The trellis and the vine

Trellis and the VineFor some reason I’ve kept putting off reading The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. It might be the familiarity breeds… thing. After all, I did a ministry apprenticeship with Col nearly 30 years ago, and I overlapped with Tony doing the same thing a year behind me. It could be that I thought I’d heard it all before. And I pretty much had! But it’s for this reason, and the passion and commitment of the authors, and the quality of the book, that I’m now keen to recommend it to others. I intend to provide an overview of the material, highlighting what I see as some key issues, share some ideas of how we are seeking to grapple with these things, and make some suggestions.

The two images of the trellis and the vine are used to describe two aspects of Christian ministry.

The basic work of any Christian ministry is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, and to see people converted, changed and grow to maturity in that gospel. That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing and tending the vine.

However, just as some sort of framework is needed to help the vine grow, so Christian ministries also need some structure and support. It might not be much, but at very least we need somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read from, and some basic structures of leadership within our group.  (p8)

The observation of the authors is that so often in our churches the trellis work takes over from the vine work. We get caught up in committees, structures, activities, fund raising, keeping the machinery ticking over, such that we lose site of the reason for the trellises – that is, to support the vine. Drawing on the great commission in Matthew 28, this book argues for vine-growing as disciple-making which should be the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple (p13).

As churches move away from erecting and maintaining structures to growing disciple-making disciples, a radical mind-shift is required. These changes of outlook will include…

      1. Building people rather than running programs
      2. Training people rather than running events
      3. Growing people rather than using them
      4. Training new workers rather than filling gaps
      5. Helping people make progress rather than solving problems
      6. Developing teams rather than focusing all on ordained ministry
      7. Forging ministry partnerships rather than focusing on church polity
      8. Establishing local training rather than relying only on training institutions
      9. Looking at the long term picture rather than being constrained by immediate pressures
      10. Engaging in ministry with people rather than being consumed by management
      11. Prioritising gospel growth over specific church growth

Col and Tony ground their claim to the priority of the vine over the trellis in the Scriptures. They examine what God’s plan is for his world, what he has been doing, and what he is doing now after the finished work of Christ. God is saving souls through the Spirit-backed proclamation of the gospel and this has big implications. Our small ambitions need to be laid aside for the cause of Christ and his gospel. God is calling people to be born anew in Christ and to grow into maturity. And this growth happens by the power of God’s Spirit as he applies the word to people’s hearts. It’s evident that this has little to do with structures and organisations and much more to do with prayerful word ministry.

The Trellis and the Vine aims to show that every Christian is called to be a part of this vine work. Not everyone is gifted in the same way, but we are all called to the task of being and making disciples. The beauty of the body of Christ is we can support one another in this work. The common clergy-laity divide is broken down as leaders and congregations begin to work off the same game plan. Modelling and teaching from pastors, elders, teachers, group leaders and others is focused on God’s agenda of proclaiming Christ and calling people to follow him. We read, discuss, and prayerfully apply the Scriptures together at church, in groups, one-on-one, in formal and informal contexts, with the same aim of growing into maturity as followers of Jesus.

I especially appreciated the careful defining of ‘training’ in this book. They contrast our popular understanding of training as a focus on skills development and show from the New Testament that it should be more focused on Christian thinking and living.

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.  (1 Timothy 4:7)

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Though training is not simply the imparting of information, the faithful passing on of sound teaching is essential.

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.  (2 Timothy 2:2)

Training is also modelling a way of life. It is caught as well as taught and we are called to set one another an example. The ultimate example is that of Jesus Christ himself.

Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God —  even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.  Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.  (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1)

Not that trainers will be perfect, but they are called to watch their lives and teaching carefully. They will impact others profoundly as their progress is seen.

Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.  (1 Timothy 4:15-16)

This understanding from the Bible has led the authors to summarise the nature and goal of training by three Cs.

Through personal relationship, prayer, teaching, modelling and practical instruction, we want to see people grow in:

  • conviction – their knowledge of God and understanding of the Bible
  • character – the godly character and life that accords with sound doctrine
  • competency – the ability to prayerfully speak God’s word to others in a variety of ways.  (p78)

Following the lead and language of the Book of Acts, the authors describe training as more concerned with gospel growth than particular church growth. This happens in the lives of people, not structures. It means we should be generous and willing to send off many whom we train for the sake of God’s church elsewhere. It requires us to see people as people, and not just cogs in the wheel for our own projects. As more and more people are trained in godliness and a good understanding of the truth, then we will find churches as they should be – growing in numbers and maturity, with people serving one another, encouraging and setting an example to each other. In other words, a long way from the ‘professional minister with all of his clients approach’, which does little more than stifle gospel growth.

For churches to adopt this radical mindset, it requires pastors and leaders to grasp the essential importance of training. It’s not sufficient to be the preacher, clergyman, CEO, or business manager. Leaders need to encourage their churches to become centres of training where disciple-making disciples are nurtured, equipped, and encouraged. In this way the opportunities for outreach, teaching, modelling, service and care are shared among the body of the church. Churches can grow in health as well as numbers and more and more people are mobilised. We would do well to conduct an honest audit of our congregational programs, structures and and activities and see how we measure up against this picture.

Recruiting co-workers is key to promoting gospel growth, but there are mistakes to be avoided. Here are a few:

  • Don’t compromise on core beliefs and values.
  • Don’t be impressed by enthusiasm over substance.
  • Don’t ignore their track record.
  • Don’t choose people who aren’t good at relating to people.
  • Don’t recruit in desperation.
  • Don’t select unteachable co-workers.
  • Don’t simply choose ‘yes’ people.
  • Don’t just advertise for volunteers.

The best way to recruit co-workers according to convictions, character, and competence is to train them. Keep on the look out for people who might be suitable to share the load with you. Always be thinking about whom you could be training. Consider if there are one, two or more people that you could especially invest in. Make it happen. Share in their lives, work through the Scriptures together, pray with one another, open your heart to them, delight in their progress, be honest and speak the truth in love, as you encourage them to grow as a disciple-making disciple.

A chapter is devoted in this book to the Ministry Training Strategy. This isn’t surprising given that Col was one of the founders of this ministry and Tony was one of the early trainees. They have shaped and refined this ministry over three decades, and commend it as an excellent strategy for preparing new Christian leaders. It’s basically a two-year apprenticeship that gives people real opportunity to grow in gospel ministry, by doing ministry under the supervision and guidance of a suitable trainer. It’s often a precursor to more formal theological training and has the benefit of enabling a good assessment of a person’s suitability for ministry leadership before investing everything in 3 or 4 years at college. A good outcome is a wise and godly decision at the end of the apprenticeship. I’m an advocate for this training experience before formal theological training. I benefitted greatly from receiving it myself and have subsequently led more than 60 apprentices through a similar program.

So what have I learned from this book?

The big thing has been the reminder to see training as part of the DNA of a healthy church. Not simply skills development, but the making of disciple-making disciples in response to the commission of Jesus. As churches grow it is easy to be consumed by organisation, structure, vision setting, strategic planning, and the like. We can lose sight of the people. It’s been a good reminder that God is seeking people with him for eternity, not clever programs!

The Trellis and Vine has also encouraged me to be more purposeful in training workers for ministry throughout our church. Training is not simply for the ‘professionals’. It’s about being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, and that’s for all. We need to audit our Sunday meetings, growth groups, children’s and youth ministries, and ask the hard questions. Are we occupied with a gospel work that will make a difference for eternity? Are people genuinely seeking to follow Jesus? Are we making disciples of one another, or are we sitting back assuming it will just happen automatically somehow?

My current pastoral focus is particularly on ministry training and leadership development. I’ve begun to assess how we are travelling with equipping and supporting our growth group leaders. A quick analysis shows there are a number who would really appreciate some training. This book is a helpful resource as I seek to encourage the leaders to make growing disciple-making disciple a priority in their groups.

A couple of suggestions

Given that this book is called The Trellis and the Vine there is very little about trellises. The author’s main point is to get us focused on vine growing and not distracted by erecting and maintaining trellises. However, I would appreciate more on how to create helpful trellises for vine growing. A lack of trellis or the wrong type of trellis can become a serious impediment to vine growth. Disorganised strategies and structures can certainly prevent gospel growth in our churches, but the inverse can also be true. It seems to me that we need to find the right trellis that enables the vine to grow. More could be said on this.

However, and I’m not sure if this point is made explicitly in the book, The Trellis and the Vine is itself a helpful trellis! Here is a strategy with organisational advice to increase the disciple-making outcome in our churches. Chaos is affirmed in the book as an expected outcome when the focus is on vine growing, but sometimes the chaos is an indicator that some trellis work needs to be done to keep the vine growing healthily.

I also had a concern in the section on ‘people worth watching’. The call is to become ‘talent scouts’, looking for people with extraordinary gifts in leadership, communication and management; people with vision, energy, intelligence and entrepreneurial spirit; people who are good with people, and who can understand and articulate ideas persuasively. If these are also godly servants of Christ who long for his kingdom, then why not headhunt them for a life of ‘recognised gospel ministry’? (p140) My concern here is the order and emphasis. It’s too easy look on the surface, see the gifts and talents, and fail to look deeply at the life and character of the person. In a book that has highlighted this issue, it would have been more helpful to illustrate the things that might give evidence of godly character.

A similar concern is the limited mention of ‘love’ as a defining characteristic of the disciple and his or her life and ministry. Interestingly, the first FAQ in the appendix illustrates what makes a great sales person. The answer is love for the product and care for the people. When it comes to the gospel and Jesus and other people, this is so important. I think it’s a point that could have been much stronger and more up front in the book. 1 Corinthians 12-14 would have been an excellent starting point for a chapter on the importance of love in building the church and making disciples. I worry sometimes that our catch-cry of looking for FAT people (faithful, available, teachable) people is not enough. I used to add an S (self-starting or sacrificial), to make FAST people! Maybe we should add an L (loving) to make FLAT people instead!

Overall

This is a very helpful book. I commend it to pastors, ministry leaders, small group leaders and any Christian who is keen to make their life count for eternity.

Getting ready for Easter

easterThe department stores and supermarkets are always ready for Easter. I think once the Christmas stuff comes down, the Easter stuff goes up. There’s over-priced, over-packaged, hollow chocolate as far as the eye can see. I usually wait for the post-Easter sales and reductions on the broken eggs and rabbits. Churches don’t really need to advertise Easter because the shops do it for them!

But it does worry me that our shops are so focused on Easter, while many of our churches don’t seem to give it a lot of thought. We know it’s coming but we still seem to be ill-prepared and caught off guard when it arrives. The fact of the matter is that Easter is one of two occasions on the calendar when many people will visit church. I’m pleased that many take this step because I want them to hear and grasp why the Easter events are so absolutely crucial for all who follow Jesus.

Easter is a time where we remember a Galilean man of the first century who was executed by crucifixion under the Roman regime. It’s strange to celebrate this event two millennia later and stranger still to call it Good Friday. But this is the event that mends the broken relationship between God and us. That’s a whole lot better than good. And Easter Sunday demonstrates that this man is no longer dead. The empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus bear testimony to the efficacy of his sacrifice on the cross for us, and the fulfilment of his promises to die and rise again. Jesus is the risen Son of God, and we’re called to value him, turn to him, trust in him, honour him, and live for him. Resurrection beyond death is the hope of those who follow Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection has made this possible.

These are events of history that I’m keen for people to notice. There’s a fairly good chance they’ll get mentioned in churches over Easter (though no guarantee in some churches with little regard for the Bible) so I’d love my neighbours, workmates, teammates, relatives, occasional church-going mates, and anyone else to come along.

And if they’re going to be guests at our churches, then I want our churches to be ready. In the same way we prepare for guests at home – light up the barbie, organise food and drinks, welcome people, and seek to provide a good time – I want to prepare at church. I want people to feel especially welcome. I’d like them to feel comfortable with what’s going on. I’d love them to find us friendly, helpful and generous. I want the message of Easter to be so clear it can be repeated afterwards by one and all. I’m keen for people to get a window into how important it is, how much it means to people (like me) today. I’d like them to understand how they could find out more about Jesus, if they wanted to. And I’d love them to be pleasantly surprised about church, and want to come again… soon.

All this assumes people know it’s on, what’s happening, when and where to go. It requires advertising of some sort and people inviting others to join us. It would help if we could overcome a perception of ‘same old same old’ and ‘why would I bother coming cos I know what they’re going to do and say?’ Families would probably appreciate knowing what happens for kids and youth at church. We might want to check whether church is easy to find, whether their are clear signs directing the way. I reckon we should be offering top class refreshments to make it worth sticking around afterwards. And why not think about a gift that people could take home with them?

If you follow Jesus, let me ask have you and your church worked out what you’re doing at Easter yet? Now would be a good time to start if you haven’t already. Some churches have a season before Easter called Lent, so they’re probably ahead of the game. Our church doesn’t make much of lent, so we need to learn from the shops and get our act together.

If you don’t follow Jesus, but if you’re open-minded about Christianity and talking about God, then let me encourage you to check things out this Easter. If you know a Christian and you’re thinking of visiting their church, then I recommend you letting them know you want to get to the heart of message and not be distracted by religious fluff. Just saying!

And by the way, you probably shouldn’t buy me any Easter eggs. I’m supposed to be losing weight, lowering my blood-sugar levels, and reducing my blood pressure. Not fair!

Mistakes leaders make

mistakes-leaders-makeDave Kraft has had plenty of time to make mistakes and to observe others doing the same. He’s been in Christian leadership for more than 43 years serving with Navigators and a variety of churches. In his recent book, Mistakes Leaders Make, he offers ten warnings of what not to do as a leader. This is an easy book to read. It took me less than a day, but I’d recommend taking it more slowly and working through the issues and questions he raises more carefully. It’s readability is increased by the style of writing. He follows the pattern of Lencioni in telling a story about a church and its various staff. While the church is fictional, the characters and issues are very real. Each chapter introduces a new character, and their mistakes, before teasing out some principles and practices.

Kraft recommends letting Psalm 139:23-24 be your prayer as you work through each chapter.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

The list of mistakes is very sobering. I have experienced temptation and failure in a number of these areas. Each one is worth considering carefully.

  1. 1. Allowing ministry to replace Jesus

The first mistake is very subtle and easy to deny. How could you possibly replace Jesus with ministry when ministry is about serving Jesus? You can and I have! It’s easy to be so caught up with the responsibilities of ministry that we neglect our relationship with our Lord. I don’t have time to talk to God because I’m too busy doing things for him. Successful ministry can become more important that honouring the one we serve. I think this area is a big trap for senior pastors and it has an awful ripple effect. Families, staff teams, and churches all suffer as this happens. The key to this mistake – indeed the solution to each of the mistakes in this book – is to keep Jesus at the centre of our lives and all we do.

