Stepping down

fiecDear friends

I’m letting you know that I will be stepping down as FIEC National Director next year. It’s been a tough decision and a while in the making.

There have been a number of new stressors this year, most significantly declining health. My health problems reached a crisis point in June, when I was trying to function with constant pain, coughing, and breathlessness. Scans and biopsies confirmed that the cancer had been growing in my lungs and pleura. My poor health, fatigue, uncertainties, and stress, are among the factors behind my decision to step down. However, it’s not just the last year—it’s been eight years of living with the effects of lung cancer.

I now have reduced physical, mental, and emotional reserves, and I need to listen to my body and make some changes. While the pain and difficulties of the cancer have been reduced through the treatment, the side effects continue to limit me. I have increased fatigue, need more sleep, and yet often don’t sleep well. My stamina and durability have declined. I am still seeking to discover my new ‘normal’, but I am aware that it must be lesser than the previous normal. While I pray regularly for healing and relief, I must factor in continuing daily chemo for the remainder of my life.

A friend said to me this week, that not only have I had to drive the ship, but I’ve had to build the ship while driving it. It’s had its challenges, but I’d take the opportunity all over again. And I will miss it—that’s for sure.

This is not to say that I intend to stop serving within FIEC. Fiona and I have developed significant and supportive relationships among pastors, wives, and churches. We enjoy being able to offer practical ministry help, mentoring, and encouragement. It’s a joy to partner with churches to spur them on. It’s been a privilege to represent FIEC, as I’ve visited colleges, spoken at conferences, and exercised wider ministry. I will share with you more of our future plans as they become clearer.

I want to thank everyone involved with FIEC for the honour of serving you over the past three years. Thank you for your faith in me as I’ve sought to pioneer this role. It’s been a privilege to serve alongside each of you. I’ve appreciated your support and your fellowship. I’ve loved the opportunity to invest in the FIEC ministry, and to encourage men and women to work together in building God’s kingdom. Visits to churches and our annual conferences have been highlights for me over my time in this role.

As I’ve said, it’s been a tough decision to step down as National Director. I am stepping down from this specific role, not from ministry. I want life to continue to be about the service of God and others, it will just take a different shape. I understand that this will be disappointing news for some—we feel the grief ourselves. We would value your prayers and encouragement at this time of change.

Wisdom in crisis

cristian-palmer-718048-unsplashIt’s some time since I’ve been out in big surf. I don’t trust myself anymore. I’m certainly not as young or fit as I like to think I was. But there have been times in the past when I’ve been dumped by large waves, tossed and turned, struggling to find my way to the surface, desperate for air, wondering if I was going to drown.

Life can be like that. We can feel so tumbled and turned that we don’t know which way is up and which way down. It’s all too hard, too scary. Crises have the capacity to disorient and destabilise. Where do we turn when our world is falling apart around us, when the ground is shifting under us, when the sky is falling in on us?

James, in the New Testament, writes to his Christian brothers and sisters, calling them to have a joyful outlook as they face their fears. A nice thought, but when the trials come, that might well be the last thought to enter our minds. The darkness closes in and we struggle to find a glimmer of light. It’s seems easier to retreat, to curl into a ball, and to hope the darkness goes away. And so we will often miss out on what God wants to do in us doing in these tough times.

It’s no simple matter to find joy in the context of suffering and pain. It takes real wisdom to see the broader context and the deeper reality. So many time over the past few years, I’ve sat in a dentist chair while needles and probes and high speed drills have gone to work in my gums and teeth. It can be hard to focus on the ‘greater good’ when your gums are being stretched to splitting point and a high speed pain delivery device is doing its stuff. But there is a greater good. There is a genuine joy to be found in the midst of the suffering. The pain is short-term but the gain is long-term. And I need wisdom to remember this.

James writes into the the context of suffering…

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
(James 1:2-5)

So often we lack wisdom. We can’t see the bigger picture. We are overcome by the circumstances we are facing, and joy seems an impossible dream, let alone a present experience. And into this crisis we are called to ask God for help.

It’s not humanly possible to find joy in the midst of all pain and suffering. Don’t waste your energy trying to lift yourself up by your shoelaces, to conjure up enough faith to carry on, to convince yourself that it will all work out fine. But do ask God for wisdom. The great promise is that God will give wisdom to those who ask him. He will. It’s a promise. This doesn’t mean you will necessarily feel wise, but God promises to give you wisdom all the same.

If…

That’s right, there is a proviso.

