth or breadth of my prayers. God has given me a Triple A Pass — Access All Areas. An invitation to come to him, speak with him, ask him for what I need, thank him for what he has done, confess what I’ve done or failed to do, and fundamentally give God the honour and glory in all things.
I’ve been reading through When Prayer is a Struggle and been encouraged to value spending time with God. This is a book to read slowly, carefully, and prayerfully! I sometimes skim-read books, but I’m taking my time with this one. The author is taking me on a journey of hearing God in the Scriptures and responding to God in prayer. He models prayer throughout his book:
Father God, thank You for calling me to be part of Your family in Jesus. You know my struggles with prayer, my lack of faith, and my lack of love for You and others. Help my unbelief! Increase my love. Cause me to see the world as You do and to see prayer as a gift from Your gracious hand. Convict me of sin and lead me to treasure the cross more greatly. Thank You for all You’ve done for us by making prayer possible and powerful. In Jesus’s name, amen. (p16)
Halloran starts by focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. He reminds us why prayer matters and how it focuses firstly on God and only secondly on us. We pray to bring honour to God and to unite our hearts with his. Prayer lifts our eyes above ourselves and draws us into God’s vision for his world.
This book is subtitled A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer. It includes recommendations for what to pray, how to focus our prayers, how to let Scripture inform our prayers, and how to respond when we don’t know what to pray.
The approach to prayer is gospel-shaped. We are not shamed into praying by preying upon our guilt. The gospel frees us to take up the privilege of praying. We are invited to mourn our sin, but to rejoice in the sanctifying work of Jesus. Our false views of God are challenged and replaced with a cross-centred perspective. We are privileged to have access to our Heavenly Father in prayer. Halloran shows an understanding of our mixed motives for prayer and we are encouraged to press on, as his redeemed children.
There are some good tips for staying focussed, for building routine and structure, for praying regularly, for having the content of our prayers shaped by God’s concerns, and for overcoming our petty excuses for not praying. There is a whole chapter devoted to praying in the face of fears and anxieties. Very timely given our stressful circumstances.
I’m glad that I didn’t judge this book by its cover. I’ve read it once and I’m beginning to make some changes when it comes to prayer. I plan to read it again with a view to also encouraging others around me. Prayer is a struggle. It always has been, but we have the help of God’s Spirit who enables us to call on God our Father.
Rico Tice’s little book, Faithful Leaders, is a word in season. Sadly, 2021 has been another year where there have been too many failures among Christian leaders. And by failures, I don’t mean underperformance, or failure to meet KPIs, or even leaving the ministry due to stress or burnout. I mean moral failure. Whether it’s the cover up of sexual immorality, or failure to disclose extra income, or flirting with a member of the congregation, or bullying behaviour toward other staff, or selfish pride that demands to get its own way, or unwillingness to be questioned or scrutinised, or any other moral failure.
I keep hearing references to the Mars Hill podcast (I haven’t listened to it) and people saying that we need to be more accountable. I get that. The sad reality is that we may be more likely to address our sin when others can see it. The fact that God sees it all the time doesn’t seem to motivate us as much as having to face up to our board, or bishop, or congregation. Why is this? Does it mean that we’re more worried about public shame than dishonouring God? Do we really think we’ve got away with something if no one has seen?
The Christian tradition that I’m a part of, emphasises the importance of three things for Christian leaders: character, convictions, and competency. We say that character is king, but I wonder if we truly believe it. We can be easily dazzled by the achievements on a CV or the size of a ministry or some perceived leadership strengths. Character is less clear, absent on a resume, harder to assess in interviews. If we don’t show due diligence in following up referees then we can hardly claim we value character.
There are many leadership books on conviction and competency—I have shelves full of them. There are fewer that focus on the leader’s heart. Faithful Leaders is one such book that looks at the importance of Christlike character and attitude in Christian leaders. It argues that the spiritual health of leaders plays a large part in determining the spiritual health of the congregation and therefore the success of the ministry.
Rico Tice calls for a Biblical definition of ministry success. This is not so much about numbers of people involved, but about handling God’s Word correctly and ministering it to the hearts and minds of others. This is how God works in and through his people. He calls every leader to be diligent in looking to the gospel and battling sin in response.
This book has an important focus on self-leadership, living a godly life both in and out of the public eye. Finally, it calls the Christian leader to serve the church, rather than using the church to serve his or her needs. We are reminded that we follow in the footsteps of the suffering servant, who came not to be served but to serve. This book is short and punchy. It’s not rocket science—it’s much more important than that!
I purchased copies of Faithful Leaders for each member of our church staff and leadership team. Our council meetings have included one person sharing a review of a chapter and drawing some implications for our ministry. We have found this helps us remember who we are and how we are called to serve before we get into the nuts and bolts of the meetings. Perhaps you and your team could be strengthened by a similar approach as you launch into the new year.
I grew up reading something from the Bible most days. We would often read a few verses as a family around the dinner table. I would read bits of the Bible as I headed to bed each evening. Sometimes I would find help from reading guides or devotional books that drew application from the Bible passages or gave explanations as to their meaning.
My first Bible was a Revised Standard Version given to me by my grandparents, and I shifted to a Good News Bible in my teens. This gave way to a New International Version when I started university and began exploring the Bible in more detail. These days I have multiple translations available and a Bible App on my phone and computer that allows me to read the Bible in any version.
Reading the Bible is both similar and different to reading other books. Most books are intended to be read from cover to cover. You start at the beginning and follow the plot to its conclusion, usually on the final page. However, when it comes to the Bible very few of us read it this way. The Bible is one book, but it is also a compendium of sixty-six books. There is a coherence to each book in the Bible and an overarching coherence to the Bible as a whole. There’s a kind of dialogue that takes place with each part informing the overall picture and the overall picture informing each part. Some parts only start to make sense after we’ve read other parts and the key to understanding it all is discovering the central place of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament points to Jesus Christ and only makes sense once we recognise that all God’s promises find their fulfilment in him. The New Testament spotlights the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and explains how this good news transforms people’s lives for eternity.
So, let me ask you, have you read the Bible? Not just sampled it—but have you really read it? Have you searched the Scriptures to discover God’s word to you, God’s purpose for life, God’s love for his world, God’s hope for our future? Have you delved deeply into the Word that brings life, and have you done this with regularity, and purpose, and effort, and humility? Have you drank deeply from God’s Spirit-inspired Word?
Why not make 2022 the year you either begin or get back to searching the Scriptures? Some years back I made the decision to do exactly that. I found a plan called Search the Scriptures that would help me read the whole Bible in three years. It took me close to five years as I would keep missing days! It provided a plan that led me through the whole Bible and let me move between Old and New Testaments. It didn’t spoon-feed me answers or give me inspirational stories. It just kept me on track by asking helpful questions of each section of the Bible and I’d write my answers in a notebook.
When I first bought Search the Scriptures it came in three volumes — one for each year. Now you get the whole three years packaged together into one volume. You can even get an English Standard Version of the Bible with the Search the Scriptures questions inserted into the text. This might be helpful if you were travelling and only wanted to carry one book, but I prefer to keep my notes separate to my Bible.
Over the years I have given away dozens of copies of Search the Scriptures. And I’m still getting feedback that it genuinely helps people to read the Bible for themselves. Why not give it a shot?
Resilient Ministry by Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie has remained unopened on my bookshelf for the past five years. This has been an unfortunate mistake. It is a rich resource that would have served me well in my ministries of leading churches, a denomination and, more recently, in mentoring, coaching, and pastoral supervision. Anachronistically, I wish this book had been required post-theological college reading when I began ministry in 1990.
The central thesis of Resilient Ministry is that there are five themes integral to resilient ministry. These themes emerged from analysing the data from multiple pastors’ summits, where cohorts of pastors shared together about their joys and struggles in ministry. The authors have continued to test-drive and implement these themes to build resilience among pastors and their teams. The five themes for resilience are spiritual formation, self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and leadership and management. Each of these themes is addressed in two parts that can be described loosely as diagnosis and prescription.