2. Allowing comparing to replace contentment

Comparison versus contentment is another perennial fight for Christian leaders. Every denominational gathering, leadership conference, or ministry fraternal offers the temptation to pride or envy. How many on your team? Have you planted a new church this year? What’s your budget? How many people come each week? It’s a fools game. The solution is to be content with who you are, where you are, what you are doing, and what God is doing through you. (p33) Just remember you are God’s person, entrusted with God’s people, and God’s ministry. If you must compare, then ask yourself the question whether you are being all that you could be for God.

3. Allowing pride to replace humility

Kraft argues that pride is the root cause for the undoing and fall of most leaders. It’s so easy for the ministry to become all about us. He quotes Gary Thomas in his book, Thirsting for God:

Proud women and men relate everything back to themselves. They are all but incapable of seeing any situation except for how it affects them. Empathy is something they may read about but will never truly experience.  (p44)

Pride can be a particular issue for young, gifted leaders who experience success early in their ministry. It’s easy to be swept up in the praise, to believe we are the cause of our own success, and to lose sight of the contribution of others. Most significantly we can take our eyes of the Lord of the harvest altogether. I believe that this was a struggle of me at times. The solution is to refocus regularly on the cross of Jesus Christ and the extraordinary grace that we’ve been given from God.

4. Allowing pleasing people to replace pleasing God

People pleasing is a trap. If we spend our time worrying about what everyone else will think of what we do, then we will be torn this way and that and never lead effectively. Ultimately we play to an audience of one – God himself. He will judge our motives, words and actions. As Proverbs 29:25 says, The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.

5. Allowing busyness to replace visioning

Busyness is a great enemy of Christian leadership. Too few leaders spend time thinking, praying, dreaming, looking ahead, and planning. The urgent gets our attention and we fail to set clear vision for the future. This mistake leads to ineffective and overly busy ministries, burnout of people, and disillusionment with what we’re doing. Leaders must look to the future. We need to be concerned with what could be not simply with what is.  This is a hard lesson to learn because we are so often tyrannised by the urgent. Let’s make time in our calendars to think, pray, reflect, dream, plan – both on our own and with our teams.

6. Allowing financial frugality to replace fearless faith

The temptation is to think that this mistake is one that only church boards and parish councils make! This is not true. We began our ministry on a shoestring. We had to clear a substantial debt in the beginning and for a number of years I was paid 6-8 weeks late. Everything was done on the cheap, money was kept and saved rather than spent, and I became overly concerned with getting a bargain. We need to be financially wise, but also filled with faith. We should remember that God is our provider and he calls us to use his resources for the advancement of his work.

7. Allowing artificial harmony to replace difficult conflict

We are not to be so loving that we don’t speak the truth, or so truthful that we don’t speak with love; there is a fine balance between the two that is essential to all human relationships, especially among church staff and in a leadership role.  (p79)

Avoiding conflict can be a big problem among Christian leaders.  I’ve been in staff meetings where it’s obvious people aren’t on board, but they remain compliant or passively aggressive. It’s awful! We’re tempted to work around people rather than confront them. Sometimes people are unable to do their job and we’d rather compensate for them at great cost to the organisation, than confront them or move them on. Conflict can be very healthy for teams. And healthy conflict depends on trust and relationships. I recommend reading Patrick Lencioni for more on this.

8. Allowing perennially hurting people to replace potential hungry leaders

There are always hurting people in our midst and the compassionate leader can find him or herself overwhelmed with trying to care for them. Eventually the leader is unable to keep it up and goes on stress leave or resigns. The problem is we try and do it all ourselves. Leadership is about building teams of people to share the load. We need to take the time to get the right people onto the team bus with us and them help them to find the right seats according to their gifts, abilities and passions. Grow the team and we grow the capacity to care. Leaders must be team builders.

9. Allowing information to replace transformation

It’s not what you know, but what you do, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, with what you know that makes all the difference.  (p99)

It’s easy to be so consumed with preparing, teaching, and passing on information, that we lose sight of the purpose of seeing people transformed by God. If we are teaching and learning, but never changing, then we have a massive problem. As leaders we should be on our knees asking God to transform us and the people we lead.

10. Allowing control to replace trust

Stressed and busy leaders are high risk to be controlling rather than trusting. We might fear things going wrong or getting out of control. We might worry that someone else will stuff things up or not do them properly. We might be jealous of others and try to guard our reputation. Good leadership is about helping others to have a go, to grow, and contribute, and be the people God made them to be. After all, this is God’s church and God’s ministry, so let’s lighten up and trust God!

This is an insightful and practical book. It cuts deeply. I recommend it especially to young blokes coming out of theological college who are planning to conquer the world! It’s also a must read for senior pastors who know deep down that they keep running in the red zone on empty!

Mixed up macarisms

Puzzle-300x182Looking back over the months, this blog has fulfilled a number of different purposes. I’ve been able to share what’s been going on with my cancer and treatment, and my physical, emotional, relational and spiritual responses to these things. I’ve reviewed a range of books – mainly Christian ministry and leadership material. I’ve shared my life as a Christian and invited others to seriously consider trusting in Jesus. I’ve written a few posts on leadership and I’ve even dabbled in a bit of poetry. It’s been pretty eclectic and nobody knows what I’ll write about next – not even me!

This has led to thoughts of starting another blog. Macarisms could remain the blog where I post on cancer and personal matters, and I could start another for leadership and ministry resources. In fact, these thoughts turned into action and I began a separate blog and started dividing the materials, creating new links, and so forth. But, I didn’t go live with the changes and I’ve since begun to think differently. I intend keeping the diversity on the one blog and I have, what I believe are, important reasons for doing so.

The internet is crowded with resources. Christian materials, blogs on leadership, people reviewing books, many selling their wares. We can view the resources, and maybe know the name of the author, but mostly we know absolutely nothing about the life of the people behind the words and ideas. Just lifeless, faceless men and women sprouting their wisdom via computers and phones.

I’m keen for macarisms to be different. I will write academic posts from time to time, but they will be placed alongside testimony and experience. I want people to understand how I do life as well as how I do theology. I hope to encourage, equip and inspire people from the Bible as I seek to live it out myself. In other words, I want to be someone who walks the talk.

The Bible teaches and models how important this is for Christian leaders…

Watch your life and doctrine closely.  (1 Timothy 4:16)

You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyonewhile we preached the gospel of God to you.
10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.  (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12)

Integrity is priceless and absolutely essential for teachers. My aim is to live with integrity and so to speak and write with integrity also. For this reason I will offer a window or two into my life as I comment, teach and explore a range of different topics. I hope this works for you!

Leadersense

I’ve just taken on the role of developing leadership within the church I serve as a pastor. It’s a wide role and open-ended. What type of leaders – do you mean pastors and ministry apprentices? Will it include members of the congregation? Is this about growth group leaders? What about children’s and youth leaders? Aren’t they someone else’s responsibility? Will this involve women as well as men? Shouldn’t each area of ministry be doing this anyway? Will you be creating new opportunities for leadership? And these are just some of my questions! I’m sure you can think of dozens of others. The role is really about making sure we’re recruiting, training, equipping, supporting, and multiplying our leaders across the church. The answer to every question above is ‘yes’!

It’s easy for us to be very monochrome when it comes to thinking about leadership. We might limit our focus to paid staff for example and say that they’re our leaders. We could think of the governing body of the church as the leaders. Or we might limit our thinking to all the people who have the title of ‘leader’, such as our growth group leaders, kingdom kids (Sunday School) leaders, youth leaders, service leaders, and so on. If we think role as well as title, then we have leaders (or at least we need leaders) in all kinds of places. Every ministry team needs a leader. The growth of a church requires a corresponding growth in the numbers and calibre of leaders. Leaders need to understand God’s agenda for church, the church’s vision for ministry, the needs of the people they lead, and the importance of continually replacing and reproducing themselves.

This may seem like common sense – and it is! But, as someone once said, good sense isn’t that common! It’s easy to assume that leadership will arise naturally, that people will automatically understand what’s expected of them, that they’ll step up to the plate, do a great job, and all will go well. In the real world, leadership needs to be taught and caught. It needs to be encouraged, supported, resourced, and held accountable. We have to develop pathways to move the right people into leadership, and equip them so that they’ll lead people in the right way.

The Scriptures are the foundation for understanding leadership. God made people. He knows us inside out. He knows how we tick psychologically and engage relationally. Jesus, Paul, Peter, Moses, Joshua, David, and others, show us and teach us God’s purposes for leading his people – why to lead them, where to lead them, how to lead them, who should lead them. My plan is to draw on the riches of God’s word to build and inspire leaders in our midst. And, more importantly, for each of our leaders and yet-to-be leaders to dig deeply into the Bible, to shape and equip their leadership.

large_einsteinAnd yet, I don’t subscribe to the view that says “If you can’t find it in the Bible then it’s not worth knowing.” The Book of Proverbs shows how much can be learned by astute observation of this world we live in. God has created sharp minds who have much to teach us in many areas including ‘leadership’. We can learn from great leaders throughout history. We will be warned to avoid the mistakes of the past and inspired to reproduce the wisdom that worked. Bookshops abound in leadership books and, while many aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, there are some real gems out there. Leadership happens in all areas of life and organisation and we can draw on our experiences in other contexts and the experiences of others in similar situations. All this must be firmly bracketed by the understanding that leadership in church should be fundamentally about leading people in their relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, in the strength of God’s Spirit. No Harvard Business Review best-seller will take you there.

olddogI’ve been in this leadership game for years and years, but I’ve still got so much to learn and apply. My hope is that this old dog can learn a few new ‘tricks’! My goal and prayer when it comes to leadership is to develop God-informed and worldly-wise, practical and principled, organisational and personal, uncommon and common sense.

I’m keen to grow in my ‘leadersense’.

Leadership and followership

For the past 20 years I’ve been the leader: Director of the FOCUS ministry on campus; Senior Pastor of Crossroads Church; making the decisions; setting the vision; recruiting the staff; leading the team; critiquing, evaluating, shaping and encouraging. It’s been my responsibility.

Now things have changed. I’m entering new territory this year. The Senior Pastor has now become the Associate Pastor! Now I report to Marcus – the same Marcus whom I recruited, mentored and employed. To be honest, I like the idea. It’s exciting to be able to change positions. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to serve in this way.

I don’t have the same authority or responsibility that I had in the past. And that’s probably a good thing. I’ll need to be more flexible, less time-constrained, and more careful about what I do and don’t do. Some days I might be highly productive and other days I might be stuck in bed. Things that need to happen every day, week, or month – without fail – probably won’t be the best fit for me. My prayer is that there will be less adrenaline, stress, late nights, and compromised days off in the new regime!

My new job description will take a while to bed down, but we’ve got the big things worked out. I’ll be focusing on ministry training and leadership development across the church, as well as contributing to the preaching program. I’m also planning to write. God-willing, I hope to produce some resources for ministry training, that can be used at Crossroads and more widely. There are also a couple of books I’m keen to have a crack at! But one step at a time!

I’ve begun to work on material and ideas for leadership development. Currently, I’m reading through Malphurs and Mancini’s book, Building Leaders. They remind us that in order to be good leaders, we must first be good followers. In fact, I would say if we can’t follow, then we must not lead. Good leadership is not about getting our own way or the wielding of power over others. It’s about service and giving our lives for the benefit of others.

In response to a power struggle among his followers, Jesus taught these things to them:

42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:42-45)

Christian leadership is primarily about influencing people to follow Jesus, and to do this in every area of their lives. Leaders should teach these things, but they also need to model them. This means that leaders must first be followers. It goes with the job description.

The challenge to me as I enter a new form of leadership this year, is to keep working on my ‘followership’. Firstly, as a follower of Jesus Christ, and secondly as a newly positioned member of the pastoral team following the leadership of my Senior Pastor.

Custom make your own conference

This time last year I was enjoying the Geneva Push In the Chute conference in Melbourne. I gathered with others from all over Australia, young and old, from a range of denominations, to encourage each other in the work of planting new churches. In some ways, I was the middle-aged pinup boy, heading to the Top End to begin all over. It was exhilarating to feel the energy, especially from those who were moving to new places to reach out with the message of Jesus. I had the privilege of teaching on why we need to keep planting new churches, how to build ministry teams, as well as sharing our specific dreams and plans for outreach in the Darwin area.

This year, I’m unable to attend. I’d truly love to be at the conference, listening to Don Carson teach, finding out how some of the new churches are travelling, and generally being encouraged to keep on with the work of ministry. However, health, other commitments, and distance are keeping me away this time round.

Depending on our networks, some of us could spend an awful lot of time at conference after conference. In my case, I get drawn towards church conferences, FIEC conferences, men’s conventions, CMS summer schools, Geneva Push conferences, MTS conferences, AFES conferences, FOCUS camps and conferences, RUPA conferences, Easter conventions, Arrow Alumni conferences, AFES staff and regional directors conferences, speaking at other camps and conferences, and the list could go on!  Sometimes it’s simply too much and not all of them are always that relevant. I understand that I’m there for what I can give as well as what I might get, but there are times when I just crave to focus on some particulars and we just don’t go there.

3stoogesI thought I’d share a do-it-yourself idea that I came up with a couple of years back. I customised my own mini-conference that just involved 3 or 4 people. Our church was going through a few strategic and structural changes and I was keen to gain wisdom from others in thinking through these issues. I made contact with a couple of other senior pastors, whose churches were at a similar size and stage, and we organised to set aside two half days to talk things through together. I took a colleague with me, and we flew to Brisbane to catch up with the other guys.

In order to maximise our time together, I wrote up a couple of pages of topics and issues that I was keen for us to discuss. This helped us to think ahead and to stay on topic in the limited time we had together. Each of us had been reading one or two of the same books that had been shaping our thinking about ministry, and so we were able to interact with these ideas also.

I confess to driving the agenda because there were things that I was keen to nut out. We were able to explore how each of us approached different ministry issues, what our churches were doing in a range of areas, how we planned and organised, and more. Talking together afterwards revealed that each of us had benefited in different ways through our time together.

Some of my peers do a similar thing from time to time, so as to focus on their preaching. They meet together for a couple of days, share ideas for a series of talks, preach and critique each others sermons, discuss their exegesis or illustrations or applications, and show how they’ve integrated the preaching with a series of Bible studies.

The advantage of these do-it-yourself mini conferences is that they are tailor-made. You meet for a clear purpose, you contribute to that purpose, and you get out of it what you put into it. It can be organised around your timetables and calendars. You can do it in-house if you have a large staff team, or you can coordinate with others in other places if you’re more isolated. This strategy will work to connect people in similar types of ministries also. Children’s workers can get together with other children’s workers … so can youth workers, women’s workers, executive pastors, small group coordinators, evangelists, school chaplains, and so on.

