Humilitas

It’s hard to know how to review John Dickson’s book, Humilitas. With humility I suppose, or at least without humiliating myself! It’s hard because I’m not much of an expert on the topic, and it’s doubly hard because the author is a good mate whom I greatly admire. I’ve always been stimulated through reading John’s books. I confess to having envied John’s capacity as a preacher, didgeridoo player, author, and general all round talent. But mostly I just like having the occasional catch up, coffee together, and being encouraged by an old friend.

Well, Humilitas is not what I expected! I’ve grown accustomed to John writing books on the life and teaching of Jesus, books that answer difficult questions, and books seeking to persuade others to follow Jesus. I quickly discovered that this is a different type of book, pitched at a different audience. This is not so much for the enquirer into Christianity, as the one who is seeking to grow as a leader and build stronger relationships with others. (Not to suggest these are mutually exclusive, by the way.) I’d expect to find this book sitting comfortably alongside books by Ken Blanchard or Max de Pree in the leadership section of your local bookshop… if there are any local bookshops still in existence!

I found Humilitas a good read and completed it in a couple of sittings. John is self-effacing as he writes, only too aware of the sitting duck he has become in presuming to teach on humility! He writes with grace and style, colouring his work with historical and contemporary examples of humble men and women. Indeed, I loved reading some of my favourite anecdotes from A Sneaking Suspicion now providing powerful illustrations of humility in action! But this is not a repackaged, ‘slap together’ paperback by a prolific author. It shows evidence of serious research over many years, much of it historical, laying a foundation for an academic and yet highly practical work. As I was reading this book, I also listened to James O’Loghlin interviewing John about the topic on ABC radio. It helped bring the book to life even more. You can listen to the interview online.

John writes of humilitas in the positive sense of humility, rather than its negative sense of humiliation. He provides his own working definition that he expounds throughout the book…

Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others. (p24)

Three thoughts are inherent in this definition of humility. Firstly, it presupposes your dignity. The humble person begins by being aware of their worth and abilities. Secondly, it is a choice. Otherwise it would simply be humiliation. And thirdly, it is social, as it’s shown in putting others before yourself.

John argues persuasively that humility is a necessary ingredient to truly successful leadership. He demonstrates that it’s common sense to cultivate humility in our personal and professional dealings with others. He highlights the aesthetics of humility, not as an ornament to be worn, but as an inner virtue that is attractive to others. The historian in John comes to the fore as he reveals how humility wasn’t always a prized virtue in the ancient world. In fact, self-congratulation and boasting (that would often be despised today) was much more common and accepted in the ancient world. However, something happened to change this perspective, such that humility is widely recognised as a beautiful and desirable virtue today.

John presents a strong case for the impact of Jesus changing people’s perspective on humility in the first century. Mind you, he argues as a historian, and not as a preacher, Christian apologist or evangelist. This is not to say that Christians have a monopoly on humility – they certainly don’t! He writes…

My point is not that Christians alone can be humble; rather, as a plain historical statement, humility came to be valued in Western culture as result of Christianity’s dismantling of the all-pervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world.

Put another way, while we certainly don’t need to follow Christ to appreciate humility or to be humble, it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue were it not for the historical impact of his crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy. Our culture remains cruciform, long after it stopped being Christian. (p112)

The latter chapters of the book reveal the some of the practical benefits of humility for life, love and leadership. I will simply refer to the chapter headings to highlight the trajectory of his arguments:

Chapter 7 – Growth: Why humility generates abilities.
Chapter 8 – Persuasion: How character determines influence.
Chapter 9 – Inspiration: How humility lifts those around us.
Chapter 10 – Harmony: Why humility is better than “tolerance”.
Chapter 11 – Steps: How it’s possible to become (more) humble.

I was anxious to dip into the final chapter and come away with some tips on becoming (more) humble! Something I need, I’m afraid to say – in fact, we probably all do. John leaves us with six thoughts to consider. Firstly, we are shaped by what we love. If humility doesn’t appeal, then we are hardly likely to become very humble. Secondly, reflect on the lives of the humble. Jesus, is undisputedly humble and reading the New Testament Gospels offers an excellent insight into humility in action. And, John mentions other more recent examples, people such as Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, along with some notorious counter-examples! Thirdly, John suggests conducting thought experiments to enhance humility. Perhaps, another way to put this is, is to exercise our empathy muscles, so as to consider how we will relate with others in advance. Fourthy, act humbly. This doesn’t mean we should pretend. Faking it would hardly count as humility! Rather, humility becomes easier and a more natural response the more we put it into practice. Fifthly, he suggests we invite criticism. It’s not easy, and we won’t do it naturally, but seeking feedback from people you respect and trust is very worthwhile. And sixthly, forget about being humble. He quotes C.S. Lewis on this point:

If anyone would like to acquire humility… the first step is to realise that one is proud. (p183)

I found myself wanting to add another thought to this list. Pray. God wants to transform us into the likeness of his son, Jesus. The Bible teaches that to become more and more like Jesus involves becoming increasingly humble. So I recommend we ask God to grow an attitude of humility within us. In fact, I must confess to often praying something like: Dear God, please make me more humble, but without humiliating me. A dangerous prayer, perhaps!

This is a helpful book. It’s not a religious book, and it should appeal to people of many walks of life, cultural contexts, and different philosophical and religious persuasions. It’s a book I would recommend or offer to others, especially those in positions of leadership. As a Christian it whet my appetite to learn more of what God says about humility. To look more closely at the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and what others have said about him, inside and outside the Bible (especially in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians). In fact, I would like to see a follow up or addendum to Humilitas. Perhaps John could produce a study guide, or discussion questions, or a specifically Christian booklet, that would take us deeper into the the Bible’s teaching on this important topic.

