It’s the new year, the preacher and his family are down with Covid. (Not me, but the preacher who’s giving me a break.) The music team leader and tech person also have the virus. So do others. Many of our regulars are away and our towns have swelled with holiday-makers from everywhere, some bringing Covid with them. So, what do we do?
As our government is lifting restrictions, opening borders, and ‘getting things back to normal’, Salt Community Church in Bonny Hills takes a step backwards and goes on Zoom. Well, for three weeks anyway. Why so? Why aren’t we meeting? Some might say we are giving in. What are we thinking? What are our reasons?
At Salt we’re sorting out who we are and how we do things. We’ve embraced some core values that shape the decisions we make. They’re values that find their home in Scripture. Our reasons for going back to Zoom for a few weeks are linked to values 4 and 5.
Value 4. Loving Community We want to love our community. Salt is comprised of babies to octogenarians, with every decade in between. We have people who are immune-compromised, people with cancer, weak lungs or hearts, people with asthma. We have people who have chosen not to be vaccinated and many children who have not yet received a dose. So, for a few weeks over the school holidays, it seemed best to keep things safer by meeting virtually.
Value 5. Adaptive Flexibility We believe that God calls us to put others before ourselves and for us to forego our rights for the sake of others. We live in times of rapid change and we have the means to pivot and adapt. Through the pandemic, we’ve remained connected, grown in number, and added some new followers of Jesus. We know that God can and does work through any and every situation and circumstance.
Salt Community Church is seeking to be a loving community that is flexibly adaptive. Meeting over Zoom is not ideal. It’s not church in its fullest expression. But it offers us help in proclaiming Christ and building one another into maturity.
The experience of Mars Hill, and the role of Mark Driscoll in particular, has many lessons to teach those of us in evangelical ministry. I encourage pastors and leaders to examine our thinking, motives, attitudes, words, behaviours, structures, and systems, to discern the good and reject the evil.
In doing so, we need to be careful where we lay the blame, how we determine cause and effect, and not settle for lazy targets. What do I mean? Let me illustrate with this syllogism:
1. Driscoll bullied his staff. 2. Driscoll was a man, therefore 3. We shouldn’t employ men as senior pastors.
You might never have considered such a conclusion. Unless, perhaps, you had already decided that all men are bullies and a male senior pastor will therefore bully his staff. I’m concerned we don’t apply this type of confirmation bias in our analysis of the Rise and Fall. In this regard, I see a four lazy targets.
Much is made of Driscoll being a celebrity pastor. We’re not told exactly what that means, but the title seems to fit well. Big profile, major influence, rapidly-growing church, multi-site in multiple states, influencing millions through podcasts, videos and books. People ‘following’ him, within and beyond his church.
But is ‘celebrity’ wrong? Billy Graham had celebrity, huge profile, world-wide influence, the ear of US Presidents. Luther had celebrity, as did Whitfield and Wesley, as do Piper and Carson. We need to look deeper than celebrity.
Put the words ‘mega’ and ‘church’ together and you get some people cheering and others cringing. Back in 2007, Scott Thumma and Dave Travis wrote their analysis of the phenomenon called Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches. This book was helpful in getting beyond the stereotypes. Size itself is not definitively positive or negative. Size makes some things easier and others more difficult. Size magnifies some of the threats, but also makes possible opportunities. Every growing church must grapple with growing pains and determine, how large, when to plant, when to add congregations, how to govern, how to staff, lead, equip, disciple, evangelise, and pastorally care for those in the church. There may be important biblical wisdom to apply around these choices, but the Bible doesn’t put a cap on church sizes at 15, 150, 1500, or 15,000.
I don’t hear the same criticisms of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian (mega) Family of Churches in New York. Spurgeon’s legacy is widespread, extending well beyond the thousands who met in the London Metropolitan (mega) Tabernacle. All this to say, we need to be careful about taking cheap shots at large churches. In Australia, we have an additional risk. Our tall poppies syndrome leaves us wanting to bring others down a notch or two. Let’s be careful when it’s God’s church we are critiquing.
Multi-site churches have come in for some criticism for extending the boundaries of what the Bible means by ‘church’. For example, IX Marks Ministries doesn’t seem to allow for a category of multi-site churches. I understand they see the church in essence as the actual, physically gathered community of believers. Others have critiqued multi-site churches around the topic of video preaching rather than face to face preaching with real pastoral connection. Some multi-sites have grown so large as to effectively be their own denomination.
Again, let’s not be too hasty or simplistic with our critiques. Some multi-site churches have been created to facilitate synergy between complementary ministries, others to utilise the gifts and strengths God has given, some because a lack of adequate facilities has led to duplication, and others because the 1 per 4sqm rule has made it impossible to gather as a church in one location. Some churches do not own property and get bounced around schools, clubs, lecture rooms, and community facilities. One year a church needs to divide and downsize, and another year they need to merge and upsize. And is there a difference between multiple congregations on one site versus multi-sites?
I understand that Redeemer Presbyterian has managed the twin challenges of multi-site and celebrity pastoring by not publishing which site Keller happens to be preaching at that week.
And then there are independent churches. “Independent churches are started by people who refuse to work with others, who believe their ways are always right, who will not be held accountable. Independent churches are the fertile seedbed of narcissistic church leaders.”
Really? We can be very quick to approve our own motives, while critiquing the motives of others. Wasn’t it the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Teachers of the Law who would not allow for anything outside their institutional control?
Haven’t we heard of the bad behaviour and the damage done under the auspice of denominations and respectable parachurch organisations. Sadly, the Royal Commission in Australia demonstrated systemic institutional cover-up happening across all kinds of churches and denominations. Perhaps we feel safer if we can point the finger at something that is not us.
Here I show my hand. In 1996, I was involved in planting an independent church in Canberra. We considered being Baptist, Presbyterian and Anglican, but they weren’t options. So, we became independent, gaining the best advice we could, under the guidance of a mentor, with a Board of Reference, in fellowship with brothers and sisters outside our church. To be honest, we soon identified others in a similar place, began meeting, sharing ideas, learning from one another, and eventually joined in creating a denomination. I’ve recently been involved in planting again, what you might call an independent evangelical church and we are doing it in fellowship with others.
We can and we must examine carefully our churches, leaders, and ministries in the light of the lessons from Mars Hill, but let’s not settle for lazy targets.
In the late 1990s, with our church newly planted, I remember being challenged about a decision I was proposing for the church. I was playing golf with a good friend, a Canberra public servant and a member of our leadership group, and we were chatting about church. He said something like this to me: “I like the decision you have made and where you want to take the church, but I’m not happy with the process, and so I will be opposing the decision.” Wow! That was a lesson for me. My ends didn’t justify my means. The way we do things is just as important as what we do.
I was somewhat immature at the time and objected to his response. I think I put it down to his being a Canberra public servant who had procedures and rules for everything. But over time, I’ve grown to appreciate his words and taken them to heart. In fact, other people felt the same way as my friend, they didn’t come out and say it so explicitly.
I’ve been considering some lessons to be learned from the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The ends don’t justify the means in these three areas.
The church was growing at enormous pace. Demands on staff and leaders were growing and changing all the time. The end was ‘growth’ and the means was whatever needed to be done to keep growing. One aspect of this was the repeated ‘firing’ of so-called ‘under-performing’ staff. Driscoll boasted of the bodies piled up behind the Mars Hill bus. This is a huge theme in the podcast and the bodies include some of those closest to Driscoll.
I believe God would have us build a culture of leadership that is servant hearted and honours those entrusted with responsibility for others. The congregation should show such an attitude, but so must the lead pastor. The church is a body, a community, held together by relationships. It’s not a factory with machinery to be replaced when more effective or efficient parts are needed.
Mark Driscoll wasn’t content to build a church. He wanted to build a large church, a multi-site church, a movement of churches. And he wanted it built his way. To do this he needed the authority to make more and more executive decisions. People needed to get out of the way, not question his plans or intentions, but get with his program, or suffer the consequences.
There is an African proverb that says
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
This proverb must be heard today. Mars Hill’s meteoric rise, and overnight closure, are a warning about the catastrophe that comes with unchecked authority. It describes a leadership structure of fear, threats, paranoia, and pressure.
As much as I too like to get my own way, I’m reminded that God is calling his leaders to firstly be followers, to be sheep in need of a Shepherd. We must submit ourselves to our Sovereign Father and keep in step with his Spirit. We must remember that we are only ever under-shepherds, taking care of God’s sheep, waiting for the Chief Shepherd to appear.
Sometimes there is a fine line between grace and law, between gospel and legalism. Even the Apostle Peter crossed this line and was rebuked by his brother in Christ, the Apostle Paul.
It’s difficult to work out when Driscoll is faithfully preaching Scripture and when he is preaching his own ideas. I remember listening through Driscoll’s series on Proverbs and asking the same question: How much of this is Biblical and how much is simply Driscoll’s ideas?
Mark Driscoll is an extraordinary communicator. He’s quick on his feet, funny, intelligent, edgy, and has no problem holding an audience for more than an hour. People clamoured to hear him speak. But there is also a dark side. Members of Mars Hill describe listening to preaching as feeling like they’d been beaten up, shamed, and bullied into responding.