Spiritual formation Theological knowledge does not automatically translate into maturity. A theological degree or ongoing Bible study can fill the head without filling the heart or shaping the hands. Pastors must remember they are always sheep first and shepherds second. Pastors are at risk of “building their identities and worth around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God.” It is essential to be nourished by a deep interior life with God in order to be equipped to work for God. Spiritual ministry should come from the overflow of a heart shaped by God.
Data from the pastors’ summits identified key practices for growing in spiritual maturity. These included building rituals and rhythms into life, especially around spiritual disciplines such as prayer, keeping Sabbath, personal and corporate worship. Pastors craved confidantes with whom they could be accountable. Intentional reflection was recognised as essential for watching your life and doctrine and can lead to ministering from a place of humility and ongoing learning.
The importance of spiritual formation resonates for me in ministry. I have learned to apply every sermon and Bible study to myself before asking how it might apply to the congregation. I need to slow down, reflect, and spend more time meditating on God’s Word, asking God to transform my heart. However, I tend not to use the language of ‘spiritual formation’, preferring to speak of being ‘transformed into the likeness of Christ’ (Romans 12:1-2). I believe this helps me to be more discerning about the range of spiritual recipes on offer by asking “will this help me to grow in Christ-likeness?”
Self-Care Pastors must admit and appreciate that they are creatures with physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual needs. This impacts such areas as sleep, boundaries between family and work, exercise and diet. Some pastors embrace a formula of ‘burning out, rather than rusting out’. The authors identify this as a false polarity, recommending a better approach is “burning on, not burning out.” They describe many pastors as people-pleasers, struggling with the “never-ending treadmill of trying to satisfy others whose expectations cannot be met.” Ministry can also become an idol, leading to people neglecting self-care in order to achieve ‘success’ in their ministries. The problem of pastors finding their identity and purpose in their work rather than in God means that a perceived ‘successful’ ministry may cover over personal failure.
Engaging in quality relationships is promoted as vital to self-care. Especially significant is the opportunity to find encouragement from cohorts of peers outside the pastor’s immediate ministry context. Creating margin in life and ministry and taking time to recharge are important for longevity in ministry.
Self-care has been an ongoing challenge for me. As I reflect on three decades of ministry, I can see how I have sacrificed self-care on the altar of ministry drive and ambition. This has led to patterns of inadequate sleep and exercise, insufficient margin in daily timetables, missing days off, and pushing on until sickness has caught up with me. Many years I would expect to crash physically and emotionally after a particularly busy period in June and July. Annual holidays became an important but insufficient ‘catchup’ for my periods of neglecting self-care.
Being diagnosed with terminal cancer confronted me with critical questions around my identity and my dispensability. No longer able to preach, lead, or pastor a church, I was painfully and yet wonderfully reminded that my true and enduring identity lies in being my Father’s adopted son. Over the years since, as my health has improved and I have returned to pastoral ministry, these bad habits have continued to haunt me and I have sought help from my mentors to keep addressing challenging matters of self-care.
Emotional and cultural intelligence A strong theme in both these areas concerns how easy it is to “assume that our way of looking at things is the only way to look at things.” Emotional intelligence involves insight into our own emotions and the ability to respond well to the emotions of others. Cultural intelligence involves awareness of the different belief systems, values, customs, assumptions, practices, and the like, that shape how people see themselves and relate to others.
Reflection is one of the key factors identified for building emotional intelligence. The authors suggest such practices as journaling, exploring family genograms, differentiating to connect with people, and welcoming feedback as strategies for growth. My experience concludes that growth in EQ is a critical characteristic of effective and safe ministry to others. It bridges the categories of character and competency and should be considered when appointing, assessing, and coaching leaders.
Cultural intelligence is also a critical factor for effective ministry. Empathy is required to understand where people are coming from, what has influenced them, and why they hold certain values or worldviews. One of the reasons that ministries fail to embrace changes in society around them, and subsequently die, is that ministry leaders lack cultural intelligence. Again, the authors highlight reflection as one of the necessary means to building CQ.
Marriage and family The summits identified marriage and family as playing a critical role in sustaining pastors. Thus, spouses were invited to participate in aspects of the program. The challenges lay in the areas of navigating boundaries between marriage and family life on the one hand and the job of ministry on the other. There are significant stressors for pastors who often work from home, don’t clock off, and don’t tune out. Damage can easily be done to marriages and families when the pastor is unable to manage the complexity of dual or multiple relationships.
I have especially felt these challenges and pains. There have been many times when I have been overly busy to the neglect of my family. While I have sought to be present with my wife and family, I know there have been times when they have been left with the dregs. This has been compounded over the years of juggling cancer treatment and trying to maximise ministry in the good periods. Loving my wife, children, and now grandchildren, is a matter of importance where I want to keep improving.
Leadership and management The authors embrace the images of poetry and plumbing to describe the differences between leadership and management. They identify reflecting as an important and real leadership work. This is the picture of working on the ministry, not just in the ministry. In my experience, and as I have observed and coached other pastors, this is a neglected discipline. Efficiency often trumps effectiveness. Leaders, operating without margin, keep getting more and more busy without seriously evaluating what they are doing.
Resilient Ministry highlights the treasures to be gained through systems analysis, especially through deliberately building maturity into our church systems. Understanding church systems opens new doors of EQ and CQ that can lead to a growing calm among leaders. This has been a watershed resilience area for me, as it has led to growing awareness of what I can and cannot do, and to trust God more and more.
The authors identify “modelling, shepherding, managing expectations, supervising conflict, and planning” as essential plumbing tasks. I am aware that not all these are adequately explored in theological training, which means that many pastors are ill-prepared for the pressures of leadership. There is a need for specialised professional development throughout ministry. My early experiences of conflict in ministry, grappling with leading organisations, learning to train, supervise and mentor leaders, quickly highlighted the gaps in my college education and set me on a continual life-long learning trajectory.
Firstly, the integration of features contributing to resilience in ministry is a big strength of this work. There is no silver bullet for resilience, but rather a complex interaction of many factors.
Secondly, personal reflection is a valuable practice that helps builds resilience in all five themes. Busy ministers must set aside time to slow down and reflect on themselves and their ministries. Without such reflection pastors will burn out, while repeating the mistakes of the past over and over.
Thirdly, Resilient Ministry leads pastors to recognise the vital impact that can be made from reflective practice in conversation with a confidante. As a ministry mentor, coach, and pastoral supervisor, I will draw on this book in shaping my work in helping pastors and ministry leaders to grow more resilient. This book contains excellent questions for reflection, modelling what it preaches. I intend to ask these questions of myself and others.
Lastly, one weakness of this book is its limited engagement with the Bible. Being primarily the analysis of data gleaned from summit participants, it requires further analysis to determine how well the diagnoses and prescriptions fit with the Scriptures. I know that many of them will fit well, and I plan to explore these themes with my Bible open.
 Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013. P32.
 Peter Scazzaro in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, quoted in Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P37.
 Dave Gibbons in The Monkey and the Fish, quoted in Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P61.
Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin is one of the most impressive defences of the Christian faith that I have read. It is robust, educated, well researched, gentle, and empathic. This is a book for people willing to take the time to consider challenges to Christian beliefs. Today’s culture tends to shut down reasoned discussion of theology, humanity, religion, and ideologies running counter to the winds of society. McLaughlin reopens the discussion and argues persuasively that Christian faith is a very reasonable worldview to hold.
McLaughlin doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. A scan of the chapter headings reveals her willingness to confront the big challenges:
Aren’t we better off without religion?
Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?
How can you say there is only one true faith?
Doesn’t religion hinder morality?
Doesn’t religion cause violence?
How can you take the Bible literally?
Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?
Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?
Isn’t Christianity homophobic?
Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?
How could a loving God allow so much suffering?
How could a loving God send people to hell?