If you want to make the most of your time, then I recommend you consider the following:

  • agree on the main purpose of your conference
  • put together an agenda or list of issues to be discussed and allow time for people to prepare in advance
  • consider a book or two, or other resources, that are related to your issues, and get people reading these in advance so as to inform your discussion
  • clear your diaries of other commitments and meet in a comfortable place that is free of distractions
  • pray for each other throughout your time together
  • take notes of ideas and have someone distribute a follow up summary of discussion and ideas
  • contact each other a few weeks after your conference to see how things have progressed.

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.  (Proverbs 27:17)

Beyond the first visit

Welcoming is a gospel issue. Our God is a welcoming God. Jesus died so as to welcome people into relationship with God and with each other. He calls his followers to show hospitality to others as an expression of God’s love and grace. So how can we make this a vital feature of our congregations? One way is to be genuinely friendly when people come to our church. Next is to take the initiative in welcoming, follow-up, hospitality, and inviting people to join with us in what we are doing. Nearly every church assumes it is friendly and welcoming, but it’s not what the insiders think that really matters. We need to learn to see things from the outside in. How do we come across to visitors and guests? This book invites us to take a look.

Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to your Church by Gary McIntosh is a book worth reading. I’d advise following the author’s suggestion:

To get the most out of this book, as you read each chapter, make notes in the margin of the book, scribbling your thoughts and ideas. Then make a list of action steps that you want your church to take during the next year to get ready for company. (p14)

McIntosh begins by suggesting we review our terminology – stop speaking about visitors and think of guests instead. We don’t always want visitors, but guests are expected. Visitors are expected to leave, but we plan for guests to stay and we make arrangements so they can. A guest mindset is what we need in our churches. This book encourages people in our churches to become great hosts. The following checklist is a good way to assess how and where we can improve:

  1. Invite your guests with a personal invitation.
  2. Arrive early to make sure everything is ready for the guests’ arrival.
  3. Greet the guests warmly at the entrance and escort them to their seats.
  4. Assist guests in understanding what is taking place.
  5. Anticipate and answer as many questions as possible in advance, so guests do not have to ask.
  6. Do something extra to make your guests’ visit special.
  7. Walk guests to the door and invite them back. (p17)

Welcoming guests doesn’t always happen naturally. We need to plan for it to be done well and it’s the responsibility of the church, not the guest. It’s worth thinking about how we’d treat a guest in our home, and applying this to church. We’d invite them in, offer to take their coat, show them where they can put their bag, take them into the appropriate room, invite them to take a seat, offer them a drink, ask them how they’re doing, engage in conversation, invite them to the table for a meal, let them know where the bathroom is, and more… And yet, when it comes to church, so often we expect people to work everything out for themselves. Healthy churches will take the responsibility for welcoming people and helping them to get involved in the life of their church.

People will sometimes make assessments of your church on the basis of a single impression. The long grass surrounding the old stone building makes it look abandoned and unused. The out of date website communicates that nothing much happens anymore. The paint on the sign, making it hard to read the service times, indicates that they don’t want me to come. Whereas the attractive brochure describing the Christmas Carols, with pictures of families, and a warm invitation to come along, makes me think my family could fit in here. It’s worth considering all the first impressions we make as a church. What assessments are people making about what we’re like? If we can’t work it out ourselves, then ask others – those who’ve come and those who haven’t.

Churches who have their own properties are urged to think of the impact their facilities have on others. Are they welcoming or alienating? McIntosh suggests a stroll around, examining everything that people will come into contact with when they check out your church. A mother with a couple of young kids isn’t likely to return if her first experience of the bathroom is a gloomy, smelly, dirty, inadequate facility. If all the parking spaces near the building are reserved for church staff, then you get the message of who’s most important. If things are bright and clean, if directions are clear, if people say ‘Hi’ and smile and offer to help, then second visits become much more likely.

The book contains many ideas on letting people know about church. I nearly gagged at the direct marketing/phoning suggestion! The best idea was simply word of mouth! Spread good rumours! If your church matters to you, if it encourages you, if it’s great for your kids, if you love getting to know God with others, if Sunday is a highlight of your week… then spread the rumour! But be warned. Don’t talk things up too highly. People like their expectations to be exceeded – not let down.

Getting Beyond the First Visit helps churches to examine the pathways for people getting involved and belonging. This can be very simple in a church of 100 or so, but may require much more organisation and communication in larger churches. There is no one size fits all. Some smaller churches may be small because they’re not good at letting others in. The danger for large churches is that people come and go and no one notices or cares. This book helps us not to take it for granted.

At one level this is very light book. It’s not big on theology and there’s not much Bible. It devotes a lot of attention to surface issues and impressions, and a few of the suggestions made me cringe. But overall, it’s full of helpful analysis and practical suggestions that will get us thinking about how we can do better. The central issue is so vitally important. At a time when our churches are becoming more and more marginalised, we need to make every effort to connect with people. People need to know God today, as much as they did in our parents’ generation, and as much as they did in Biblical times. Our churches shouldn’t make it hard for people to get to know God. There’s no excuse for unfriendliness. It’s not up to our guests to ‘make themselves at home’ while we go about our own business. It’s our job to welcome, introduce, connect, and build genuine relationships.

I bought this book last year, so as to examine the issues afresh as we began to plant a new church. If you think about the principles being discussed, rather than simply looking for practices to adopt, then I believe you will find it a useful tool. Church planters should get a copy, but so too should existing pastors and church leaders. How long since we reviewed this area of church life? Have we ever? Maybe things are in need of a tune up, or even a serious rebuild. This book can help you to think it through, without spending $1000s on a consultant – unless, of course, you want me to come! 😉

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: Aligning the Ministries of your Church through Creative Collaboration by Ferguson, Ferguson and Bramlett challenges churches to think hard about the message we communicate and how we go about doing it. Fittingly, the strength of this book is its big idea. Disturbingly, I found some of its weaknesses lie in the details.

If you go to church regularly it’s a worthwhile exercise to write down how many different little ideas you have to take in each week. If you consider the welcome signs or banners, printed handouts, messages on the screen, various announcements, the MC or leaders comments, intros to songs, the songs themselves, children’s talks, prayers about different topics, video clips, Bible readings, the sermon, various connected or disconnected points within the sermon, more songs, closing comments, conversations over supper or morning tea… you can see the problem. What message do you take home from church? Add to this the family context – if children and youth are looking at unrelated material, learning about different things, and engaged in different activities, then families could have dozens of ‘take home messages’. What gets remembered? What sinks in? What gets put into action? This book argues for alignment, getting our message focused. It’s premised on the observation that more information means less clarity and less action.

We have bombarded our people with too many competing little ideas, and the result is a church with more information and less clarity than ever before.  (p19)

The passion behind the big idea is for churches to be communities of transformation, not simply information. This requires genuine relationships and a focus on personal change. Small groups, for example, aren’t to be tutorials or study groups, but rather places where people care and share, challenge and support, confide and confess, learn and grow together. At Community Christian Church, where the authors serve as pastors, they adopted sermon-based studies to align the small groups with the weekly church celebrations around the same big idea. This approach is much the same as that described by Larry Osborne in Sticky Church. Yet, not only do they seek to align small groups with the big idea, but also families, ministries, congregations and other churches in their network. One big idea shapes everything they do.

What does this look like? It begins with planning the preaching program a year ahead. Topics and series are worked out and positioned carefully with regard to the annual calendar. At thirteen weeks out, the teaching team write a short essay that fleshes out the series and each topic within. These are called big idea graphs. The graphs are distributed to the relevant people so that at nine weeks out a creative team meeting can brainstorm how to shape the church service by the big idea. This meeting will include the leaders of teaching, drama, music and other areas needed to determine and shape the service content. At five weeks this gets a reality check. At three weeks the teaching team and the small group curriculum writers collaborate to construct a big idea sermon and discussion guide. At two weeks the big idea teaching manuscript is finished so that preachers in different congregations or churches can take the manuscript and personalise it to their own style and to suit their congregations. This is also passed on to the media team and others who will organise slides, graphics, scriptures references, and other things needed for the particular service. The whole process is very collaborative and teams are the order of the day. Even the sermons are a cooperative exercise. The long lead times opens options for creativity and ensures that things are done well.

There is much to like about this approach, but I will reveal my concerns first. The authors openly admit that topical preaching is their preferred and normal practice. They brainstorm and discuss possible sermon ideas and vote on which ones to pursue in the following year. It seems that much of the creative work in preparing sermons takes place as people share their ideas about the topic. Working out which Bible texts might be relevant to the topic is only done after the topics are nutted out. I don’t believe this is the healthiest approach to determining a preaching plan. It can mean we’re driven by popular ideas and what we think people will find interesting. Many important themes addressed in the Bible will never be heard and certain hobby horses will often get ridden. I’d much prefer to follow a staple diet of expository preaching so that we let God’s word put the topics on our agenda. Look to get a balance from different parts of the Bible and mix it up from time to time with some specific topics and occasional messages. In fact, I’d love to see a book like this written from the starting point of expository preaching.

I’m also worried about what doesn’t really get described in this book. One example is their skeleton for weekly adult services:

  1. Praise choruses (opening of service)
  2. Campus pastor moment (greeting)
  3. Creative element (video, sketch, or song or a combination)
  4. Teaching
  5. Communion
  6. Giving back to God (offering)
  7. Praise choruses (closing of service)  (p133)

While admitting that we can replace the nouns we see with whatever describes our own church’s style, system and mode, it concerns me what they’ve left out. Where does prayer feature? Where does Bible reading fit in? What preparation goes into these areas? I have to admit that the heavy emphasis on the creative arts and the silence about prayer and Bible reading in the church service left me concerned. The storyline of this book is about BIG church and is dominated by the ‘performance’ on weekends. This is not to say it’s irrelevant to small churches with single pastors. I think there’s some great wisdom here, but it needs careful transposing.

So what did I find helpful? Let me focus on two strengths of The Big Idea. Firstly, the alignment of message in the church. My experience is that too often we have many little ideas competing for people’s attention and the message we most want people to hear gets seriously diluted. We have so many announcements that we forget most of them and can’t differentiate their importance. Sometimes the songs have no relationship to the message. Or the prayers are completely unrelated to everything else going on. Or the talk seems more like a commentary than a sermon, picking up too many ideas from the Bible passage without highlighting and applying the main one.

I’m not beating up on our church now. I’m very encouraged by the fact that our church has a weekly team meeting to discuss each service, make sure the different parts are connected, link the music to the message, integrate the kids talk, discuss priorities and emphases with the service leader, and more. We’ve also been following the same teaching programs with adults, youth, and children and this has enabled us to pool our resources and help families to focus on the big idea each week.

The second strength of this approach, is the emphasis on preparing well ahead. It worries me when I keep hearing of pastors writing their talks on the Saturday night before church, the kids talk being thrown together without much thought, the Bible reader being organised as we walk into church, the musicians not being given or not learning the songs until just before church. It doesn’t need to be this way. It doesn’t take any more work to be organised weeks ahead, but it does require discipline and organisation. 

I’ve always worked to get a draft preaching plan in place a year, or at least a term, ahead. This requires a lot of work, reading the relevant books, working out the preaching units, determining the big idea, conveying this briefly in a sermon title. It may mean setting aside a week or more to achieve it. We’ve mostly published these for the upcoming term so people know where we’re headed and can prepare as needed. In the preceding term I’ve been working on the upcoming book of the Bible, reading commentaries, writing notes and drafting ideas. I put these in a note book and draw on them when I get to preparing the actual sermons. I’ve tended to prepare the actual sermons in the week that I’ll deliver them. However, one year I managed to get about six weeks ahead with my talks. I’d write the rough draft weeks ahead, and tune it up in the final week. I can testify to this delivering a better product and removing a lot of stress. If I had my time again, I’d like to make this normal!

Our youth programs are worked out a term ahead and publicised. This enables the team to share responsibilities among the leaders while keeping to the big idea. Working on the children’s ministry material well ahead helps the creative process and good integration with the adult and youth programs.  Other churches manage to prepare Bible study and discussion guides for the upcoming teaching series. (We’ve only managed it once or twice, but we do manage to get them out each week!) These guides connect with the sermons. This means the big idea of all sermons needs to be worked out well ahead, so that the studies are integrated with the teaching. Advance planning assists the music teams to choose songs that connect with the big idea. It ensures we think carefully about what we’re praying about. It opens the door to creative ideas that we could never pull off the night before. And it takes some of the stress out of planning church.

All in all, I’d recommend this book to pastors and leaders as they look to the year ahead. Read it through before you spend a few days with your team planning for 2013. You did plan a planning time, didn’t you? Or perhaps you’re well organised and have already done it!

First things first

One of my favourite preachers is famous for using the line ‘the good is the enemy of the best’. Another is famous for saying ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’. These two pithy proverbs are simply different sides to the same issue. There are so many good things demanding our time, attention and resources that we’re often prevented from focusing on what’s truly best. We need to focus, not simply on getting more done, but on the things that are most worth doing. This idea is developed extensively in First Things First by Covey, Merrill & Merrill. It builds on Covey’s earlier important book, The 7 habits of highly effective people.

Traditional time management helps us to become more efficient, but what we really need is to become more effective. There’s no point getting much done, if what we’re doing is unimportant. The approach of the authors is to transcend the typical faster-harder-smarter strategies by examining what it is that we really want to be achieving. They overlay the clock with the compass because where we’re headed is much more significant than how quickly we get there.

This book touches a nerve with many of us by identifying the gap between how we spend our time and what really matters to us. It’s so easy to have our lives ruled by the demands of others and the tyranny of the urgent. In fact, many of us are addicted to urgency, living off the adrenalin rush of handling crisis after crisis. Unfortunately, I know this experience all too well. We feel useful and successful because we’re solving immediate problems. This may be okay when the issues are important, but if we make it a habit, then we find ourselves doing anything urgent just to keep busy. The end result is a pattern of reactivity and often serious burn out.

First Things First illustrates a time management matrix around an urgency-importance axis. The strategy for effectiveness is to maximise the time spent in Quadrant II – the quadrant that includes activities that are ‘important but not urgent’. This puts the emphasis on things like preparation, prevention, values clarification, planning, relationship building, ‘true’ recreation and empowerment. These are the proactivities that enable us to spend our energies on the things that matter most. The more time and effort spent in this quadrant the less we are ruled by the urgent and the more satisfying life becomes.