Our churches are to be safe places for the spiritually sick and wounded. We are called to be hospitable, providing hospital-like care for people’s souls. There will be times to confront, correct, rebuke, and call for repentance. People need to hear what it will be like to be a sinner in the hands of an angry God. There will be a place for calling our hypocrisy or complacency. But people need most of all to hear of the Saviour, who took on flesh, shared in our pain and suffering, endured the hate and violence of sinful men, hung on the cross, rose from the grave, and invites us to come to him in faith and repentance.
Only in God himself do the ends truly justify the means, and that is because he alone is a Holy God. His ends are pure, and so are his means.
Each morning my email inbox contains a mix of good news and bad news. The bad news usually has something to do with Covid, but all too often includes the story of another Christian leader behaving badly. This morning the email went like this:
Just before Christmas, a video of Smith kissing a woman other than his wife surfaced online. This prompted eight staff at Smith’s Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to resign. Staff members also told local media that Venue Church is rife with abuse and questionable financial practices.
I don’t know the pastor, I don’t know the church, and I don’t know Chattanooga, other than through the song. It’s not my place to comment on the specifics of this case, but I feel the need to make an observation. One brief paragraph reveals the triad of temptations—sex, power, and money. These are very real, very dangerous, and very common threats for leaders. And too often they are found together.
As I listened to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, these three factors featured in the podcast. Let me be clear, there were no accusations against Driscoll for infidelity. His marriage to Grace appeared to be strong. There were no accusations of embezzlement or financial fraud. There were, however, strong concerns about his abuse of power. He was accused of having an unhealthy and male-dominated obsession with sex that shaped the preaching and teaching at Mars Hill. Driscoll’s salary of $650,000 boggles the mind, and there have been many questions raised about him using church money in a scheme to boost his book sales.
It’s the issue of power that flashes the brightest warning lights. Driscoll speaks proudly of the many bodies piled up behind the ‘Mars Hill Bus’. Speaking mainly of his staff and leaders he declared that ‘you either get on the bus or you get run over the bus’. He predicted a mountain of bodies by the time he’d finished. And it seems he got it. I have been in the audience, listening to Driscoll, on two occasions. One of these occasions was an address to Christian leaders, and my only lasting memory of the talk is how gleefully and disturbingly he spoke about firing members of his own team. What’s with that? How can that be good or right or gracious or kind?
But I don’t want to make this about Smith, or Driscoll, or Zacharias, or Lentz, or any number of disgraced Christian leaders. It needs to be a log-removal exercise for me. God calls us not to view godliness as a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:5). The thing is most pastors probably don’t see ministry as a means to financial gain. They have enough struggle making ends meet. Yet with profile comes opportunity, invitations, and offers. There are real practical implications here. For me, I cannot vote on any matter related to my remuneration, I cannot access any church funds, I choose to pass honorariums for external ministries back to my church, I don’t take royalties for my book (though I did for a time). However, these are just rules and safeguards, and they don’t necessarily address the heart. Most importantly, I need to keep on learning the secret of being content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:12).
Sex is a precious gift of God for a husband and wife, but it’s also an area of temptation for Christian leaders. Scandals, Royal Commissions, and disgraced leaders have seen the church dragged through the dirt. But it’s not just the sensational headlines that give me pause to reflect. We all know the ubiquity of porn, titillating social media, crude TV, addictive streaming services, on our laptops, tablets and phones. In our homes, studies, and bedrooms. And there’s also the attraction to people who give us special attention, warm smiles, heart emojis, notes of appreciation, lingering hugs. Where does adultery begin? How does a faithful pastor begin to flirt with a woman in his congregation? Who does he crave being around, who makes his heartrate increase, who’s becoming that someone special? What safeguards do we put in place? And how do we guard our hearts?
The desire for power is a big temptation in ministry. I hear it all the time from others. I feel the temptations myself. I want to get things done and I want to see ministry grow. And the less bureaucracy, the less people who need to have a say, the less I need to give account to others, the more nimble we can be, the more I can get done… and I hope you can see the problem. The problem being that I make ministry and leadership about me, myself, and I. My vision, my agenda, my rules, my decisions, my ambition… my pride, my sin, my downfall. It’s not about me and it’s not about you. We are called to serve Jesus. We are just one part of his body. Without love for others, we achieve nothing. Without the body working together in love, there is no real church growth, no maturity, no spiritual substance.
Money, sex, power. Three gifts from God to be used in humble service, with the right people, in the right context, in the right way, with the right attitudes. We must guard our hearts and minds in these areas. We would be wise to pray for protection, that we will not give in to temptation, that we will serve in humility, with a real love for those God has entrusted to us. It’s better to err on the side of caution, put in added protections, increase visibility, and submit to accountability. It may slow us down, reduce our profile, limit our personal impact, pull us back from the spotlight—and allow Jesus to shine.
Before I go much further with my reflections on the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, let me say that I don’t recommend that everyone become a listener. There are dangers in following a series like this.
1. Voyeurism is a real temptation. It’s possible to listen to this series in the same way that someone might watch Big Brother, Survivor, or Temptation Island (not that I’ve seen Temptation Island). Rise and Fall is amazingly well produced. The patching of excerpts and interviews and soundtracks is brilliantly done. The story is captivating. However, I suspect I’d view this experience very differently if it was written about people I knew well, or if I’d been part of the church, or one of the staff. I suspect there would be way more pain and tears.
2. Emotional manipulation is a real possibility. Mike Cosper, the producer, director, and host of the show, describes this series as ‘long form journalism’. I’m not familiar with this genre and I haven’t followed any of the investigative crime podcasts. However, this seems to me to be something beyond journalism. The musical score carries your emotions—empathy with some and hostility toward others. The introductory sequence of soundbites and music is very powerful. It started to have the same impact on me that The Eye of the Tiger does in the Rocky movie. As I look back, I’m thinking that I don’t want to be entertained by this stuff.
3. Over-simplification is a real danger. Rise and Fall is a long and detailed series. While the focus is on Driscoll, many other villains are uncovered along the way. There are implicit or explicit critiques of mega churches, celebrity pastors, complementarianism, firing pastors, multi-site churches, ministry brands, long sermons, plagiarism, lack of accountability, narcissism, and way more. Listeners need to be discerning. There are editorial agendas. This is not a package deal. Each part needs to be examined carefully and weighed against God’s word.
I can see how this series is a balm to some who have experienced some of the horrors of abusive or dysfunctional pastors, churches, and systems. It gives a voice to many who’ve suffered. It’s an important and sobering warning to those of us in leadership and authority. It highlights blind spots and dangers for people ambitious for the gospel. It’s an important podcast. But it’s not for everyone.
When Prayer is a Struggle by Kevin Halloran has one of the plainest covers of any book on my shelf. But with a title like that it doesn’t need an eye-catching cover. The words simply resonate. They are words in season. I suspect many think that the subtitle should read: A book especially for (insert your name).
I find prayer a struggle. Not always, but often. And if you were to audit my praying, then you might wonder about the quality of my relationship with God. The good news is that I don’t have to pray. I’m not being marked on the length, depth or breadth of my prayers. God has given me a Triple A Pass — Access All Areas. An invitation to come to him, speak with him, ask him for what I need, thank him for what he has done, confess what I’ve done or failed to do, and fundamentally give God the honour and glory in all things.
I’ve been reading through When Prayer is a Struggle and been encouraged to value spending time with God. This is a book to read slowly, carefully, and prayerfully! I sometimes skim-read books, but I’m taking my time with this one. The author is taking me on a journey of hearing God in the Scriptures and responding to God in prayer. He models prayer throughout his book:
Father God, thank You for calling me to be part of Your family in Jesus. You know my struggles with prayer, my lack of faith, and my lack of love for You and others. Help my unbelief! Increase my love. Cause me to see the world as You do and to see prayer as a gift from Your gracious hand. Convict me of sin and lead me to treasure the cross more greatly. Thank You for all You’ve done for us by making prayer possible and powerful. In Jesus’s name, amen. (p16)
Halloran starts by focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. He reminds us why prayer matters and how it focuses firstly on God and only secondly on us. We pray to bring honour to God and to unite our hearts with his. Prayer lifts our eyes above ourselves and draws us into God’s vision for his world.
This book is subtitled A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer. It includes recommendations for what to pray, how to focus our prayers, how to let Scripture inform our prayers, and how to respond when we don’t know what to pray.
The approach to prayer is gospel-shaped. We are not shamed into praying by preying upon our guilt. The gospel frees us to take up the privilege of praying. We are invited to mourn our sin, but to rejoice in the sanctifying work of Jesus. Our false views of God are challenged and replaced with a cross-centred perspective. We are privileged to have access to our Heavenly Father in prayer. Halloran shows an understanding of our mixed motives for prayer and we are encouraged to press on, as his redeemed children.
There are some good tips for staying focussed, for building routine and structure, for praying regularly, for having the content of our prayers shaped by God’s concerns, and for overcoming our petty excuses for not praying. There is a whole chapter devoted to praying in the face of fears and anxieties. Very timely given our stressful circumstances.