This isn’t a book that sweeps the problems under the carpet. McLaughlin acknowledges the harm and problems created in the name of religion and, specifically, Christianity. The history of Christians is a history of failure and weakness, but it doesn’t destroy the credibility of the faith. McLaughlin shows a deep understanding of history, she faces the challenges of contemporary culture front on, and she displays a deep understanding of the biblical text. Her experience in the world of academia, her empathy for people struggling with their identities in a changing world, her willingness to listen carefully to the critiques of others, and her clarity of conviction in her argument are all on display in this book.
There are many surprises in the pages of this book. We discover things about the author, her research and experience, her family and friends that give us confidence that she is not one for trite or simplistic rhetoric. She understands and feels what she writes about.
It is no surprise to me to discover that Confronting Christianity has been awarded the Christian book of the year in 2020. Having read it, I have already started giving copies away to others. I anticipate keeping one or two extras on my shelf for interested enquirers and religious sceptics alike. I will recommend it to new and old believers who are wanting to better understand their beliefs in today’s critical climate. I suggest purchasing at least two copies. One for yourself and the other for someone you care about.
O Christmas Tree by Judith Hickel and Sarah Ang takes a gospel-shaped musically-inspired, fresh look at the meaning of Christmas. This is an attractive book that invites small children (and their adult readers) to explore a deeper significance to some traditional Christmas decorations. Children are drawn into the story through guessing games and familiar musical introductions. We are invited to rethink Christmas trees and baubles and presents and a star. If we’ve grown a little tired of Christmas decorations—ho ho ho, hum, hum, hum—then this book reminds us what an amazing event we are celebrating . We are lifted beyond predictable nativity scenes to explore the good news of Jesus with fresh eyes and ears. The message gets embedded and reinforced as we sing along to Christmas songs with some new and improved lyrics. And I think they might just catch on.
The author, Judith, is an Australian living in Germany, who writes within a European context. Those who love a white Christmas with all the trappings will warm to this book. That said, Christmas is a universal message, that is just as relevant under the heat of an Aussie summer. O Christmas Tree makes a great gift idea for small children this Christmas. And especially those who love a singalong.
Every now and then I read a book that really captures my heart. The majority of them are written for adults. Most require a significant investment of time and attention. Many require me to read back over material to allow it to sink in, permeate my thoughts, convict my soul, and drive my future. Few, if any, have pictures.
This one is different. Melissa Kruger has written and Isobel Lundie has illustrated a delightful book that captures our hopes and prayers for our grandchildren. Had it been written twenty years ago, we would have said our children. We are buying in bulk and there will be more than one family receiving this book for Christmas. It is a life-affirming, adventurous, fun-loving, focus on the question—What do you want to be when you grow up?—with a punch line that is all about Jesus.
(This post is by another member of my family, Sharon, who used this material with our three grandsons)
This Easter Sunday morning our family, with our three boys aged 6, 4 and 2, finished The Garden, The Curtain and the Cross Easter Calendar. This is a 15 day family activity program. Each morning for the last 15 days our family has dug into God’s word together. Each family ‘devotion’ takes about 10 minutes. They creatively take us from creation, through the early Old Testament, to the crucifixion of Jesus, and finally to the book of Revelation. The activities are based on a children’s picture book of the same name.
The devotional material is probably aimed at a family with children a little older than ours—primary school-aged children and older. However, even our 4 year old was able to grasp the main concepts and came away challenged in his faith. The pack comes with a booklet of devotions to follow each day from the Sunday 2 weeks before Easter and an “advent” style calendar with 15 flaps to open revealing a picture related to each days study.
Each devotion starts with prayer and a question to get you thinking about the topic. A passage from the Bible is followed by questions about the passage and its application. The material has a guide for how to pray in response to each passage of the Bible, which I found really useful with my young family, as they are still learning to pray. Each day includes a ‘Let’s think a little more’ section, in which the main theme is explored further. We found the main content enough for our family so didn’t use this section.
I particularly loved the way the material walked you through the Bible, clearly showing God’s rescue plan and the reason it was needed. It places a big emphasis on the ‘Keep Out’ sign (angels with swords) that God placed at the Garden of Eden. It then draws a strong link to the curtain ‘Keep Out’ sign at God’s dwelling place in Israel, the temple. Finally, this is torn in two at Jesus’ death on the Cross. The way it explains these symbols, combining them with the pictures in the ‘Advent-style’ calendar worked really well for my boys. My 4 year old was able to remember and explain what the curtain meant for God’s people and how it being torn showed that we were allowed access to God through Jesus once again.
My favourite was day 6, when the solution to the problem of sin was covered. The Israelites needed a sacrificial swap to give them access to the Most Holy Place in the temple, a once a year sacrifice of two goats—one that is killed and one that is sent away— for their sins. The discussion questions and conversation that followed with my boys saw them really grasp their need for a swap and how great it is that Jesus has done this once and for all.
I am already looking forward to revisiting these devotions next year.
Whether you’re reading this over Easter, Christmas, the school holidays, a COVID-19 lockdown, or any time really… this is a great resource for families. The Good Book Company are currently making available some related free resources. Download these while you can, and watch a video by the authors explaining why they have made this.
There aren’t too many books you can read, cover to cover, on a flight between Port Macquarie and Sydney, but Just Starting Out: Seven Letters to a New Christian by Al Stewart and Ed Vaughan is one. It’s short, pithy, punchy, and well worth the read. The book has been written for someone who has just become a Christian, to introduce them to some of the basics of the Christian life. They’ve chosen seven topics:
Saved by God
Trusting in God
Living God’s way
Listening to God
Talking to God
Meeting with God’s family
Meeting the world
Each chapter corresponds directly to one of the seven Just for Starters Bible studies that were originally written for people who responded to the call to become Christians at the 1979 Billy Graham Crusades in Australia. These studies are more familiar to an older generation as the 7 Basic Bible Studies. Thousands of university students began Bible studies in their first year by working through these studies, and thousands more new believers have learned the basics of Christian life and doctrine by the same means. I remember these studies as a first year uni student, wondering why no one had taught me this stuff before. It was my introduction to basic Christian discipleship. I’ve since led hundreds of students through these studies, I’ve written talks to go with them, and I even worked them up into an ‘unpublished’ book in 1990! All this to say, I reckon it is so helpful for a new believer to be guided in the basics and not left to flounder around trying to work out how a new Christian is called to live.
So well done Al and Ed, and congratulations Matthias Media. This is an excellent resource. I envisage buying many, getting our church to buy many. God-willing, as we see people becoming Christians, we will pass on these books. Young people coming to grips with how to follow Jesus will find this book simple and clear. Older people, who’ve been around church for ages, but can’t really tell you what matters matter most, will benefit from reading through it. People who are unclear as to whether they are a Christian or merely a church-goer will gain clarity through reading this book. Mature Christians wondering how to get alongside a newby will do well to read this with them.
The style of the book—seven letters from a mature Christian friend, Michael, to a young believer, Dave—is reminiscent of The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. The conversational style is very engaging and carries the reader along. This book covers way more than 7 topics. Gems of wisdom on a range of topics are squeezed onto every page. It’s probably the type of book to read more than once, as I suspect you will pick up new things each time.
The best way to read this book is in tandem with the Just for Starters Bible studies. It’s the Bible bit that’s the most important. So use this book as a stepping stone to discovering more and more from the Scriptures.
Being a Small Group Leader is a new book written by Richard Sweatman. Richard oversees the small group ministry program at Hunter Bible Church in Newcastle. He’s been using this material to clarify expectations of leaders in their church for a number of years. Now Matthias Media are making it available to a wider audience.
Being a small group leader is an important responsibility and one that is variously understood and applied in different churches. In many ways, each church that seriously engages in small group ministry should consider producing a resource like this. Here are the qualifications, job description, and modus operandi for leaders. It’s a simple book to use as you recruit, train, encourage, and mentor your leaders. If you’re thinking of becoming a small group leader, then this is worth a read.
Richard identifies 5 core competencies for a small group leader:
Knowledge of God
Encouragement of others
Each of these competencies sit within a framework of grace. We will be more equipped in some than others, we will need to develop some more than others, but we must recognise that it will ultimately be God who develops these competencies in us, so we must rely upon him in prayer.