This is a most helpful book because it takes us deeper than many other management tools. It should strike a chord with those who have strongly held convictions and want to see them lived out. It shows us a means to work from the inside out – to move from our convictions to our actions. It moves from theory to practice, providing simple and practical tools for implementation. My only trap was that once I became sold on the ideas, I fell easy prey to the myriad of other resources designed to make it all happen!

This book helped me to identify many of the factors that had been creating stress in my life. All too often I’d find myself having dropped the bundle in one or more areas of life while I concentrated on others. The main reason was that I was consistently reactive. I hadn’t put in the ground work, thinking ahead and planning without pressure. Unless something was urgent it didn’t always get my immediate attention. The problem was that once something became urgent it was often already a crisis of major proportions. When the areas included my marriage, family and key areas of ministry this became a major struggle. The ideas in this book helped remind me of the need to be proactive in all these important areas. In other words, to keep putting my first priorities first. And it offered tools to help me achieve this.

When I first became a devoted follower of Covey, I must confess to taking on board these ideas hook, line and sinker! I’ve since read over the book a number of times, implemented specific strategies, and adopted ideas for training leaders and running workshops on time management. I introduced this material to our staff and co-workers at church and on campus, and it was required reading for a number of years… until I got busy and distracted by other things!

In my opinion, one of this book’s most obvious weaknesses is the assumptions it makes about people. It has a very optimistic view of human nature that fails to acknowledge or integrate an understanding of selfishness or sin. It offers universal principles on which we can build our lives without any substantiation of their validity. This is not to completely undermine the validity of the points made, but they should be digested carefully. We need to pick out the bones and swallow the meat.

As a Christian reflecting on the thesis of this book, I’m reminded of the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, written in the 1640s. It opens with the following question and answer:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

In other words, What are the first things that people should put first? The words of the catechism aim to reflect the message of the Bible. If the follower of Jesus is to put first things first, then they will seek first to honour God and to find their ultimate joy in him. It’s an awesome privilege to be able to glorify God!

11 Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
12 I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
I will glorify your name forever.
13 For great is your love toward me;
you have delivered me from the depths,
from the realm of the dead.  (Psalm 86:11-13)

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

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”  (Revelation 4:11)

And it’s an amazing promise from God that because Jesus has defeated sin and death, therefore we can enjoy him forever.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.  (Psalm 16:9-11)

Let me ask you, are you keeping the main thing the main thing? Or is the good becoming the enemy of the best in your life? What are the matters that matter most to you? And are you putting first things first?

If it’s even possible that the message of Christianity could be true, then I reckon it’s worth carefully considering these words of the Apostle Paul:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living…
(1 Corinthians 15:3-6 emphasis mine)

The contrarian’s guide to leadership

Without exaggeration, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is one of the most insightful and compelling books on leadership I’ve read. Steven Sample is an analytical practitioner of the highest calibre. He’s an electrical engineer, musician, outdoorsman, professor, and inventor. For nearly 20 years Sample served as the president of the University of Southern California, leading it to become one of the premier universities in the US. This book is the product of research, reflection, observations and experience, woven together with wisdom and clarity. Many books about leadership are riddled with predictable cliches, whereas The Contrarian’s Guide offers fresh and profound insights in every chapter.

1. Thinking gray, and free

Don’t form an opinion about an important matter, until you’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts.  (p7-8)

Sample explains how we often jump to conclusions, flip-flop between ideas, or believe things which we think are strongly believed by others. Thinking gray, suspending our binary instincts, filing away our first impressions, helps the leader to consider weighty issues more carefully. Free thinking takes ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘brainstorming’ to the next level. It involves contemplating outrageous ideas without restraints, well-worn ruts, passions and prejudices getting in the way. A creative imagination, or the ability to encourage this in others, is a huge asset for a quality leader.

2. Artful listening

The average person suffers from three delusions: (1) that he is a good driver, (2) that he has a good sense of humor, and (3) that he is a good listener.  (p21)

Listening is a vital skill for a leader. It’s better to listen first and talk later. As we listen, so we learn, show respect for others, and gain the capacity to make wise decisions. Artful listening connects the leader to new perspectives that enable her to think independently and creatively. Costly misunderstandings and mistakes are often avoided when time is taken to hear from the right people.

3. Experts: Saviors and Charlatans

Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.  (p189)

Sample argues that it’s necessary for an expert to be a ‘deep specialist’ and for a leader to be a ‘deep generalist’. The expert will know more than the leader in a specific field, but the leader needs to be able to integrate the advice of different experts into a coherent course of action. Leaders should never become too dependent on experts, they should maintain their intellectual independence and they should never kid themselves that expertise can be substituted for leadership.

4. You are what you read

In these tempestuous times it often appears that everything is changing, and changing at an increasingly rapid rate. In such an environment a leader can gain a tremendous competitive advantage by being able to discern the few things that are not changing at all, or changing only slowly or slightly. And nothing can help him do that better than developing a close relationship with a few of the supertexts.  (p57-58)

Not many books are still read 10 years after they’re published, let alone 50 years, or centuries later. Such enduring texts are significantly influential. Sample believes that such literature includes The Bible, The Qur’an, Plato’s Republic, the plays of Shakespeare, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and a handful of others. He describes them as supertexts due to their endurance and influence.

I expected Sample to be a freak who devours hundreds of books annually, but he focuses on only a few books and maintains a regular diet of truly significant writings. He briefly scans the newspaper, more for entertainment than information, and replaces his reading time with books of substance. He’s far more interested in understanding original ideas than reading another popular book that repackages and regurgitates the same old stuff. Sample recommends the advice of  Thoreau: “Read only the best books first, lest there not be time enough to read them all.”

This advice resonates strongly with my experience as a pastor, teacher and leader. Every week more books are published in my fields of interest than I could read in a year – if not a lifetime. I can’t keep up with all the latest fads and ideas. But nor do I need to. What offers the greatest reward is concentrating on the supertext that guides me in every area of life. This book was given to me by my grandparents when I was 6 years old and they highlighted these words inside the front cover…

Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
(Psalm 119:105 Revised Standard Version Bible)

5. Decisions, decisions

The contrarian leader’s approach to decision making can be summed up in two general rules:

1. Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.  (p71)

2. Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.  (p72)

The key is to work out what’s reasonable, and this requires skill and practice. Sample argues that the leader must maintain responsibility for hiring and firing key staff, and making the decisions that will have the greatest impact on the organisation. He also argues for artful procrastination, allowing time to make better informed and wiser decisions. Of course, leaving things too long will result in missed opportunities or new problems developing.

6. Give the Devil his due

We must accept the fact that human beings and their institutions hardly ever measure up to our noblest ideals, and that to pretend otherwise is to invite ruin.  (p102)

Sample is a great fan of Machiavelli’s, The Prince. This chapter is his apologetic for drawing on the wisdom of this controversial writer. One of Machiavelli’s strengths is his honesty about the complexity of the human condition. People have capacity for both atrocity and altruism. The contrarian leader won’t be naive about the people and circumstances he’s dealing with. Many decisions will be very complex and the leader must discern the pitfalls of various options and choose the best on offer, knowing that there is no perfect solution.

7. Know which hill you’re willing to die on

When he turned 16, Sample was given the same advice by his father that my father gave me and that I’ve since passed on to my children:

“If a cat or dog or squirrel (or kangaroo in Australia!) runs in front of your car,” he told me, “just steel yourself and kill it like a man. You have the responsibility not to endanger people in your car or in other cars by swerving in an effort to save the animal.”  (p107)

Let me tell you, this is hard to do, and I’ve hit a few kangaroos in my time! But I’ve also seen people wipe out themselves and still hit the kangaroo by attempting to swerve. Some decisions are very tough and some are much tougher than the one above. Moral choices can be incredibly complex. Sample asks us to choose what hill we’re willing to die on. In other words, what moral compass will guide us to work out what we will and won’t do as leaders? The ethical dimensions of leadership are very important and they require us to ask difficult questions of ourselves. Every leader must come to terms with their own moral beliefs and be accountable for the decisions they make based on those beliefs. What you believe or don’t believe about God will play a significant part in this.

8. Work for those who work for you

If a would be leader wants glamour, he should try acting in the movies. However, if he in fact wants to make a consequential impact on a cause or organization, he needs to roll up his sleeves and be prepared to perform a series of grungy chores which are putatively beneath him, and for which he’ll never receive recognition or credit, but by virtue of  which his lieutenants will be inspired and enabled to achieve great things.  (p122)

I loved this chapter – haven’t always lived it out – but I love what it teaches! There is great wisdom here about who we employ and how we support them once they’re employed. There is sober advice about firing people, and how the leader should always do this in person. There are excellent recommendations for evaluating, assessing and equipping our key staff.

Choosing these people, motivating them, supporting them, helping them grow and achieve, inspiring them, evaluating them and firing them are among the most important things a leader does.  (p139)

9. Follow the Leader

Whatever the basis of his authority may be, when an effective leader turns in a new direction his followers turn with him; that’s the test of real leadership. To paraphrase Harry Truman, leadership in involves getting others to move in a new direction in which they’re not naturally inclined to move on their own.  (p142)

Sample identifies a number of skills required by effective leaders. Premium among these is communication. Words are their tools. Most highly effective leaders have an excellent command of language, either spoken or written or both. The most powerful form of communication between a leader and his followers is the spoken word. It’s not the email, bulletin or memo that’s going to inspire people – it’s direct, face to face, oral speech.

Leadership is about people; connecting with real people one to one. A leader may not be able to do this with everyone in the organisation, but it’s important that someone can and does. Sample emphasises the power and leverage of people chains, through which the leaders goals, vision and values are communicated orally and personally to every follower. Jesus was amazingly effective at achieving leadership leverage through people chains. A dozen followers grew to 120, then thousands, then thousands more, such that 2000 years later millions of people continue to follow him.

10. Being president versus doing president

The best physician won’t necessarily make a good hospital administrator or medical dean, the best engineer won’t necessarily make a good division president, the best teacher won’t necessarily make a good school principal, and the best athlete won’t necessarily make a good coach. There is no shame, and often much merit, in a person’s simply deciding he’s not cut out to have power and authority over, and responsibility for, a large number of followers.  (p161)

To which I would add from the world of my experience, the best people serving others in Christian ministry won’t necessarily make a good leader of a church. Effective leaders need to be well tuned to the people around them and they need to be clear on where they’re taking people and how they will do it. It’s important for would-be leaders to recognise that leadership often removes them from doing what they’re best at and enjoy doing the most. That remains the privilege of those who serve under them. In fact, Sample argues that even the best leaders, under ideal conditions, will spend less than 30% of their time and effort on substantive matters. The rest of the time will be spent reacting to or presiding over trivial, routine, or ephemeral matters. Wanting to be the leader and wanting to do the work of a leader are two very different things!

So…

If you’re a leader or a would-be leader then I’d put this on your short list of recommended reading. If you’re wanting some fresh input on leadership then get hold of this book. There are plenty of pearls to be plucked from its pages. Many of my texts on leadership are built on an explicitly Christian platform, deriving their message from the Bible. This isn’t one of them. Who knows, Steven Sample may be a follower of Jesus. He’s certainly familiar with Christianity’s supertext and much of his wisdom resonates with things I’ve learned from the Bible. Like any other good book, this one needs to be read with discernment and with a view to application.

Let me finish with the following quote:

…before you spend several hours carefully reading a relatively new book, you deserve a thoughtful preview from a person whose passions and prejudices are familiar to you. In many cases you’ll find that this thoughtful preview is all you’ll ever want or need to know about that particular book.  (p70)

Kind of justifies this blog, doesn’t it?! 😉

Why churches should stop small groups

Hear me on this one. I believe that home groups, growth groups, prayer and Bible groups, gospel groups, connect groups, cell groups, small groups – or whatever else we may call them – are a vital part of church life. They enable people to develop relationships with others in ways that are otherwise difficult in a larger church. They provide an excellent opportunity to read, learn, discuss and apply the Bible in fellowship with others. They enable personal prayers to be shared with one another. People can be encouraged, supported, and cared for, without always relying on the professional pastor to do all the work.

Stop_SignBut we need to stop them! Some groups just seem to go on and on, without clear expectations or direction. Some groups become so cliquey that nobody can ever break into them. Others get so toxic with gossip, divisions, or grumbling, that they need to be shut down for the sake of everyone involved, and often the church as a whole. Some groups develop there own agenda which clearly competes with that of the church as a whole. Sometimes groups are simply unhealthy and need to be stopped.

However, it’s not the euthanasia of groups that I’m primarily concerned with here, but the need to build helpful rhythms into our groups. I want to apply some of the insights from Bruce Miller’s helpful book, Your Church in Rhythm and Larry Osborne’s book on small groups, Sticky Church. We need to communicate about when and how our small groups will begin and end. We should also consider the value of various starts and finishes within the life span of the groups. Let’s consider Miller’s chronos cycles and examine the benefits to be gained by pacing our groups wisely and oscillating them between intensity and renewal. Let’s work out when and how to stop them!

Yearly cycles

Starting and stopping our groups each year, helps people to pace themselves. It allows time to build relationships and it also offers an opt-out when the relationships aren’t really working, or we simply want to get to know others. Life changes each year. We move, we get new jobs, our kids get older, we enter into new relationships. These changes often mean people should move to a different group.

Consider carefully when groups begin. Our church often waited until March, when uni students got back into town, but this frustrated others who were looking for a group in January or when school started. It might be wise to advertise a number starting times. But equally, set a stop time, so that the group can finish on a strong note, people can be thanked and farewelled, celebrations can be shared. It’s not good when groups simply taper out and dissolve. This can be a recipe for hurt and disappointments. We need to stop our small groups well!

[This is not to say that we should dissolve our groups every year. Some groups will continue for years and continue to be healthy. But giving people some time out at the close of the year can be very healthy. Taking a break from the small group can function like an annual sabbath to enable everyone to have a rest – pastors, leaders, participants and their families. Sometimes, short term summer holiday groups can fill the gap for those who need a group during this period.]

Term-based cycles

There is much to be gained by arranging our groups according to seasons, and often the most obvious is school terms. While not everyone’s life is shaped by terms, it does have the benefit of pacing the life of the group. We can oscillate between 9-10 weeks on and 2-3 weeks off. It gives the leaders and the group a break. People get time off for other things and don’t resent their group for always demanding their time.

It can also be helpful to match these groups with program of the church. If the teaching is term-based this allows integration across the church. A short teaching series is offered in the school holidays and the groups get some time off. Osborne also suggests that breaking between terms gives the groups an opportunity to take stock, reevaluate how the group is going, and sometimes to help people transition into another group if things aren’t working out. Stopping our groups in the holidays can also give space for doing other things with the group, perhaps a social outing, a special dinner, or a weekend away. If we want people to stay excited about the groups, I think there is great value in stopping our groups at the end of each term.