Deliberate Simplicity

deliberate_simplicityThey say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I confess to buying and reading this book because of its cover! Deliberate Simplicity – How the Church Does More by Doing Less is a catchy title and the image of the paperclip on the cover captures the essence of functional simplicity. This book aims at getting the church and its leaders to be intentionally aiming to fulfil our mission in the simplest ways possible.

Last year I focused on reading books and resources aimed at clarifying and refocusing our ministry. We seemed to be doing a lot, but it wasn’t always clear why we were doing what we were doing, or how some of the things we did related to other things we did. Life and ministry were feeling cluttered and busy, and I was keen to stocktake, prune, reorganise and rebuild for the future. I’m sorry that I didn’t know about this book then.

Deliberate Simplicity identifies six factors that describe the successfully Deliberately Simple church. These are:

Minimality – keep it simple.
Intentionality – keep it missional.
Reality – keep it real.
Multility – keep it cellular.
Velocity – keep it moving.
Scalability – keep it expanding.

Browning identifies these six things as his new equation for the deliberately simple church. He contrasts his approach with that of ‘traditional’ churches, mega churches, and other sorts of churches. At times there seems a measure of arrogance or smugness with his approach, like he has discovered the key to doing church properly, or that his ways reconnect with the church of New Testament times. However, despite the ‘we’ve got it right’ feel about the book, it does contain many helpful perspectives on church, and it offers a helpful diagnostic tool for refreshing our ministries. Let me share a few ideas that I found helpful from the different sections of this book.

Minimality

Deliberate Simplicity aims at restricting the activities of the church instead of expanding them. The goal is to prioritise what’s important and get rid of extraneous junk. Browning’s church values small groups as the centre of church life, so they deliberately remove things that get in the way of small groups functioning well.

The book rejects the way that many large churches have moved toward a professionalism that only allows for the most gifted and talented to be actively involved in ministry. In contrast to the ‘Search for Excellence’, they proclaim that ‘good enough is good enough’. The desire to have everything well resourced, carefully measured and planned can make churches too complicated. In contrast…

We keep asking, “What is the simplest thing that could possibly work?” We try to have just enough to facilitate our mission. Just enough money. Just enough time. Just enough leaders. Just enough space. Just enough advertising. We don’t want to stockpile assets.

They also aim for doctrinal simplicity, majoring on the majors, and not being dominated by peripheral teaching. While it’s true that there are doctrines central to Christian faith, and others are less so, we need to be careful here. I don’t know the teaching agenda of Browning’s church, but being too selective can easily lead to neglecting scripture that is difficult or awkward, and to merely preaching our hobbyhorses.

Intentionality

By making an up-front investment in unusual clarity, a Deliberately Simple church reaps the benefit of spending less time and energy trying to figure out what it’s trying to do and more time doing it.

This quote resonated with me. I look back over many years of ministry and think about how many things we’ve done that have been a waste of time, or a tangent to the main game, and how much has been absolutely central. I think some of our busyness and distractedness came about because we hadn’t adequately clarified or communicated our mission.

Peter Drucker says that every organisation needs to be able to answer two questions: What business are we in? and How’s business? We can’t answer the second unless we are clear on the first. Some of the books I’ve read on ‘church’ suggest that the answer to the first question is subjective, particular to each and every church. I disagree. The church belongs to God, and we’re called to be on about his business, not ours. The answer must come from the Bible. We’re called to discern God’s plans and purposes for his church, and then to put that into effect in our own context. The power of the vision lies in its divine origin. The role of the leaders is to align and engage the church with God’s vision.

Browning’s church is intentionally mission-focused. He sees the church existing for the sake of those who aren’t in it, and he prioritises outreach (care for those on the outside) over nurture (care for those on the inside). A big part of the pastor’s job is to keep the church focused on the outsider, because it is more natural and comfortable to look after our own needs first.

Reality

Many look at the church and see something that seems artificial, hypocritical or contrived. Why is that? If God is real, if the gospel is real, then why don’t Christians get real in how we go about church? Deliberate Simplicity is aiming for WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). Our personal and public presentation should be sincere.

People need to understand that it’s not about religion. It’s about a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It’s about loving God and loving people. Church should be come as you are. It should be an environment of grace. Posing and artificiality need to be rooted out. Church should be less like the formal living room, and more like the lived-in family room.

The reality of Christian faith and experience should come across in what we do and how we do it. Church shouldn’t be cluttered with fluff. At Browning’s church, straightforward messages are given in a normal tone of voice and in conversational style. I like that! Our sermons aren’t lectures. We’re not presenting papers to a symposium. We’re not reading someone else’s work. So let’s get real about how we communicate God’s word. My belief, is that we need to let God’s word work on us first, and thenwe are much more likely to communicate in a real way to others.

Multility

I didn’t recognise this word, and neither did my spell-checker. Browning defines it as…

mul•til•i•ty  n:  a commitment to multiples of something, instead of a larger version of that thing

He believes that more is better than bigger. This is a methodological commitment that differs from the megachurch approach. He illustrates this strategy by reference to the McDonalds restaurant franchise that keeps reproducing more of the same-size outlets in new locations, rather than up-sizing the outlets. He advocates a multi-location church, with multiple smaller centres, and multiple teachers and leaders, as the pathway for growing the church. His church has many such parts throughout the US and many other countries. He calls it a church, but I think I’d call it a denomination!