As Richard considers each competency, he provides us with the grounds for the competency, a description of how it will be demonstrated in a small group setting, and some suggestions for developing the competency further.
Knowledge of God is more than what goes into the head. It impacts the heart and hands as well. This is relational knowledge, shaped by the Bible, contemplated and digested by the leader, and applied in words and action. This knowledge is important for more than individual and personal reasons. Leaders are called to set an example, teach, and guard God’s people in the truth. They need to know God well so as to lead others in relationship with him. Richard offers practical suggestions to grow in our knowledge of God through prayer, Bible reading, theological reading, and further theological training.
Character is that quality of being tested in life and proving solid. (p25) This area of competency matters because it’s really about applying our knowledge of God into our lives. Leaders are required to have integrity. Without it, people will not follow. Hypocrisy undermines leadership. But this isn’t a pragmatic competency—it’s one of essence. Richard outlines the Bible’s path to growing in character. It comes through prayerfully applying the word of God, in fellowship with others, as we face the trials of life. It is only by God’s grace that we can grow in godly character.
Teaching ability is the third competency identified in this book. Richard describes ‘the ability to teach’ as a skill, listed alongside many character qualities in 1 Timothy 3:
Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
(1 Timothy 3:1-7 NIV emphasis mine)
Richard unpacks this skill with reference to awareness of others; an ability to let the group discover things for themselves; an ability to explain things; and creativity and a sense of fun. I agree that these things will help a small group leader to teach well in a group setting, and that these are skills worth developing, but I wonder if there is something else going on with ‘ability to teach’.
Given that ‘ability to teach’ is listed alongside other character qualities, are we meant to understand ‘ability to teach’ as a character quality also? The one who is qualified to teach is the one who puts their words into practice. They teach through example as well as words. They teach with life and doctrine. I know that this overlaps with the former points of the knowledge of God and character, so maybe I’m pushing an unnecessary barrow.
This book offers helpful suggestions about how to grow as teachers. The bottom line is that you grow as a teacher by teaching. But it doesn’t hurt to get hold of some quality resources and to seek further input, feedback, and coaching. Interestingly, this book suggests other books as the place to turn for such training (see especially Growth Groupsby Col Marshall).
Encouragement of others is the fourth competency listed for small group leaders. Encouragement is at the heart of Christian ministry. It’s more than saying nice things to people. It’s about valuing a person’s walk with Jesus and doing what you can to urge them to keep on following him until the end. It’s about leading people to keep trusting their Lord and Saviour whatever obstacles, temptations, or threats might come their way. Leaders are called to help people to stay the course.
This is about more than preparing and leading a group once a week. The challenge to small group leaders is to engage with the lives of the people in the group, to stay interested and connected throughout the week. This calls for investment in prayer for others, thinking about others, reaching out to others, offering help, following up on how people are going, and more. Richard refers to some helpful books for leaders, including Encouragement: How Words Change Lives by Gordon Cheng.
Team Leadership is the last of the competencies. Competency in knowing God, growing in godly character, ability to teach, and encouragement will all be essential to good team leadership. Yet it’s more than the sum of these parts. Leadership involves inspiring others to follow. It requires abilities to organise and manage, to listen and to communicate, to exercise direction and to submit to authority, to be wise and generous, to overcome fears and to grow in confidence, to be dependable and to depend on others.
This book is a very good primer on leading Christian small groups as part of a wider church ministry. It’s practical and purposeful. It offers questions for discussion and application. It doesn’t claim too much for itself, and generously links to other resources to explore matters in more depth. It’s a helpful and humble book seeking to equip competent and humble leaders who will depend on God’s grace to lead others in following Jesus Christ.
If you are the leader of a small group, or training others in leading small groups, or recruiting small group leaders, or overseeing a small group program, then I’m sure you will find many uses for this book. It’s worth buying for yourself and others. If you are keen to dig further into small group ministry, then you might like to check out some of my earlier posts by clicking on the small group ministry category of macarisms.
This book was hard to read. It wasn’t difficult to understand or even poorly written. In fact, it was clear, logical, and helpful. I found it hard because the subject matter is personal, heart wrenching, and has at times been too close to the bone. It brought to mind a conversation in our home a few years back. A friend was arguing that not only should voluntary euthanasia be legalised, but that doctors should be legally bound to offer it when asked. My wife, being a doctor, was horrified by the thought. Whatever happened to the Hippocratic oath? And I, being a terminally ill cancer patient, wasn’t feeling too comfortable with the intensity or insensitivity of the conversation either! And I still find this book a difficult topic to wrap my mind and heart around.
Assisted Suicide is another book by Vaughan Roberts in the Talking Points series. It introduces the reader to terms and ideas to build their awareness of the topic. But it also engages with the emotion that drives these discussions. It’s no small thing for someone to want to take their own life. And it’s no small thing to contemplate assisting another person to do this. The issues are very deep and very raw. Over the past few years I believe that I’ve increased in empathy for people who might contemplate such a step. The world of cancer, overwhelming pain, harsh treatments, no hope of a cure, massive financial burdens, impact on wider friends and family, the ugly reality of feeling like there is no point living, and that you are only a burden, takes people down this route. I’m not describing my own personal feelings, but I sense the deep angst experienced by others.
The arguments for assisted suicide are complex. They cross relational, psychological, medical, moral, philosophical, theological, economic, and human rights boundaries. Most significantly they cannot remain theoretical and intellectual matters because they impact people’s lives and deaths. This alerts us to some of the problems talking with one another about the topic. One person may be driven by the pain of a loved one, while another is concerned about precedents and dangers, another with the ethical implications, or another the pragmatics of an ageing population with increasing health issues. We must listen and listen carefully to each other as we grapple with the issues. It’s to easy to talk across each other without any real understanding.
Our religious beliefs will necessarily come into play. If I believe that death is not the end (as I do) and that there’s a resurrection and judgment beyond the grave, then I must consider more than eu-thanasia or good dying. If I believe in the propensity of people to act selfishly (and I do), then I must consider how to protect the vulnerable elderly and terminally ill from selfish decisions to ‘remove’ an inconvenient burden. If I believe in the inherent worth of every human being as one specially created in the image of God (as I do) then I will not measure the value of a person in terms of their utility or costs to society. And I am persuaded that my life is not my own to dispose of, as I see fit. If I believe in the limits of human knowledge and our propensity to act on impulse (and I sure do), then I will be very cautious before making such a massive decision as to take my own life, or ask someone to assist me, because of a terminal diagnosis. Remember, I was given around a year to live and I’ve now lived for nearly seven. Doctors and others only make predictions. They don’t have crystal balls.
When people are dying the issues are complex and deeply charged, so it’s worth thinking through what you believe, and why, in the cool light of day. This book offers talking points, but before that it offers thinking points. I recommend thinking over them. It’s a brief book and only an introduction to a massive topic. This will be enough for some. Others will want to delve more deeply into the issues. Assisted Suicide offers a Christian framework for the journey. If you are a Christian then I suggest you read it, preferably with others. If you’re not, then I believe you will still benefit by considering the issues raised by Roberts.
Personally, I believe it’s a massive mistake for a society to legalise, support or promote assisted suicide. There are plenty of options for helping people to die well, without helping them kill themselves.
My introduction to ‘transgender’ ideas took place in 1974, when I sat watching David Bowie on ‘GTK’ on our TV. My first album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s still one of my go to and favourite albums to this day! But it was the appearance of Bowie that messed with my head. It was hard for me as a 12 year old to look at this man. Was he man or was he woman? What did it mean to be somewhere in between? I felt uncomfortable with the image, but I loved the music. It wasn’t really transgender, but it made me feel that something was askew.
And there was Lou Reed with his mascara, high heels, stockings and the seedy haunting lyrics of Take a Walk on the Wide Side with Holly, Candy, Little Joe and the others. Like most people, I sang along: ‘Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo…’ Impossible not to, really! ‘Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side’. I find myself singing along today when I hear this song. Why would I be singing along to a song about transvestite prostitution? A disturbing fact of music is that it sticks in your head, even when the lyrics might be distasteful. (Just ask any parent or grandparent who has heard the Baby Shark song—don’t kill me for mentioning it.) Why would I be singing along to a song about transvestite prostitution?
