Black Box Thinking

blackboxYes, I’m trying to get my writing mojo back. People say the way to start writing is to start writing. People are profound sometimes! So back to reviewing a few of the books I’ve been reading. This book was recommended to me by a friend who suggested it might be helpful to leaders in our network around the country.

Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success and why some people never learn from their mistakes by Matthew Syed identifies some important blind spots. People are always telling us that we should learn from our mistakes, fail forward, and change the way we go about things so that we keep on improving. The problem is that we so often repeat our mistakes, get stuck in ruts, and fear making changes.

This book takes its title from the little black boxes fitted to aeroplanes. I understand that planes are fitted with devices to record the electronics of the aircraft and to record the interactions of the pilots. These devices are stored in ‘indestructible’ black boxes that can be retrieved in the case of accidents. Apparently these black boxes are now orange, not because orange is the new black, but because orange boxes are easier to locate when rubble is scattered far and wide. What a great example of black box thinking!

Going back to 1912, plane crashes were considered normal and inevitable. Half of US army pilots died in air crashes, even during peacetime. Fast-forward to today and plane travel is one of the safest means of transport. There are very few deaths and the accident rate is about 1 in 2.5 million flights. There are many reasons for this tremendous improvement, but at its core there is a mindset in the aviation world that says, “We must learn from our mistakes.” The black box is a tangible expression of this attitude. When something goes badly wrong, it must then be examined with a fine tooth comb to make sure such mistakes don’t happen again. This is a life and death imperative.

This mindset is not seen everywhere else. People are reluctant to own up to their mistakes. We’d prefer to rationalise things, pass the blame, gloss over what has happened, and avoid scrutiny or accusation. Human pride gets in the way. Syed contrasts the slowness of the health profession to learn from mistakes with the progress of the aviation industry. When doctors make mistakes they get hammered by litigation, public shaming, deregistration, increased insurance costs, and the like. So who wants to admit fault? In both arenas, people’s lives depend on learning from mistakes and making changes to avoid things being repeated.

I depend greatly on the proficiency and safety of both the medical and aviation sectors. Both these areas matter to me. But there are other lessons I am interested in. As one who now leads are network of churches, or denomination, I am concerned about the systemic failure of churches to learn from their mistakes. The recent Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, has reveal some appalling accounts of denials, cover ups, and codes of silence. Black box thinking requires the truth to be revealed, serious questions to be asked, and future problems avoided.

We need to learn from our mistakes. Even more so, we need to repent of our blatant sin. The problem with sin is that it leads to shame and so we cover ourselves. We’ve been doing it since the beginning. God calls us to confess our sins, to be honest with one another, to take heed of our failures, and to spur each other on to love and good works.

But it’s not simply in the areas of heinous sin that we need to develop black box thinking—it’s in the day to day of our ministry. It seems that many churches are trapped in patterns of mindless repetition. Q. “Why do we do what we do?” A. “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”  And we wonder why people have stopped coming!

Whether it’s church, school, business, club, or whatever, we need to keep thinking about what’s not working, why it’s not working, what needs to change, and how we can change it. Review should me commonplace and regular. Action—reflection—reaction should be our normal pattern. Failures should be seen as opportunities to make changes for the better. Mistakes should be valued as triggers for improvement. You’ve probably heard the Michael Jordan stories of countless missed shots, errors of judgment, lost games—all viewed as opportunities to learn, grow, succeed, and become arguably the greatest basketball player in history.

Syed challenges the popular view that success is primarily based upon innate qualities such as talent and intelligence. He describes this as a Fixed Mindset. He argues that we need to develop a Growth Mindset, where success can be achieved though dedication and hard work. People are capable of achieving more if they are willing to learn and make changes and if they are willing to practice until perfect.

In my world of Christian ministry I want to make a plea for black box thinking. Let’s learn from our mistakes and failures. Let’s ask the difficult questions. Let’s normalise reviews and feedback. And this will require humility from everyone, and especially from pastors and leaders.