The rhetoric of this approach says more instead of bigger, ministries instead of programs, empower instead of control, prosumers instead of consumers, decentralised instead of centralised, and yes instead of no. Who can argue with that?! I’d be an idiot not to follow this model, wouldn’t I?!

There is much worth digesting in this section. It’s important to ask questions about our churches and our culture, about our ability and what we’re attempting to do, and about what is working and not working as we look at our church and others. As our churches get bigger, so they also need to get smaller. We need to keep people connected and engaged, to make it harder to be a passenger, and easier to be a participant.

Velocity

Many traditional churches don’t seem to change at all, and they take forever to do anything. By contrast, there’s a real energy in the Deliberately Simple church. They’re committed to growing, and growing quickly. They are always aiming for more – more people, more groups, more congregations, more people serving more people.

And they plan for this to happen. They keep asking questions like What will be need to do to double this congregation? This means they’re preparing for the future rather than simply catching up with the present. They see the need to let leaders lead, to streamline the organisation for action, to step out in faith, to be ready to respond to opportunities, and to keep the church from institutionalisation. These are risky ideals. But risks are needed.

I believe we need a greater sense of urgency in our churches. We move so slowly sometimes that it doesn’t seem like we’re moving at all. We act like we have all the time in the world. But, the truth is we don’t! We need to number our days, to seize our opportunities, to live as though each day is our last.

Scalability

Can the church think forward and outward instead of inward and backward? Can we start thinking about those we are to serve instead of how they can serve us?

The deliberately simple church is called to look beyond itself, to increase its reach and influence, to multiply and grow.

Browning uses the image of a network of ‘terror cells’ and flips it to describe the church. He calls us to create a ‘global unterror network’. His mandate for leaders is to create organisational structures that support consistent, small-scale, organic, growth in our churches. This contrasted with church structures where small congregations and groups exist to support hierarchy and bureaucracy at the top.

Perhaps controversially, he argues for rapid leader deployment. His model is IDTS (identify, deploy, train, support) rather than the traditional ITDS (identify, train, deploy, support). There’s a momentum in this approach that gets people engaged in ministry quickly. The one deployed is the one who understands the need to be trained. In my experience, we sometimes run training courses, qualify and equip people for ministry, but then fail to deploy them. Or else people get bored by the training and fail to take the next step into service. There’s much to be said for training on the job.

And so?

So what do we make of this book? It’s a stimulating read, littered with good ideas, helpful critiques and pithy quotes. But, I found it annoying too! I came away feeling like Browning thought he’d rediscovered the ‘right’ way to do church, especially when he described his church as being similar to the early church in the Book of Acts. I’m left with many questions about how things really work in practice, and whether there are substantial differences between what they are doing and many other churches.

I was left unsatisfied that the ‘equation’ of six factors really defines a Deliberately Simple church. It was hard to clearly distinguish between ‘multility’ and ‘scalability’. And I think six things isn’t simple enough. Our church once had a five point vision. We reduced it to four points, to make it more memorable and functional. Our last change was to get it down to three points, and I think people are starting to get it! But I do commend this book to church leaders. We could all do with little more deliberate simplicity.

Sticky teams

I’ve been a pastor in an independent church for some time now. We don’t own any property, but we’ve been meeting regularly in community centres, clubs, schools, and universities. Our church is free of many of the trappings and restrictions of traditional churches. We’re not big on ceremony. We’re not into dressing up to go to church. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of a particular denomination to get involved. In fact, a lot of what we do is being worked out ‘on the run’ and could probably described as pretty amateur.

Our church culture and community doesn’t have a lot of history. We’ve had to invent a few wheels and learn a fair bit from trial and error. It’s not that we’re making up new doctrines or teaching. We’re not abandoning the traditional understanding of the Christian faith. In fact, we’re very keen to be shaped and directed by the Bible in all we believe. It’s more to do with how things are done around here. 

Many of my friends in ministry don’t have to think too much about leadership structures in their churches – they simply are what they are. They’re Presbyterian, so they have elders, sessions, presbyteries and committees of management. Or they’re Baptist, so they have deacons and congregational meetings and pastors and water! But how do things work when you’re independent?

Last year, I made a particular focus of reading widely on issues of leadership and church life. I read, so as to better diagnose our own condition and to digest ideas and input for moving our church forward. One book that was very stimulating and resonated with many of our issues and concerns was, Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne.

The basic idea of Sticky Teams is to achieve unity in alignment. Getting people on the same page, with the same goals, and headed in the same direction. In particular, it focuses on getting the church, the staff, and the governing body of the church united in vision and purpose. A number of our leaders read this book and they had various reactions to it. Some were sold on the ideas, while others were more reflective and circumspect. The value lies in working through these things together.

Unity is fundamental to the church. At heart, it’s not something we can create for ourselves, but something achieved by God himself. As it says in Ephesians 4:4-6:

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

God unites Christians together spiritually, but then he calls us to live this out practically. It’s not enough to pay lip service to unity. It raises real challenges for how we treat one another, and how churches are to function. See the previous verses in Ephesians 4:1-3:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Osborne values three types of unity in the church – doctrinal unity (what we believe), respect and friendship (how we treat each other), and philosophical unity (how we do things around here). The importance of philosophical unity is often overlooked, but it is critical to getting people headed in the same direction. It is often harder to achieve than the first two.

There’s nothing academic about this book. It’s been worked out in practice and we’re invited to learn from the experience of the author. It offers many practical tips and great ideas that we might easily take for granted. For example, as we seek to build unity in our church leadership teams and meetings, consider if these issues might be making it hard:

Does our venue help or hinder our meetings?
Are we ignoring the relationships of the people on the team?
Are we meeting often enough or too often?
Is there a constant turnover of people or is it a closed group?
Are there too many members on the team to be productive?