Back then such images were brash, confronting, distasteful (to me), and yet sometimes curious and seductive. Fast forward to 2018. Transgender is a big thing. It’s become a growing cultural and political avalanche. People don’t fit in their own skin. Growing numbers of people transitioning. Isolation and oppression. Arguments over pronouns. Debates over the rights of children, parents, teachers, doctors, governments. Identity politics. Cries for freedom. Chaos in sport. Confusion over toilets. Parents out of their depth. Fears of speaking up. Religious oppression. Male/female/other/custom forms. What does the future hold?
Transgender: A Talking Points Book by Vaughan Roberts is a users guide to transgender from the perspective of an intelligent, sympathetic, well-researched Christian writer. The Talking Points series of books is particularly designed to encourage Christians to understand today’s big issues with a view to encouraging meaningful, gracious, and intelligent discussion on a range of ethical matters. Tim Thornborough, the series editor, writes:
The world is changing. Fast.
And not just about politics, technology, and communication, but our whole culture, morality and attitudes. Christians living in a Western culture have enjoyed the benefits of being in a world which largely shared our assumptions about what is fundamentally right and wrong. We can no longer assume that this is the case. (p7)
Roberts suggests that there are two common responses to the issue of transgender: ‘an unquestioning “Yuk!” and an unquestioning “Yes!” (p18) He warns us to avoid both superficial responses and work to understand people and what’s going on for them. The first point of understanding for many of us, is to understand the language, terms, and ideas that are being used. He quotes from the Stonewall website to explain terms such as trans, cis, gender dysphoria, gender identity, transitioning, and more.
Our post-modern, post-Christian world has elevated subjectivism and the rights of people to define themselves, rather than be defined by others. This is certainly the spirit of our age and an undergirding conviction for those who define themselves not by the gender they were born with, or ‘assigned’ at birth, or the composition of their chromosomes, but how they feel inside. Facebook has gone with this view of individual personal autonomy, and now offers over 70 gender options for people to express their ‘authentic’ self. Huge debates rage over how to respond to gender dysphoria, especially in children and adolescents. Should puberty-suspending hormone treatment be provided to pre-adolescent children experiencing gender dysphoria? What if such dysphoria swings, changes, or disappears over the years that follow? Does a child have the right to seek such treatment against parental wishes? Does the education department, medical system, or another state body have the right to override parental permission? Such questions are highly charged, politicised, and deeply distressing to many. How are we to think through and decide on these things?
Transgender offers a Christian perspective on human identity, where it comes from, how it has been damaged, and some of the implications for human struggle and human flourishing. Roberts engages well with the teaching of the Bible and the implications of creation, fall, and regeneration. His book offers a framework for careful reflection on the matters of gender confusion: who I am, how I am, and what I can be?
I recommend this book for all Christians who desire to be better informed and equipped to understand people and society, who want to be able to engage on passionate matters without coming across as bigoted, unkind, or even hateful. It’s a helpful book for those who aren’t Christian, but want an insight into how Christians might be grappling with these matters. This book should be read by parents whose children are facing a world far more confusing than the one they grew up in. And this book is also designed to be read with others, and discussed together. If you are part of book club, then when your turn comes around, why not suggest a Talking Points Book, such as Transgender. You could read it one week and discuss it the next, and the next, and likely the next.
Inspirational. Provocative. Enticing. Raw. These are some of the words that quickly come to mind as I reflect on Rosaria Butterfield’s new book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key. Let me confess, I didn’t read this book. I listened to Rosaria read it. She kept me captivated from the minute I left Canberra until I drove into my street in Bonny Hills. Eight hours of ‘radically ordinary hospitality’.
If you haven’t come across Rosaria Butterfield, let me introduce her briefly. She grew up in an atheist family and went to a Catholic school. She found herself attracted to the lesbian and homosexual communities at an early age, pursued studies in literature, and eventually became a professor in English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. Rosaria was a influential radical and a leader in LGBTQ rights. In an earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria describes how she set out to write a book critiquing Christianity, and how in the process she became a Christian herself.
The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a book about the importance of hospitality. Not the hospitality of tea parties and lace tablecloths. This is a long distance from ‘entertaining’ others. This is radical and ordinary, and it is motivated and shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s about welcoming strangers and turning them into neighbours. It’s about welcoming neighbours and inviting them to become extended family.
Rosaria’s conversion came about over many months of dinners at the home of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. They demonstrated to her the deep difference between acceptance and approval. They accepted Rosaria for who she was. Her beliefs, lifestyle, aspirations, and politics were no barrier to real welcome, hospitality, acceptance, and friendship. Her experience of God’s grace through the hospitality of a Christian couple has radically shaped her desire to pass it forward. Together with her husband and family, they welcome anyone and everyone into their home, and they do it not occasionally, but on a daily basis. Their modest and functional home provides a safe haven for many in their community. They share meals, discuss current affairs, explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus, assist the needy, provide a refuge for discarded and abused, provide warmth, and model genuine love and friendship to others.
It’s a costly process. They give time and love in spades. Their food bill each week is double or triple what they would spend on themselves. Rosaria is making extra food literally every single day. When a family is in crisis, she is out delivering homemade meals. She makes regular offers on a social media app to the entire local community of 300 homes to assist the needy. All this on top of caring for her own family, supporting her husband in the ministry of their church, looking out for wider friends and family in need, studying the Scriptures, praying for many people, and even writing books. It’s a family lifestyle. The children consider it normal to reach out to others and invite people into their home. Her husband takes this attitude of hospitality to the jail, where he provides support for men who society has rejected and forgotten.
The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a gripping read because it is so real and raw. Rosaria tells story after story. We learn of her mother who absolutely hated Christianity and made life hell for the family. We meet the bloke across the street, his pit bull, and his drug addicted girl friend, and the account of the DEA raiding the house to dismantle his crystal meth lab. And we learn how God worked through the patience and love of Rosaria’s family to introduce these people and many more to the saving love of Jesus.
There is nothing showy about this hospitality. The regular menu revolves around rice and beans and the occasional chicken. Chairs are optional. Dogs are welcome. It’s barebones, rough, honest, and unpretentious. It’s attractive and daunting at the same time. Rosaria doesn’t have all the time and resources at her disposal, but she finds them and makes them. It’s costly and sacrificial.
There’s a warning too. Those who will find it most difficult to offer hospitality to the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, the unloved and unlovable will more than not be the rich—people like me, and maybe you. Those who have the most, fear they have the most to lose. They can’t risk their carpet, or their dining setting, or their polished reputation, or their safe, self-contained lifestyle. It’s hard following Jesus if you’re well off. Jesus had meals with ‘sinners’ and prostitutes. He met with lepers and social outcasts like the tax-collectors. He didn’t care about his reputation. He was willing to be waylaid and interrupted. He taught us what hospitality should really look like.
I asked myself a couple of questions after finishing this book:
How much of my hospitality is merely catching up with friends, rather than reaching out to care for the needy or the alienated? How much of my hospitality is literally the philoxenia—love of strangers—that we find in the New Testament?
We have a nice home, fairly new, matching furniture, close to the beach. Will I ensure that our home is for people? Will I care more for the welfare of those around us, than the welfare of our couches and coffee machine?
“Please God, help me to love others before myself. Help me to love people more than things. Help me to be generous with my time, gifts, possessions, and particularly our home. Teach me to become more and more hospitable. Teach me to delight in the love and care of those around me. Move me to share the great news of Jesus Christ with strangers and neighbours as you give me opportunity.”
Now that I’m a grandpa, I’m on the look out for great kids’ books. We’ve still got a few at home that our kids haven’t taken with them, but we’re keen for some new ones for when the grandkids come to visit. So I was pleased when the The Good Book Company sent me a new children’s book to review. It’s The Friend who Forgives: A True Story about how Peter Failed and Jesus Forgave, written by Dan DeWitt and illustrated by Catalina Echeverri.
