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.

Diagnosing James chapter 5

James5Over the past 12 months I’ve been pointed numerous times to a passage in James chapter 5. This is an important and puzzling part of the Bible. It seems to make bold promises and yet, so often, doesn’t seem to deliver upon them. Is this because we’ve misunderstood the text? Is it because we’ve misapplied the text?

This part of the Bible has had me curious for many years. I’m not sure I’ve ever been completely satisfied with any of the commentary explanations. Is it a prescription for healing today? Should we follow the advice to apply oil, call the elders, confess sins and pray for healing? Should we have the faith that the sick person will be healed? Is this a promise of healing to the person who has repented of their sin?

My cancer has given me cause to reflect more seriously on these words of God. Over the years I’ve been called on a few times to pray for a seriously ill Christian and anoint them with oil. Earlier this year some of our pastors and elders prayed over me and anointed me with oil. Does this mean that I should expect to be healed from my cancer? Others have had similar experiences and haven’t been healed. What do we make of this?

A pastor friend took me to this passage while I was still in hospital last year and asked me to consider if there might be any sin that is causing my sickness. The truth is I can think of so many sins! But how would I know what sins might be serious enough to lead to serious sickness. And I trust God that he has accepted payment for all my sin in Christ. And I don’t think there is anything for which I remain unrepentant.

But it’s also the exegesis of this passage that puzzles me. So many commentaries see little or no links in the immediate and wider context, and this bothers me because it seems unlikely that James would drop a new and unrelated exhortation at the end of his letter. I wish to explore the meaning of these verses further and to ask whether it is possible to see a coherent argument from 5:7-20. So here are some of my thoughts for consideration.

The ESV translation of James 5:14-15 is as follows:

14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 

In these verses, one English word ‘sick’ is used to translate two different Greek words: astheneo (5:14) and kamnonta (5:15).

While astheneo in its various forms throughout the gospels seems to always refer to sickness, it is used more widely in the letters of the New Testament to mean weakness. Weakness can include physical sickness, or be caused by physical sickness, but it can also include a broader range of issues, such as the ill-informed conscience, spiritual struggle, and more. Hebrews 4:15 gives a good example of spiritual struggle:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet was without sin.

The second word translated as sick (5:15) is kamnonta. This word is more easily pinned down. Its only other appearance is in Hebrews 12:3:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

The same word appears in Revelation 2:3 in the Textus Receptus, where it also carries the meaning of weary in a similar context. The word kamnonta is also used in Job 10:1 (LXX) where Job is weary in his soul. This is particularly interesting, given the mention of Job in James 5:11. If kamnonta in James is being used in a similar way to its use in Hebrews 12, then it seems reasonable to adopt the broader translation of astheneo as ‘weak’ in verse 14. On this understanding, we could offer the following translation:

14 Is anyone among you weak? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is weary, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

Of course, there are other issues to be determined in these verses. How is ‘save’ (Gk. sozo in 5:15) being used? The NIV translates this word as ‘make well’, whereas the ESV translates as ‘save’. Does it refer to salvation from illness and death? Or is it speaking of salvation from God’s judgement? James uses this word on four other occasions and each time it refers to spiritual salvation.

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.  (1:21)

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  (2:14)

There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbour?  (4:14)

…let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.  (5:20)

Most telling, is the proximity of 5:20, which I would argue is a continuation of the same discussion by James. Thus, James could be saying that the prayer will restore the weak and weary person so that they will be saved from the judgement of God.

The reference to healing (Gk. iaomai in 5:16) could then be understood to be functioning metaphorically, as it does in Isaiah 53:5.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.  (5:16)

That is, the person is healed from their sin. Interestingly, in Hebrews 12:13 this word is used for ‘the healing of drooping hands and weak knees’. This is a picture of restoring the person who has grown weary and faint-hearted (Hebrews 12:3) in their struggle against sin. The same idea could well be on view in James 5.

This interpretation fits well with the context and helps us to see the development of James’ argument. In 5:7-11 James writes about the attitude his brothers and sisters should have toward suffering. They are exhorted to be patient and to persevere. They are to find encouragement in the example of the prophets (Job is noted) and the merciful character of God. This has an eschatological focus in the return of Christ and the final judgment.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patientEstablish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:12 is harder to understand in the flow of James’ argument and is usually explained as an isolated saying. However, it’s possible that James is returning to his warnings about double-mindedness and his encouragement to his brothers and sisters to remain steadfast.