If you want to avoid politics shaping the agenda of your church’s governing body, then there are lessons to be learned here. One gem, is the importance of looking for leaders, not representatives. Representatives are more likely to see themselves as lobbyists for their particular area. This can reinforce the silo mentality, polarise areas of the church, and hinder progress through controversial issues. Leaders should be people of spiritual maturity, who fit well into the team relationally and organisationally, and who are aligned with the vision of the church. And remember that CVs always look better than people, and that character matters more than ability.

Osborne offers helpful insight to how an organisation changes its shape and function as it grows. He illustrates this with a sporting analogy:

The changes we had to work through at each stage of growth resembled the changes an athlete must make every time he or she switches from playing one sport to another.

Growth produces predictable changes in the way leaders and leadership teams relate and carry out their functions, changes that are remarkably parallel to the changes an athlete must go through to transition from running track, to playing golf, basketball or football.

How does this translate? He sees a solo leader or pastor as being like a track athlete, who works with others, but basically performs alone. As things grow they become more relational, like a game of golf, where buddies work together doing much the same thing. As we grow further, we resemble more a basketball team, where complementary roles and positions are vital to making things work. With significant growth, multiple staff, congregations, departments and so on, the organisation resembles more the complexity of an American Football team. The important thing is that we must change as we grow, and we must help people navigate these changes.

There is so much detail in Sticky Teams worth digesting. But it’s also worth highlighting its overall shape and structure. There are three parts. The first highlights the problems, the second seeks to get people on the same page, and the third aims to keep people aligned. We mustn’t stop with the first bit. Diagnosing a problem is not enough – we need to prescribe a way forward. This book works to help us stay united through clarity about where we’re going, equipping people to get there, and communicating what is expected.

Sticky Teams can be treated as a workbook or a manual. It’s worth picking up again and again, reading and re-reading, with a highlight pen or a pencil. I suggest it’s best read in community with others – there are discussion questions at the back of the book. Remember, it’s not the Bible. It’s not fool-proof. And it’s not the only way to think about or do things. But it’s aim is to get us thinking and doing, and not to leave us stuck in the vortex that simply repeats the same old failures year after year.

Don’t waste your sport

dont-waste-your-sports

I’ve always loved sport. Playing it, watching it, watching my kids play, cheering on my favourite team or athlete. Sport is one of the great pleasures God has given us to enjoy. Playing sport keeps us healthy, entertained, connected with others. But like so many of God’s wonderful gifts, we can get into trouble when we start to replace the giver with his gift. If my passion for rugby, or fishing, or golf, or cycling began to overtake my passion for my wife, then I’m sure you’d agree that I’d developed a big problem. My worry is that we can do this with God and not even notice.

Last year I picked up a helpful little book called Don’t waste your sports, by an American author called C.J. Mahaney. Yes, I am a fan of small books! I’d like to spotlight this book for a few reasons. It addresses the young person feeling their way in the world of sport and grappling with their identity and self-esteem. It has wise words for parents about how we encourage and shape our kid’s lives and values. It will challenge the elite athlete with their aspirations and goals.

As a ‘would have been/could have been’ sports person, as a father of some very capable athletes, and as a chaplain to elite sports people for over a decade – I’ve found this booklet to make a wise contribution to an issue we rarely consider. Mahaney introduces his booklet with these words:

Athletes, this booklet is for you. Parents and discussion leaders, this booklet is also for you. It’s for anyone who wants to learn, or help others to learn, about what it means to let a right knowledge of God shape the way we practice and play our sports.

Sport seems to be able to bring out the best and the worst in people. One of the most moving images I’ve seen in sport was a paralympic race when a competitor fell, the others stopped, picked him up and they all finished the race together, arm in arm. Of course, this is contrasted with an arrogant pride that we see in some of the most highly paid and acclaimed sports people.

It’s important for us to remember that God is our creator, we are his creatures, and he has given us his good creation to enjoy responsibly. This booklet is anchored on a Bible verse that puts our lives into perspective.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Whether it’s cricket, tennis, basketball, motor racing, rugby, swimming, athletics, surfing, soccer, AFL, darts… each of them is a gift from God. They can be enjoyed and used to bring honour and glory to God, or they can be used to replace God and to seek to bring honour and glory to us. These are the extremes.

This booklet offers helpful direction to those wanting to honour God with their sport. We should start by thanking God for his gifts and the opportunities he gives us. Thank him for the fun it brings, the rest, the refreshment, the opportunity to keep in good health, and the joy it brings to ourselves and others.

Humility is the key to glorifying God with our sport. Mahaney suggests what this might look like on the field:

The humble athlete recognises his limitation.
The humble athlete welcomes correction and critique from coaches and teammates.
The humble athlete acknowledges the contributions of others.
The humble athlete is gracious in defeat and modest in victory.
The humble athlete honours his coach.
The humble athlete respects officials.
The humble athlete gives glory for all his athletic accomplishment to God.

I’ve noticed that Aussies can be rather cynical of Christians in sport. We don’t quite know how to respond when a South Pacific team kneels down to pray after a game, or when a rugby player points to heaven when he’s scored a try, or when a winning athlete thanks God during an interview with the press. But this booklet is talking about more than the public displays of faith in God. It’s about addressing our hearts, who we are, what we are living for, who and what matters most. When we lose touch with God we go searching for replacements and, where I come from, sport is a prime candidate.

So, don’t waste your sport. Recognise God’s gift to you, thank him for it, and seek to play, watch, support and use your sport in a way that honours him.

Who’s holding the umbrella?