Allow me to illustrate with 7 suggestions for black box thinking for pastors:

  1. Pastors would benefit from professional supervision. Taking timeout to reflect and learn from our practice will improve our ministries. Find someone who can speak into your circumstances and help you to develop black box thinking.
  2. Pastors should seek feedback on their sermons from people they trust. I’ve heard depressing tales of ministers unwilling to provide support and feedback to their trainees because they won’t accept critique themselves.
  3. Pastors can build a culture of learning from mistakes by reviewing what they and the church do on a regular basis. Go with the natural rhythms. Monday is a good time to review the services on the weekend—what worked, what didn’t, what could be done better next time? Once a quarter would be a good time to make adjustments to our regular programs. Why not introduce a major annual review, such that every year things change and grow for the better?
  4. Pastors could organise to get together with peers from time to time to share successes and failures. Being open with one another builds a culture of humility. Iron sharpens iron. You can learn from one another’s mistakes and avoid falling in the same traps. Go to a conference or two where you can learn from others.
  5. Maintain the discipline of reading books that will keep building your competencies. Begin regularly with the Bible and ask God to deepen your love and understanding of him. Read a commentary to enrich your understanding of the Scriptures, something on leadership to challenge your practice, a book on culture to evaluate how well you understand your world, and so on. Ask others you trust what they have found useful.
  6. Become more thoughtful. Think about your thinking. Keep some notes and look back over them. Journal lessons you have learned. Set goals for change.
  7. Pray. Ask God to shine a light into your thinking, feelings, emotions, relationships, decisions, plans. Look into the ‘black box’ of God’s word and make the necessary changes.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)

My Donkey Body

It’s a small world, sometimes. Last weekend Fiona and I were camped in the shearers quarters at Lake Menindee, together with the members of Saltbush Church from Broken Hill. We hadn’t been there before and it’s quite a while since we were anywhere so remote. Over breakfast I met John Wenham, and I jokingly said that I had a few books written by him at home. Turns out that I had read books by his grandfather of the same name, also a few by his dad, and a couple by one of his uncles. I’ve since read a book by another of his uncles, Michael Wenham, called My Donkey Body: Living with a body that no longer obeys you. Wow, so many books in one family!

donkeyMy Donkey Body recounts Michael Wenham’s journey with a rare form of Motor Neurone Disease (MND). If you’re unfamiliar with this disease, think Stephen Hawking. The motor neurones that transmit instructions from the brain to the muscles deteriorate and cannot replace themselves. The brain keeps working but it becomes unable to get messages to the muscles to do their work. The person becomes more and more debilitated and eventually the muscles that keep you alive stop working. MND is a terminal illness and there is currently no known cure.

Michael Wenham is a Christian, who tells his story of discovering and living with this disease from the perspective of faith. My Donkey Body is a sad, gripping, and often humorous account of one man, together with his wife and family, coming to grips with weakness, disability, frustration, pain, and ultimately mortality. As a preacher, whose voice was his tool of trade, he recounts what it’s like to lose control over your vocal muscles. He shares about the humiliation of being picked up out of the gutter by strangers and relying on his wife to wipe his backside. There’s nothing romantic about MND.

I checked with Google and discovered that Wenham continues to blog, write articles, and he has done some very moving video interviews. Wenham has now been living with this disease for many years. While his physical abilities have declined, his mind has remained sharp. He engages with real issues of relationships, health, religion, dependence, living and dying. Wenham has engaged with Stephen Hawking and provided informed and sympathetic rebuttals to Hawking’s dismissive critiques of any afterlife. He has written against legalising assisted suicide for the terminally ill like himself.  He opposes the creation of human stem cells for the purpose of experimentation, even if it should provide the cure for MND. His arguments aren’t a bigoted bias toward regressive religion over against progressive science. Rather, they arise from one who knows suffering and mortality, but who deeply respects that all persons are made in God’s image. He demonstrates powerfully that people are not valuable according to their utility and value to society (however that might be measured), but because God has made them human. Every person matters.

Wenham argues for the importance of knowing God and having faith in God’s power and goodness. He’s prepared to ask the hard questions and admits to not having all the answers. Being a Christian doesn’t take away the pain or the suffering. He argues with CS Lewis:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don’t understand.
(quoting CS Lewis A Grief Observed p23) in My Donkey Body p128

I am grateful that Michael Wenham took the time and made the effort to share his thoughts. Much of this book resonates with my experience of receiving a terminal diagnosis, coping with physical and mental pain, losing things that have shaped my identity, and asking questions of faith and doubt. Yet my circumstances have taken a turn for the better. Many of my disabilities have been replaced by renewed abilities. And that brings it’s own dangers and threats—especially the risk of forgetting how much I need God.