Firstly, this is a beautiful book. The pictures are captivating—not just for kids, but adults too. They are lively, funny, colourful, and expressive. And the words, too. They’re written in a clear, simple, conversational style, that works for adults and children. The listener is drawn in with the occasional question. And most importantly, it’s beautifully theological. It introduces the readers and listeners to the wonder of Jesus’ forgiveness.
We tested the book yesterday with our nearly five year old grandson. He’s not reading yet so Nona read it to him. He listened intently, answering appropriately, and told me he enjoyed it at the end. We’ll read it to him again, next time he comes over.
But this is a review and not the ramblings of a grandpa. I need to mention the inside back cover. It helpfully reminds the readers that this is a ‘tale that tells the truth’. DeWitt explains that this story is taken from the New Testament Gospels. This is God’s revealed will. It’s anchored in history and it has significance for us. I think it would be worth reading the account from an easy-to-read Bible with the children from time to time, so they make the connection with the Scriptures.
I do have one concern about this book. It uses the words ‘forgive’, ‘forgave’, ‘forgiven’, ‘forgiveness’ without giving an explanation of what the word means. Not all words need explanation, but I think this one does. It’s central to the book and our grandson couldn’t tell us what it meant. When we thought about it, we realised that it is a difficult word to define simply. I recommend that you work out a simple explanation of forgiveness to share with the children who read this or have it read to them. Perhaps, you can think of an example or two they will quickly understand or identify with. Maybe, the author could add another page at the start or back, with a ‘For the reader’ section, defining and describing forgiveness.
For now, why don’t you make a comment or suggestion on this post. How would you explain forgiveness to a five year old?
Who of us wouldn’t want our churches to be genuine communities of meaningful, caring relationships? Perhaps this is your experience already. People invest in each other, they look out for one another, they show genuine interest, they seek help, they ask what they can pray and then they pray. They do more than offer support to others, they show deep empathy, compassion, and practical care. Maybe this is a bit of overreach, but you see glimpses of it and you want it more and more. Right?
If you’re a pastor or church leader, there is a danger of burning out due to the endless expectations that people place on you. Are you tired and weary from being expected to be the ‘minister’ to everyone? Do you wish that some other people would step up a bit, or that other leaders would share the load? Do you long for a community where everyone is looking out for one another?
Or are you getting disappointed that ministry has become more and more like social work? Are you worried that people’s health and finances and relationships are what seem to matter most? Do you lament the lack of spiritual engagement between people throughout the week, and worry that Sunday conversations rarely get beyond small talk?
Let me offer a suggestion for taking things deeper.
Ed Welch has released a new book called Caring for One Another: 8 Ways to Cultivate Meaningful Relationships. Get yourself a copy, read it, and start getting those around you to buy in. Following on from one of his previous books, Side by Side, he provides a simple and practical resource for equipping Christians for real interpersonal ministry. It’s a brief book—8 short chapters that get us thinking about how to encourage each other to live in the light of the gospel of Jesus. There are great ideas, Biblical foundations, practical recommendations, and each chapter finishes with questions for discussion and application.
This book is intended to be read with others. I can see it providing a good tool for one-to-one meetings with key leaders, or in small group leader training, or with a pastoral care team. It’s not specifically a book for leaders—it’s intended to mobilise everyone in the church to be encouraging and building each other—but I’d start by working these things through with leaders and then mobilise them to equip others.
Welch’s book is less of a ‘how to manual’ and more of a ‘keys to the heart’ guide—but practical and hands on nonetheless. He shows deep understanding of God’s part and our part in God’s work of changing people. Humility, prayer, understanding our weaknesses and sin, reflecting carefully on suffering, and knowing the power of God and the gospel are all critical. Caring for One Another moves well past the theoretical. It aims to grow intentionality and to activate us in relationship with each other. It’s grounded in a deep understanding of how people tick and it’s littered with great ideas and suggestions for making things happen.
I’ve read through this book quickly, but I plan to go over it again, and probably again, and again, by reading it with others. I recommend you do too.
Welch writes in his closing:
Caring for One Another has identified ordinary features of person-to-person engagement. There is nothing new here. The purpose has been to remember and live out applications of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But in that, the very power of God is further on display, and the church is strengthened and drawn together. (p67)
Resilience and burnout are big issues in work and ministry at present. In the field of Christian ministry the statistics of burnout seem alarmingly high and the focus on building resilience is both urgent and important. Kirsten Burkett has provided a great service by sharing her research into these areas in her latest book Resilience: A Spiritual Project. This isn’t a popular level book. For a start it’s published by The Latimer Trust, as the 84th of their brief academic studies. While only being 46 pages in length, it includes another 9 pages of bibliography, comprising mainly of academic journal articles. But don’t let these things put you off. Resilience: A Spiritual Project is compact, yet thorough, and I found it engaging and easy to read. While much of her book is surveying and summarising findings in the literature, Dr Birkett draws us to practical conclusions with profound pastoral implications.
Dr Birkett writes as an experienced researcher, academic, author, and teacher. However, she does this in sync with her experience of grappling with burnout herself, and with an eye to equipping men and women in pastoral ministry. She understands the particular dangers and threats for those engaged in a profession where resilience is needed to fuel perseverance and endurance. Most profoundly, Dr Birkett draws on the wisdom of the research to argue that resilience ‘can be learned’ and ‘people can be trained against future stress’ (p17). She is also careful to emphasise that resilience is not a cure all. Sometimes people are simply tired and need to slow down, rest, or take time out. Other times people are overwhelmed by sadness, grief, or trauma, and just need time to weep and mourn. However, she writes:
If we keep resilience in perspective, as ways of helping healthy people stay healthy and of helping ill people recover, it seems to be an extremely useful construct. Human beings are resilient — we could hardly have survived this long otherwise. (p25)
Dr Birkett demonstrates in her book that there are significant overlaps between resilience research and Christian spirituality. Many features identified in the literature as important in building resilience, find expression in biblical expressions of Christian faith in action. She examines the following areas:
Adversity leads to strength
Sense of meaning and purpose
Hope and optimism and positive emotions
Self-efficacy: God efficacy
If you have a good understanding of the life of a Christian then you will hear the resonance already.
We believe that God works to strengthen and transform his people through adversity. Suffering is not to be sought after, but it is to be expected. ‘What people need, it seems, is not a stress-free life, but the framework to treat stress well; to use it as a stimulus for growth, rather than buckling under it’ (p33).
We believe that we have been created for a purpose, essentially for Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16). We are not the product of chance and time. There is meaning, purpose, significance, and eternity. We may not always understand our suffering but God, in his wisdom, uses it to produce good (Romans 8:18,28).
We believe, not in some external transcendent force, but in a God who is accessible and invites us to come to him in our times of need. God has come to us in the incarnation of Jesus. God dwells in and among his people by his Spirit. We have access to God through the death and resurrection of his Son, and so we are invited to come before him in prayer, and present our requests to him rather than staying isolated in our anxiety.
We believe there is good reason for hope. Our faith is built on hope in the promises of God. God has shown he is faithful in Christ Jesus and because of this we can have joy even in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 1:3-7).
We have deep reason to love others. We did nothing to deserve it, but God has loved us, at enormous cost, through the atoning death of Jesus. This leads to a purposeful altruism, motivated by God’s work in and through us. At the heart of this is power and willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. We can shed our anger and avoid bitterness.
We believe, not in self-efficacy, but in the efficacy of God. There is honesty in Christian understanding that we are not equal to all tasks. We don’t need to be demoralised by our continual sub-par performances. We’re not required to grow super powers. Our sovereign God knows our needs and will accomplish his purposes for our good. This is stress-relieving.
We believe that God has given us a community. We are adopted into his family and called to love our brothers and sisters. Hospitality and care are part of the fabric of our relationships.
You see, in other words, God is in the business of building resilience in his people. How then should we train Christian ministers for resilience? Dr Birkett nails it with her insight:
It would seem we do so by training them to be Christian. (p38)
Read that again! Building resilience comes from Christian discipleship.