As a ministry apprentice in the mid 80s, I was introduced to the idea of ‘holding the umbrella’ for others to do ministry. My pastor modelled this idea in his own leadership. His desire was not only to see people trained, but also to create opportunities for them to exercise their gifts and talents in serving God. This he did over many years with literally hundreds of people. I have sought to emulate this in my ministry.

Around this time I was given a copy of a book by Bill Yaeger called Who’s holding the umbrella? My friend, who gave me this book, had visited Yaeger’s church, seen his ministry in action, and described the man as “a cross between General Patton and Bill Cosby”. The book shows him to be a no-nonsense, hard-core leader, who has a deep commitment to people. It remains one of the most helpful and influential books that I’ve read on the topic of leadership. Written in 1984, it’s now been out of print for sometime. However, you can still find used copies of Yaeger’s book online, and its well worth your time and money to get hold of one. Most of the language throughout the book is masculine, but so much of his wisdom is equally applicable for men and women serving God in ministry roles.

Yaeger’s thesis for leadership is that it is doesn’t require a particular personality type to be done well. But rather it is born of conviction – quiet qualities that burn like a ‘fire in the soul’. He introduces the idea of the umbrella man as:

… a term I use for the leader who gives himself to the ministry of Christ in such a way that he equips believers and provides abundant opportunities for them to serve. His ministry is spread out like a canopy or protective umbrella, under which others can grow and flourish – and eventually become leaders themselves. (pages 20-21)

The outline for leadership in this book is anchored in the teaching of the Bible, and the leader is called to make the Bible central to all he does. He is to be a servant who puts others before themselves. He is to be a shepherd who oversees and protects. He is to be an equipper who provides for and makes room for the ministry of others. As he does this, Yaeger doesn’t believe that he will ever work himself out of a job. Rather, his umbrella will just keep getting bigger and his opportunities for service will keep increasing.

Unlike a lot of newer books on leadership in the church, Yaeger does not assume the content of ministry. He emphasises the importance of Word ministry, leading through preaching and teaching. He establishes priorities, beginning with equipping every member of the church to be able to witness to the saving work of Jesus. He focuses on discipleship, that means teaching, equipping and training people to be able to use their gifts in service. He determines how they should use their staff, program and facilities to achieve their vision and goals. He also works out how to deal with decay, removing the things that are crippling the church.

Yaeger is not afraid to ask hard questions of leaders. Are they accountable and to whom?   Is he responsible and does he act responsibly? Can he handle authority without becoming authoritarian? He talks about the strength of humility and the importance of principled rather than expedient leadership. Leadership should be inspirational, leading by example:

When you have to get men into a tough situation, you can’t send them there, but you can take them there.

Selecting suitable leaders is an important task for the umbrella man. Seek out motivated people, with proven godliness and spiritual maturity. Prospective leaders should be emotionally stable, servants not prima donnas, and not have critical spirits. They should have the gifts and abilities required to lead others in their area of ministry. He spotlights the following list of requirements for Christian leader effectiveness, and each of them are worth exploring further:

  1. faithfulness
  2. availability
  3. teachability
  4. self-motivation
  5. industry
  6. innovation
  7. productivity
  8. like-mindedness
  9. interaction
  10. seasoning
  11. stewardship
  12. devotion
  13. camaraderie

Yaeger is a strong advocate of standing by and supporting your leaders. The good umbrella man will be prepared to back up his leaders. He stresses that workers need to know that their tasks are worth doing. They should be respected so that they are encouraged to serve with dignity and joy. A word of appreciation and recognition is a breath of life. Communication is an absolute necessity for staff  and leadership relationships, and this needs to start with the leader. Regular meetings are essential for people to stay connected, and he identifies the value of teams getting away together regularly for what he calls staff attacks (he doesn’t like the idea of retreats)!

These days many books have a very short shelf life. Some of them are such rubbish that they don’t deserve to stick around. This book is different. It combines the wisdom of the Bible with the practical experience of a leader seeking to lead others faithfully. Whether you are a Christian leader starting out, or a seasoned senior pastor, its well worth a read. See if you can track yourself down a copy.

On my way to heaven

Have you ever been given a gift by someone you’ve only just met? Last year my friend and colleague in Christian ministry was given two copies of the same book by a person they didn’t know. It was a short book written by the guy’s recently deceased minister, Mark Ashton. The book was called On my way to heaven. My friend had no idea why he was being given one copy of this book, let alone two! That is, until he returned to Australia and a few days later discovered that I had been diagnosed with a ‘terminal’ cancer. He realised, in God’s providence, that he’d been given a copy for me too!

This is another little book that punches well above its weight. It’s only 24 pages long, and printed in large type. (Makes it easier for me to keep reading and reviewing books!) I would assume that the title of this of this book will be very confronting to many. Either because it presents us again with our mortality. Or, perhaps, because it seems so presumptuous – how can anyone be sure they are headed for heaven? Isn’t this is an arrogant claim?

On this latter point, the answer is very clear in the Bible. A Christian is not a religious person, trusting in their moral performance to be offered a place in heaven. Rather a Christian is one who has received forgiveness from God for having ignored him or pushed him away. This forgiveness is a completely free gift from God, that can be received by all who put their trust in Jesus to lead them and rescue them from God’s judgment. The New Testament makes it clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus, events that took place in human history, have a direct bearing on you and me today. Jesus died to pay the cost for our rejection of God, and God raised him to life to destroy the power that death has over us. A Christian is not a ‘self-righteous’ person, but one who has been given a pardon by God.