I’m glad that I didn’t judge this book by its cover. I’ve read it once and I’m beginning to make some changes when it comes to prayer. I plan to read it again with a view to also encouraging others around me. Prayer is a struggle. It always has been, but we have the help of God’s Spirit who enables us to call on God our Father.
I have been one to avoid the Christianity Today podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. I didn’t want to join the voyeurs. It wasn’t my business. I have a church to lead, people to pastor, leaders to mentor, books to read, things to do. I don’t need to spend 15 or more hours being infotained by a church tragedy.
But a few days back, I was challenged to listen to the Rise and Fall. At the encouragement of a friend, I thought I would at least listen to the final episode, The Aftermath, to hear the impact on the lives of so many people who had been caught up in what Paul Tripp describes as the most toxic church culture he had ever experienced.
A few days later, many walks up and down our beach, and I’ve now listened through the entire series. What do I make of it? It’s extraordinary. In this internet age, we get to listen in to conversations, sermons, meetings, interviews, that paint an amazing and yet disturbing picture. It’s compelling listening. Sobering. Disturbing. Heart-wrenching. And, in so many ways, closer to home than I ever imagined.
I’d love to reflect on some of the lessons and the warnings for those of us in Christian ministry. To be honest, on a smaller scale, I’ve seen and experienced much of what is described in the series. I’ve assisted in churches processing the fallout of a narcissistic leader. I’ve witnessed the damage caused by leaders who churn through staff. I’ve been exposed to pastors with a ‘you’re either for me or you’re against me’ mindset. I’ve gone from being a friend to a foe simply by listening to an alternative point of view. It’s more than thirty years since I started out in Christian leadership and over that time I’ve seen and heard too many stories of ministers behaving badly. It’s not hard for me to see the reality of Mars Hill by looking at others, but I want to consider first what I can be learning—and this may take some time. There are many, many issues to consider.
It’s not about me.
A major concern of the Podcast is how a vision for ministry in Seattle morphed into the vision to build the Mark Driscoll personal brand. And how the leadership and the church were complicit in fuelling the vision. As brand ‘Driscoll’ grew, so the church grew, so the opportunities for the gospel expanded, so the influence on others’ ministry multiplied, and so it rolled on. Mark Driscoll was the centre piece of the puzzle and, according to those close to him, brand ‘Driscoll’ eclipsed honouring Jesus.
I’m reminded of the untimely exit of James O’Connor from Australian Rugby Union in 2013. There had been numerous ‘off-field indiscretions’, but the deeper problem was O’Connor’s explicit verbalised commitment to ‘building his own brand’. In a team sport such as rugby, there is a massive culture clash here. If we cringe at this for something so inconsequential as rugby, then how much more should we take notice when someone makes ministry all about them. We should remember the words of the psalmist:
Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. (Psalm 115:1)
But what about me? It could be ironic that I am writing a blog post on this. Look at me humble-bragging about me! Writing builds profile. Not just a pastor, but a blogger. Make that an author too. Record your sermons and put them online. Check out the number of hits. Until Covid hit, we only ever recorded audio, now we’ve moved into video, then we need a better microphone, and a better camera, and a website to deliver it. I have felt the Driscoll-danger of preaching to the camera instead of to the congregation. The temptations are subtle. The rationalisations are easy.
It’s easy to justify a library of video sermons on the church website. They bless the regulars who miss church. They enable the sick and vulnerable to receive teaching. They can provide a lifeline to churches without a pastor and isolated Christians. They effectively advertise the church and the importance of expositional preaching.
And yet the dangers of pride are real. Does my self-esteem rise and fall with the number of downloads, likes, or comments? Do I hog the pulpit? Am I encouraging other preachers? Do I have to get my way? Do I make it easier or more difficult for people to disagree with me? Do I need the accolades? Am I depressed when no one thanks me? Do I make ministry about me?
It seems funny to draw these comparisons with Driscoll and Mars Hill. Millions of people listened to his sermons and thousands attended his churches. We might get a hundred downloads or a hundred attend church on a good day. But it’s not about circumstances. It’s a heart problem. Deep down I need to keep asking who my life is about? Am I serving my own interests, or am I willing to be anonymous, as I serve Jesus and his church? I need to remember that Jesus said:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
Rico Tice’s little book, Faithful Leaders, is a word in season. Sadly, 2021 has been another year where there have been too many failures among Christian leaders. And by failures, I don’t mean underperformance, or failure to meet KPIs, or even leaving the ministry due to stress or burnout. I mean moral failure. Whether it’s the cover up of sexual immorality, or failure to disclose extra income, or flirting with a member of the congregation, or bullying behaviour toward other staff, or selfish pride that demands to get its own way, or unwillingness to be questioned or scrutinised, or any other moral failure.
I keep hearing references to the Mars Hill podcast (I haven’t listened to it) and people saying that we need to be more accountable. I get that. The sad reality is that we may be more likely to address our sin when others can see it. The fact that God sees it all the time doesn’t seem to motivate us as much as having to face up to our board, or bishop, or congregation. Why is this? Does it mean that we’re more worried about public shame than dishonouring God? Do we really think we’ve got away with something if no one has seen?
The Christian tradition that I’m a part of, emphasises the importance of three things for Christian leaders: character, convictions, and competency. We say that character is king, but I wonder if we truly believe it. We can be easily dazzled by the achievements on a CV or the size of a ministry or some perceived leadership strengths. Character is less clear, absent on a resume, harder to assess in interviews. If we don’t show due diligence in following up referees then we can hardly claim we value character.
There are many leadership books on conviction and competency—I have shelves full of them. There are fewer that focus on the leader’s heart. Faithful Leaders is one such book that looks at the importance of Christlike character and attitude in Christian leaders. It argues that the spiritual health of leaders plays a large part in determining the spiritual health of the congregation and therefore the success of the ministry.
Rico Tice calls for a Biblical definition of ministry success. This is not so much about numbers of people involved, but about handling God’s Word correctly and ministering it to the hearts and minds of others. This is how God works in and through his people. He calls every leader to be diligent in looking to the gospel and battling sin in response.
This book has an important focus on self-leadership, living a godly life both in and out of the public eye. Finally, it calls the Christian leader to serve the church, rather than using the church to serve his or her needs. We are reminded that we follow in the footsteps of the suffering servant, who came not to be served but to serve. This book is short and punchy. It’s not rocket science—it’s much more important than that!
I purchased copies of Faithful Leaders for each member of our church staff and leadership team. Our council meetings have included one person sharing a review of a chapter and drawing some implications for our ministry. We have found this helps us remember who we are and how we are called to serve before we get into the nuts and bolts of the meetings. Perhaps you and your team could be strengthened by a similar approach as you launch into the new year.
Resilient Ministry by Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie has remained unopened on my bookshelf for the past five years. This has been an unfortunate mistake. It is a rich resource that would have served me well in my ministries of leading churches, a denomination and, more recently, in mentoring, coaching, and pastoral supervision. Anachronistically, I wish this book had been required post-theological college reading when I began ministry in 1990.
The central thesis of Resilient Ministry is that there are five themes integral to resilient ministry. These themes emerged from analysing the data from multiple pastors’ summits, where cohorts of pastors shared together about their joys and struggles in ministry. The authors have continued to test-drive and implement these themes to build resilience among pastors and their teams. The five themes for resilience are spiritual formation, self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and leadership and management. Each of these themes is addressed in two parts that can be described loosely as diagnosis and prescription.
Spiritual formation Theological knowledge does not automatically translate into maturity. A theological degree or ongoing Bible study can fill the head without filling the heart or shaping the hands. Pastors must remember they are always sheep first and shepherds second. Pastors are at risk of “building their identities and worth around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God.” It is essential to be nourished by a deep interior life with God in order to be equipped to work for God. Spiritual ministry should come from the overflow of a heart shaped by God.
Data from the pastors’ summits identified key practices for growing in spiritual maturity. These included building rituals and rhythms into life, especially around spiritual disciplines such as prayer, keeping Sabbath, personal and corporate worship. Pastors craved confidantes with whom they could be accountable. Intentional reflection was recognised as essential for watching your life and doctrine and can lead to ministering from a place of humility and ongoing learning.
The importance of spiritual formation resonates for me in ministry. I have learned to apply every sermon and Bible study to myself before asking how it might apply to the congregation. I need to slow down, reflect, and spend more time meditating on God’s Word, asking God to transform my heart. However, I tend not to use the language of ‘spiritual formation’, preferring to speak of being ‘transformed into the likeness of Christ’ (Romans 12:1-2). I believe this helps me to be more discerning about the range of spiritual recipes on offer by asking “will this help me to grow in Christ-likeness?”
Self-Care Pastors must admit and appreciate that they are creatures with physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual needs. This impacts such areas as sleep, boundaries between family and work, exercise and diet. Some pastors embrace a formula of ‘burning out, rather than rusting out’. The authors identify this as a false polarity, recommending a better approach is “burning on, not burning out.” They describe many pastors as people-pleasers, struggling with the “never-ending treadmill of trying to satisfy others whose expectations cannot be met.” Ministry can also become an idol, leading to people neglecting self-care in order to achieve ‘success’ in their ministries. The problem of pastors finding their identity and purpose in their work rather than in God means that a perceived ‘successful’ ministry may cover over personal failure.