There is something about weakness that drives us back to our Father in heaven. I need to be reminded that this life is a gift from God. Every day is a day for rejoicing. Nothing should be taken for granted. The less I remember my dependence on God, the bigger an ass I become.

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Please persuade me

Version 2I’m a preacher. Something of a frustrated one currently. Most Easter Sundays see me preaching. And if you only ever hear me on this day, you might think I’m a one trick pony. The topic is always the same. Resurrection. Jesus coming back from the dead. The empty tomb. Appearances to the women. Dealing with doubting Thomas. The hope of eternal life. Why death is not all there is. Being prepared for your future beyond your future.

If you get along to church on an Easter Sunday morning, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you are going to get. And if you are the preacher at that church, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you should give. It will be about Jesus. The one who died is no longer dead. There is real hope for humanity. We can know our creator. We can receive his forgiveness. We can be adopted into his family. We can trust him in life and in death. Life can be better—not freedom from suffering, but genuine hope in our suffering. Life can have meaning—not simply protons, neutrons, electrons—life with God, shaped and transformed by God.

Easter is familiar. Like birthdays and Christmas are familiar. It comes around every year. We know what to expect, and we know what to give. It’s comfortable.

So, let me plead with you, preacher. Don’t just preach another sermon tomorrow. Don’t give me extraneous facts. Don’t show me how well you know your Bible. Don’t parrot out the same message you wrote for another gathering a decade ago. Don’t read your manuscript like any other lecture. Don’t make it about you—make it about Jesus. And make it about me, and how much you want me to know Jesus. Persuade me. Implore me. Urge me. Don’t give me reason to ignore you, to tune out, to scan my Facebook. Call on me to take this with deathly seriousness. Prove to me how much this matters to you. Show me how much you care—about me and your message.

Don’t you dare simply go through the motions. Preacher, if you’re not persuaded, then pull out now. Tomorrow you will have people turn up to listen to you. Please don’t let them down. Persuade them. Show some passion.

Stop now and pray. Ask God to speak through you. Pray that you will be captivated by the love of Christ. Call on God to fill you with the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Humble yourself and seek God’s help for your privileged task of declaring that Jesus is alive today.

When I turn up to church to hear what you have to say, please persuade me. Make me so glad I came.

Be like the Apostle Paul…

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
(Acts 17:2-4)

Blindspots

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

Gospel DNA

gospeldnaDNA is who we are. It’s you and I boiled down to our most basic fundamental parts. It’s our point of difference, our unique identifier. It’s the building block of our health and biological integrity. DNA gets passed from generation to generation during reproduction. Zillions of pieces of code are transmitted intact so that new things grow. Occasionally there are mistakes in the code. Sometimes things go wrong—like in me! I have a genetic mutation. My second chromosome has flipped around, fused with the fifth chromosome, and created a genetic short circuit, thus producing cancer of the lungs.

What about other bodies? What about the body of Christ we call the church? How is it reproduced? What keeps it healthy? The answer is Gospel DNA. The gospel gives spiritual life to churches. People respond to the gospel in repentance and faith, are thereby incorporated in Christ’s body, and knit together by his Spirit. Healthy churches reproduce this gospel DNA without allowing mutations to develop.

Richard Coekin’s new book Gospel DNA is a spiritual health manual for evangelical churches. He focuses on what he calls an ‘electrifying training seminar’ for church leaders. You and I might know it as the Apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders recorded in Acts 20:17-38. In a handful of verses, Paul condenses the essence of what it takes to grow and reproduce healthy gospel-shaped churches. He identifies the matters that matter to God, responsibilities of leaders, the convictions that must shape all we do, and the threats to healthy church growth and reproduction. Richard Coekin spends 22 chapters exploring 22 verses of the Bible that are nothing less than a masterclass for gospel ministers.

I’ve long turned to Acts 20 for encouragement and inspiration for the work of gospel ministry. Simply being reminded that the church belongs to God and has been purchased by his blood, is enough to call me back into line. Paul’s words refocus my lens when I’m pulled here and there by the pressures and challenges of leading a church. They retune me to the matters of first importance to God. They remind me what the church is, why it matters so much to God, what will see it grow bigger and stronger, and warn me to stay alert to attacks.