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.  (5:12)

5:13 continues the matter of remaining godward in the face of suffering and trials, by encouraging the suffering person to pray. If the praise is also godward, then he encourages people to speak with God in good and bad circumstances.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.  (5:13)

But what of the weak person, the spiritually weary, the one who may be unable to pray in faith? Let him call the elders to pray so that he may be restored. Indeed, prayer is not limited to the elders. Prayer is something we should offer for one another, especially when they need help in overcoming sin. This whole argument is nicely concluded and summarised in 5:19-20 where we see that the heart of the matter is saving the sinner from his sin that leads to the death of his soul.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

But what of Elijah in the midst of all this?

17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.  (5:17-18)

Again, the reference to Elijah points to the continuity of argument, because the example of the prophets has already been raised in 5:10. Elijah serves as an example of a righteous pray-er. His ministry occurs during the time of drought and he is introduced in these terms in 1 Kings 17:1. For three and a half years the people have to wait, and the cause of the crisis is the sinfulness of the people of God. In particular, it is their double-mindedness as they flirt with other gods and fail to trust God’s covenant promises. This fits well with the introduction to this section of James, where in verse 7 the farmer waits for the rains, which are the coming of the Lord. 1 and 2 Kings reveals that Elijah was a man who prayed, but the prayers recorded are interesting. He prays for a little boy to be saved from death to life – and he was. A powerful prayer for healing, but James does not mention this. So, I understand the connection to be humble faith in God, as we wait patiently for him to bring the rain, or in the case of James – the return of Jesus.

This still leaves the puzzling reference to ‘anointing with oil’. The New Testament only mentions the practice of anointing with oil in relation to healing the sick in Mark 6:13. (There is also the reference to pouring oil and wine on the bandages of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:34.) So, it could be that a connection with healing prompts the mention of anointing with oil. This, on my view, could be a symbolic demonstration of God’s spiritual healing of the individual.

This ‘restoration of the weak and weary’ view fits well with the overall message of James. People become weak and weary when they fail to submit humbly to God’s word. Rather than strengthening their hearts (5:8), they become faint-hearted and weary of struggling against sin. They become double-minded, being tempted by the world’s ways rather than patiently trusting in the goodness of God.

James began his letter by calling upon people to remain steadfast under trial. They are to persevere patiently because God has promised a crown of life. James concludes his letter by returning to where he started. His big concern is that people live out their faith and not fall by the way, distracted by the pretence of the world. They are to keep trusting in God, come what may, and if anyone starts to stray, then their brothers and sisters should pray and do all they can to bring them back.

I recognise that this interpretation is not watertight and there have been various arguments against it. Commentators point to the calling of the elders as indicating the incapacity of the sick person to go themselves to the elders. The strong connections with Jesus’ teaching are seen as a pointer to the sickness/healing/saving theme of the gospels being repeated here. Further, the place of anointing with oil in a context other than healing is hard to explain.

I have weighed these arguments (and will continue to do so) and it seems to me that in the context of James’ letter ‘restoring the weary’ is a more likely interpretation than healing the sick. If I am wrong, then it is still likely that James explores a link between the weakness/sickness of individuals and the potential of sin having brought this about. Thus the prayer and concern for the sick person will be concerned with more than their physical healing. It will be concerned with the forgiveness and salvation made possible through Christ.

My recent experience of serious sickness has reminded me of the strong connections that can exist between physical sickness and spiritual struggle. Someone who is very ill and facing their own mortality may experience doubt and a struggle to maintain their faith in Christ. In such circumstances the prayers of the elders and encouragement of God’s people will be particularly important.

In all of this, I continue to pray fervently for others to be healed of their sicknesses and that God will strengthen their faith in him for salvation. I deeply appreciate the thousands of prayers that people have offered for my healing. Please don’t stop! Let’s pray to God, let’s pray for one another, especially for the sick and weary and weak and struggling, that God will raise them up. When things are especially tough, the prayers of our brothers and sisters are so important.

These reflections are a work in progress. I have grappled with this text over a number of years (preceding my illness) and recent events have pushed me to explore their application again. My prayer is that we will read them humbly and faithfully, leading us to trust God in whatever circumstances we are facing. I welcome your thoughts and prayers!

Simple schoolies alternative

Over recent months I’ve been meeting with other parents from church, to pray for our teenagers. The adolescent years can be pretty volatile. Kids are turning into adults. Hormones are kicking in. Once delightful compliant children can morph into something from the Twilight series. Key among these changes are issues of faith. Do I believe what mum and dad believe, and do mum and dad really believe it any way? Have I just been swept along by the expectations of my church or youth group? What is real?