Building resilience in Christian leaders isn’t simply the domain of Christian psychologists, as important and as helpful as they can be. It should be the fruit of putting a deepening understanding of God and his ways into practice. It should come as we soak ourselves in the Scriptures and turn to God in prayer. Resilience should be the outworking of good doctrine and faith working itself out in love. There are no silver bullets, no secret elixirs, when it comes to avoiding burnout. But, as God’s children, we have a Father in heaven who knows us, loves us, guides us, equips us, heals us, and sustains us. Let’s turn to him in our hour of need.
Resilience: A Spiritual Project is a word in season.
Yes, I’m trying to get my writing mojo back. People say the way to start writing is to start writing. People are profound sometimes! So back to reviewing a few of the books I’ve been reading. This book was recommended to me by a friend who suggested it might be helpful to leaders in our network around the country.
Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success and why some people never learn from their mistakes by Matthew Syed identifies some important blind spots. People are always telling us that we should learn from our mistakes, fail forward, and change the way we go about things so that we keep on improving. The problem is that we so often repeat our mistakes, get stuck in ruts, and fear making changes.
This book takes its title from the little black boxes fitted to aeroplanes. I understand that planes are fitted with devices to record the electronics of the aircraft and to record the interactions of the pilots. These devices are stored in ‘indestructible’ black boxes that can be retrieved in the case of accidents. Apparently these black boxes are now orange, not because orange is the new black, but because orange boxes are easier to locate when rubble is scattered far and wide. What a great example of black box thinking!
Going back to 1912, plane crashes were considered normal and inevitable. Half of US army pilots died in air crashes, even during peacetime. Fast-forward to today and plane travel is one of the safest means of transport. There are very few deaths and the accident rate is about 1 in 2.5 million flights. There are many reasons for this tremendous improvement, but at its core there is a mindset in the aviation world that says, “We must learn from our mistakes.” The black box is a tangible expression of this attitude. When something goes badly wrong, it must then be examined with a fine tooth comb to make sure such mistakes don’t happen again. This is a life and death imperative.
This mindset is not seen everywhere else. People are reluctant to own up to their mistakes. We’d prefer to rationalise things, pass the blame, gloss over what has happened, and avoid scrutiny or accusation. Human pride gets in the way. Syed contrasts the slowness of the health profession to learn from mistakes with the progress of the aviation industry. When doctors make mistakes they get hammered by litigation, public shaming, deregistration, increased insurance costs, and the like. So who wants to admit fault? In both arenas, people’s lives depend on learning from mistakes and making changes to avoid things being repeated.
I depend greatly on the proficiency and safety of both the medical and aviation sectors. Both these areas matter to me. But there are other lessons I am interested in. As one who now leads are network of churches, or denomination, I am concerned about the systemic failure of churches to learn from their mistakes. The recent Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, has reveal some appalling accounts of denials, cover ups, and codes of silence. Black box thinking requires the truth to be revealed, serious questions to be asked, and future problems avoided.
We need to learn from our mistakes. Even more so, we need to repent of our blatant sin. The problem with sin is that it leads to shame and so we cover ourselves. We’ve been doing it since the beginning. God calls us to confess our sins, to be honest with one another, to take heed of our failures, and to spur each other on to love and good works.
But it’s not simply in the areas of heinous sin that we need to develop black box thinking—it’s in the day to day of our ministry. It seems that many churches are trapped in patterns of mindless repetition. Q. “Why do we do what we do?” A. “Because that’s what we’ve always done.” And we wonder why people have stopped coming!
Whether it’s church, school, business, club, or whatever, we need to keep thinking about what’s not working, why it’s not working, what needs to change, and how we can change it. Review should me commonplace and regular. Action—reflection—reaction should be our normal pattern. Failures should be seen as opportunities to make changes for the better. Mistakes should be valued as triggers for improvement. You’ve probably heard the Michael Jordan stories of countless missed shots, errors of judgment, lost games—all viewed as opportunities to learn, grow, succeed, and become arguably the greatest basketball player in history.
Syed challenges the popular view that success is primarily based upon innate qualities such as talent and intelligence. He describes this as a Fixed Mindset. He argues that we need to develop a Growth Mindset, where success can be achieved though dedication and hard work. People are capable of achieving more if they are willing to learn and make changes and if they are willing to practice until perfect.
In my world of Christian ministry I want to make a plea for black box thinking. Let’s learn from our mistakes and failures. Let’s ask the difficult questions. Let’s normalise reviews and feedback. And this will require humility from everyone, and especially from pastors and leaders.
Allow me to illustrate with 7 suggestions for black box thinking for pastors:
Pastors would benefit from professional supervision. Taking timeout to reflect and learn from our practice will improve our ministries. Find someone who can speak into your circumstances and help you to develop black box thinking.
Pastors should seek feedback on their sermons from people they trust. I’ve heard depressing tales of ministers unwilling to provide support and feedback to their trainees because they won’t accept critique themselves.
Pastors can build a culture of learning from mistakes by reviewing what they and the church do on a regular basis. Go with the natural rhythms. Monday is a good time to review the services on the weekend—what worked, what didn’t, what could be done better next time? Once a quarter would be a good time to make adjustments to our regular programs. Why not introduce a major annual review, such that every year things change and grow for the better?
Pastors could organise to get together with peers from time to time to share successes and failures. Being open with one another builds a culture of humility. Iron sharpens iron. You can learn from one another’s mistakes and avoid falling in the same traps. Go to a conference or two where you can learn from others.
Maintain the discipline of reading books that will keep building your competencies. Begin regularly with the Bible and ask God to deepen your love and understanding of him. Read a commentary to enrich your understanding of the Scriptures, something on leadership to challenge your practice, a book on culture to evaluate how well you understand your world, and so on. Ask others you trust what they have found useful.
Become more thoughtful. Think about your thinking. Keep some notes and look back over them. Journal lessons you have learned. Set goals for change.
Pray. Ask God to shine a light into your thinking, feelings, emotions, relationships, decisions, plans. Look into the ‘black box’ of God’s word and make the necessary changes.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)
I could never have imagined myself reading a book by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, but I have, and to my profit. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has helped me understand more about how I think, make decisions, communicate, and respond to the words and actions of others.
His basic idea is that we have two different modes of thinking and processing information. The first mode is automatic and impulsive. It’s our knee-jerk response that enables us to take short cuts and move on with ease. The second mode is more deliberate, focused, logical, and it’s necessary for making truly wise choices. Some of us tend to react instinctively, go with our guts, and sometimes miss things that are critical. As an ENFP (Myers-Briggs Type), I’m one of them. People need to spend most of their time in the first mode because we haven’t got the time or the stamina to carefully examine every decision we make. Some things just need to be automatic. However, we can become lazy thinkers, and take short cuts when we shouldn’t, and not slow down when we really should.
We are all prone to making snap choices—weighing up people and situations in an instant. We oversimplify, latching on to something we like and assuming that we will like everything. This can lead to major errors in judgment. Let’s say I’m considering someone for a job. I learn that they love fishing, camping and four-wheel driving. This leads me to gravitate towards them. We spend time chatting about our common interests, places we’ve been, experiences we’ve had. I like them. Hence, there is now a bias toward preferring this person regardless of what experience they might have had in the job, how competent or incompetent they are, whether they are a team player or prima donna, or any other critical criteria. This has been called the halo effect. We assume they will be good even though we know very little about them.
Similarly, I might know some details about a person, such as where they trained or who they’ve worked with previously. I associate what I know about them with an ideal that I’ve created. If I’ve had positive experiences with the people they know or with the training organisation they come from, then confirmation bias may lead me to make assumptions about them and not do due diligence to get more relevant information specifically about them. I wonder how many people employed on the ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ principle, have turned out so differently to what was expected. Taking short cuts might save time in the short term, but may lead to drawn out disasters in the longer term.