On the former point, Mark Ashton wants to do exactly this – get us to think seriously about where we’re headed. The one thing we can be assured of in this life is that one day it will come to an end. It may be later, or it may be sooner than we’d like. But it will happen. It often surprises me how much time and energy people (including me) spend distracting themselves with the unimportant and the trivial. We get all focused on ourselves, our hobbies, our bits and pieces, our aspirations for wealth or achievement or recognition, and we give little or no time to considering the profound question of what happens when we die. Please, if you you are avoiding this question – don’t! It’s too important!

Ashton was diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the gall bladder in 2008, informed that he had only months to live, and he passed away in 2010 at the age of 62. His book offers us a window into his thinking, his struggles and his faith over the final months of his life. I was deeply moved as I read how he faced death as a Christian believer.

The core of this book is Ashton’s conviction that resurrection awaits him. This is the basis of his hope and it is grounded in the evidence of the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. He does not dread death, or seek to extend his life at all costs, but rather sees resurrection as a prospect to be welcomed.

He doesn’t gloss over the hardship of sickness. Throughout his life he, like most of us, expected to recover from whatever sickness or injury he experienced. He’d rest up until he got better. But he came to know that he wasn’t going to get better, the cancer wasn’t going to go away, and that he was dying day by day. This is something I’ve also been coming to grips with. Physical pleasures such as eating, exercising, or resting, no longer offered the enjoyment they once did. He came to appreciate that they were God’s gift for a time, but not for all time. His love, affection, and appreciation for his wife and family was deepened over this time, but be also came to grasp that relationship with God gave meaning to them all.

Ashton is honest about his failures and foibles in life. He gently points out that funeral eulogies rarely present an honest picture of the person’s life. They end up magnifying the good points and excluding the bad (and maybe this is appropriate). But he leaves us in no doubt that he wants to be remembered not as a flawless saint, but as a forgiven sinner.   God enabled Mark Ashton to be focused on others as he faced his final days. This is his prayer:

It is my prayer for my family and friends, that my death will be for them all a great strengthening and clarifying of their relationship with Jesus. Amen. (p24)

I agree!

Don’t waste your cancer

I mentioned to a friend at the Oxygen conference last year that my father had cancer and was receiving treatment. He then asked if I’d read a little booklet by John Piper called Don’t waste your cancer. I hadn’t heard of it and, to be honest, I found the idea of the book a bit too intense. Maybe he picked up on this because soon after the conference he made contact with me to apologise if he’d been insensitive in speaking of it.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I also had cancer growing inside me. I don’t think I’d even begun to put myself into my father’s shoes, to understand what he was going through. ‘Cancer’ was just a word – mind you a scary word. If I’d got hold of Piper’s book and given it to my father back then, it would have been rather academic, simply passing on the ideas of someone else. Of course, things are very different now. I’ve read the book, and passed it on ‘carefully’ to one or two others, including my dad (who is now in remission).

This was the first book that I read after being released from hospital – helped by the fact that it is only 15 pages long! It crams 11 chapters into its tiny size, but each one packs a punch, and really needs to be considered slowly and carefully. I don’t think this is a book for everyone. It’s useful and true, but I think to make the most of this book, you need to have begun to experience something of the pain and tragedy that gives rise to it. This is a booklet for Christians with cancer or some other serious condition, for their families and carers, for Christian doctors or medical staff, for pastors, and for people who want to seriously encourage those struggling with their suffering in a context of faith.

Let me offer you a snapshot of the booklet by outlining the title of each chapter:

We waste our cancer…

  1. if we don’t hear in our groanings the hope-filled labor pains of a fallen world.
  2. if we do not believe it is designed for us by God.
  3. if we believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  4. if we seek comfort from our odds rather than from God.
  5. if we refuse to think about death.
  6. if we think that “beating” our cancer is staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  7. if we spend too much time reading about our cancer and not enough time reading about God
  8. if we let it drive us into solitude instead of deepen our relationships with manifest affection.
  9. if we grieve as those who have no hope.
  10. if we treat our sin as casually as before.
  11. if we fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and the glory of Christ.

In some ways I’m not ready to review this book. I’m still working through each of the points. It’s one thing to give intellectual assent to an idea and another thing altogether to live it out. But I have come to appreciate the tough love in many of these reflections.

God has been pushing me to look forward to heaven. When life is so good here and now, it is hard to consider eternity with him as something better. He has been helping me to move through the pain and grief, to focus less on myself, and to appreciate him and all that he’s given me. God has been helping me to love what is good and hate what is evil, even as I see it in my own heart. I’m realising more and more that my hope lies not in medical advances, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’m reminded that grief is normal, appropriate and healthy, but that I can grieve with a hope grounded in God’s promises.

The five dysfunctions of a team

My wife thought that my last book review was a bit random in a blog that had focused so far on our personal journey! But my plan is to include diversity and focus on a range of issues. In particular, I’m keen to spotlight books on a range of topics that I believe will be helpful to others. As I’ve spent nearly all my working life as a church pastor, I hope to review a number of books on topics such as ministry, leadership, teamwork, theology, church and the like.

One of the most readable and helpful books I’ve found on the topic of teamwork is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A leadership fable. I read the book cover to cover in one sitting at my favourite coffee shop. In fact, I remember wishing that all books were written like this one. Hook you in with a story, keep you wanting to know what happens next, develop the key points throughout the story, and then summarise the theory at the end. More importantly, I was hooked because I could see myself in the story. I could relate each of his points to our staff teamwork (or lack thereof). I knew that this was a book that I would keep buying and giving others to read. I got hold of a video of Lencioni teaching on the topic and we had a staff retreat to discuss our teamwork. I purchased the workbook and have used it in team contexts. I’ve given the book to rugby players and coaches, pastors, headmasters, CEOs and other team leaders. And I’ve recently ordered the Manga version!