Engaging in quality relationships is promoted as vital to self-care. Especially significant is the opportunity to find encouragement from cohorts of peers outside the pastor’s immediate ministry context. Creating margin in life and ministry and taking time to recharge are important for longevity in ministry.
Self-care has been an ongoing challenge for me. As I reflect on three decades of ministry, I can see how I have sacrificed self-care on the altar of ministry drive and ambition. This has led to patterns of inadequate sleep and exercise, insufficient margin in daily timetables, missing days off, and pushing on until sickness has caught up with me. Many years I would expect to crash physically and emotionally after a particularly busy period in June and July. Annual holidays became an important but insufficient ‘catchup’ for my periods of neglecting self-care.
Being diagnosed with terminal cancer confronted me with critical questions around my identity and my dispensability. No longer able to preach, lead, or pastor a church, I was painfully and yet wonderfully reminded that my true and enduring identity lies in being my Father’s adopted son. Over the years since, as my health has improved and I have returned to pastoral ministry, these bad habits have continued to haunt me and I have sought help from my mentors to keep addressing challenging matters of self-care.
Emotional and cultural intelligence A strong theme in both these areas concerns how easy it is to “assume that our way of looking at things is the only way to look at things.” Emotional intelligence involves insight into our own emotions and the ability to respond well to the emotions of others. Cultural intelligence involves awareness of the different belief systems, values, customs, assumptions, practices, and the like, that shape how people see themselves and relate to others.
Reflection is one of the key factors identified for building emotional intelligence. The authors suggest such practices as journaling, exploring family genograms, differentiating to connect with people, and welcoming feedback as strategies for growth. My experience concludes that growth in EQ is a critical characteristic of effective and safe ministry to others. It bridges the categories of character and competency and should be considered when appointing, assessing, and coaching leaders.
Cultural intelligence is also a critical factor for effective ministry. Empathy is required to understand where people are coming from, what has influenced them, and why they hold certain values or worldviews. One of the reasons that ministries fail to embrace changes in society around them, and subsequently die, is that ministry leaders lack cultural intelligence. Again, the authors highlight reflection as one of the necessary means to building CQ.
Marriage and family The summits identified marriage and family as playing a critical role in sustaining pastors. Thus, spouses were invited to participate in aspects of the program. The challenges lay in the areas of navigating boundaries between marriage and family life on the one hand and the job of ministry on the other. There are significant stressors for pastors who often work from home, don’t clock off, and don’t tune out. Damage can easily be done to marriages and families when the pastor is unable to manage the complexity of dual or multiple relationships.
I have especially felt these challenges and pains. There have been many times when I have been overly busy to the neglect of my family. While I have sought to be present with my wife and family, I know there have been times when they have been left with the dregs. This has been compounded over the years of juggling cancer treatment and trying to maximise ministry in the good periods. Loving my wife, children, and now grandchildren, is a matter of importance where I want to keep improving.
Leadership and management The authors embrace the images of poetry and plumbing to describe the differences between leadership and management. They identify reflecting as an important and real leadership work. This is the picture of working on the ministry, not just in the ministry. In my experience, and as I have observed and coached other pastors, this is a neglected discipline. Efficiency often trumps effectiveness. Leaders, operating without margin, keep getting more and more busy without seriously evaluating what they are doing.
Resilient Ministry highlights the treasures to be gained through systems analysis, especially through deliberately building maturity into our church systems. Understanding church systems opens new doors of EQ and CQ that can lead to a growing calm among leaders. This has been a watershed resilience area for me, as it has led to growing awareness of what I can and cannot do, and to trust God more and more.
The authors identify “modelling, shepherding, managing expectations, supervising conflict, and planning” as essential plumbing tasks. I am aware that not all these are adequately explored in theological training, which means that many pastors are ill-prepared for the pressures of leadership. There is a need for specialised professional development throughout ministry. My early experiences of conflict in ministry, grappling with leading organisations, learning to train, supervise and mentor leaders, quickly highlighted the gaps in my college education and set me on a continual life-long learning trajectory.
Firstly, the integration of features contributing to resilience in ministry is a big strength of this work. There is no silver bullet for resilience, but rather a complex interaction of many factors.
Secondly, personal reflection is a valuable practice that helps builds resilience in all five themes. Busy ministers must set aside time to slow down and reflect on themselves and their ministries. Without such reflection pastors will burn out, while repeating the mistakes of the past over and over.
Thirdly, Resilient Ministry leads pastors to recognise the vital impact that can be made from reflective practice in conversation with a confidante. As a ministry mentor, coach, and pastoral supervisor, I will draw on this book in shaping my work in helping pastors and ministry leaders to grow more resilient. This book contains excellent questions for reflection, modelling what it preaches. I intend to ask these questions of myself and others.
Lastly, one weakness of this book is its limited engagement with the Bible. Being primarily the analysis of data gleaned from summit participants, it requires further analysis to determine how well the diagnoses and prescriptions fit with the Scriptures. I know that many of them will fit well, and I plan to explore these themes with my Bible open.
 Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013. P32.
 Peter Scazzaro in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, quoted in Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P37.
 Dave Gibbons in The Monkey and the Fish, quoted in Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie. P61.
We’ve been told that things will never be the same again, and they won’t. The world has shifted. Massive movements of global social tectonic force.
Destruction, disease, death, disaster. People overwhelmed, unprepared, ill-equipped, devastated, helplessness, anxious. Panic, blame, fear, and conspiracy theories. The best of governance and the ugly, narcissistic, worst from leaders. Massive loss. Lives, futures, prosperity.
So much has shut down. Businesses, bars, clubs, sports, homes, schools, churches, parks, beaches, borders, transport and travel.
Everyone is buying phones, tablets, computers, and faster internet. Life has gone online. We compete for screen time. We cry out for more bandwidth. Zoom has become the new Uber.
Learn the tech. Use the tech. Master the tech.
We’re tired. And we don’t know when or where it will all end.
Our values are being challenged. People are three dimensional, not two. We crave touch and intimacy. We weren’t meant to live in isolation. We long to be together. And yet we fear what this will mean.
And now things are changing. Lockdowns are being lifted. We are peering out the window. We’re wandering down the street. People are starting to gather.
What will happen with church?
Pastors are anxious.
We’re being told this is the single most important moment in living history. The platform has burned down. Everyone knows it. We can’t go back. We get to rewrite the script. Lose the bad. Tweak the awkward. Hang on to the good. Create the new.
Unprecedented numbers of people visiting church online. Questions being asked about the meaning of life. New opportunities. Fresh vision. Now is the time.
You’ve got one shot. One opportunity. One episode in time. One opening. One responsibility.
Pastor, don’t blow it!
So much is riding on your shoulders. Your shoulders. This is your moment. God is counting on you. Get it right. God needs you. We need you. They need you. Your family needs you. Your neighbours need you. The community needs you. Everyone needs you.
Be strong. Be resilient. Be wise. Be clear. Be balanced. Be purposeful. Set a vision. Shape your future. Lead your people. Make every word, every decision, every move, every moment count. Don’t mess it up.
Read this blog. Listen to this podcast. Subscribe to this channel. Enrol in this workshop. Come to this conference. Buys these tools. Get this coach. Read this book. Join this movement.
Grab this opportunity. It will only come once. This is a Halley’s Comet moment of momentous magnitude. Don’t waste it. Don’t let it pass. Don’t blow it.
Go harder. Go smarter. Go faster. Go deeper. Go wider.
Are you ready? On your marks. Get set. Go.
Outside the box.
Design a new box.
Break free from the traditional constraints of boxes.
Create a new box.
Look inside the box.
Look outside the box.
Open the box.
Get into the box.
Close the lid on the box.
Curl up in the box.
Close your eyes.
Gently rock from side to side.
Pastor, you are not God. You are not the Messiah. Everything does not depend on you. This is not your one chance in 100 years to make your mark for the gospel.
You may be a shepherd, but you never cease to be a sheep. You shine a light and send a message—not as a lighthouse, but as a flickering candle.
This is not the time to be relying on your strengths, your achievements, your experience, your talents, your gifts. It is not about you. Really. It’s not. This is not your moment.
This is God’s moment.
Do you feel ill-equipped? Do you feel everyone is watching you? Do you feel the pressure of your peers? Do you feel the burden of your congregation? Do you feel the urgency of the times? Do you long to make a difference, not blow it, not crumble, not give up?
Then don’t panic! Truly, DON’T PANIC!
Come to God. See his grace. Hear his kindness. Trust him in your weakness. Listen to his voice…
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (2 Corinthians 1:8-11)
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
(2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
(2 Corinthians 13:14)
Following Raelene Castle’s letter to Wallabies fans yesterday, where she failed to show any appreciation to the Australian side, this is the letter that I believe would have been more befitting the CEO. This is what she could have written…
Dear Wallabies fans
As we lower the curtain on another World Cup, can I ask you to please join me in thanking so many who’ve worked so hard. It has been a tough campaign and it’s been far more than a few weeks or months. It’s been four years in the making. We expect more and more of our professional players and coaching staff. The competition has become incredibly fierce. The quality of rugby keeps getting better and better. Our teams keep being pushed harder and harder as the game gets tougher and tougher. Join me in thanking everyone involved for their grit and determination during four tough years of international rugby.