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
(James 1:6-8)

When you ask God for wisdom, be willing to receive it. Don’t be secretly working out your alternatives for when God doesn’t seem to give it. Don’t go through the facade of praying that God will give you his wisdom, but always planning to rely on everything else to get you through. These verses don’t mean that you have to be 100% sure of God, or that there is no place for confusion or fear. This isn’t about the power of positive spiritual thinking, or ‘name it and claim it’ word/faith mysticism. What they are saying is don’t be double-minded. You can’t have a bet each way. You need to come to God and rely on him to equip you with what you need. You can depend upon God. You don’t need your back up plan. That will only turn you away from God and keep you from his wisdom.

So if you struggle to see the greater good, if you can’t find the path to joy, if everything is overwhelming, then pray. Ask God to graciously open your eyes. Ask him to ease the pain in your heart and to find solace in him. Seek his supernatural help to keep on trusting in Him.

“Father God, please give me wisdom to see the unseen, to remember that you are at work in all things, to know deeply that you will never leave me nor forsake me, to grasp that there is real hope, to feel your comforting presence, to be reminded of your deep, costly, generous love in Jesus, and to keep my faith in you, now and for the future.”

Resilience – A Spiritual Project

resilienceResilience and burnout are big issues in work and ministry at present. In the field of Christian ministry the statistics of burnout seem alarmingly high and the focus on building resilience is both urgent and important. Kirsten Burkett has provided a great service by sharing her research into these areas in her latest book Resilience: A Spiritual Project. This isn’t a popular level book. For a start it’s published by The Latimer Trust, as the 84th of their brief academic studies. While only being 46 pages in length, it includes another 9 pages of bibliography, comprising mainly of academic journal articles. But don’t let these things put you off. Resilience: A Spiritual Project is compact, yet thorough, and I found it engaging and easy to read. While much of her book is surveying and summarising findings in the literature, Dr Birkett draws us to practical conclusions with profound pastoral implications.

Dr Birkett writes as an experienced researcher, academic, author, and teacher. However, she does this in sync with her experience of grappling with burnout herself, and with an eye to equipping men and women in pastoral ministry. She understands the particular dangers and threats for those engaged in a profession where resilience is needed to fuel perseverance and endurance. Most profoundly, Dr Birkett draws on the wisdom of the research to argue that resilience ‘can be learned’ and ‘people can be trained against future stress’ (p17). She is also careful to emphasise that resilience is not a cure all. Sometimes people are simply tired and need to slow down, rest, or take time out. Other times people are overwhelmed by sadness, grief, or trauma, and just need time to weep and mourn. However, she writes:

If we keep resilience in perspective, as ways of helping healthy people stay healthy and of helping ill people recover, it seems to be an extremely useful construct. Human beings are resilient — we could hardly have survived this long otherwise. (p25)

Dr Birkett demonstrates in her book that there are significant overlaps between resilience research and Christian spirituality. Many features identified in the literature as important in building resilience, find expression in biblical expressions of Christian faith in action. She examines the following areas:

  • Adversity leads to strength
  • Sense of meaning and purpose
  • Transcendence
  • Hope and optimism and positive emotions
  • Altruism
  • Self-efficacy: God efficacy
  • Forgiveness
  • Social network

If you have a good understanding of the life of a Christian then you will hear the resonance already.

We believe that God works to strengthen and transform his people through adversity. Suffering is not to be sought after, but it is to be expected. ‘What people need, it seems, is not a stress-free life, but the framework to treat stress well; to use it as a stimulus for growth, rather than buckling under it’ (p33).

We believe that we have been created for a purpose, essentially for Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16). We are not the product of chance and time. There is meaning, purpose, significance, and eternity. We may not always understand our suffering but God, in his wisdom, uses it to produce good (Romans 8:18,28).

We believe, not in some external transcendent force, but in a God who is accessible and invites us to come to him in our times of need. God has come to us in the incarnation of Jesus. God dwells in and among his people by his Spirit. We have access to God through the death and resurrection of his Son, and so we are invited to come before him in prayer, and present our requests to him rather than staying isolated in our anxiety.

We believe there is good reason for hope. Our faith is built on hope in the promises of God. God has shown he is faithful in Christ Jesus and because of this we can have joy even in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 1:3-7).

We have deep reason to love others. We did nothing to deserve it, but God has loved us, at enormous cost, through the atoning death of Jesus. This leads to a purposeful altruism, motivated by God’s work in and through us. At the heart of this is power and willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. We can shed our anger and avoid bitterness.