Weekly cycles

If our groups go for 9 or 10 weeks followed by a break, then we should plan how to use these weeks. Are we following the sermon series? Will the group need some variety over this time? Perhaps, a 4-1-4 plan to do studies, with a night of prayer in the centre, or a dinner together, or combine with another group in the church for a night. The church might encourage groups to do something different in one of the terms, perhaps encouraging the groups to do a training course, or to choose their own studies. If so, then we need to communicate well ahead and prepare people for the changes.

Sometimes the group will face a particular crisis and we need to break with the timetable or plan. Maybe a member is in hospital and the group will choose to stop a week so everyone gets a chance to visit. It could be a big issue that is facing the group that needs addressing, so we might stop the program and give this issue the attention it needs.

Daily cycles

It’s also worth considering the basic shape of each group meeting. How much time is given to catching up with each other, sharing needs or joys, learning and discussing God’s word, praying for one another and other things? Does the group share food together – a meal or simply refreshments? Is the group excited about how it uses it’s time?

People are creatures of habit and they build their expectations on their experiences. If a group always starts late and finishes after the agreed time, people will start coming late and often still get irritated when the group goes overtime. If we stick to the group’s agreed timetable, this will build confidence in the group and create a less stressful environment. If you need to, then agree together on extending the time we meet, otherwise we should stop our groups on time!

I hope these reflections help increase the joy and decrease the stress in our small groups!

Your church in rhythm

A catch-cry of recent years has been the search for ‘work-life balance’. Very few of us would be brave enough to claim achieving such equilibrium. And what is true for individuals has also been true for my experience of church. There are so many things clamouring for our attention and we feel guilty every time we notice that some aren’t getting any. So it was quite a breath of fresh air to read Bruce Miller’s Your Church in Rhythm. In his preface he argues for rhythm as the best picture of a healthy life and critiques the so-called balanced life as being…

…unbiblical, impossible, and toxic.

Here’s some questions to ask yourself right now:

Has our church got everything in balance?
Are we reaching out enough?
Are we giving enough time to preparation of sermons and lessons?
How is our care and counselling ministry?
Are we leading well? Are we developing leaders effectively?
Are we praying enough?
How are our administrative systems and processes?
How are our ministries to children and youth?
Are our small groups vibrant?
How are we doing at following up with our guests?
How is our communication with the church family?
How is our discipleship process?
Am I reading enough to grow personally?
Am I current on email and other correspondence?  (p. xxii)

If you’re a church pastor, elder, leader or committed member of your church, then I’d bet you’re probably feeling guilt, guilt and more guilt after reading this list. We just get one thing humming when another falls apart. We start to feel good about what we’re doing and then realise how much more is not getting done.

Miller gets us asking the question, “What time is it in your church?”. If we understand the times, he believes that our experience of church and ministry will become more effective and enjoyable. There will be less fatigue and burnout, less boredom and apathy, more enthusiasm and engagement, we will work harder and rest more thoroughly, and there will be greater outcomes for the kingdom of God. Does it sound like the kind of book you’d like to read? You can’t lose really. At least you’ll be able to tick your ‘Commitment to professional development’ box when you finish!

Your Church in Rhythm describes two types of time: kairos and chronos. Kairos time is experienced time, shaped by organisational stages and ministry seasons. Chronos time is measured time, it’s cyclical, and can be divided into days, weeks, months, quarters and years. Recognising the impact of the stages and seasons helps you to determine what is most appropriate for now. Understanding the five chronos cycles enables you to pace your ministry better.

By choosing rhythm, you will invite your church to live in harmony with the flow of life – to be content in all circumstances, to make the most of the moments, to rejoice at all times – and to set your hope on what’s to come.  (p. xxv)

A guideline is offered to understanding organisational stages in a church. The life span of a church is broken down into five stages: inception, growth, maturity, decline, death or renewal. This can be complicated further by recognising that larger churches are collections of congregations and ministries which also have their own life cycles. These stages rarely follow a simple straight pathway and are commonly impacted by crises or major transitions. What’s important is that we seek to discern what stage our church is in, to understand the times, so that we can identify what best to focus upon now.

Ministry seasons are shorter than organisational stages. They may only impact one ministry area, they can be experienced more than once, and a church could be in several seasons simultaneously. Throughout this book Miller engages helpfully with other literature and I will be following up various leads. In this chapter he draws on Kubler-Ross’s research on loss and grief cycles and John Kotter’s important work on change management. These perspectives are useful for appreciating what churches and ministries go through over time. If a church loses a pastor, gains a new one, shuts down a ministry, starts up another, builds a property, restructures its leadership, negotiates a difficult crisis, seeks to increase its giving, plants another church, or goes through a period of transition – these are seasons, not simply events. Their impact needs to be appreciated and navigated well.

Miller identifies six strategies for getting your church into rhythm, and then a conclusion that is a must read! The following table (p169) highlights the structure of this thinking:

rhythmI won’t develop each strategy in any detail, as I don’t want to simply repeat the content of the book. The real benefits will come as you get into the book for yourself, identify your own organisational stage and ministry seasons, and consider the impact of the different chronos cycles on your church, people and community. You may disagree with the specific stages or strategies identified in this book, you may disconnect with some of his examples or illustrations, but I believe Miller’s overall thesis is both helpful and liberating. Let’s briefly skim over them.

Release expectations

Releasing expectations involves accepting that we can’t do everything. There are limitations placed upon us by our stage and season. There’s no point envying churches that are in different stages or wishing we were in a different season. Releasing expectations helps us to grow in contentment and focus on the time we’ve been given.

A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones.  (Proverbs 14:30)

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
(Philippians 4:11)

Consider a church that has just been planted and is getting underway. Now is probably not the time to worry about developing lots of ministry programs, you don’t need detailed systems in place, and you’ll manage fine without a sophisticated newcomer follow-up process. Just work hard at getting to know each other, invite people to your place for a meal, set the tone for your church community, relationships, and gospel priorities. As you move into your growth stage, as you add staff and become more complicated, then you will need clearer processes and systems so that you care effectively for the church and continue to reach your wider community. But there will be a time for this, it can wait for a while!

Likewise, recognising the seasons you are experiencing will help shape your focus and enable you to release expectations. If you’re falling well behind budget and encouraging your regulars to give, it’s not the time for embarking on a new program to reach all the local schools. If you’re transitioning between members of staff, it’s probably not wise to introduce a bunch of new ministry ventures. If the church has been impacted by a season of grief, then it’d be wise to forget the rah-rah and allow people the space to work through things carefully.

Seize opportunities

Open your eyes to the opportunities around you. Sometimes we can be so locked into our longterm strategic plans and goals that we fail to take up valuable opportunities before us. We need to discern whether to hold to the plan and pass on the opportunity, or to alter the plan and seize the opportunity. Evaluate your motives, ask what’s at stake. Most importantly, weigh things in the light of God’s agenda.

Any opportunity worth pursuing should advance the cause of Christ. Will this opportunity advance the Gospel better than the current plan and better than any of the other opportunities we could pursue?  (p77-78)

In the inception of a new church, people are more open than they will ever be. Seize the opportunities to establish culture, mission, vision and values. Focus on the unique low-key relational opportunities. It’s a time of firsts – make the most of them. It’s a busy period, but pause, catch your breath, and delight in what God is doing among you. Likewise, later stages and ministry seasons will offer you special opportunities to advance the cause of Christ. Look out for them, explore them, critique them, and weigh up the best way to move forward.

Anticipate what’s next

We need to live fully in the present stage or season, but looking forward fuels hope with anticipation. You can work hard for a season if you’re looking forward to the outcomes and you’ve planned for a time of rest afterwards. Change can be a difficult season in the life of a church, so it’s important to emphasise that it’s temporary, and for leaders to shepherd their people through the processes. Anticipating what’s ahead is a key to this.

It’s also important to consider all our stages and seasons in the light of the big picture. As Miller writes:

All stages and seasons will culminate in the final stage of all history: the new heavens and new earth. Our ultimate hope is the return of Christ who will make all things new. We do our work in anticipation of what God will do in the near future. We can persevere knowing these are temporary seasons. Our role in these seasons is to announce and demonstrate the Kingdom that has come and is coming.  (p94)

Some seasons can feel like they’re never going to finish, or that they will destroy our church. A building project can cause all kinds of stresses and grief. False teaching or moral failure by a leader can mark a terribly difficult time for the whole church. Anticipate that there will be better times ahead. And whatever our particular church may experience, it’s important to remember Jesus’ promise that nothing will destroy his church (even if our particular organisation struggles or dies).

Pace your church

Pacing is the technique of spreading out your strength over time so that you do not burn out before the end. (p111)

Athletes are acutely aware of the importance of pacing, but it doesn’t stop with them. It applies to many areas of life and work, and it’s important for organisations like churches. Church leaders need to pace themselves so that they run well for Christ, rather than burning out and quitting. Congregations need to pace themselves well, so that people don’t migrate from church to church, or drop out altogether.

It’s worth asking, what do we expect of people every day, every week, every month, every term, every year. There is a time for many things, but when everything happens at once we clearly haven’t paced things well. Miller suggests using the five chronos cycles as a foundational grid for identifying and assigning appropriate frequencies what what we do as a church. If we’re expecting people to come to church each week and to participate in a small group, then how much and how often can we expect more from them? Pacing our planning around terms and years assists people to grasp the bigger picture of where church is heading and what we’re trying to achieve. Giving people time out and time off on a regular basis helps them to remain in the game for the long haul.

Being aware of the natural rhythms of the community will help you to pace things more effectively also. Some coastal churches don’t run Sunday morning family services because many families are caught up with the surf programs running at that time. When we were preparing to plant a church in Darwin, we recognised the impact of the dry season, the build up and the wet season on community involvement and activities. There’s no point cutting across these natural flows if we intend on connecting with those around us.

Build mission-enhancing rituals

Mmmm! Coming from an independent church with very few of the trapping and rituals of traditional churches, I had to think hard on this one! But the key is ‘mission-enhancing’, not ritual for ritual sake. What patterns, practices and habits will help people to appreciate and engage in building Christ’s church? Some annual rituals or weekly practices can carry power explicitly by their repetition. Repetition can be mindless and meaningless, but it can also highlight what’s really matters.

Miller illustrates this with an example of how his church changed how they approached personal, small group and church-wide Bible study and preaching. The goal was to see people transformed and impacting others as they engaged with the Scriptures. They adopted a study → listen → discuss → share strategy. Everyone in the church was given a guide that helped them to study the passage of scripture during the week. Then on Sunday the sermon was preached from that passage. Small groups met in the following week and discussed the application of the passage, and people were encouraged to share and encourage one another with what they’d learned. This pattern increased alignment in the church and helped deepen people’s understanding and personal ministry to each other.

Oscillate intensity and renewal

Too many church leaders are not oscillating, and neither are their churches. We are neither working hard enough nor resting deeply enough.  (p140)

Life is not a marathon but rather a series of sprints and rests. If churches try to keep a constant pace, they build up higher and higher levels of stress.  (p141)

Miller argues that in each of the chronos cycles, we should experience an oscillation between intensity and renewal, work and rest. This is not the same as work-life balance, it’s about rhythm. God built this type of oscillation into his creation. Working six days, resting on the seventh. Sometimes we need to put our foot down on the accelerator, at other times we need to coast. There’s no place for workaholism and there’s no place for laziness. But there can be a time for climbing mountains and a time for lying on beaches, without feeling guilty for doing either!

Holidays, breaks, doing something different, changing things around. They can all help us to stay the course. Giving our leaders time out, refreshment, and encouragement will help them to want to do the work again. Encouraging our congregation to join together every week, but acknowledging there will be things that keep them away from time to time, can reduce guilt and increase enthusiasm for meeting together. Pastors taking a day off each week, protecting their annual holidays, having some study leave or taking a sabbatical, can decrease burn out and aid perseverance. Sleep matters, so does exercise, so does having other interests and so does working hard when we’re working! Oscillation is built into the rhythm of life – go with the flow!

Conclusion

Miller has written this book to be used. Each chapter contains a case study and a worksheet. There’s a ‘next step’ summary plan at the end of the book. I recommend we approach this as a workbook and take the time to apply it to our lives and gather with others to apply it to our churches. It’s about leveraging insights into the times and cycles we experience, so as to advance the cause of Christ. And it’s up to us what we make of it.

I appreciate the way this book recognises the ups and downs, seasons and stages, needs and opportunities in life. I’ve been persuaded that rhythm, rather than balance, is a better picture for describing the good life. Most of all, I’m warmed by the bigger picture that frames this book. As Miller writes:

It is the rhythm of eternity that empowers us to be steadfast and immoveable, giving ourselves whole-heartedly to the work of the Lord.

We can endure difficult days when we remember that ultimate rest is coming. A focus on the ultimate future sustains us today with vivid hope. Understanding the ultimate rhythm can help us release false expectations. In this case, we can – and should – release the erroneous expectation that this life will ever be paradise. Seize opportunities to do that which will last forever. Anticipate eternal joy to come. That is the source of true and rich hope. So in view of the eternal rhythm to come, we want to flow our ministries as well as possible in the earthly kairos and chronos rhythms.  (p157-158)

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This is an oldie, but a goodie! It took me a while to discover The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It wasn’t recommended to me by anyone. I was simply browsing a local bookstore and the title caught my attention. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to read it because I was feeling particularly ineffective at the time! The holidays were approaching and I was looking for a book to read on the beach at Byron Bay. All I remember now, is feeling that this book must have been written about me. It identified at least seven areas that I needed to change… urgently!

Since this time, over 20 years ago, I’ve reread this book or parts of it numerous times. I still believe it’s one of the most helpful ‘personal organisation/time management/self help’ type books available. So if you’re feeling a little disorganised, don’t have enough hours in the day or days in the month, feeling overworked and underproductive, then I recommend dipping into the 7 habits.

This book stands apart from many contemporary ‘success’ or ‘personal management’ books, in that it focuses on character and principle-centred living. It’s not full of techniques, tricks, or tools, for getting ahead. Rather, it pushes the reader to focus on what matters matter most, so as to ensure that these values shape the way we live. This book deals with internal personal transformation as well as external interpersonal relationships. It seeks to help us reshape our lives so as to create sustainable changes for the better.

I will introduce each of the 7 habits, before offering some reflections on the usefulness and limitations of Covey’s approach.