Let me begin by expressing gratitude to Michael Cheika and his coaching team. Being a professional coach is often a thankless task. I laud the long hours spent by our coaches, medical staff, and trainers, devoted to maximising every opportunity to put the best prepared team on the paddock every time we play.
Let us express our congratulations and gratitude to Michael Hooper and his team of players. You have represented your country with pride. Sheer guts and determination, game after game, season after season, year after year. And thank you to the players in the squad who haven’t taken the field, or who haven’t seen much game time. We understand how it takes many more than 23 players to win any serious competition, let alone a world cup. Every one of you has played your part. Thank you to the players in Super Rugby, the NRC, and club rugby, for challenging one another, and lifting our standard of competition.
Thank you to those in our team who have endured special hardship to represent our country. To Christian Lealiifano for your inspirational journey back from leukemia to play flyhalf in a World Cup quarter final. To David Pocock, for your difficult journey through injury and rehab, to put your body on the line for one more World Cup campaign. To the unrecognised and unheralded players who have gone above and beyond for our entertainment and joy in this great game.
Many of our players have played their last game for Australia. We want to say thank you for representing us so well on the world stage and to wish you all the best for your futures, both in rugby and beyond.
Our thanks must go further. So, to the wives, partners, parents, children, and extended families of our players and high performance staff, we salute you. Many of you have accepted being temporary widows or orphans to allow your men to reach the heights they have. Thank you for your support, love, and sacrifice.
As we come to the end of another World Cup campaign, there can only be one winning team, and we eagerly look forward to seeing who that will be. We will need to review our own campaign. We will examine our processes, systems, priorities, and strategies. We will review our coaches, high performance staff, and players. We will examine our board, and I will submit to review, in my capacity as CEO of Rugby Australia. There will be changes. There must be. It is only right that we take a long look in the mirror. But, for now, let us not forget to appreciate the men, women, and families who have worked so hard for so long.
Independent churches lack accountability! I’ve been told this for the past 24 years. And it’s true. Independent churches often lack accountability, but so do mainstream denominational churches. You only need to look at the terrifying accounts of greed, sexual immorality, false teaching, abuse, and cover ups within churches, to see the failures of our structures to ensure accountability.
Congregations must do their bit to encourage their churches and leaders to stay on track. Bishops, synods, and assemblies can draw lines and forbid their leaders and churches from transgressing. Codes of conduct, covenants of service, rules and conditions, can all play a part in keeping churches on the straight and narrow. And, ultimately all churches are accountable to God, and pastors and teachers are especially accountable for how they exercise their responsibilities of leadership.
The stark reality is that no rules or structures, authorities or procedures will produce righteousness. Never have and never will. But if you argue for church autonomy and leave it at that, you will be both naïve and dangerous. Let me recommend four processes for increasing accountability in independent (and other) churches.
Keep focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are sinners saved by grace and we are being transformed by God’s Word and Spirit into the fulness of Christ. Churches must keep shining a light on the gospel, preaching the gospel, refocusing their leadership on the gospel, growing their members in the gospel, applying the gospel to conflicts and divisions, setting budgets with gospel priorities, forgiving one another with the grace of the gospel. Literally applying the gospel to everything we teach and do. Accountability comes not through law, but through gospel.
Seek out fellowship with other churches. Don’t stand on your independence from other churches and other leaders. God has called us to be his holy people and to be adopted into his family. We belong to God, and by his Spirit we belong to each other. We gather separately, with distinctive names and quirky cultural expressions, but one day we will be gathered together for all eternity with no divisions. Let that future shape our present experience. Independence is not a Christian trait. We are all dependent on God and one another. Interdependence should be a more accurate description of who we are as Christians and churches.
Invite a number of mature respected Christian leaders to be on a Board of Reference for your church. If you’re a new church plant, then such people can provide credibility and support to your venture. If you’ve been around for a while, they can help you see your blind spots. Such a group doesn’t have governing authority. They primarily offer support, prayer, and advice. You can insert them into your church systems, such that they must be consulted on major matters and have the opportunity to speak into the circumstances. Changing a church’s theological beliefs, sacking or choosing a senior leader, accusations made against a senior leader; these are all issues that shouldn’t be covered up or go unnoticed. Ensuring that an independent voice gets to speak on these and other major matters can provide important checks and balances for churches and their leaders.
Provide for your senior pastor (and potentially all your pastoral staff) to have an external mentor, coach, or pastoral supervisor. Be generous and pay for this if necessary. Invest in your leaders. The Royal Commission into Child Abuse has made recommendations that pastors have professional supervision, and some denominations already have this in place. An informed external perspective can assist leaders to look after their churches, grow their people, and watch themselves more effectively. Seek out someone with experience whom you trust and then make yourself accountable to them as you meet with them regularly. Without honesty, accountability means nothing. So speak the truth, seek help, and invest in your life and doctrine wisely.
Just because I’ve said it, doesn’t mean that you’ve heard it!
If it’s worth saying, then it usually needs to be said more than once and in more than one way. This is my philosophy of communication. We simply can’t assume that if we’ve said something once or written it once, that people have therefore got it.
Take speaking at church for example: When an announcement is made before the whole church, does this mean that everyone has got it? Of course not. On any week there will likely be less than 75% of regulars in attendance. Of these, some will be out with children. One or two could be in the bathroom. Some might be dreaming with other things on their minds. Some might be on their phones—please no! Others could be distracted by children, off with the fairies, or not grasp the importance or significance of the communication.
The same is true of weekly emails or blog posts. I’ve seen some people’s in-boxes. One had 13,000 emails and 1000s unread. Seriously! Some people have no idea how to manage emails. Their in-boxes are so full that they’ve given up looking at anything. Others glaze over the email coming from the same person with roughly the same information week after week. Some spouses forget that they need to pass things on to their other half. Some simply don’t find the time to read them. And some don’t have email.
For these reasons, and others, we need to consider the best ways of communicating things at church. Sometimes this will involve a verbal announcement at church, followed up by a Facebook notice, text, email, blog post, leaflet or something else. Things might need to be repeated over more than one week to increase the likelihood of people hearing the news. At other times we might choose not to say things up front at church, so as to avoid clutter or people thinking they’ve heard it all before. Emails, texts, and Facebook posts are a simple means of getting information out, but they depend on people getting them and reading them, and sometimes they need to be followed up with verbal communication or discussion. Facebook groups can help alert people to things that are happening, as can an up-to-date website. How up to date is your website? Is it still advertising the Christmas service? From 2014??? Sort it out—please!
I want to suggest another means of communication at church which could be a little controversial—good gossip! Spread the word among each other. When I say good gossip, I don’t really mean ‘gossip’. There is absolutely no place for God’s people to be telling stories about one another, putting each other down, grumbling, whinging or complaining. This is why the generation of Moses perished in the wilderness. What I mean is helping to keep each other informed, know what’s happening, and be encouraged in our love and service. So when you see that someone is missing from church, why not give them a call, send them a text, pop them a visit, or message them on Facebook—tell them you’ve missed them and let them know what they might have missed.
For those of you at Salt Church, please be patient with me as I take time to get to know you, work out how things work around here, discover expectations, learn how to become a better listener, and explore good means of communication. And we will work at getting a website up soon.
When you join with a group of people, a club or an organisation, it’s helpful to know what they’re on about. Join the surf club so as to save lives in the surf. Belong to the P&C to raise money for the school. Sign up with the library so as to borrow books or get free internet. Join the church so as to…
Waste your Sundays? Dabble in religion? Make God happy? No. No. No. If you don’t go to church, then there are far better reasons than these to consider. Church is intended to be a gathering of Christian people and people who want to check out what being a Christian is really all about. Ideally, you will meet real people who’ve become convinced that knowing God and having a genuine relationship with Jesus is the most significant thing there is. They will engage on real issues in a real way. It might even surprise you. You could find your life changed in a positive way for ever. Many have.
But again, sadly, you will find some who are simply going through the motions. The same ritual week after week, and no-one has paused to really consider why.
For those of you who are Christians, what’s the answer? What is the church on about? When people visit your church website, what does it look like? If you visit a church, what do you expect they will they be doing and what will they expect of you? If you ask the minister, what will he say is going on, and will it be the same as what the regular members say? Do people know why they belong? Do they know where the church is going, what it values, what’s most important? And if you choose to do more than turn up, do you know how to get more involved? Does the church want your involvement? Do they have a spot for you? And is it obvious?
There’s lots of talk among the churches I know about mission and vision and values. Sometimes it can sound a little corporate and crass. Other times it can seem a bit like applehood and mother pie. And sometimes it reminds me of a little girl wanting to dress up in her mother’s clothes—they look good on mum, but they’re ridiculous on the little girl. But sometimes they help. They really do.