We believe, not in self-efficacy, but in the efficacy of God. There is honesty in Christian understanding that we are not equal to all tasks. We don’t need to be demoralised by our continual sub-par performances. We’re not required to grow super powers. Our sovereign God knows our needs and will accomplish his purposes for our good. This is stress-relieving.

We believe that God has given us a community. We are adopted into his family and called to love our brothers and sisters. Hospitality and care are part of the fabric of our relationships.

You see, in other words, God is in the business of building resilience in his people. How then should we train Christian ministers for resilience? Dr Birkett nails it with her insight:

It would seem we do so by training them to be Christian. (p38)

Read that again! Building resilience comes from Christian discipleship.

Building resilience in Christian leaders isn’t simply the domain of Christian psychologists, as important and as helpful as they can be. It should be the fruit of putting a deepening understanding of God and his ways into practice. It should come as we soak ourselves in the Scriptures and turn to God in prayer. Resilience should be the outworking of good doctrine and faith working itself out in love. There are no silver bullets, no secret elixirs, when it comes to avoiding burnout. But, as God’s children, we have a Father in heaven who knows us, loves us, guides us, equips us, heals us, and sustains us. Let’s turn to him in our hour of need.

Resilience: A Spiritual Project is a word in season.

R U OK?

IMG_1281Today is ‘Keep a low profile’ day. Well, I expect it will be for many. It’s actually R U OK day – a day to remind us all that it’s important to look out for one another. The trouble is that many will cringe if the only time people care for them is on a designated day. Every day is a good day to ask R U OK. So let’s slow down sufficiently to keep an eye out for each other.

I know a good number of my friends aren’t OK. Life sucks sometimes, and sometimes often. I get this. Sometimes life feels like the walls are closing in on me and I need help to see the big picture.

So if you’re not OK, please reach out.

Beyond Blue  1300 224 636

Lifeline  13 11 14

(Original artwork by Liam)

Decluttering the inbox

No Junk Mail copyI’ve spent much of the past couple of days in bed due to my three weekly chemo malaise and I feel like I’ve achieved something worthwhile—I’ve decluttered my inbox. More than simply getting hundreds of emails down to a small handful, I’ve systematically unsubscribed to dozens of regular newsletters, blogs, advertisements, and junk that fill my box every day. I have no idea how I ended up collecting many of these emails. Some were an impulse click. Some were a good idea at the time, but are no longer relevant. One or two I’ve changed the frequency from daily to weekly or monthly. People keep telling us that too much information—which often corresponds to too many emails—can’t be be doing us any good. I’m looking forward to a simpler eLife!

Crazy Busy

crazybusyI read this book some months back and was intending to review it immediately. But then something happened—I got crazy busy! I took on a new ministry role and pretty soon I had a full diary, began skipping exercise, let my good eating habits go, kept myself awake at night thinking about things, and couldn’t even find time to finish a summary/review of what is a fairly short and simple book.

Crazy Busy: a (mercifully) short book about a (really) big problem is a book for Christian leaders that was always destined to be a best-seller. I’ve yet to meet a pastor who doesn’t cry ‘busy’. To be honest, it’s rare to meet anyone these days who doesn’t lay claim to being crazy busy. Busyness is epidemic in our fast-paced, technologically-advanced, opportunity-laden, affluent, western societies. All the ridiculous promises for the future—that we will have so much time on our hands that we won’t know what to do with it—were just that: ridiculous promises. In fact, in some circles busyness is worn as a badge of honour. Unless someone is busy they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

De Young warns of the dangers of busyness…

But if the strain is mental—as is the case for most jobs and for most of us—the negative impact on the body can be huge. So don’t ignore the physical danger of busyness. Just remember the most serious threats are spiritual. When we are crazy busy, we put our souls at risk. The challenge is not merely to make a few bad habits go away. The challenge is not to let our spiritual lives slip away. The dangers are serious, and they are growing. And few of us are as safe as we may think. (p26)

Busyness can blind us to problems that are deep and destructive. Our lives can become joyless as we struggle to keep up with all the demands. It can rob our hearts of the opportunities to reflect, learn, and grow. Discontent can eat away at us as we envy the time, opportunities, and ‘freedoms’ of others. Busyness can cover up deeper problems within our souls. Having our diaries and planners crammed full does not equate to faithfulness or fruitfulness. It only means you are busy, just like everyone else. And like everyone else, your joy, your heart, and your soul are in danger. (p32)