Habit #1  Be Proactive

We have a tendency to see life as the product of our circumstances. We inherit traits from our parents and grandparents. The environment we grow up in, learn in, work in, live in, is said to determine how we will deal with the stuff that comes our way. Covey critiques this reactionary outlook on life, reminding us that we have the freedom to choose what happens between stimulus and response. Proactive people are driven by principles rather than circumstances. They have response-ability. The proactive person is focused on their circle of influence which is a subset of their wider circle of concern. There are somethings we can’t change and there is no point being all consumed with these. Rather we become more effective as we focus our energy in areas where we have direct or indirect control.

Habit #2  Begin with the End in Mind

Covey illustrates the second habit by asking the reader to envisage their own funeral. We are invited to imagine the eulogy. How will we be remembered? What do we want people to be saying about us? What type of a person are we? We’re encouraged to look to the end and ask what we need to do in order to get there. The suggestion is made to develop a personal mission statement as a guide to a principle-centred life. This exercise pushes us to consider what matters most, what we value in life, what shapes and drives our choices.

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busyness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. It’s possible to be busy – very busy – without being very effective.  (p98)

Habit #3  Put First Things First

This habit challenges traditional ways of looking at time management. It moves beyond ‘to do’ lists, calendars and diaries, and even priority listing. Covey describes his approach as fourth generational time management that includes people and relationship needs alongside efficiency and results. He suggests we identify our key relational roles, set goals in each area, schedule weekly to address our goals, and adapt daily as required.

All activities can be defined as either important or unimportant, and urgent or non-urgent. Covey introduces a matrix to illustrate these variables and help us to put first things first. He argues that the more time we spend in quadrant 2, on non-urgent and important activity, the less time we need to spend on urgent matters, the less we experience burn out, and the more our personal effectiveness increases.

Habit #4  Think Win/Win

Relationships, work, ministry, teams, and life itself, will inevitably involve us in situations of disagreement and conflict. In many cases this ends very badly in a win/lose or even a lose/lose outcome. Unlike a game of rugby where win/lose is the desired outcome for players and fans (unless you’re on the losing side) win/win is the desirable goal for interpersonal relationships. Covey calls individuals and organisations to encourage and reward win/win solutions. He suggests following a four-step process:

First, see the problem from the other point of view. Really seek to understand and give expression to the needs and concerns of the other party as well as or better that they can themselves.

Second, identify the key issues and concerns (not positions) involved.

Third, determine what results would constitute a fully acceptable solution.

And fourth, identify possible new options to achieve those results.  (p233)

Habit #5  Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about marriage or work or international diplomacy, good communication is essential to good relationships. Seeking first to understand represents a paradigm shift for most of us. We typically want to be understood first and foremost. Instead of listening with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply. Covey illustrates this with a quote:

A father once told me, “I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at all.”  (p239)

I trust you can see the problem! In order to understand another person we need to listen to them. Empathic listening is required. We listen so as to understand, and then we get to communicate so as to be understood. In fact, we will do a far better job of communication if we’ve made the effort to understand the listener before we express our views.

Habit #6  Synergize

What is synergy? Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It means that the relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself. It is not only a part, but the most catalytic, the most empowering, the most unifying, and the most exciting part.  (p262-263)

synergyIn order to achieve synergy, there needs to be high levels of trust and high levels of cooperation. This opens the door to creative outcomes and solutions. When there’s a lack of trust and cooperation, conflict, deadlock or compromise, may be the best that can be achieved. Synergy is achieved through the application of putting first things first, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, and looking for win/win solutions. Covey describes the search for synergy as fishing for the third alternative. His more recent book entitled The 3rd Alternative examines this in much more detail.

Habit #7  Sharpen the Saw

This habit is focused on personal renewal. It’s illustrated by the story of a wood-cutter who takes a couple of minutes each hour to sharpen his saw, resulting in far greater effectiveness than the one who perseveres long and hard with a blunt saw. Covey identifies four dimensions to the self: physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual. He argues that a balanced lifestyle, that cares for and nurtures the self, will have a profound impact on personal effectiveness.

The physical dimension translates into issues of diet, exercise, rest and relaxation, and there are no quick fixes. He identifies such factors as prayer, meditation, religious literature, and music, in the spiritual dimension. The mental dimension means investing in the mind, strengthening and enriching it by reading, study and continued education. The social and emotional dimensions are tied together because of the significant impact of relationships on our emotional wellbeing. All four dimensions are important and the neglect of any will impact the other three.

Personal reflections

This book had a profound influence on me, especially as I sought to juggle or balance many important roles and responsibilities in life. How could I make investments in being a husband, a dad, a team leader, a pastor, a sports chaplain, a preacher/teacher, a trainer, and various other things all at the same time? I seemed to keep spending my life dropping one ball after another. I’d ignore some areas (often of vital importance) simply because other things had become more pressing.

Covey’s approach encouraged me to pay attention to each of my major roles every week. It urged me to focus on quadrant 2, non-urgent and important, activities. These are the activities that reap the greatest rewards down the track and they help keep us from being run ragged by the urgent. It also helped me understand why I often found myself in quadrant 4, the non-urgent and unimportant. This is the burnout zone, where you hide when you can no longer cope with all the demands upon you.

I followed this guide on a regular basis and encouraged our staff and trainees to do the same. It was very helpful. The emphasis on effectiveness over efficiency was especially important. I made sure I was investing in personal renewal areas. I’d keep developing long-term important goals and working towards them. I’d set aside time to reflect and examine how things were going, to plan and set a new course for the future. I even purchased a Seven Habits Diary to help me get it all together!

As a Christian I found that much of this book resonated with me, and it offered a framework for personal and time management that I could use consistently with my beliefs and values. My understanding is that Stephen Covey was not a Christian, but a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While I’m certainly not a Mormon, and do not follow Mormon teaching, I found there was much in this book that I could apply to my life without compromising or abandoning my own beliefs.

But herein lies an important issue. We need to be clear on what our beliefs are. How can we assess the importance or relevance of these particular habits? What do we value? What really matters in life? What is the end that we should be heading towards? Covey’s book won’t answer these questions. If we have no clear principles, then we’re not going to find them by reading this or many other self-help type books. 7 Habits makes assumptions and claims about what matters matter that are based primarily on observation and experience. Some will read them and agree, others will look in other places.

I look to the Bible for my answers to these significant questions. I find my compass for life, as I trust in Jesus Christ and seek to follow his lead. The Bible offers me a guiding light for life and decision making. It shows me that wisdom is to be found by respecting God and honouring him in my thoughts, words and actions. Jesus provides the supreme example of one who truly began with the end in mind and followed this all through his life. He came to seek and to save the lost, knowing fully that it would cost him his life. He put the needs of others above his own. He depended on his heavenly Father and made time to escape the heavy demands upon him to spend time in prayer. He entrusted himself to God, in the face of of opposition and execution, for the greater goal of offering forgiveness and reconciliation to all.

If your life feels out of control, if you’re running on empty, dropping important balls all over the place, drowning in endless tasks, or dissolving into trivia… can I encourage you to take a step back and look at who you are and where you’re headed. I recommend you take a good look at the Bible, as I’m persuaded that it offers you the most accurate compass to follow. And if you’ve got that worked out, then I think you could do a lot worse than thinking through each of these 7 habits.

Why we need more churches

Late last year I was invited to speak at a conference on the topic Why we need more churches. It seemed a silly question really. Of course we need more churches. The population’s growing. We’re not keeping up. Denominations are dying. Church attendance is declining. Church buildings are being shut down or turned in restaurants, offices, trendy homes, and even funeral parlours.

But for me, it was and is a real issue. People confronted me with this question a number of times after hearing that we were moving to Darwin to plant a new church. Many were enthusiastic and supportive of our intentions, but others seemed to view it as invading their turf. Some denominational leaders said “We’ve already got churches up there.” One wrote to me and told me not to come because they had it covered. It was suggested we go somewhere else, where new churches were really needed. I met with one local pastor who warned me that the last thing they needed was people from ‘down south’ coming up and planting churches – despite the fact that he, and many other pastors I met, had done exactly this!

We faced the same issue in Canberra when deciding to plant a new church south of the lake. Some denominational leaders believed this would create a ‘competition’ with their churches. We were asked why people didn’t simply leave our church and join theirs, instead of starting another. It’s easy to get excited about new churches, until someone starts one in your neighbourhood.

Let me offer a number of practical reasons (with warnings) for why we need more churches, and then one theological reason.

Practical reasons why we need new churches

  1. Current churches are not effectively connecting with the Australian population. Some surveys suggest that 65% of Aussies don’t have a personal relationship with a Christian.
    We need to be careful here because we could increase the number of churches, remain in a religious ghetto, and still not connect with 65% of our population.
  2. Existing churches are perceived as irrelevant, out of date, oppressive, self-righteous, and a bunch of other things that keep people disinterested.
    It’s not ultimately perceptions or image that matters, but the reality of what is believed and practiced. It’s just as important for established churches to make an impact on people’s lives as it is for new ones. And who’s to say that new churches will be different? New churches could end up reproducing the problems of their founders.
  3. Someone once said of the church, “It’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead!” It’s true that some established churches will be harder to turn around than the Titanic, so maybe it’s better to leave them to sink and get people out into other boats.
    While this is often true, we shouldn’t cop out on the importance of revitalising wayward churches. I think it’s Mark Dever who has spoken of the 2 for 1 benefit of resurrecting dying churches. He sees it as both removing a bad witness in the community and adding a good witness. And it utilises existing resources.
  4. Geographical reach is an important strategic reason for planting new churches. While committed Christians might travel long distances to come to church, their neighbours or interested friends most likely won’t. This might lead to a city church giving birth to another congregation in a different part of the city, or a country church beginning a satellite church in a neighbouring town.
  5. Cultural reach is another driver for starting new churches. Some churches will never reach certain subcultures in their community. The language, dress, customs, activities of the church just alienate outsiders. Hence, a church might be planted to reach uni students, or an ethnic or language group, or mining workers, or some other group.
    While a church might be created to reach a certain demographic, the church needs to be open to anyone. It could begin with one type of people in mind, and discover the need to keep changing as it comes into contact with different people.
  6. Urban growth continues in some parts of Australia at a rapid rate. The number of churches is not keeping up proportionally with the size of the population. We can’t depend on town planners to allocate land or facilities for churches. We can’t assume denominations will add another franchise in the new housing development. Christians should see urban growth as creating new mission fields and the need for more churches tailored to connect with people in these centres.
  7. Of the many churches that exist, many seem to have lost the plot. They’re not what I’d call evangelical, that is grounded in the Bible and focused upon Jesus Christ – his offer of relationship with God and his call on people’s lives. Many churches have competing agendas or no apparent agenda at all. Some appear to be little more than middle-class religious clubs. Others are preoccupied with rituals and out-dated forms that veil the truth of the gospel. We need more churches that are teaching the Bible and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
    Mind you, the imperative is also to transform existing churches with God’s agenda.
  8. There’s a need to plant ‘church-planting-churches’. Very few churches in our country have planted daughter churches. Institutional thinking has left this to the denominations and it doesn’t always happen. If churches are planted with the DNA of planting more churches, then we create a multiplying (rather than simply adding) effect.
  9. Planting new churches re-energises people to serve. In large churches it’s easy for people to sit in the congregation and watch others do the work of ministry. The new group, or the core team for the new church, will easily see the needs and opportunities for ministry. There tends to be more urgency and importance placed on reaching out to others in new churches. Children’s workers, musicians, teachers, preachers, welcomers, carers, you name it – the new church needs them!
    The danger is that burnout often occurs. Many jobs are being filled by a few. The newly planted church needs to establish clear priorities and monitor people’s involvement carefully. Having lots of busy people doesn’t necessarily equal a healthy growing church.
  10. Planting new churches sharpens the vision for ministry. It requires people to ask the big questions of what are we doing, why, when, where and how? It forces people to get off the treadmill and set a deliberate course for the future.
    Once again, it’s important for existing churches to take stock and set a clear vision for their ministry. Planting a new church shouldn’t be seen as the easy alternative to making important changes in the existing one.
  11. It’s a good thing for the sending church. Planting a new church is always costly, so it helps the sending church to practice generosity. There’s a loss of people and relationships, money and resources, gifts and talents, vibe and comfort. If you’re the ones left behind it’s easy to feel like you’re the ones left behind! So we should see this as a fresh opportunity to grow and change, to step up and get involved, to refocus our vision, and to look toward planting again.

Theological reason why we need new churches

We could brainstorm and come up with dozens more practical reasons why it is important to keep planting new churches. And people already have! But the need for more churches isn’t essentially about pragmatics, strategy, analysis, or the latest trends. It’s not fundamentally needs driven.

There’s a deeper, broader, more profound, theological reason for why we need more churches. It’s at the core of the plans and purposes of God.

The church is at the heart of God’s design for humanity. We were created to belong to the church. It’s key to what it means to be truly human! Now all that might sound a bit weird, and you won’t find it taught in anthropology, psychology, sociology, or biology. You probably won’t even hear it taught in many churches. But it’s in the Bible and it needs to be taken seriously.

Take Ephesians 5, for example, a passage that gets preached at many weddings. It seems to be a passage about marriage, that gives instructions to husbands and wives. The Apostle Paul appeals to Genesis 2, man and woman in union together, as the foundation for marriage. But a careful reading shows something deeper going on…

31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

The profound mystery isn’t the union of man and woman, it’s the union between Christ and his bride, the church. This is the core reality, the primary marriage. Humanity was created for union with Christ. That is, we were made to belong to Christ’s church and we experience this as we place our trust in Jesus Christ and respect his headship.

These ideas, introduced at the beginning of the Bible, find their climax and fulfilment at the end in Revelation 19…

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

The ultimate event to participate in is the wedding between the Lamb, Jesus Christ, and his bride, the church. God is calling people to be ‘at one’ with his Son, our Lord and Saviour. This imagery highlights the extraordinary importance of being united to Jesus. This is what truly matters. This is the relationship we were made for. This is why the church is so important.

Of course, the church on view here is not St Blogs down the street, nor is it the denomination or institution. The church on view is the gathering of all who truly belong to Jesus Christ. This gathering finds its earthly expression as people give their lives to Jesus and meet together with others who have done the same.

It’s always been God’s plan to gather people to himself. His Son, the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, came to build his church. We see this in the climactic announcement about Jesus’ identity in Matthew 16…

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyonethat he was the Christ.  (emphasis added)

Jesus is the promised Christ or Messiah (these words mean the same thing). He came to take on the Messiah’s job description, that is to build his church. Not an institution, not a building of bricks and mortar, not a local spiritual club – but a gathering of people, belonging to God for all eternity. The church is not a social construct. It comes from the heart of a merciful loving God.

