Black Box Thinking

blackboxYes, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Become more thoughtful. Think about your thinking. Keep some notes and look back over them. Journal lessons you have learned. Set goals for change.
  7. 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)

Thinking, Fast and Slow

thinkingI 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.

 

 

 

Expositional Preaching

helmCoaching 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.

Blindspots

FIEC-conference-2017-small
Planning is now well underway for the FIEC 2017 National Conference. It will take place at Stanwell Tops in NSW, from Monday 4 to Thursday 7 September.
 
This is the one time of the year when we get together with our brothers and sisters serving in FIEC churches across our country. It’s a time to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and encourage one another to keep serving our saviour, the Lord Jesus. 2017 marks 500 years since the birth of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg. We thank God for calling his people back to the truth of his word, and we are calling on God to keep us reforming. 
 
This year’s conference is based on the theme of BLINDSPOTS. Where do we need to be changing? What are the threats to the spread of the gospel? Why might we need shaking from our complacency? How will we persevere in bearing testimony to Jesus in an increasingly hostile world? These are some of the challenges we all face. And there are many more we probably don’t even see.
 
We will be asking what God’s Spirit is saying to our churches. I will be opening God’s Word from the book of Revelation, asking God to shine a light on our blindspots. Peter Jensen will speak in the evenings, and many of our pastoral staff will lead us in sessions designed to get us reviewing our ministries, planning for the future, and prayerfully advancing in the strength God provides. There will be seminars, workshops, and opportunities to connect with others doing similar stuff to you.
 
Whether you come from a small church or a bigger one, whether from the country or the city, whether you’re encouraged or struggling—this conference will be designed to spur you on in your service of God.
 
Please plan now to come. Set aside the dates. Budget for the opportunity. Consider who to invite.
 
Full costs, details, and registration will be available on our website soon.

Gratias – Dr James Howard Bradbury (AM)

howardIt was my honour and privilege to speak at the thanksgiving service for Howard Bradbury at the Australian National University last Saturday. I first met Dr Bradbury (as I knew him then) early in 1975 when we moved to Canberra. I last met Howard (as I’ve known him for some time) at the ICU at National Capital Private Hospital only days before he died. Our lives have connected in so many ways over so many years, and I truly thank God for our friendship and his lasting influence upon me.

Dr Bradbury completed a PhD in polymer chemistry at Birmingham University in record time. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, and working at CSIRO Wool Research Laboratories, he joined the Chemistry Department at the ANU in 1961. He has pursued sabbatical research at Cornell and Oxford Universities. He has been award a DSc from both Melbourne University and ANU. He received the David Syme Research Prize from Melbourne University and the Rennie Memorial Medal and H G Smith Memorial Medal from the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. In 2007 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his contributions.

The Director of the ANU Research School of Chemistry, Professor John Carver, was Professor Bradbury’s PhD student and friend. He spoke highly at the thanksgiving service about Dr Bradbury’s lasting impact in the lives of so many people—both academically and personally. Dr Bradbury was a scientists’ scientist. And yet, I knew next to nothing of this influence prior to his passing.
I’ve been aware for some time of Dr Bradbury’s extraordinary commitment to using his science for humanitarian good. He retired from his salaried position at the ANU at the early age of 61 so that he could devote himself more fully to exploring the chemistry of food and providing solutions to the plight of the poorest people in the world. He continued this brilliant work, unpaid for another 28 years, inventing and producing simple and affordable techniques to remove cyanide from cassava. Thousands and thousands have been rescued from the debilitating paralysis of konzo. It was deeply moving at the thanksgiving service to be reminded of the generous humanitarian impact of his work.

Yet my experience of the impact of Howard Bradbury, together with Ruth—his wife of 64
years—began with their hospitality. As a young teenager I was welcomed into the world of university student ministry at Reid Methodist (Uniting from 1977) Church. Howard and Ruth would reach out to students in the colleges, invite them into their home, provide transport, cook meals, offer support, encourage fun, and generously pour out Christian love. Howard and Ruth loved students and, even more, they loved students to enter into a real relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And this has left its legacy on me.

When I left home for university it made sense to seek out a church that understood university students and that had a passion to see their lives transformed. This I found at the University of NSW with the ministry of Phillip Jensen and St Matthias. Howard’s passion to impact students with the message of Jesus became my passion. I pursued this with vigour and eventually moved back to the place where I had seen it first—the ANU—where I started the ministry of FOCUS and later Crossroads Christian Church.
Howard and Ruth supported Fiona and me as we began this new work in Canberra. They would ask us how we were going and pray for us. Howard joined the committee to support the university ministry and, together with Ken Mackay, opened up many doors for ministry on the campus.

Version 2Over the last decade or more of Howard’s life our friendship has been enriched in new ways. Being unimpressed with the compromise of the Uniting Church on some matters of biblical importance, Howard led the planting of a new church called the Canberra Christian Fellowship (in the Methodist Tradition). I would visit this congregation often, regularly providing preaching support, and always dropping the average age significantly! While small in numbers, this body of believers has always been big in heart, no doubt encouraged by the wisdom, grace and love of Howard and Ruth. Each time I would join with this fellowship I would come away encouraged to keep on going myself.