Kahneman discusses how we perceive statistics, memories, risks, choices, and more. He shows how our perspective shapes how we respond to things. For example, if a shopkeeper is told that there is a 1% chance that someone entering her shop will be a shoplifter, then she might not worry too much. But, if she was told that of the 1000 people who will come through her shop this week, 10 of them will be shoplifters, you can imagine she will be on high alert for who they might be. The statistics are identical but each statement offers a different perspective.
Context is also important for weighing decisions. If two people are both promised that by the end of the year they will each have a net worth of $100 million, then you’d expect them to be equally happy, wouldn’t you? If one of them was me, I’d be ecstatic. Who wouldn’t be happy with $100 million? If I told you that the other person was Mark Zuckerberg, whose current net worth sits at $75 billion, you can see how context changes everything!
These insights will help us to be more effective communicators. Pausing to consider how people might ‘see’ what we are saying, will move us to take the extra step to get our message across more clearly. So often we think if something has been said then it’s been heard. But is their perception the same as our intention? It pays to be clear and it pays to enquire as to whether we’ve been understood.
Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book to get us thinking about our thinking. While much of what we do needs to be quick and automatic, there are some areas where we need to disengage cruise control and put our minds into manual. In my work as a church pastor over many years I can see times when I took the lazy option and endured the consequences of not thinking hard or long enough. Now, I watch others fall into similar errors of judgment. While we know there is always more than meets the eye and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we get lazy, we’re attracted by the short cuts. I hope that I will grow in wisdom, be a better judge of people, make smarter decisions, and communicate for effectively, as I seek to think both fast and slow.
It’s a small world, sometimes. Last weekend Fiona and I were camped in the shearers quarters at Lake Menindee, together with the members of Saltbush Church from Broken Hill. We hadn’t been there before and it’s quite a while since we were anywhere so remote. Over breakfast I met John Wenham, and I jokingly said that I had a few books written by him at home. Turns out that I had read books by his grandfather of the same name, also a few by his dad, and a couple by one of his uncles. I’ve since read a book by another of his uncles, Michael Wenham, called My Donkey Body: Living with a body that no longer obeys you. Wow, so many books in one family!
My Donkey Body recounts Michael Wenham’s journey with a rare form of Motor Neurone Disease (MND). If you’re unfamiliar with this disease, think Stephen Hawking. The motor neurones that transmit instructions from the brain to the muscles deteriorate and cannot replace themselves. The brain keeps working but it becomes unable to get messages to the muscles to do their work. The person becomes more and more debilitated and eventually the muscles that keep you alive stop working. MND is a terminal illness and there is currently no known cure.
Michael Wenham is a Christian, who tells his story of discovering and living with this disease from the perspective of faith. My Donkey Body is a sad, gripping, and often humorous account of one man, together with his wife and family, coming to grips with weakness, disability, frustration, pain, and ultimately mortality. As a preacher, whose voice was his tool of trade, he recounts what it’s like to lose control over your vocal muscles. He shares about the humiliation of being picked up out of the gutter by strangers and relying on his wife to wipe his backside. There’s nothing romantic about MND.
I checked with Google and discovered that Wenham continues to blog, write articles, and he has done some very moving video interviews. Wenham has now been living with this disease for many years. While his physical abilities have declined, his mind has remained sharp. He engages with real issues of relationships, health, religion, dependence, living and dying. Wenham has engaged with Stephen Hawking and provided informed and sympathetic rebuttals to Hawking’s dismissive critiques of any afterlife. He has written against legalising assisted suicide for the terminally ill like himself. He opposes the creation of human stem cells for the purpose of experimentation, even if it should provide the cure for MND. His arguments aren’t a bigoted bias toward regressive religion over against progressive science. Rather, they arise from one who knows suffering and mortality, but who deeply respects that all persons are made in God’s image. He demonstrates powerfully that people are not valuable according to their utility and value to society (however that might be measured), but because God has made them human. Every person matters.
Wenham argues for the importance of knowing God and having faith in God’s power and goodness. He’s prepared to ask the hard questions and admits to not having all the answers. Being a Christian doesn’t take away the pain or the suffering. He argues with CS Lewis:
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don’t understand.
(quoting CS Lewis A Grief Observed p23) in My Donkey Body p128
I am grateful that Michael Wenham took the time and made the effort to share his thoughts. Much of this book resonates with my experience of receiving a terminal diagnosis, coping with physical and mental pain, losing things that have shaped my identity, and asking questions of faith and doubt. Yet my circumstances have taken a turn for the better. Many of my disabilities have been replaced by renewed abilities. And that brings it’s own dangers and threats—especially the risk of forgetting how much I need God.
There is something about weakness that drives us back to our Father in heaven. I need to be reminded that this life is a gift from God. Every day is a day for rejoicing. Nothing should be taken for granted. The less I remember my dependence on God, the bigger an ass I become.
Coaching and playing don’t always require the same skill set. Not every player will make a good coach and not every successful coach will have been an elite player. Look at some of the men coaching gymnastics. It’s hard to believe they could have ever mastered the pommel horse or uneven bars for themselves, but they can be brilliant at training others. The successful coaches are somehow able to deconstruct each aspect of each move, and train their athletes to weave their brilliance in seamless performances.
Every now and then we see a player with a deep awareness of the game. And not just their contribution to the game, but the game itself, and how every part works together. Steve Larkham, the Australian rugby great, was a player like this. He’d weave his magic and he’d create the opportunities for others to weave their’s. Larkham not only did, but he knew what he did, and he could pass this on to others. He coached as he played and it was no surprise to see him coaching after he stopped playing.
So what does this have to do with expositional preaching? Nothing. I just love gratuitous sporting illustrations!
Seriously though, many great preachers function at a very high level of unconscious competence. They communicate with clarity and depth. They shine a light on the riches of God’s word and they impress it on the hearts and minds of their listeners. We come away from their preaching with ‘our hearts burning within us’. But don’t ask them to train other preachers. They can’t even tell you what it is they do. They’re at a loss when it comes to coaching.
Recently, I attended a preaching coaching workshop at Moore College. I’m so glad I did. For me it was Preaching Coaching 101. Keep it simple. Break things down. Clarity. Simplicity. Specificity. Depth. Grace. Gospel. Theological. Heart. Mind. Affections. Motivations. Exegesis. Contextualisation. And more.
I love preaching, but I also love listening to great preaching. We need more and more passionate, humble, empowered, clear, focused communicators of the Word of God’s Spirit. We need people who will dig deeply into the text and fire it deep into the psyches of the listeners. We need preachers who handle the Scriptures with care and expect God to transform their listeners. This means both getting the message right and getting the message across.
Enter David Helm and his sharp little book, Expositional Preaching: How we speak God’s Word today. Our coaching workshop leant heavily on Helm’s approach to expositional preaching. Helm has learned much from the likes of great preachers like Dick Lucas and Kent Hughes, and it shows. Like a master coach he has broken down the art of preaching so as to pass it on to others. Helm is persuaded that we need to do two things well: Get it right and get it across (p36).
I’ve listened to the audio book of Expositional Preaching and now I’m digging into it more thoroughly with my paper copy, and a pen and a highlighter in hand.
Helm addresses the dangers of merely coming to the Bible to find something that fits with what we want to say. He asks the question “Who will be king? Me? Or the biblical text?” Helm is persuaded that we must let God speak and not get in his way with our hobby horses or attempts to be ‘relevant’. This must involve careful exegesis and theological reflection, but it will also require an investment in careful communication. Helm covers both sides of this equation in his book.
Expositional Preaching provides an introduction to the necessary building blocks for preparing messages that will communicate God’s message to contemporary listeners. If I can shift my metaphors, Helm’s book offers us a recipe for preaching that is nutritious, well presented, and full of taste.
It’s probably aimed at new preachers—ministry trainees, students in theological colleges, people starting out on a lifetime of teaching the Scriptures. For me, it’s an excellent coaching manual for those of us who feel we can do, but who have trouble in identifying what we do and why we do it and how we do it. If we seriously want to equip people who are passionate and skilled in biblical preaching, then I recommend we recruit David Helm as our coach—or at least work seriously through his coaching manual.