Burrill2As I was talking (and later praying) with another dad from church a few weeks back, I got the idea of offering to take a bunch of graduating year 12 boys/young men away for a couple of days to focus on life after school from God’s perspective. I invited 10 guys in our church and ended up having 6 come away with me, and my son, Luke, and our youth director, Steve, for the weekend. We headed to the coast and set up camp for the weekend. Some time was spent in the surf, playing various games, or just chilling around the campsite. The main game was to open the Bible and to talk together about stuff that mattered – and we did!

Here is a simple summary of what we looked at:

Saturday morning
Getting to the guts of the gospel. I shared my experiences as a teenager of constantly failing God, wondering if I was really a Christian, wondering if it was true, not being able to turn over a new leaf, hoping a change from Canberra to Sydney would change everything, and more. During 1st year uni I came to understand Romans 5:6-11 and this changed everything. God wasn’t waiting for me to make myself good enough for him. He was reaching out to me as a rebel, forgiving all of my sin in Jesus, and having guaranteed my current standing with him as not-guilty, I had nothing to fear from God, and was freed up to serve him with joy.

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

Saturday afternoon
Beginning with the end in mind. We talked about how the shortness of time clarifies what’s important. If 80 minutes has passed in a game of rugby and your team is 4 points behind, then you hang on to the ball for phase after phase, aiming for that 5 point try. If you have an exam tomorrow, then it makes sense to start studying. If your life is short, then it’s important to know what is worthwhile doing. I shared how my cancer diagnosis has sharpened my focus of what matters in life.

I got all the boys to share their plans for the year ahead and beyond. Some were looking at gap years, others heading to uni or tech, some leaving home, others staying with family. We looked together at Psalm 90 and saw how the eternal God has numbered our days and called us to live for him and find our satisfaction in him. In particular we brainstormed what this verse would look like for each of us in our contexts.

Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

We also looked at the typical Aussie dream and how chasing affluence, influence, pleasure and security are the messages we hear every day. Jesus critiques these ideas and shows how the brevity of life and the certainty of death make a mockery of a life spent chasing this stuff.

15 Then he (Jesus) said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:15-21)

This bloke made 3 fatal mistakes. He thought riches would guarantee him security. He thought he had all the time in the world. And ultimately he thought only of himself, leaving God right out of the picture. That night his life was demanded of him. I urged the boys not to fall into the same foolish and fatal mistakes.

Saturday night
Q and A. We built a raging campfire and sat around with the boys asking me questions. We covered a lot of ground with different topics. These included relationships, marriage and sex; life in residential colleges; helping people grapple with issues such as the horrors done in the name of Christianity, or what happens to people who’ve never had a chance to hear about Christianity; what to do when you’re struggling; and more.

Sunday morning
Don’t sell out for a bowl of soup. We looked at how temptations can be so appealing and seem to offer so much, and yet how easy it is to get everything out of perspective. Everyone agreed that we wouldn’t swap an inheritance from our parents for a meal, and yet this is the risk when it comes to inheritance from God. We can be tempted to look at people not following Jesus and think we’d be better off if we were like them. Perhaps it’s their perceived sexual freedom, or their power or wealth, or maybe it’s that our inheritance from God seems so intangible or remote. We checked out these verses from Hebrews:

24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)

15 See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. (Hebrews 12:15-16)

We talked together about how being Christian is for the long haul and God wants us to encourage each other to persevere and live our lives for him. These verses show how we can invest in the lives of one another.

23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

God doesn’t expect us to be Robinson Crusoe Christians. The boys shared how they thought they could encourage each other. There were some great ideas that focused around being genuine, getting past trivia, and caring about how each is going with God. This was important, given they were heading in different directions, with different challenges ahead.

Finally, we discussed how we would all stuff up and why it was so important to remember the grace of God. Rather than hiding from God when we feel that we don’t measure up, or when we know we are guilty of not living for him, this is the time to draw near and rely on his grace. Jesus knows what we’re going through. He was tempted as we are. He was challenged to give up his inheritance for a ‘bowl of soup’ too. But he drew near to God and trusted him, even to death.

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

BurrillI think this was a good weekend. The boys told me so! One shared how it had encouraged him as he struggled with his faith. My prayer is that it will help these guys to remember the gospel, and live it out as they face massive changes in the year ahead.

It wasn’t hard to pull off a weekend like this. It’s a simple schoolies alternative, or add-on. It was fun, relaxed, and at its heart it was a serious time together. Maybe next time we’ll do it for 3 or 4 days. Perhaps you could consider this with year 12s from your church or network. I focused on boys so as to keep things simple, but there would be opportunities with girls too. God-willing, we might try to do both separately next year. If you’d like to know more about how it worked or to talk through possibilities for something similar, please get in touch.

