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!

The daunting task of the preacher

Version 2Preaching can be an intimidating task. Knees quiver and voices quaver for some of us when we are forced to speak publicly. But it’s not the people in the audience that should cause us to tremble—here are four things more daunting still.

1. God

The task of the preacher is to speak about God. And we do it with God himself in the room. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of talking about somebody and then becoming aware that they can hear you. You didn’t realise they were there, and then you see them out of the corner of your eye. They’ve been listening in and heard every word you’ve said! The preacher has that experience every time they preach. We talk about God in the presence of God. How important it is we get it right. We’d do well to reflect on the lesson of Job in chapter 42, who basically says, “Look, I should shut up because I didn’t know who or what I was talking about.” And if he didn’t know what he was talking about—and he gets to be in the Bible—then we should be a little careful. Don’t you think?

2. God’s word

God’s word is a powerful thing. By God’s word the heavens and the earth were made. By God’s word this universe continues to function. By God’s word hearts and minds are brought from death to life. By God’s word the church is built and grows into maturity. Our task is to handle this powerful word of truth with great care (2 Timothy 2:15). I may get into trouble for mentioning this, but my brother recently removed his thumb—literally. One minute he is working in his garage with his circular saw. A short time later he is waking up in hospital with a surgically reattached thumb. A circular saw is a powerful instrument. It can do great good and great harm, so we must handle it with care. How much more the word of God. People depend on the preacher to take great care with God’s word. In fact, their lives depend on it.

3. The preacher’s heart

Let me state the bleeding obvious—I’m not perfect. Not even close. And every time I have to preach I’m reminded of this fact. I often feel like Isaiah who in chapter 6, when confronted with a vision of the holy God, says “Woe is me, because I’m a man of unclean lips, among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah could have been speaking for me.

I know my own sinfulness. I know my weaknesses. I know the things that I do wrong. And yet here I am, charged with speaking about the holy and righteous God—in my state. How important that I remember that God has acted in Christ to cleanse me. How important to remember that God can even speak his truth through a donkey (Numbers 22).

4. The preacher’s life

God calls us to practice what we preach. The apostle Paul called people to follow his example and to copy his way of life. So much of what people learn is caught rather than taught. Our walk should match our talk. When it doesn’t we can quickly undermine our message. How many preachers have called their congregations to sexual purity only to have their porn addictions, their illicit affairs, or their heartless marriages exposed? We know our hypocrisy and they can easily lead to warped preaching. Some will avoid speaking on any topic they’re unwilling to confront themselves. Others will confront their failures by beating on others. They know the deep-rooted greed in their hearts and yet mercilessly challenge others to confront their idolatry and covetousness.

From the gospel to the gospel

We must always remember that ‘but for the grace of God go I’. We have received grace, mercy and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. We bring nothing to the table—it is all of God. We should thank him and trust him alone. So too, our ministries are gifts of God’s grace (Romans 12:3-8). God doesn’t choose the clever, the strong, or the powerful because they are the ones qualified to be his ambassadors. He works among the weak and the imperfect to equip them for his service. God’s Spirit is at work in the messenger and the message. So let us never give up praying that God will transform our hearts and minds and work through our words and actions.

Our message is to be grounded in gospel. So too we must point people to the gospel. We have a powerful life-changing word from God. We must not water this down to a pathetic call to live better lives. Let people hear the hope. And hear it loud. God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself. God is working for the good of all who love and trust him, to make us more like his Son, Christ Jesus. Self-righteous pretence leads to hell, but God-given righteousness, through faith in Christ, leads to everlasting life.

Let’s keep on with the daunting task of preaching the gospel.

Originally published on TGCAu site 20/8/15

Leaders eat last

leaderseatlastLeaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t by Simon Sinek is a thoughtful analysis of many of the problems created and experienced by leaders and organisations in today’s world. It contains case studies, research, and biological and anthropological explanations for why successful organisations are those that create strong and safe communities. While this book is longer than it needs to be, and possibly over reaches in its biological and evolutionary claims, there is much to learn and relearn in this analysis of human interaction. Leaders of all types, whether in families, business, churches, government or other organisations, will do well to review their leadership in the light of Leaders eat last. I’ve personally found many points for reflection as I’ve be pushed to evaluate my leadership and the organisation (church) that I lead.

While the title is a metaphor for selflessness, it resonates literally with me. In 2002, as I became the team chaplain for the Brumbies Super 12 Rugby Team, I met the assistant team manager, Garry Quinlivan. ‘Quinzo’ is a retired customs officer who devotes his time to serving the Brumbies players and staff. He works without pay, spending long hours preparing, cleaning, checking up on, and sacrificially caring for everyone. Many things stand out about Quinzo, but one thing has struck me over the entire time I have watched him at work—he always eats last! Whether it’s a social BBQ, a drinks break, team lunch, or celebrating after a win—Quinzo always eats last. He gives everything for the team. And, in turn, people love Quinzo—they would do anything for this man.

Leaders eat last has constructive advice to leaders who preside over toxic work places. Watch how you lead—you may be the problem! Though of course, many selfish leaders would never consider themselves at fault. They don’t pause to reflect on the climate they are creating. The push for profits, the obsession with numbers, and the focus on short-term results mask the damage many leaders are doing to people. And then they wonder why their outcomes and results are so poor.