Careful, clear, thought out, simple expressions of who we are, why we are, how we are, where we are, and where we’re going. Clarity, visibility, simplicity, logic—these are powerful things when it comes to getting people on board. I wonder how many church transfers, church shops, and church disillusionments happen because they can’t work out what the church is on about or how to get involved.
One model that has been growing larger on the church landscape in recent years is the 5Ms. Adapted from the Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, the Ms stand for Magnification, Membership, Maturity, Ministry, and Mission. This approach sees the Christian life expressed in magnifying God for his glory, welcoming people into the membership of Christ’s body and this church, growing one another into maturity in Christ, equipping one another to serve our brothers and sisters, and to reach out to our world in mission. It’s a continuous and repetitive journey. Every part belongs to the Christian life. There’s a logic in the flow. It’s anchored in the Scriptures. It provides shape and direction for the ministry of the church. It creates pathways for people’s participation. There is nothing sacrosanct about the 5Ms, but they help to keep focused on what matters matter most.
My early ministry years were spent shaping a ministry around 4Es. We were committed to Evangelism (introducing Jesus and calling people to turn to him), Edification (building each other into Christian maturity through the word of God made active in love), Equipping (training one another in Christian service), and Exporting (encouraging people to go into the world, literally, with the message of Jesus).
A few years back, having read Simple Church by Gieger and Rainer, we decided to align our church mission around CGS2 (though we never reduced it to CGS2). Connect, Grow, Serve, To the glory of God—that was our plan. Our church existed to build connections—connections into our community, connection with God through people responding to the gospel of Jesus, and connections with one another through regular fellowship. We existed to grow in spiritual maturity—through people responding to God’s word, coming before God in prayer, building one another in small groups, and applying the word in their lives. We existed to serve one another—to take the corporate and ‘one another’ language of the New Testament seriously, by actively investing in each other, serving the church in specific ministry teams, and reaching out to love our neighbours. And we wanted to do all this 2 the glory of God—not to us O Lord, not to us, but to you, be the glory forever and ever.
What’s your church on about? Is it clear to people? Are people consumers or providers? Are they passengers or participants? Do you know what you’re doing and why? Does it flow from the Scriptures? How is your church shaped? Does it make it easier to get involved? Are people working together in alignment? If you don’t know, then start a conversation.
Independent churches tend to attract people with baggage. At least that’s been my experience, having pastored two of them and now attending another. I suspect most churches attract people with baggage, in the sense that everyone has baggage, but I think independent churches are especially ripe for the experience.
Why so? We live in an age of church shopping. People are seeking a church that’s just right for them. If they don’t like what they get in one place, then it’s not hard to shop for another. If you are living in the bush, where there is only one church for the next hundred kilometres, then this probably isn’t your experience, but it’s certainly common in cities and larger towns.
Some of our independent evangelical churches have arisen because of perceived needs in certain areas. Existing churches aren’t growing, or aren’t preaching the Scriptures, or aren’t reaching out to the community, or aren’t providing anything for children and youth, or keep stubbornly riding their ridiculous hobby-horses, or something. When a new church is planted it isn’t too long before people are leaking out of other churches. Drifters, who’ve left their churches some time back, dribble into the new church, aiming to give it another go. All these people bring baggage. They might recognise it or they might not, but it will surface soon enough.
The baggage comes in different shapes and forms. Firstly, there is the idealist. They’ve created a picture of what church is to be like. Sadly, their last church didn’t live up to the ideal. Neither did the one before, or the one before. There will be a honeymoon period where they give you time to impress them. You might even find that you are the best church they’ve ever been to. You’re a breath of fresh air; an oasis in the desert. You might start to hear stories of the horrors of the past, the problems of their previous church, the failings of the pastor. Beware—you might be next!
Secondly, people come with an attachment to how things have been done. They might have left their denomination, but they haven’t necessarily discarded what attracted them there in the first place. It won’t be long before you start hearing what you ought to be doing and how church should function. You see, there is a right way to do things. It’s stunning how often I’ve heard ex-Baptists tell us we must baptise for membership, or ex-Presbyterians insist we have a council of elders, or ex-Pentecostals tell us we need to be more open to the working of the Holy Spirit, or ex-Anglicans tell us we should follow a particular liturgical form, or ex-Salvos tell us we should all wear uniforms and play brass instruments. OK, I made the last one up.
People move because they are unhappy, but they may remain deeply attached to familiar practices, forms, structures, and values. The independent church is considered a clean slate to be filled. People with baggage cling to ways that things should be done and feel strongly about ways they shouldn’t. Transfer growth is usually accompanied by excess baggage. History is often the strongest predictor of the future, and discontent will likely lead to more discontent.
Thirdly, people move churches because they’ve had a bad experience with a previous church. More often than not, they feel hurt or grieved by things that have been said, or done, or not done. In reality, the pain is mainly about people—being treated poorly by someone, often in leadership. They’re likely leaving because they haven’t resolved the conflict or haven’t dealt with the pain. So if you are a leader, it’s possible that you will be tested. Are you going to be just like the perpetrators of previous pain? Can you be trusted? Will you repeat the patterns of the past? It’s too easy to get these things very tangled when we leave matters of the past unresolved. And maybe they tried to resolve things, and it didn’t end well, and they are broken, and seeking care and compassion. They are looking to your church to be a safe haven.
So what can independent (and other) churches learn? Here are a eight suggestions:
If people come to you from another church, then have a conversation with them early. Listen to them. Where did you come from? What was it like? What happened? Have you worked through these things? Does the church know you have left? Have you spoken with the pastor or leadership? Do you think you need to go back and work on things? Maybe, let them know you will give a courtesy call to their previous pastor. Be strong, but gracious and caring. Don’t be bullied by people seeking a platform for themselves. Don’t become a bully to people who are seeking refuge and help.
Communicate clearly what your church is on about. Speak to the things you value. Make clear what you won’t fight about and what you will. Share your theological convictions, your mission, and your vision. Don’t just tell people what you do, but how you do things, and why you do them. Excite people about gospel priorities. Aim for simplicity and clarity. Draw people into God’s agenda. Explain that your church is not a place for competing human agendas, but a place to draw together in the one Spirit.
Invite people to become part of the church on the church’s terms. Tell them where the church is at currently and where you are hoping to get to. Let them decide if they want to go on the journey. Of course, this means you need to know where you’re headed and how to communicate it.
Hold orientation meetings for newcomers where you can share the matters of importance. This might be an evening in the home of the pastor or a course over multiple weeks in small groups. Whatever it is, create an opportunity for people to know who the church is and who it’s not, so they can be clear about what they are joining. Some people will leave early, saving you and them the pain of breakup down the track. Others will join more enthusiastically because they love the vision and appreciate your communication.
Have a clear website that outlines what you are on about. Websites are the noticeboards, the yellow pages, the advertising brochures of the past. The flavour of the church should be clear before someone visits. If people want to dig deeper then they should be able to find your beliefs, values, priorities, and other essentials. Or at least they should know where they can find out more.
For those digging deeper, consider an FAQ page or link to position papers on matters that might divide. This is not shop window stuff, but it is what you keep on your shelves inside. If need be, spell out your beliefs about things like church governance, tithing, communion, baptism, spiritual gifts, roles of men and women, creation, predestination, or whatever hot button topics are relevant in your context. If you take a position, then explain why it matters, how much it matters, and what it looks like in practice. If you are inclusive of different views, then make it clear why you accept different views, and what this will mean for unity in your church. Most importantly, work out what you believe and be prepared to explain this to others. If you leave a vacuum, then someone else is going to fill it.
Be clear on how people can get involved. If you need to be a ‘member’ before you can exercise caring ministries, then explain how and why? Some churches are quick to rope people into various ministries, either to make them feel involved or because they can fill a pressing need. If you need to join a small group before you join a serve team, then explain why and help people navigate the steps. Go slow. Not too slow, but go wisely and carefully. Take the time to get to know people. Let them know the pathway to involvement and walk with them.
Most importantly, be motivated by love, not suspicion. Knowing that people have baggage that they carry around with them, gives you the opportunity to help them lighten their load. Everyone has a history and every history is burdened by pain. Remember that we are called to share one another’s burdens. It’s the gospel that frees us from every weight. So speak and act from the gospel of grace. Don’t add further burdens, but help people to find freedom that comes from Jesus.
I was introduced to the idea of ‘gracious living’ by some friends—time out, good friends, laughter, rejoicing, wine and cheese, sunsets and oceans, enjoying the blessings of God.
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, (1 Timothy 4:4 NIV)
But at church this past weekend I was reminded of another kind of gracious living—the grace of giving generously. I had to pause and think. Do I really know what that means? Not just in theory, but in practice? Have I ever truly given generously? Or do I merely give out of my surplus, redistributing what I don’t need anyway?
Take a look at how the Apostle Paul describes the Christians in Macedonia:
1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own,4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.
(2 Corinthians 8:1-5 NIV)
A close look at these verses challenges me to my core. It turns upside down many of my assumptions and expectations about the grace of God.
God gives his grace to his people so that they are able to give to others who are in need. This is the idea of it being more blessed to give than to receive. God does a supernatural, gracious work in the hearts of the Macedonian Christians and this motivates and enables them to give.