Why do we need more churches? Fundamentally, because God is calling people to belong to the church of Jesus Christ. We’re not talking about structures, organisations, denominations, buildings or campuses. We’re talking about the church of God, union with Christ, people coming to grips with what it means to be truly human.

Humanly speaking, this will come about in many ways – denominational and non-denominational strategies, revitalising existing churches, transplanting congregations to reach new areas, pioneering mission to connect with new people groups, people speaking with their friends and family, church planting organisations equipping people to lead new churches, and more.

From God’s own perspective, this is a seriously costly project. Jesus went to the cross and died so as to bring people into his church. Growing the church required the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. The church is deeply precious to God. It’s his treasured possession and therefore needs to be handled with great care. We see Paul encouraging the leaders of the church in Ephesus to take this seriously…

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.  (Acts 20:28, emphasis added)

Planting churches will also mean leading churches. It’ll mean teaching and warning people, loving and caring for people, equipping and mobilising people, serving and encouraging people, praying for and giving to people. Planting new churches should never be seen as the ‘easy option’, nor should it be adopted as the latest fad strategy. It’s hard work. It’s a costly project. It can take a lifetime. It should be embraced with humility, relying on God’s strength, and going about it God’s way, because it comes from the heart of God himself.


Silos, politics and turf wars

silosPatrick Lencioni is the guru of team work. His book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is the place to begin. Then add Death by Meeting and Silos, Politics and Turf Wars and you’ve got an excellent tool kit for tuning up your team. This book is written primarily for executives in business who are seeking to align their organisations, departments and staff. I read it as the lead pastor of a church with multiple congregations, specialised ministries and a growing staff team. It helped me identify a number of areas that had been hampering our effectiveness as a team. The subtitle sums up its main message: about destroying the barriers that turn colleagues into competitors.

Our church would probably be considered mid to large on a scale of size and complexity for churches in Australia. We have three congregations meeting each Sunday (at one point we had four). There are forty to fifty small groups meeting throughout the week. We have children’s and youth ministries happening at various times and reaching around 250 young people. The church has sent and supports a number of home-grown missionaries. We provide staff and resources to university ministry on four local campuses. There are ten pastoral staff and seven ministry apprentices employed to work with the church and its associated ministries. All this means that we face many challenges in keeping people focused and cohesive as we pursue our mission together.

These challenges are experienced at a staff level with people on the team having different areas of responsibility. Some staff are deployed to work across multiple congregations, taking responsibility for connecting or growing or serving. Some have primary teaching/preaching responsibilities, whereas others work mainly with individuals and small groups. Some staff oversee teams on the different university campuses. One directs the youth ministry, another the children’s ministry, and another the ministry among international students. Some work from a church office, others work mainly from home, and a couple are most likely to be found in a coffee shop! It can be difficult getting everyone together, let alone working as a highly functioning team.

When it comes to team meetings that are working on church issues, it’s easy for the campus ministry staff to feel disconnected. If we spend time planning or reviewing the kid’s ministry, it might seem entirely unrelated to needs of the international student ministry. Different departments of the church can end up in competition for attention, people, budgets and resources. It’s easy to feel like my area is the most important and to resent the time wasted engaging with others’ concerns. Silos can arise in any organisation and growing churches are not immune. Sadly, divisions are far too common in churches. They can be found among staff and other leaders, and sometimes they can polarise whole congregations against each another. It’s so tempting to focus on ourselves and our areas of responsibility, and to forget that the church is called to a unity of people and purpose.

Silos, Politics and Turf Wars is full of practical wisdom for getting people and organisations together on the same page, supporting one another, sharing our problems, and celebrating our various successes and achievements. Lencioni offers a model for combating silos, consisting of four components:

  • A thematic goal
  • A set of defining objectives
  • A set of ongoing standard operating objectives
  • Metrics

Lencioni argues that determining the thematic goal is the key to aligning the organisation and its people. He defines this as a single, qualitative focus that is shared by the entire leadership team – and ultimately the entire organisation – and that applies for only a specified time period. (p178) This is different from a long-term vision, a five year plan or a ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’. It’s designed to focus the organisation over the next six to twelve months and provide clarity about what’s most important on the agenda over this period.

There should only be one thematic goal. If everything is considered equally important, then nothing ends up being important. However, the thematic goal needs to be broken down into a number of actionable defining objectives. These are the building blocks that clarify what is meant by the thematic goal. Everyone needs to be committed to these objectives, regardless of the role they have within the organisation.

The standard operating objectives are different. These are the objectives that don’t go away from period to period. These are the things the organisation needs to keep monitoring regardless of the current thematic goal. Depending on the business, these might include such topics as revenue, expenses, customer relations and so on. These aren’t the type of things to rally the organisation around, but they do require constant attention.

Once the thematic goal, the defining objectives, and the standard operating objectives have been established, it will now be important to measure progress. The leadership team will need to establish appropriate metrics.

Lencioni includes a number of fictional, but realistic, case studies at the back of his book. One of these case studies depicts a church and I will reproduce it (with modifications) to demonstrate how this model might work in practice. Don’t judge the details, but simply consider the illustration!

Situation:
Attendance at weekly services is up. More and more people are coming each week. The building size is limiting further growth. Regular giving is increasing. Many new people are not in small groups or serving in the life of the church.

Thematic goal:
Expand to enable healthy continued growth.

Defining objectives:
Add another Sunday service.
Offer more small groups.
Train more leaders for groups and other ministries.
Develop an integration process to assist newcomers into groups and ministry areas.
Add another member of staff.

Time frame:
One year.

Standard operating objectives:
Maintain attendance growth.
Maintain quality follow-up of all newcomers.

Maintain quality of Sunday services.
Maintain regular giving.
Increase numbers of people in small groups.
Maintain support and equipping for all leaders.

If you’re part of a growing organisation, and things are becoming more complex, and you’re keen to ensure people are clear on their roles and working as a team, then I expect you’ll find this a useful book. I recommend that you read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team before you read this one, because it’s more foundational and you’ll discover that they complement each other nicely. Like most of Lencioni’s books this is written as a ‘leadership fable’ so it’s very easy to read and the points are clearly summarised in the final section.

Death by Meeting

meetingA friend of mine had a fishing boat that he’d named A MEETING. It was brilliant really. He could be out fishing and if anyone called, his wife could ‘honestly’ let them know that he was in a meeting and he’d be back later (hopefully with dinner)!

My kids used to think that my job was to go to meetings. Sometimes I thought that too! Staff meetings, council meetings, leaders meetings, training meetings, congregational meetings, one-to-one meetings, committee meetings, annual general meetings, budget meetings, planning meetings, review meetings, vision meetings, administration meetings, board meetings, boring meetings, way too many meetings! If you didn’t enjoy having to read the word ‘meeting’ 16 times in the previous sentence, then you’re probably like many of us who don’t like seeing the word appear that many times in our diaries. Surely life wasn’t meant to be an endless sequence of meetings. In his book, Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni writes:

While it is true that much of the time we currently spend in meetings is largely wasted, the solution is not to stop having meetings, but rather to make them better. Because when properly utilized, meetings are actually time savers.  (p250)

In my line of work, I couldn’t see a way around having meetings, so I was a prime target for this book. I read it and I wasn’t disappointed! Death by Meeting is another ‘Leadership Fable’ in the same vein as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It hooks in the reader with a great story, making the book easy to devour, and finishes with a summary section that ties together all the main points.

Lencioni argues that there are two main reasons we don’t like meetings. Firstly, meetings are boring, tedious, unengaging and dry. Does this resonate with anyone?! Busy people forced to sit through boring meetings is a recipe for pain. Secondly, meetings are ineffective. Sometimes it’s impossible to see how they contribute to our organisations. All they seem to achieve is tying up people’s time and breeding resentment. I’m sure you know what he’s saying!

Problem #1: Lack of Drama

Lencioni brings his experience as a student of screenwriting to the topic of meetings. Why is it that we get excited about watching a movie for two hours, but cringe at the thought of a two hour meeting? He explains why meetings should hold greater appeal than movies. We get to participate and interact in a meeting, whereas we sit passively during a movie. Meetings can have a massive impact on what we need to do afterwards, whereas nothing much in our lives is affected by whether we watch a movie or not. The difference, he demonstrates, is that movies contain drama, tensions and conflict. And these are the same ingredients that make for good meetings.

People need to be hooked in to participating in a meeting from the outset. They need to be jolted into grasping how important this meeting will be, how dangerous it would be to make a bad decision or to fail to respond to a strategic opportunity.

Throughout meetings conflict should be encouraged, not avoided. Avoiding difficult issues ultimately leads to boredom and frustration. However, mining for conflict and disagreement opens the opportunity for productive, engaging, and even fun meetings! Leaders need to give people permission to disagree and explore contentious issues. This creates an environment of trust where individuals can be honest and constructive and it leads to better outcomes for the organisation. Lencioni writes:

The truth is, the only thing more painful than confronting an uncomfortable topic is pretending it doesn’t exist. And I believe far more suffering is caused by failing to deal with an issue directly – and whispering about it in the hallways – than by putting it on the table and wrestling with it head on.  (p230)

Problem #2: Lack of Contextual Structure

Too often our meetings lack clarity and purpose. Some topics take up all the time and never get resolved. Other matters are rushed through at the end without getting the scrutiny they need. Some agenda items are big picture, long range and visionary. They require research, preparation and time to consider. Other items are trivial and would be better dealt with outside of the meeting. What’s the point of our meetings? Lencioni writes:

The single biggest structural problem facing leaders of meetings is the tendency to throw every type of issue that needs to be discussed into the same meeting, like a bad stew with too many random ingredients. Desperate to minimize wasted time, leaders decide that they will have one big staff meeting either once a week or every other week. They sit down in a room for two or three or four hours and thrash everything out… Unfortunately, this only ensures that the meeting will be ineffective and unsatisfying for everyone.  (p235)

This book recommends there should be different meetings to fulfil different purposes. It offers a template of four basic types of meetings.

Meeting #1: The Daily Check-In

This is a 5 minute meeting, held at the start of each day, where each member of the team reports very briefly on their activities for that day. This meeting is to get everyone on the same page, clear about priorities, so that things don’t fall between the cracks, and people don’t step on each other’s toes.

Meeting #2: The Weekly Tactical

These meetings are focused on tactical issues of immediate concern. Lencioni recommends not setting agendas in advance for these meetings. Rather, what’s actually going on and what the organisation needs to be doing determine what get’s discussed. Discussion should be restricted to specific, short-term topics that require people to focus on solving problems. The two overriding goals of these meetings are the resolution of issues and the reinforcement of clarity.

These meetings should normally take place weekly and run for between 45 and 90 minutes. Of course, this will mean that there simply isn’t enough time to discuss many complex and important matters. Long-term strategic issues will be left unresolved. There won’t be the opportunity for brainstorming, analysis, or even preparation (as there is no prior agenda). When strategic issues are raised in the weekly meeting, it’s important for the leader to take them off the table and plan for them to be discussed in a different type of meeting.

Meeting #3: The Monthly Strategic

These are potentially the most interesting, important, and fun meetings for the team. This is where we deal with the big stuff, where we’re headed and how we’re going to get there. It’s important to set the agenda for these meetings so that people come prepared. Research, planning and preparation will be required if quality decisions are to be made. There should only be one or two topics on the agenda so they can each receive the attention they need. The duration of these meetings will vary, but Lencioni recommends scheduling two hours per topic to encourage good conversation and debate.

It’s important to schedule these strategic topic meetings. When we don’t hold them, our meetings are dominated by the urgent rather than the important, and we fall into the trap of simply doing the same old same old. Sometimes a topic will arise that can’t wait until the next monthly strategic meeting. In these cases, the leader should call an ad hoc meeting specifically to tackle this topic. Don’t fall back into the trap of stumbling over the topic in the weekly tactical meeting.

Meeting #4: The Quarterly Off-Site Review

Off-site meetings provide the opportunity to step away from the daily, weekly and monthly issues that dominate our time and thinking. They provide the time and space to sit back and take in the wider picture. In fact, getting away from the office (so to speak) often creates a freshness and energy that takes the team and the organisation to a new level.

Such meetings need more time, usually a day or two. They provide a relaxed environment free from normal distractions. They can be utilised for a variety of purposes, such as building relationships, enhancing teamwork, comprehensive strategy review, long range dreaming and planning, or exploring what the competition is doing.

A final thought on meetings

As a church pastor, my life and work and ministry has been dominated by meetings. At times they’ve been vibrant, productive, and fun. Often they’ve been dull, lifeless and a chore. This book has offered me cause to reflect and examine our meetings. It’s led me to make some helpful changes, to clarify the purpose of our meetings, and to introduce deliberate variety in our meeting program. But as I reflect, it’s the kind of book that needs to be read and re-read. It’s easy to fall back into unhelpful old patterns and for our meetings to lose their edge. I’ll finish with this quote from Lencioni:

Bad meetings exact a toll on the human beings who must endure them, and this goes far beyond their momentary dissatisfaction. Bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organisation, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism. And while this certainly has a profound impact on organisational life, it also impacts people’s self-esteem, their families and their outlook on life.

And so, for those of us who lead organisations and the employees who work within them, improving meetings is not just an opportunity to enhance the performance of our companies. It is also a way to positively impact the lives of our people. And that includes us.  (p253)

Simple Church

Simple ChurchSimple Church begins with a story about Pastor Rush who, I was convinced, was modelled on me! He’s aptly named because he’s always rushing from one thing to the next. Preaching, visiting, planning (occasionally), emails, emails, emails, meetings, business, admin, family, sports, evenings out with work, days away with conferences, more conferences, patching up problems, helping people resolve conflicts, preparing on the fly, constantly tired, stressed, adrenalin driven, and every week having to do it again! Sound familiar to some of you?

Simple sounds very attractive. I long to get rid of the clutter! Simple is where it’s at. It’s the latest trend. Look at Apple, Google, designers, marketers, book titles… and now churches! This book offered something I was craving. It promised to be my ‘ministry stress detox diet’ and I was keen to take it in! It launched me reading widely on ‘church’, not just about the theology of church (as I’d read a lot of good stuff on what church is), but about how we put things into practice.

Let me start by saying what I didn’t like about Simple Church. 

Firstly, it was too long. How simple can something be if it takes over 250 pages to explain it? At times I found the book annoyingly repetitive and protracted. What I’d really like to see is a condensed version of Simple Church. One that comes to about 20 or 30 pages in length. I’m a big fan of little books! There is a revised edition of the book out now. It includes lessons learned since the first edition. But it’s longer rather than shorter!

Secondly, the constant references to statistical data left me a bit cynical and tired. In fact, I started to skip these sections once I realised their findings were entirely predictable… ‘our research shows the simple church is better on all counts than the complex church!’