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)

The key to resolving conflict

I’m not much of a fan of conflict – especially when it involves me. I don’t like causing it and I don’t like being on the receiving end of it. Give me peace and harmony any day! But conflict happens. We disagree, we argue, we get defensive, we sulk, we blow up in anger, we grow resentful, we wallow in bitterness. It’s a death cycle for relationships and it’s way too common.

As I look back over my life, I can see the damage caused by conflict with others. Good friendships gone bad. Working relationships broken down. Tensions with relatives. Relationships strained and awkward.

Most of the conflicts were nothing at first. A word here or there. An oversight. Simple misunderstandings. Unmet expectations. Assumptions. Nothing to worry about. It’ll be all right. Things will blow over.

But they don’t blow over. They stay, and they grow, and we feed them. The small problem gets bigger and bigger and, before too long, we have an unresolvable crisis. Judgments have been made. We become entrenched in our position. They in their position. Neither of us will budge. We appoint blame and demand the other change. Apologies are empty, we’ve heard it all before, there’s no hope, the relationship’s over.

Conflict hurts. We know the pain. We live with the scars. Couples, families, homes, workplaces, teams, schools, churches. It doesn’t matter where. Conflict is far too common and we keep failing to overcome it. So what hope is there?

In my experience there is one key to resolving conflict. It’s very simple to understand, but so hard to put into practice. It’s not a technique. It’s not a set of words or exercises. It doesn’t require counselling or courts to make it happen. It needs something much more profound – a change of heart.

The key to resolving conflict is forgiveness.

forgive-bible-quotesThat’s what it takes. So simple, yet so difficult. To forgive means to count the cost, to absorb the hurt, to no longer hold it against them. To forgive means to cancel the debt, to let go of your pride, to release your bitterness. To forgive means to value the other person, to seek the relationship, to work for reconciliation. That simple! That impossible!!

What really stands in the way of resolving conflicts is me! I’d prefer to stand on my rights, to demand an apology, to wallow in my self-pity or pride. I’m the problem and, left to my own resources, I’m a problem I can’t fix!

But… God can. The power to forgive comes from forgiveness received. As I recognise how much God has forgiven me through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ, so I become more able to forgive others. God has wiped my slate fully clean. He’s forgiven me all my selfish thoughts, words and actions. He’s washed me cleaner than snow. He’s removed a debt that I could never repay.

I need to be constantly reminded of the magnitude of God’s forgiveness of me. The enormous cost that he paid to remove the conflict between us. God is the ultimate peacemaker. He’s the awesome reconciler. He’s the author of forgiveness. As I begin to appreciate how much I’ve been forgiven, what could be too much for me to forgive others? And God doesn’t leave me to try and become a forgiving person on my own, relying on my own strength and resources. He pours out his Holy Spirit to bring peace into our lives and relationships.

It’s worth remembering this story that Jesus told:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Hopefully, you too are outraged by the response of the servant. He’d been forgiven 10,000 bags of gold and he can’t even bring himself to forgive 100 silver coins. Wow!

Of course, there’s a sting in this tale. If we’ve received forgiveness from God for every selfish thing we’ve ever done, then how can we not forgive others the petty grievances we so willingly cling on to. Perspective please!

God wants us to enjoy peaceful relationships. Firstly, with him, and he calls us to put our trust in Jesus so that we can receive his forgiveness. Secondly, with each other, and he expects us to keep the forgiveness going. Don’t give in to conflict. It’ll destroy relationships and it’ll ultimately destroy your soul. If you need forgiveness, then please seek it. Otherwise, please humble yourself and be willing to offer forgiveness to others.

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)

When crisis changes to chronic

It began with a crisis. Taken to hospital, rushed through Emergency, hooked up to an ECG machine, off for x-rays, back for a CT scan, a massive fluid build up around the lung… looked like there could be a tumour. A whirlwind of people, activity and emotion. Within hours people were visiting, offering help, gathering to pray, preparing meals, picking up cars, contacting children. Within days I’d become the centre of attention, everywhere, it seemed! It was confirmed that I had cancer and the prospects didn’t look good. So many people from so many places turned up to see me. The nurses complained that there were too many people. Letters, cards, Facebook greetings, emails, came in from all over. Meals kept turning up at the right times. A small army of people unpacked our belongings and refurnished our house. Fifteen hundred students gathered in small groups at a conference to pray for me! It was intense! It was life and death in our faces every day.