The easiest way to summarise the content is by quoting from a brief article on Lencioni’s own website:

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust

This occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses or needs for help. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is impossible.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict

Teams that are lacking on trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered, passionate debate about key issues, causing situations where team conflict can easily turn into veiled discussions and back channel comments. In a work setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, inferior decisions are the result.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment

Without conflict, it is difficult for team members to commit to decisions, creating an environment where ambiguity prevails. Lack of direction and commitment can make employees, particularly star employees, disgruntled

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability

When teams don’t commit to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven individuals hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that may seem counterproductive to the overall good of the team.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results

Team members naturally tend to put their own needs (ego, career development, recognition, etc.) ahead of the collective goals of the team when individuals aren’t held accountable. If a team has lost sight of the need for achievement, the business ultimately suffers.

As our staff team explored these ideas together we recognised each of these dysfunctions in varying degrees. We wouldn’t have said that we lacked trust in each other, but the fact that we avoided conflict showed we did. We’d describe ourselves as a team, but in some ways we were functioning as a bunch of individuals who got together now and again. It would often take forever for us to make changes or implement ideas, and yet we’d claim to be focused on getting things done.

This book has been around for a few years now and my guess is that many of you will have read it and found it helpful. But if you haven’t got into it, then let me give it a rap by sharing a few stories.

A senior pastor friend was sharing with me about how his staff team was fragmented, with one person in particular only interested in his own agenda. Everyone was uncomfortable with the dynamic that had set in, but no one knew how to address it. I sent my friend a DVD of Lencioni speaking on this topic and a copy of the book. The team watched the video and it was like having a consultant critique the team, and highlight the dysfunctional behaviour. The book then offered a framework for moving forward.

Another friend heads up an international software company. To describe the employees as a team is probably pushing it because the people don’t spend much physical time together. Some of them do, and a couple of them were creating chaos by refusing to communicate with each other. My friend was required to fly across to the other side of the world to resolve a spat between highly intelligent professional people who were refusing to talk with each other! So I gave him a copy of the book to read on the plane. He found it gave him a framework to tackle the issues and break the impasse.

Sometime back we were interviewing people for a job as an associate pastor. I stressed that team work was important to us, and asked each applicant to take a look at the Five Dysfunctions and discuss them with me. I was determined to find a team player. One of the applicants seemed very unimpressed with the model and I chose not to offer him the job. Interestingly, he got another job, but quickly decided that he didn’t really want to be a part of that team and went off on his own.

Our church is somewhat complicated. We have multiple congregations, various age-specific ministries, dozens of leaders, small groups, and a large staff team. Team work is vital. A challenge to us has always been engaging the staff and key leaders together in team work when the focus in on areas outside their direct responsibility. This book, and another by Lencioni called Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, has been so helpful in drawing people together. It has reminded us that a win in the youth area is a win for the whole church. A struggle to ‘connect’ people into the church community has a direct bearing on every other area of church life. Everything is connected and you need a strong team to make it work. Lencioni kept pushing us to value each member of the team.

Teamwork is something that ought to be a hallmark of a church, or a ministry staff. And yet sadly, many of us know too well the pain of relationship breakdowns, competition for resources, and clashes of vision and priorities (our church included). I recommend getting a dose of Lencioni!

Of course, the best of this wisdom is but a pale reflection of the teaching of the Bible on teamwork. God has called people into relationship with each other, to be part of a body, a community, a team. As it says in 1 Corinthians 12:24-27:

24 … God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

A complaint is a gift

complaintAs a church pastor, I can tell you there are few things more discouraging than complaints. We tend to feel under attack and immediately break into defence mode. “How dare they criticise my preaching!” “What would you know about the pressures of trying to organise and run a church?!” “They complain about us not being friendly, but they don’t make an effort!” “It’s not my fault!!!” Maybe we could do with a fresh perspective.

A complaint is a gift, written by Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller, is a helpful challenge to rethink complaints. I read the first edition of this book over a decade ago and found it liberating and empowering. Since this time the forum for complaints has gone ballistic. A tweet, facebook comment, or blog post can destroy a product or business. Word-of-mouth can go viral, quickly becoming ‘world-of-mouth’ in a matter of minutes – just witness the current Koni video. The second edition of this book (2007) takes account of these kind of changes, incorporates ‘complaints’ and feedback from the first edition, brings us up to date, and introduces suggestions about how to make complaints, how not take them personally, and how to use the internet constructively.

What is a complaint? Fundamentally, it is a statement about expectations that have not been met. But more importantly, it is an opportunity for the organisation, business, or church in our case, to make some helpful changes. This book calls upon us to redefine complaints as gifts. This will require us to separate the message from the medium. We must distance the content of the complaint from the emotion of being blamed. In other words, we shouldn’t take things so personally!

This will mean gaining empathy for the disappointed people and rethinking how complaints can help us to move forward as a church. The very fact that they made the effort to complain indicates some level of commitment to us. Many will only grumble to others or simply walk away. We’d do well to put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine that what they are complaining about had happened to you. How would you react? What would need to happen for you to be satisfied?

This book warns against a strategy of reducing the number of complaints. Complaints can be avoided by closing down lines of communication. But all this does is bury problems and maintain the poor state of affairs. Instead, we need to create opportunities for feedback. We can do surveys from time to time, but they will never adequately reflect the levels of dissatisfaction. Such people are unlikely to wait for the next survey to air their complaints. Maybe they’ve already walked away in frustration.