God’s grace works to prevent needy people becoming greedy people. The capacity to give doesn’t flow from having more than we need, and then giving the surplus away to appease our guilt. It comes from the joy of knowing that God provides, so that even in their poverty the Macedonians gave to meet the needs of others.
Gracious giving is costly. It’s sacrificial. It’s giving beyond our assumed capacity to give. It is generous, not because of the amount that is given or the percentage that is given, but because it gives away what we would normally keep for ourselves.
Gracious giving is taking the initiative to give to the needs of others without prompting, pleading, special marketing campaigns, or end of financial year fund raisers. It’s common to give when called upon to do so, but unusual to ‘entirely on our own’ plead for the privilege of being generous.
Gracious giving is giving first of all to God and then to others. And it’s way more than money—and nothing less than giving our whole selves.
Have you discovered this grace in your life—the grace that moves you to delight in giving your God-given time, money, and resources to him and to others?
There was an Old Testament pattern of giving called a tithe. I grew up on the idea of a tithe, literally a tenth. So every time I earned money, I would set aside 10% of what I earned and give it to church, or missions, or charity, or child sponsorship, or such like. And I thought I was generous. But it didn’t hurt because I still had 90% left to spend on myself. Now I’m all grown up and I know how much more complicated it is. Giving 10% doesn’t mean that I have 90% for play money. There are never ending bills and expenses. There are the weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly costs of groceries, fuel, utilities, insurance, education, clothing, housing, you name it. And it’s so easy to we consumed by these things.
It’s a rare thing for me to give beyond my ability. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever have. Have you? I’m missing out really—missing out on the gracious living that only comes from God.
Please God, lead me to give cheerfully, generously, graciously. Lead me to consider what I can give and then give more. And lead others who know your amazing grace to do the same. Amen
Recently I stumbled across a video clip of John Macarthur critiquing Joel Osteen. He read from his first book, Your Best Life Now, offering a harsh critique of his self-centred prosperity gospel. Macarthur went so far as to say that Osteen was making the same promises as Satan when he called Jesus to make the stones into bread and told him that all the kingdoms of the world could be his.
I have no problem with this criticism. It seems to me that Macarthur nailed it. The wealthiest pastor in the USA with the largest congregation in the USA, sadly has much to answer for. His massive TV audience, his millions of books, and his huge following, including the likes of Oprah Winfrey, make him a hugely influential figure. And I don’t believe it’s an influence for good or God. I believe our Christian bookshops should boycott his books and television stations should take him off air. They are my thoughts.
But what disturbed me in the video, was the laughter of the audience when Macarthur quoted Osteen. There was much hilarity and amusement. Now, I’m not suggesting that Macarthur was using Osteen to whip up his congregation, or making light of what he was teaching, but is laughter really the appropriate response? Is what Osteen teaches funny? If it’s false and destructive, then shouldn’t it lead us to tears?
Many years ago, I gave a talk at a student conference and began with various critiques of false teachers. Some of the stories I quoted had been taken from a Macarthur book that highlighted the nonsense of what some had described as people claimed to have died and gone to heaven and back. Some of the stories were really weird. As I told these accounts, I had people in stitches. There was uncontrollable laughter at times. I found the accounts so bizarre and ridiculous that it was easy to generate comic relief. Even I had tears running down my eyes—not of sorrow but laughter.
After the talk I was taken aside by two young men I deeply respect, and by my wife. They had the courage to challenge me about what I’d said and done. Did I really believe this was false teaching? Did I care that it was leading people astray? Was I committed to the truth of the gospel? Then how could I make light of these things? How could I use them to grab quick laughs and build rapport with my listeners? They called me to repent. And I did. I asked God for forgiveness and I stood before the conference the next day and asked for their forgiveness.
If we are convinced that these things matter, then is no place for being flippant with the truth. False teaching is dangerous and should be no cause for hilarity. We’d do well to remember the example of the Apostle Paul when he speaks of those who oppose the truth…
For as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. (Philippians 3:18 NIV, my emphasis)
As he leaves the Ephesian elders to take care of the church, and to protect their congregation from false teachers, he reminds them…
Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. ‘Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:30-32 NIV, my emphasis)
I believe we are called to know the truth—the truth that sets us free—and to share this truth with others. This will mean opposing the post-modern nonsense that you can have your truth and I can have mine. There will be times when we must speak up for the truth and call out lies and falsehood. But when it comes to life and death, salvation and judgment, it’s not a game. It’s very real and the stakes are high. So let’s speak the truth, in love, and warn people of lies that destroy. And let’s remember what it cost Jesus to rescue people from hell and judgment. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they ignored and opposed the truth. Will we weep over the blinding deceptions being propagated by the likes of Osteen and others?
Some of us have been on a date, a third date to be precise. It’s been a date of ‘fellowships’, or should that be ‘denominations’. The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches has gone out with the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches of Australia. We had three leaders of each group meeting, listening, talking, exploring, wondering what it might be like to be in ministry together. Two of their leaders attended our national conference, then two of our leaders shared in their conference. We’ve begun to explore matters of unity in the gospel and what matters are non-negotiable when it comes to getting hitched. There has been much to thank God for and there is much more yet to be considered.
There have been lots of questions in the mix, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. It’s an issue that has concerned both groups at different times and, in some cases, has led to a separation and parting of ways between churches. It has to do with whether our groups are ‘fellowships’ or ‘denominations’ and how that might be expressed in financial terms. The mindset of some appears to be that ‘fellowship’ is good, but ‘denomination’ is bad. Perhaps there have been fears of centralism, external controls, wasted resources, inertia, growing bureaucracy and the like. If so, then these are legitimate concerns and need to be taken seriously.
To put a sharp edge on it, if a fellowship gathered fees from its members, would that make it a denomination? Is giving money to the centre so as to resource the ministry of the fellowship a step too far? Does it boil down to taxation, socialism, control, establishment, or some other negative idea?
It strikes me that we need to renew our understanding from the scriptures. But we wont get very far searching for ‘denomination’ in the Bible. We’re better off looking in a good dictionary. ‘Denomination’ is literally concerned with naming things or designating something. It can be used of different categories. For example, when we speak of denominations of bank notes, we are describing notes with the same value and appearance. Likewise, a denomination of churches could be simply a collection of churches that share a name and the same values. Our government recognises formal denominations in this way, and affords certain privileges and sets obligations and expectations accordingly. The reality is that both the FIEC and the FECA are denominations.
What about fellowship? I grew up with a weak understanding of what ‘fellowship’ meant. Sometimes it meant having a coffee and biscuit after church. Other times it seemed to be a name given to a group that was more fun than work—a fellowship group rather than a Bible study. But the Bible offers us much greater clarity when it comes to understanding ‘fellowship’. The word for ‘fellowship’ in the Greek New Testament is koinonia. It appears in English versions translated variously as ‘fellowship’, ‘sharing’, ‘participation’ and ‘contribution’.
The book of Philippians is a good case study for the use of ‘fellowship’ because the word appears on six occasions. Each highlighted word below is a translation of koinonia in the New International Version:
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now (1:4-5)
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. (1:7)
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. (2:1-2)
I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (3:10-11)
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. (4:12-14)
Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only;for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. (4:15-16)
We discover some profound and powerful things about ‘fellowship’ in Paul’s letter. Fellowship is a unity in the Holy Spirit. It’s a reality of being Christian that we are united to brothers and sisters in the gospel. God’s work in us means that we arein fellowship together. All Christians are joined together in having received God’s grace. We are brought into partnership with others from day one of our new life in Christ. So fellowship is first and foremost not something that we create, but a gift from God in the gospel.
However, expression of this fellowship can be sought, developed, offered and maintained. It is to be given observable and practical expression. Paul seeks to share in Christ’s sufferings and he is united with fellow believers who are similarly focused. He was in physical need, not discontented, but definitely in need. And the Philippians showed him fellowship. Their fellowship with the Apostle cost them as a church. It meant giving gifts and aid to their brother. In other words, sharing resources was what fellowship looked like. It’s a fundamentally Christian attitude and behaviour.
It seems bizarre, therefore, to oppose churches giving money to each other, or committing together to provide common resources for gospel work, or ‘giving to the centre’ to help the gospel work grow and develop in health and numbers, or setting fees to share the costs of working well together, or taking up a collection to assist other churches. Yes, we are to be careful and prudent with our funds. No, we don’t want to throw money away or waste it on bad ideas. But sharing money doesn’t tip us into becoming a ‘denomination’—it’s simply what Christians and churches and fellowships do.
Resilience and burnout are big issues in work and ministry at present. In the field of Christian ministry the statistics of burnout seem alarmingly high and the focus on building resilience is both urgent and important. Kirsten Burkett has provided a great service by sharing her research into these areas in her latest book Resilience: A Spiritual Project. This isn’t a popular level book. For a start it’s published by The Latimer Trust, as the 84th of their brief academic studies. While only being 46 pages in length, it includes another 9 pages of bibliography, comprising mainly of academic journal articles. But don’t let these things put you off. Resilience: A Spiritual Project is compact, yet thorough, and I found it engaging and easy to read. While much of her book is surveying and summarising findings in the literature, Dr Birkett draws us to practical conclusions with profound pastoral implications.