Thirdly, I was left thinking that there’s a fine line between simple and simplistic. People could be tempted to think that church is all about process, and if we get the process right then church will be successful. The trouble is, we could have a very successful process that does nothing to build the church for eternity. It may be successfully simple. In fact, it may be successful by a whole range of human measures, and yet fail by God’s measure. As it says in 1 Corinthians 3:10 “…each one should be careful how he builds.”

And fourthly, this book makes all kinds of assumptions about the place and purpose of the church without grounding them clearly in the Bible. There is very little engagement with the Bible, and the foundations of the book seem more sociological than theological. The risk is that this book could simply help a church, with appalling theology, do what they do even better, rather than changing what they do! So I recommend getting a good grasp on God’s design for the church in the Bible, before you get too heavily into Simple Church. A good starting point would be detailed study of the books of Ephesians and Hebrews, combined with reading Understanding the Church by David Jackman.

Now that my gripes are out of the way, let me say this is a very useful book. It’s provided the paradigm for our ministry team to evaluate how we’re travelling as a church. It’s given us a template for thinking about the shape of the Christian life, how we are growing followers of Jesus, and how we encourage this in our church.

The authors, Rainer and Geiger, define a simple church as a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. (p60) Each part of this is significant. It’s designed, thought out, structured, not just thrown together. The process is straight-foward, clear, easy to grasp, known to the leaders and the congregation, and doesn’t keep changing according to the latest fad. The process is strategic, tied to the purpose and vision of the church. It moves people, logically. Church programs are means, not ends in themselves. They provide ways to help people grow together spiritually. The overall plan is for the church to cooperate with God in seeing people’s lives changed for eternity. In considering ‘stages’ of spiritual growth, we shouldn’t consider discipleship as a sequence of steps or courses to be completed. However, we want to see people progressing as Christians and growing together into maturity, so we should consider what we are doing as a church to help this happen.

If your church feels cluttered, with a busy calendar, too many programs, and a lack of overall vision or purpose, then Simple Church offers a plan for a makeover. If you’re intending to plant a church and you want to avoid getting lost in your own mistakes, then Simple Church may help you create a template to follow. It could help by getting you to consider the following four important areas:

The leadership and the church are clear about the process (clarity) and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically (movement) and is implemented in each area of the church (alignment). The church abandons everything that is not in the process (focus).  (p67-68)

The book devotes a chapter to each of these areas, and these four chapters provide the substance of the book. The chapter headings show the thrust of the argument:

Clarity:  Starting with a Ministry Blueprint
Movement:  Removing Congestion
Alignment:  Maximizing the Energy of Everyone
Focus:  Saying No to Almost Everything

Clarity
The task of creating a simple church begins with clarifying what discipleship is and how it will happen in our church. Let the Bible inform our picture of what growing Christians and a growing church should look like. Then we work out what needs to happen for the church to grow disciples. Specifically, in the terms of the book, what processes need to happen? Of course, narrowing down processes will be somewhat artificial, but it has the value of clarifying where we will be headed. We don’t start by assuming our pre-existing church programs. Rather, we ask what programs will facilitate this process of disciple making.

For our church this has meant identifying three steps in the process: connecting, growing, and serving. We desire to see people connecting with God and each other through the gospel of Jesus. We desire to see people in the church growing together into maturity through applying God’s Word in their lives. And we desire to see people using their time, resources, and gifts in serving the church and the people around us (especially in helping people connect and grow).

Movement
Once the process is designed, it needs to be implemented. This involves placing programs alongside the process. If you are auditing your existing programs in line with your clarified process of disciple making, then this may be rather confronting. There may be areas of the process that are completely unaddressed. You may have programs that you can’t fit in anywhere. You might discover the need to refocus some of your programs to reach your goals.

We’ve followed the example of other churches by specifying some programs as integral to our process. For example, we run a regular ‘connect’ course that is designed to be an entry point for connecting people into our church. It is designed to introduce them to the message of the gospel, to the vision of our church, and to people at church. This helps some people to decide that our church is not for them and others to be clear about what they’re jumping into. Once people have decided that they want to be part of the church, we then encourage them into ‘growth’ groups which provide a relational context for people to grow together spiritually. Then, as we get to know people in growth groups, we can encourage them to ‘serve’ in ministry teams throughout the church. We have many service options including kids ministry, youth work, music, welcoming, international student outreach, and much more.

Alignment
The next step is to get the whole church aligned with our process. This means the leaders, the programs, the calendar, the announcements, the congregations, everything and everyone. People and programs need to be held accountable according to our agreed process. Staff should be recruited and deployed according to the process. Understanding and unity are increased through such alignment. And we avoid clashes and clutter.

Simple Church has pushed us to consider what programs are critical to disciple making, and to make these programs our focus. But we still have a long way to go in creating alignment across our church and its various programs.

Focus
The book says, and others with experience tell me, that focus is where it gets ugly! Rainer and Geiger write:

OK, this is where the change is REALLY felt. Please notice that here is the only time in the entire book we used all caps to emphasize a point.  (p240)

People appreciate clear processes, purposeful programs, and the unity created by people moving together in the same direction. People love clarity, focus, and simplicity. But if you try to axe their favourite program because it doesn’t contribute to the process, watch out! We grow very attached to the things we create and maintain. We’ll probably disagree that our program is part of the clutter! So, lots of love, care, skill, and communication will be needed if we’re going to get all our programs aligned to our process and purpose. And it might take some time.

Change can be very difficult. It involves loss and grief and uncertainty. Some things disappear while others take their place, and not everyone is happy. But if we’re failing as a church to grow followers of Jesus, if we’re simply going through the motions, propping up the programs, and feeling constantly, mind-numbingly, busy, and without clear purpose… then change is essential. Of course, we can make these changes without ever reading Simple Church. And there are other good tools available to help us. But if we’re stuck in a bit of a rut, and we’re keen to see our churches growing followers of Jesus, then it might just be worth a look!

Sticky Church

Last year, I purchased the ‘wrong book’, and read it by accident – and I’m so glad I did. Sticky Teams had been recommended to me as a helpful book to consider our organisation and direction as a church, but I mistakenly ordered Sticky Church by Larry Osborne instead! It took me a while to appreciate that this was a different title by the same author. And it proved to be even more important in thinking about how we were doing church.

As a senior pastor/team leader/preacher I’ve applied myself to the crafts of leadership and communication over many years. There may be 100 or more books on my shelves touching on these areas. But I’d probably only read 3 or 4 books on the topic of small group ministry, and none that had really explored the strategic importance of a well integrated small group ministry in a growing church. Sticky Church has begun to fill this void and pushed me to explore other material in this vital, and yet overlooked, area of our ministry.

The book begins by tackling the matter of how we grow our churches. While many churches work hard to get people in through the front door, they leave the back door wide open and people don’t stick around. By contrast, Osborne’s church does no marketing, gets plenty of visitors and inquirers, and focuses on building genuine connections with those who come. In short, small groups are seen as the key to closing the back door, by building real relationships in a context of ministry, Bible, prayer, and life experience.

For the statisticians among you, think about this one:

Imagine two churches that each grew in attendance from 250 people to 500 people over a 10 year period.

Church A is a revolving door. It loses 7 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it will have to add 834 new members of attenders.

Church B is a sticky church. It loses only 3 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it has to add 357 new members or attenders.

On the surface, both churches appear to have doubled. But the revolving door church had to reach reach 834 new people to get there, while the sticky church only needed to reach 357.

Obviously, doubling attendance is a lot easier for the sticky church than for the revolving door church. No surprise there. But here’s the kicker: After ten years, the church with the big back door will have 500 attenders and 584 former attenders! And every year after that the spread between the number of ex-attenders and the number of current attenders will grow larger.

No matter what that church does to expand the size of the front door, it’s going to be hard to keep reaching people when the predominant word on the street is, “I used to go there.”  (p17-18)

Osborne is committed to having 80% or more of church attenders actively involved in small groups. He sees the groups as the hub of the ministry. And he sees this model as fully scalable. The same principles that make a church sticky with a hundred or so in attendance, continue to work as the church grows into the thousands. Osborne’s church, North Coast Church, is a mega church in Aussie terms and may lead some of us to tune out as to the relevance to our contexts. However, it took them five years to reach 180 attenders and another five to reach 750, and they worked hard at the small stuff along the way.

Sticky Church presents a model of sermon based small groups, where the preaching on the Sunday is followed up in people’s homes throughout the week. We can argue about the ups and downs of groups being sermon based, but let’s not miss the primary observation. Osborne writes:

It doesn’t matter if the groups are sermon based or not. Ours weren’t initially. All that matters is that a significant percentage of the congregation begins to meet in small gatherings outside the church building to share life and study the Bible together.  (p49)

I read over this book a couple of times, gave copies to all our pastoral staff, and used it as the basis for evaluation and planning at our staff week away last year. Here are some comments, relevant to our situation, that I pencilled into the inside cover of my book for our discussions:

How do we convey the value and importance of groups to the life of our church and the spiritual vitality of our members?

  • teaching ‘one another’ the word of God
  • developing authentic relationships and Christian community
  • encouraging people to share their lives and faith with others (in the groups and beyond)
  • helping more people take up opportunities to serve in the life of the church and our outreach
  • decentralising leadership and care of one another
  • experiencing more personal prayer in relationship with others

Growth in churches is often crippled by what Osborne describes as the ‘holy man myth’. This is the idea that pastors have a more direct line to God. They are seen as the ones who must teach, visit, pray, counsel, and do pretty much everything. Especially if we’re paying them to do it! Aside from the poor theology driving this myth, the harsh reality is that one man simply can’t do all these things. My observation is that if a church or its ‘holy man’ thinks he must do everything, then we are not likely to see the church grow beyond 100 to 150 people. Healthy small groups are a valuable means for decentralising the ministry, and empowering people within the church to use their gifts in service of one another.

This book promotes sermon based Bible study in small groups. Our church had only done this occasionally, usually for a specific purpose such as focusing the whole church on a theme. People expressed appreciation for the guidance and resources, but we’d never managed to keep it going. From my perspective it was hard enough getting the sermon done well, let alone adding the preparation of small group material. I’d seen others committing to it over the years, week in week out, and in some cases preparing their whole series of Bible study notes before the preaching even began. I would just sit back and marvel at how they could pull it off. I’d leave it for the Phil Campbells, Steve Crees, Craig Dobbies… it wasn’t for me!

But, Sticky Church has pushed us out of our comfort zone to develop a sermon linked small group Bible study strategy. We haven’t managed to write a series in advance yet. Mostly the studies are produced and distributed week to week, ‘just in time’ for leaders to work over material and prepare for their groups. They are sermon linked, rather than based, because we don’t want people just rehashing what the preacher said on Sunday. We want people getting back into the text, doing some work themselves, and applying it in their lives. Some groups like to follow the sermon with the emphasis on further exploration and application. Others have opted to precede the sermon with the study, aiming to get people more engaged in the observation and investigative processes, raising their questions, and whetting their appetite for a sermon to follow. Horses for courses, but I think that in our context we will benefit from a greater commitment to applying the Word in the context of relationship with one other after the sermon. So I’d tip the scales towards sermon first – small group studies afterwards.

There are a few things that have moved us in this direction. Feedback from some of our leaders has shown that they have worked hard on preparing Bible studies from scratch and devoted little or no time beyond this to leading and caring and promoting the ministries of others in their groups. Some haven’t even seen this as their role. (This probably says more about our poor communication of expectations and encouragement of leaders in their roles). Just focusing on preparing and leading studies is commendable at one level, but if we are seeking these groups to become ‘little church’, where people are being fed, encouraged, caring for one another, and encouraging each member to be connecting with people who don’t follow Jesus… then the leaders need to be helped to embrace a larger job description. Not simply preparing and leading studies, but leading people, and this takes time. If we can resource the leaders with material, this will give them a leg up. Some leaders follow our material pretty much as provided, while others use it as an aid for their own specific preparation.

We’ve also seen the positive benefits of having the entire church learning together the same or similar material. In fact, on the occasions we have been able to integrate youth and children’s material with the adult preaching and small groups, we’ve had great feedback from families. By linking to the sermons, people have had the benefit of the preacher’s hard work combining with the group working through understanding and application of the Bible together. As we put our sermons on line, people who miss church are able to download the talk before attending (or even leading) their small groups. This seems to be increasing people’s engagement with the Bible and with working through its implications for life.

Osborne’s church has worked to keep their groups aligned with the mission of the church. They are not seen as optional accessories, but integral to the church fulfilling its purpose. They desire to 1) enlist new followers into God’s kingdom; 2) train them how to live the Christian life; and 3) equip them and deploy them into service. Small groups are vital to this process.

There are some interesting particulars how about how North Coast Church groups function. People sign up for a term at a time, and are then asked to provide feedback at the end of each term, which includes indicating whether they will be remaining with the group the following term. Osborne says that providing a clear way out of groups has led to more people staying in. Groups are not divided into two as numbers increase. In fact, he has a whole chapter on Why dividing groups is a dumb idea. He notices that some people take forever to click with a group that works for them, and then we cruelly split their group and they’re lost again. Their answer lies in two strategies: starting new groups for new members, and hiving off leaders rather than dividing whole groups. We’ve basically adopted this approach and begun to see the advantages of moving newcomers through an introductory ‘connect’ course into a small group with the people they’re already getting to know.

There is some good stuff on finding and developing leaders. Look for spiritual and relational warmth in prospective leaders. Avoid hyperspiritual God-talkers and single-issue crusaders. Look to apprenticing leaders within existing small groups, or else find people with few preconceived ideas or baggage about how groups should be run and prepare them to play on the team. Grabbing a leader who did things differently in their previous church, without engaging them with the vision of your church, can spell disaster! And it’s better to ask for recommendations, rather than asking for volunteers.

I also appreciated the creative rethink on how we go about training leaders. The emphasis is on preparing leaders on the job, for the job. Keeping the information flow with resources, encouragement, tips, suggestions, and ensuring that groups are well connected with the wider ministries and mission of the church is vital in equipping our leaders. This hasn’t been our strength to date, and we’re seeking to improve. Osborne also addresses the different needs of rookie and veteran leaders. This is something we should probably consider more.

Finally, the last section of the book includes tips for preparing sermon based studies. For mine, this is not the high point of the book, but it’s worth reading as we review our approach and strategies. And there are a number of appendices that show how North Coast Church puts their model into practice.

I’m very glad that I stumbled onto this book. Not simply because of it’s great ideas and practical common sense, but especially because it reminds me that if we’re expecting our small groups to be the hub of our ministry, and a primary pastoral care context, and the leaders to run with this vision, then we must invest more in helping them to work well.

Humilitas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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