Churches, like businesses, depend heavily on word-of-mouth advertising. The way we handle complaints will work for or against us. People are much more likely to believe a friendly recommendation than formal advertising. If we handle complaints well it can be a powerful source of positive word-of-mouth. On the other hand, the more dissatisfied people become, the more likely they are to spread bad news. I couldn’t tell you many times we’ve had people turn up at our church, saying things like “I used to go to… but I left there because…” And I’m sure there are plenty who’ve left our church, headed elsewhere, and told a similar story. So much movement and pain could probably have been avoided if we’d done a better job of listening to complaints.

While written with the business sector in mind, this book has value to a much wider audience. The issues raised are relevant for personal relationships, resolving conflict, and improving communication. At a time when people are craving connection, pleading to be heard and understood, churches and their leaders would do well to take notice. While some will read the book and be motivated by the desire to increase profits, pastors should read it with a regard to people’s souls.

A complaint is a gift (2nd ed.) is divided into three parts.

The first part, Complaints: Lifeline to the customer, examines the strategy for developing a positive mindset toward those who complain. It helps us to understand what is going on when someone complains, and how they are likely to respond when they are not satisfied.

The second part, Putting the complaint as a gift strategy into practice, focuses on how to handle complaints well. It develops an 8 step gift formula for keeping our words and actions consistent with our beliefs that the complaint is a gift:

  1. Say “thankyou.”
  2. Explain why you appreciate the complaint.
  3. Apologise for the mistake.
  4. Promise to do something about the problem immediately.
  5. Ask for necessary information.
  6. Correct the mistake – promptly.
  7. Check customer satisfaction.
  8. Prevent future mistakes.

The final part, Dishing it out and taking it in: the personal side of complaints, is new to this edition. It is a helpful addition, broadening the scope and value of this way of thinking into other areas of life. There is good stuff here for strengthening marriages and other personal relationships.

This is probably not a book that many church leaders would think to add to their libraries. You probably wouldn’t buy it to help resolve conflict with your neighbour or a work colleague. I doubt you’d be impressed if I recommended it for strengthening your relationships with your spouse or children. However, this book offers practical help for all these scenarios.

Of course, there is another book that has contained this wisdom and more for centuries. It hasn’t been revised or improved, but then it doesn’t need to be. Check out these gems:

He who listens to a life giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. Proverbs 15:31

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1

A mocker resents correction; he will not consult the wise. Proverbs 15:12

Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is he who trust in the LORD. Proverbs 16:20

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Proverbs 16:24

However, it’s not just the head that needs to change, it’s our hearts. The temptation is often there to take things personally out of pride, or to get defensive because we want to look good before others, or to blame others because we don’t want to confront our own selfishness. What we really need is for God to renovate our hearts and minds, to transform us from the inside out. When you read the gospels about Jesus, you can see how he modelled and taught that genuine humility is the key to relationship with others. Christians have a special reason to listen and respond well to others. As it says in Philippians 2:

1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Naked God

naked_godIt seems winter has come early this year! I spent most of yesterday in front of our open fire reading Martin Ayers’ book Naked God. I’d had a few people recommend it, and I’ve been on the lookout for good books to give friends who are interested in finding out more about what genuine Christianity is all about. I found this a very readable and helpful book, and enjoyed reading it in a couple of sittings. If you are keen to begin exploring Christianity, without getting lost or distracted by all the junk that often gets added, then this book is a good starting point.

A quote from the book explains the title and the aim of the book:

In his famous book and TV series, The Naked Chef, it wasn’t Jamie Oliver who was naked, it was the food. Jamie Oliver succeeded in stripping down the food to its bare but glorious essentials.

And that’s what we need to do with God. We need to look at the evidence and find out what it uncovers. We need to strip away any false ideas we’ve developed from our culture or background, and reveal the truth. This is the truth about God, exposed. This is Naked God.

Martin Ayers begins by arguing a case for why the God question really matters at all. He does this by first considering the alternative – a world where there is no God – and what this means for our day to day lives. He probes the implications for meaning, purpose, freedom, morality, life and death. In the first part of the book he explores where atheism leads, drawing upon some of the claims of Richard Dawkins and others. His aim here is not to prove whether atheism is true or not, but simply to highlight the real implications of holding to this view of the world and the difficulties associated with seeking to live with a consistently ‘naturalistic’ way of life.

The second part of Naked God focuses heavily on the historical person of Jesus. He defends this approach by highlighting the extraordinary life, teaching, and impact of Jesus. This focuses ultimately on Jesus’ unique claims to be, quite literally, God among us. His untimely death at a young age by crucifixion, and the claims by his followers that he had been raised from death, are shown to be the linchpin in understanding Jesus and his relevance for us. In doing this, he tackles problems people may have with the reliability of the New Testament, the transmission of manuscripts, and the claims to uniqueness over against other world religions. While this is a relatively brief book, the arguments are well made and references to more substantial works are offered to the serious researcher. Ayers also addresses the ‘gut reactions’ many have against Christianity, such as its perceived social regressiveness, or the taking away of personal freedom, or the appalling track record of many who claim to be followers of Jesus.

The final section of the book speaks to the reader in a more personal way. Ayers explores the barriers we have to really knowing God. Importantly, he demonstrates that religious self-righteousness is just as big a blockage to relating to God as the choice by many to ignore God and shut him out of their lives. However, the book takes us beyond the problems and difficulties that stand in the way of knowing God, and invites us to take hold of what God is offering. And this is a genuine personal relationship with the One who made us. This relationship is shown to be a step into reality, not an escape into wishful thinking or myths and legends. It makes a big difference to life now, and beyond the shadows of death into eternity.

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