Howard Bradbury was a man of science, esteemed across the globe. He was a man of the people, loved by his wife, children, grandchildren, and 20 great grandchildren. His love for people shaped his application of his science to the needs of others. But deeper still, Howard was a man of faith in God through Jesus Christ. His knowledge of God laid a solid foundation for his scientific passion. The mercy and kindness of his Saviour pushed him to love, respect, and invest in people.

At a time when it is normal to view Science in opposition to Christianity and reason as the antithesis of faith, Howard causes us to pause and reconsider. Here was a man whose faith was founded on good reasons. Jesus Christ, who died and was buried, was raised and appeared to eye-witnesses, who testified to what they saw. These events in history transformed Emeritus Professor James Howard Bradbury AM, PhD (Birmingham), DSc (Melbourne), DSc (ANU), to apply his immense scientific brain to consider the claims and promises of God.

Will you do the same?

Qualifications to read the Bible in church

bible-readingLooking for people who can read the Bible out loud in church? Trying to fill the Bible reading roster? Building a team of Bible readers? Then let me ask you “What qualifies someone to be able to read the Bible?” Do they need to have a background in performing arts? Or perhaps have been a newsreader in a previous life? Should they audition for the task? Or complete a training course for reading in front of others? Is volunteering enough or is vetting needed? What makes a good Bible reader?

I’m sure that there are plenty of good ideas that will help people to read well in church, but I wonder if we might overlook the most important qualifications. Here are four qualifications to keep at the top of your lists.

To qualify for reading the Bible out loud in front of church you must be…

  1. One who trusts that the Bible is the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Only if you appreciate the author will you read with the attitude needed to pass on a message from God. We’re not reading shopping lists or Facebook posts. We’re communicating the very words of God.
  2. One who reads the Bible regularly for your own instruction, edification, comfort, encouragement, or rebuke. We mustn’t cause one another to stumble in hypocrisy by asking them to do something in public that they don’t do in private. Let’s get our own house in order before calling on others to do the same.
  3. One who understands the meaning and implications of the Scripture you are reading. This will require studying the passages of Scripture beforehand. If we don’t understand what we are reading, then we won’t communicate the message clearly or faithfully to others. We might need to look up a commentary or spend time with the preacher in advance to help us fully grasp the meaning. The key to good communication is understanding what you are saying.
  4. One who prayerfully seeks to apply the message to your life. This will require us to read over the text well before reading in public so that we can meditate upon it, pray about it, and determine what difference it should make to our life.

Does this all sound a bit much? Does it sound more like the qualifications for the preacher or teacher? Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul called Timothy to devote himself to it.

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.  (1 Timothy 4:13)

There’s an obvious lesson in all this for service leaders and preachers. If we want good Bible readers at church, then we need to find suitable people and give them plenty of time to prepare. We should be willing to work with people in helping them to understand, apply, and communicate the Scriptures. Extra work? Absolutely—and worth it.

Now to go and put this into practice.

Apprenticeships for ministry

IMG_2710Once upon a time Christian ministers were viewed with respect. Ministry was voted among the more trustworthy of professions, but not so much any more. The appallingly bad behaviour of some has damaged the reputations of many.

The solution is simple. People serving in ministry must first be Christians—born again by the Spirit of God. Genuine ministry isn’t something you can fake. There’s no place for bluffing your way as a leader in God’s church. Leaders must first be followers—followers of Jesus. Pastors (or shepherds) of the flock need to understand they are first of all sheep, and they always remain sheep, guided by the Chief Shepherd.

Ministry is about God and people and life. It’s about change and transformation, character and integrity, truth and love. These aren’t the lessons you learn in the lecture room. You can’t download them from the internet, or glean them from books. These lessons are taught by God in the business of life. They come through practice, experience, application, devotion, heartache, weakness, and failure.

Those who would lead God’s people are to watch their lives and doctrine carefully (1 Timothy 4:16). Of course, this means hard work in studying the Word of God, but not in academic isolation. It’s not simply the head, but also the heart and the hands that need to be changed.

It’s for these reasons, and more, that I worry when people are in a hurry to go to theological college in preparation for a life of ministry. I worry when people dismiss the idea of growing into their ministry now, to work out if they are suited for more ministry later. I’ve observed impatient men and women dismissing the idea of practical training and jumping quickly into academic training.

Don’t get me wrong—theological education is so important for training in Christian ministry. But training must also be personal and practical and relational and communal.

For this reason, apprenticeships can be an excellent format for helping people to assess their suitability for Christian ministry. Spending time with a trainer, growing in life and ministry together, can offer an excellent opportunity to work out what it means to serve and lead others in the ways of God. You can focus on ministry competencies, while growing in theological conviction, and building Christian character.

If you are serious about preparing for a life time of ministry, then I encourage you to consider a ministry apprenticeship. You can talk with me or contact the Ministry Training Strategy.

This is not a solicited or paid advertisement!