I’ve seen our family cope pretty well with a crisis. We’ve had a few now! We made some very big decisions very quickly. We put new plans into place. We made the adjustments. We had the tough conversations without too many problems. We just did what we had to… and coped. We enjoyed the support from others. We were conscious of God’s strength and comfort and we prayed a lot.

But…

Things have changed. The pace has slowed. The crisis has gone and left us with the chronic. It’s become three weekly by three weekly, rather than day by day. Life is now shaped by chemo cycles. One week sick, two weeks better. One week sick, two weeks better. On and on. It’s exhausting and we don’t seem to be achieving much else in life. Sometimes we feel like we’re just drifting with the current or stuck in a rut going nowhere. It’s not so much action that’s needed now, but patience and perseverance and gentleness and self-control. And that seems so much harder. It doesn’t come naturally. We absolutely need the help of God’s Spirit.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.  (Galatians 5:22-23)

In many ways the excitement of the crisis has given way to the mundane of the chronic. The daily grind is hard work. Perhaps, even more challenging than the mountain climb. In the crisis I think to pray. In the chronic I’m more tempted to forget. Gratitude easily gets replaced with grumbling. Matters of eternity give way to matters of trivia. Urgency steps aside for complacency. I can forget to number my days and begin again to take for granted my months or even years. Oh, how slow to learn I can be!

I think it’s harder for others also. Initially, people were making every effort to visit, bending over backwards to offer support… as we tend to do in a crisis. But as time goes on it’s harder to sustain the effort. Life fills up, another crisis gets in the way, we have our own lives to look after. We forget to drop in, make the call, check up on each other, see if there is anything we can do.

To be honest, it can be rather lonely having a chronic illness. You feel just as sick and powerless and needy, but you’re pretty much left to manage on your own. There’ve been times when I’ve felt disappointed in people. Why haven’t they called? It wouldn’t be too hard to drop in. It’d be awesome if they’d just ask Fiona if there’s anything they could do to help. I long to hear what’s going on in people’s lives. I’m interested in knowing about work or family or the latest sporting achievement. I’d love to have people offer to come and pray with me, or read the Bible and talk about stuff. Hey, I’d even be up for a regular game of real Scrabble! Even a quick phone call just to say they’re thinking of me!

I shouldn’t whinge. Fiona tells me I shouldn’t write posts when I’m feeling revolting from chemo and she’s probably right! I have so much to be thankful for and I keep being overwhelmed by how many people tell me they’re praying for me. But, I’m trying to be honest and I’m learning lots about myself as well. As I reflect on many years of pastoral ministry, I don’t think I had begun to appreciate what it was like for some people struggling with chronic issues. People with physical or mental disabilities, people with CFS unable to get out of bed for much of the day, women with debilitating pregnancies, people without transport or living in nursing homes. I had so many opportunities to be an encouragement to others that I simply overlooked. As a pastor, I was always up for putting on my superman cape and dealing with a crisis… but the chronic was often forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind perhaps.

Jesus is the Pastor Supremo. He came to overcome our alienation from God, which is the biggest crisis we will ever face. He did so at enormous personal cost, sacrificing his life on the cross to bring us reconciliation. But we also see Jesus caring for those with chronic disabilities, people who are outcasts and isolated from others. He was willing to hang with lepers, prostitutes, tax cheats, and those despised by the religious leaders of his day. Jesus had a pastoral heart that didn’t overlook the needy and he called those who follow him to have the same attitude.

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke14:12-14)

Here’s a thought. Next time you think of putting on a BBQ, think about people you know who might rarely get invited out. Are there lonely people at work or church who’d love an invitation? Perhaps, there’s someone who’s not well and you can make a special effort to include them. Maybe even offer to take the BBQ to their place if that’d make it easier!

On another occasion Jesus told a parable to describe those who belong to him and those who don’t. They’re challenging words.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’  (Matthew 25:34-40)

The mention of brothers and sisters shows that Jesus especially has in mind the way Christians are called to treat each other. If we’re part of the same family, then we’re called to love our siblings. There’s a lesson here for those of us in churches to care for one another in our times of need. It should never be out of sight out of mind. But, I wouldn’t be too quick to say this stops with how Christians should treat each other. We’re called to do good to all, as we have opportunity. Do you know someone needing a place to stay? Is there neighbour down the street who never gets visitors? Is there someone at work going through a difficult divorce? Is there old friend with CFS who’s been doing it tough for so long that they’re embarrassed to even mention it? Do you know a single mum who never gets any time to herself? Would a friend appreciate you doing some shopping, spending time in the garden, running a few errands, taking the kids for a while? Is there someone you should get onto right away, just to check they’re doing okay?

How can you make a difference?