Dr Birkett writes as an experienced researcher, academic, author, and teacher. However, she does this in sync with her experience of grappling with burnout herself, and with an eye to equipping men and women in pastoral ministry. She understands the particular dangers and threats for those engaged in a profession where resilience is needed to fuel perseverance and endurance. Most profoundly, Dr Birkett draws on the wisdom of the research to argue that resilience ‘can be learned’ and ‘people can be trained against future stress’ (p17). She is also careful to emphasise that resilience is not a cure all. Sometimes people are simply tired and need to slow down, rest, or take time out. Other times people are overwhelmed by sadness, grief, or trauma, and just need time to weep and mourn. However, she writes:
If we keep resilience in perspective, as ways of helping healthy people stay healthy and of helping ill people recover, it seems to be an extremely useful construct. Human beings are resilient — we could hardly have survived this long otherwise. (p25)
Dr Birkett demonstrates in her book that there are significant overlaps between resilience research and Christian spirituality. Many features identified in the literature as important in building resilience, find expression in biblical expressions of Christian faith in action. She examines the following areas:
Adversity leads to strength
Sense of meaning and purpose
Hope and optimism and positive emotions
Self-efficacy: God efficacy
If you have a good understanding of the life of a Christian then you will hear the resonance already.
We believe that God works to strengthen and transform his people through adversity. Suffering is not to be sought after, but it is to be expected. ‘What people need, it seems, is not a stress-free life, but the framework to treat stress well; to use it as a stimulus for growth, rather than buckling under it’ (p33).
We believe that we have been created for a purpose, essentially for Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16). We are not the product of chance and time. There is meaning, purpose, significance, and eternity. We may not always understand our suffering but God, in his wisdom, uses it to produce good (Romans 8:18,28).
We believe, not in some external transcendent force, but in a God who is accessible and invites us to come to him in our times of need. God has come to us in the incarnation of Jesus. God dwells in and among his people by his Spirit. We have access to God through the death and resurrection of his Son, and so we are invited to come before him in prayer, and present our requests to him rather than staying isolated in our anxiety.
We believe there is good reason for hope. Our faith is built on hope in the promises of God. God has shown he is faithful in Christ Jesus and because of this we can have joy even in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 1:3-7).
We have deep reason to love others. We did nothing to deserve it, but God has loved us, at enormous cost, through the atoning death of Jesus. This leads to a purposeful altruism, motivated by God’s work in and through us. At the heart of this is power and willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. We can shed our anger and avoid bitterness.
We believe, not in self-efficacy, but in the efficacy of God. There is honesty in Christian understanding that we are not equal to all tasks. We don’t need to be demoralised by our continual sub-par performances. We’re not required to grow super powers. Our sovereign God knows our needs and will accomplish his purposes for our good. This is stress-relieving.
We believe that God has given us a community. We are adopted into his family and called to love our brothers and sisters. Hospitality and care are part of the fabric of our relationships.
You see, in other words, God is in the business of building resilience in his people. How then should we train Christian ministers for resilience? Dr Birkett nails it with her insight:
It would seem we do so by training them to be Christian. (p38)
Read that again! Building resilience comes from Christian discipleship.
Building resilience in Christian leaders isn’t simply the domain of Christian psychologists, as important and as helpful as they can be. It should be the fruit of putting a deepening understanding of God and his ways into practice. It should come as we soak ourselves in the Scriptures and turn to God in prayer. Resilience should be the outworking of good doctrine and faith working itself out in love. There are no silver bullets, no secret elixirs, when it comes to avoiding burnout. But, as God’s children, we have a Father in heaven who knows us, loves us, guides us, equips us, heals us, and sustains us. Let’s turn to him in our hour of need.
Resilience: A Spiritual Project is a word in season.
Yes, I’m trying to get my writing mojo back. People say the way to start writing is to start writing. People are profound sometimes! So back to reviewing a few of the books I’ve been reading. This book was recommended to me by a friend who suggested it might be helpful to leaders in our network around the country.
Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success and why some people never learn from their mistakes by Matthew Syed identifies some important blind spots. People are always telling us that we should learn from our mistakes, fail forward, and change the way we go about things so that we keep on improving. The problem is that we so often repeat our mistakes, get stuck in ruts, and fear making changes.
This book takes its title from the little black boxes fitted to aeroplanes. I understand that planes are fitted with devices to record the electronics of the aircraft and to record the interactions of the pilots. These devices are stored in ‘indestructible’ black boxes that can be retrieved in the case of accidents. Apparently these black boxes are now orange, not because orange is the new black, but because orange boxes are easier to locate when rubble is scattered far and wide. What a great example of black box thinking!
Going back to 1912, plane crashes were considered normal and inevitable. Half of US army pilots died in air crashes, even during peacetime. Fast-forward to today and plane travel is one of the safest means of transport. There are very few deaths and the accident rate is about 1 in 2.5 million flights. There are many reasons for this tremendous improvement, but at its core there is a mindset in the aviation world that says, “We must learn from our mistakes.” The black box is a tangible expression of this attitude. When something goes badly wrong, it must then be examined with a fine tooth comb to make sure such mistakes don’t happen again. This is a life and death imperative.
This mindset is not seen everywhere else. People are reluctant to own up to their mistakes. We’d prefer to rationalise things, pass the blame, gloss over what has happened, and avoid scrutiny or accusation. Human pride gets in the way. Syed contrasts the slowness of the health profession to learn from mistakes with the progress of the aviation industry. When doctors make mistakes they get hammered by litigation, public shaming, deregistration, increased insurance costs, and the like. So who wants to admit fault? In both arenas, people’s lives depend on learning from mistakes and making changes to avoid things being repeated.
I depend greatly on the proficiency and safety of both the medical and aviation sectors. Both these areas matter to me. But there are other lessons I am interested in. As one who now leads are network of churches, or denomination, I am concerned about the systemic failure of churches to learn from their mistakes. The recent Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, has reveal some appalling accounts of denials, cover ups, and codes of silence. Black box thinking requires the truth to be revealed, serious questions to be asked, and future problems avoided.
We need to learn from our mistakes. Even more so, we need to repent of our blatant sin. The problem with sin is that it leads to shame and so we cover ourselves. We’ve been doing it since the beginning. God calls us to confess our sins, to be honest with one another, to take heed of our failures, and to spur each other on to love and good works.
But it’s not simply in the areas of heinous sin that we need to develop black box thinking—it’s in the day to day of our ministry. It seems that many churches are trapped in patterns of mindless repetition. Q. “Why do we do what we do?” A. “Because that’s what we’ve always done.” And we wonder why people have stopped coming!
Whether it’s church, school, business, club, or whatever, we need to keep thinking about what’s not working, why it’s not working, what needs to change, and how we can change it. Review should me commonplace and regular. Action—reflection—reaction should be our normal pattern. Failures should be seen as opportunities to make changes for the better. Mistakes should be valued as triggers for improvement. You’ve probably heard the Michael Jordan stories of countless missed shots, errors of judgment, lost games—all viewed as opportunities to learn, grow, succeed, and become arguably the greatest basketball player in history.
Syed challenges the popular view that success is primarily based upon innate qualities such as talent and intelligence. He describes this as a Fixed Mindset. He argues that we need to develop a Growth Mindset, where success can be achieved though dedication and hard work. People are capable of achieving more if they are willing to learn and make changes and if they are willing to practice until perfect.
In my world of Christian ministry I want to make a plea for black box thinking. Let’s learn from our mistakes and failures. Let’s ask the difficult questions. Let’s normalise reviews and feedback. And this will require humility from everyone, and especially from pastors and leaders.
Allow me to illustrate with 7 suggestions for black box thinking for pastors:
Pastors would benefit from professional supervision. Taking timeout to reflect and learn from our practice will improve our ministries. Find someone who can speak into your circumstances and help you to develop black box thinking.
Pastors should seek feedback on their sermons from people they trust. I’ve heard depressing tales of ministers unwilling to provide support and feedback to their trainees because they won’t accept critique themselves.
Pastors can build a culture of learning from mistakes by reviewing what they and the church do on a regular basis. Go with the natural rhythms. Monday is a good time to review the services on the weekend—what worked, what didn’t, what could be done better next time? Once a quarter would be a good time to make adjustments to our regular programs. Why not introduce a major annual review, such that every year things change and grow for the better?
Pastors could organise to get together with peers from time to time to share successes and failures. Being open with one another builds a culture of humility. Iron sharpens iron. You can learn from one another’s mistakes and avoid falling in the same traps. Go to a conference or two where you can learn from others.
Maintain the discipline of reading books that will keep building your competencies. Begin regularly with the Bible and ask God to deepen your love and understanding of him. Read a commentary to enrich your understanding of the Scriptures, something on leadership to challenge your practice, a book on culture to evaluate how well you understand your world, and so on. Ask others you trust what they have found useful.
Become more thoughtful. Think about your thinking. Keep some notes and look back over them. Journal lessons you have learned. Set goals for change.
Pray. Ask God to shine a light into your thinking, feelings, emotions, relationships, decisions, plans. Look into the ‘black box’ of God’s word and make the necessary changes.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)