This book isn’t so much a commentary on Acts 20:17-38 as it is a reflection on the Apostle Paul’s ‘ministry values’. No doubt Paul had more to say to the Ephesian elders, but the message that Luke records takes us deep into his core values of gospel ministry. Richard Coekin works off Paul’s script to explore these values in greater detail, by taking us to other parts of the Bible that expound each value. He explains their significance for promoting faithful and fruitful gospel ministry, often illustrating from his own experience with the Co-Mission network of churches in the UK.

I’m keen to get multiple copies of this book so that I can start reading it with others. In fact, I recommend the churches and leaders in our FiEC network make use of this book as a training manual. It’s a book to read slowly, chapter by chapter, pausing to review, discussing how we can apply its lessons, and making plans to change for the better. Gospel DNA is an excellent resource to use in personal ministry, training our leaders, enriching our elders, inspiring our potential missionaries, and preparing our future church planters.

(Richard Coekin, Gospel DNA: 21 Ministry Values for Growing Churches, The Good Book Company, 2017)

Endings and beginnings

thanksToday marks the end of another chapter of our life—a significant chapter that in many ways has felt like a bonus. Less than five years ago, I believed that my ministry days were done and dusted. I didn’t anticipate preaching again, far less leading a congregation or pastoring a church. Today we received special thanks from our brothers and sisters at Stromlo Christian Church for the past three years of serving among them. I preached my final sermon as lead pastor at Stromlo and later this week we will head away for a few weeks leave before commencing a new role in 2017.

It has been a privilege to exercise this ministry and we thank God for equipping and enabling us to do his work. Two years of juggling the impact of chemo around preaching, leading, pastoring, equipping, outreach, and other ministry commitments. It has been hard—at times very hard—but God’s grace has been sufficient. We’ve been blessed my people’s understanding, encouragement, and response to his word. We’ve been spurred on by many people, generously offering their time and resources, and using their gifts to build the church.

We are thankful to have had godly leaders to serve alongside, who have invested in our lives and the lives of others. I have not felt pressured to meet others’ expectations—it has only been my own that I’ve had to manage. The decision of the Stromlo Admin Committee to provide me with extra ‘Chemo Leave’ has helped refresh my body, but also my spirit, as I’ve worked to do what I can. God has enabled me to do more than I imagined, with the help of others’ support and the prayers of many.

We believe this is the right time to hand on the reigns of leadership and spiritual oversight to others. We thank God that Dan Evers has been appointed to become lead pastor in the new year, and Paul Avis to support him as associate pastor. We also thank God that Sarah Rootes will continue her wonderful work with the children and youth.

So what does 2017 hold?

In February 2017, God-willing, I am taking up the inaugural position as National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC). My role will be to help define and shape the  manner in which our churches ‘fellowship’ and work together, and to lead both in strengthening our churches and their leaders for the long haul, and in developing and driving strategies for extending the reach of the gospel through church planting in Australia and beyond. This will be a full-time position. I will be accountable to the FIEC board, and will work together with Jim and Lesley Ramsay, FIEC pastors, and others.

We plan to remain based in Canberra as we explore what this role will involve. Canberra seems a logical place from which to lead a national organisation—I seem to remember it being built for this purpose some years back. Our hope is to continue involvement in the Stromlo church community, but there will be times when we are away with other churches around our nation. Our youngest child has now finished school, so Fiona and I are moving into new territory as parents and grandparents. We are keen to share some aspects of the ministry within FIEC together, and for Fiona to help provide support to ministers’ wives.

As we reflect back on our lives, the experiences God has given us, the churches we’ve been involved in, and the struggles of life and ministry, we think that God has equipped us in so many ways for the challenges that lie ahead. But we are also very aware of our weakness and inadequacy. We will need to rely on God’s strength to do this work.

Please partner with us in this next chapter, asking God to strengthen and sustain us, and provide us with everything we need to lead with humility, integrity, grace, and wisdom. We approach the future with a mixture of excitement and enthusiasm, but also fear and trepidation. It will be very different not leading a church. I expect to miss the weekly preaching and teaching of God’s word. We anticipate feeling a little isolated and we feel pulled in many different directions. So please pray for us and encourage us in this new role. We will not be able to do this alone—and nor do we want to!

Apprenticeships for ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not a solicited or paid advertisement!