Sinek makes much of the importance of creating a circle of safety in the organisation. This idea is taken from Aesop’s Fable:

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four. (p20)

When we are part of a strong circle of safety, we naturally share ideas, burdens, successes, and we build a culture of collaboration, trust, and innovation. Good relationships are key to people surviving, let alone flourishing. A healthy organisation will be built on good relationships between colleagues. People grow in their trust for one another and become willing to do more for each other and the organisation. By contrast, organisations characterised by suspicion, fear, and distrusting micromanagement, are destined for decline and failure.

Sinek suggests a number of strategies that leaders can adopt to build a healthy, positive, relational culture in their organisations:

Rule 1: Keep it real—bring people together. Efficiency doesn’t always equal effectiveness. Emails, intranets, and on-line people management systems won’t necessarily build deep, trusting relationships. Trust is not formed through a screen, it is formed across the table. It takes a handshake to bind humans … and no technology yet can replace that. There is no such thing as virtual trust. (p111)

Rule 2: Keep it manageable—obey Dunbar’s Number. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has found that people are not able to maintain close relationships with more than 150 people at a time. Traditional societies around the world tend to be organized in groups of 100 to 150. Larger groups require clear lines of organisation and specialist care to encourage cooperation and healthy relationships to develop. I suspect it is no accident that many churches seem to get stuck, never growing much beyond 150 people.

Rule 3: Meet the people you help. Fund-raising workers who have personal contact with the people they help have far more success. We work harder and better when we can see our potential impact. If we are focused purely on names and numbers, then morale drops and the organisation suffers.

Rule 4: Give them time, not just money. Research has shown that we place a higher value on time than money. Giving time, attention, and energy builds relationship, fosters community, creates trust, and encourages loyalty.

Rule 5: Be patient—obey the rule of seven days and seven years. Building relationships of trust takes time. Gauging someone’s fit in an organisation or in a relationship takes longer than the time that we typically give it: ‘more than seven days, but less than seven years’.

Sinek teaches that becoming a leader involves the key ingredients of love and trust. Leaders must model and grow organisations shaped and characterised by care and strong relationships. They should work to provide safe environments for their workers to enjoy being productive.

It’s not hard to see the relevance of this book to many workplaces and community organisations. Many of us have experienced difficult work environments where the CEO or the boss is a large part of the problem. The drive for profits often leaves a wake of departures and problems for the organisation.

As a pastor, I see a number of lessons for myself and my colleagues. If churches focus on growing numbers, budgets, buildings and the like, then we can forget that we should be primarily about the love of God and a love for people. I’m called to put others before myself—to be a leader who eats last. Jesus is the great example of the one who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). In a sense, I don’t need the wisdom of Sinek—I need the vision and example of Jesus. However, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded by whatever means. If God can teach people through an ass, then he can certainly challenge me through a popular leadership book!

The sad reality is that there are too many people who’ve been hurt by their churches. I regularly meet people who feel they have been neglected, rejected, abused, or betrayed by their church or their leaders. This many be a one-sided analysis (it’s much easier to see how we’ve been hurt, than how we might have hurt others) but it’s a reminder to stay in touch with what the church is intended to be—the body of Christ, shaped by his love.

Leaders eat last has encouraged me to do some self-reflection. Is my leadership offering care and protection to those entrusted to me? Are we building a church community where it is safe to be weak and vulnerable? Are people more important than processes? Is maturity more valued than money? Where are my blind spots as a leader? What do I need to change or work at?

10-10-10

10-10-1010-10-10 by Suzy Welsh is a very simple and very practical decision making tool. It revolves around asking three simple questions: When faced with a dilemma, stop and ask, “What will the consequences of my options be in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years?”

This approach helps broaden the variables in complex decision making. It enables us to tap into our values and focus on our goals as we face the immediate crisis of making a decision. Some choices have long ranging consequences and other do not. 10-10-10 helps us weigh the different consequences of our decisions.

10-10-10’s applicability is wide ranging. “From college students to busy mothers to senior business executives, from artists to government administrators to entrepreneurs, 10-10-10 has shown its effectiveness in decisions large and small, routine and radical, changing lives for the better at home, in love, at work, and in friendship.”

While I appreciate the power of this decision making tool and recommend it to others, it doesn’t go far enough. And I mean more than extending it to 50-50-50, to enable decisions to be made with ‘whole of life’ implications considered.

As a Christian, I believe that we all make decisions with eternal consequences. Choices made today and tomorrow will have implications for more than this life alone. If I choose to shut God out of my life for the next 10 minutes, and the next 10 months, and the next 10 years, then I run the risk of distancing myself from God for all eternity. My choice is to trust God with the complexity of day to day, month to month, year to year decisions. I believe that God has secured my eternity through Jesus Christ and that every decision I make should reflect this reality.

The words of John Newton, in his famous song Amazing Grace, come to mind:

When we’ve been there 10,000 years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun

Let’s make our decisions by weighing up the consequences for 10 minutes time, 10 months time, 10 years time, and 10 thousand years into eternity. I’d love to cooperate with Suzy Welch in a Revised Edition called 10-10-10-10!