Crazy Busy offers seven diagnoses to consider in understanding the depth of our problems with busyness. The first of these is pride. He strings a list of ‘P’ words together to make his point. These include people-pleasing, proving ourselves, seeking pity, poor planning, a need for power, the problem of perfectionism, seeking prestige, and more. De Young has found one simple question helps him to assess whether pride lies behind his busyness…

Am I trying to do good, or make myself look good? (p39)

The second diagnosis has to do with obligation. Are we trying to do what God doesn’t expect us to do? We need to be reminded often that we are not the Christ; that the gospel is great news of joy—not a demand of all that must be done; that care is not the same as do; that we have different gifts and different callings; that the church is a body with many parts; that prayer is something positive and practical we can do; and that even Jesus didn’t do it all. Above all, we need to remember that it’s not up to us to keep the universe going—God has that covered.

De Young’s third diagnosis focuses on mission creep. He reminds us of the importance of setting and sticking to priorities. Jesus recognised that there were so many good things he could do, but he would not let the good get in the way of his number one priorities. Jesus was not ultimately driven by the needs or the approval of others. He was focused on his divine mission. Not that we are on a mission from God in the same vein as Jesus, but the point is that if Jesus had to set and stick to priorities, then so must we. We simply cannot do everything and nor should we try.

Fourthly, we are warned to stop freaking out about our kids. He reminds us that it’s harder to ruin our kids than we think and it’s impossible to guarantee their future successes. In trying to do more and more for our kids we may be increasing the build up of stress in our lives and theirs. De Young refers to a Galinsky survey of more than thousand children in grades three to twelve. He asked the kids what was one thing they would change about the way their parents’ work was affecting them.

The kids rarely wished for more time with their parents, but much to the parents’ surprise, they wished their parents were less tired and less stressed.  (p70)

The fifth diagnosis looks at the impact of the screen and technology. De Young confesses that he used to roll his eyes about technophiles, until he became one!

Now I have a blog, a Facebook Page, a Twitter handle, a Bluetooth headset, an iPhone, an iPad, wifi at work and at home, cable TV, a Wii, a Blu-ray player, multiple email accounts, and unlimited texting. (p78)

We’re warned to take seriously the threat of addiction to all our devices. Multiple lines of instant communication can be a continual distraction to achieving anything productive. Our busyness makes us more prone to descending into trivia and mindlessly tuning out in front of the TV or the internet. It’s hard to be alone when we are ‘on call’ all the time—and being alone is important. We need to ask the hard questions about whether our new technologies are making our lives simpler, or more complicated. What steps should we take to ensure that such things remain our servants and don’t become our masters?

Diagnosis number six reminds us of the necessity of rest. God’s design was that we work and we rest. The danger these days is that we blur these two. Life becomes overwhelming because our days and weeks and years lack rhythm. We take work home with us. Our phones and lap tops are part work/part pleasure. We give lip service to the idea of day off, but we’re never totally on or off. (I confess this is my struggle.) De Young reminds us that we need to work hard just to rest. Breaks need to be planned. Unscheduled time needs to be scheduled. The rhythms of work and rest need planning. (p98)

The final diagnosis is a surprise one. We are busy because we are supposed to be busy. We’re too quick to assume that life was intended to be easy, comfortable, relaxed, calm. The reality is that we are sinful beings living in a complex world. We should expect to struggle with tiredness, illness, confusion, complex relationships, burdens and busyness. Sometimes our problem lies not with the circumstances but with our attitudes to them. We’re caught out, confused, and we don’t know how to respond.

The antidote to busyness of soul is not sloth and indifference. The antidote is rest, rhythm, death to pride, acceptance of our own finitude, and trust in the providence of God. (p102)

De Young’s answer is to point us to Jesus. We are encouraged to spend time ‘at his feet’ listening to his words. We’re called to devote ourselves to the Word of God and prayer. The problem is, when I hear this, it can sound like another busyness burden to add to all the others. And so I need to be reminded that it is God’s word that refocuses and refreshes me. It is through prayer that I can unload my burdens and anxieties upon God. Beginning the day with God helps me to keep perspective. To Do lists, difficult conversations, meetings, preparation and planning, sermons, studies, and everything else, need to be seen from the perspective that only God’s word can provide—eternity. And so I will learn again to humbly ask for God’s wisdom, grace, and strength, to do what he would have me do, for his glory.

Growing yourself up

GYUThis book takes me back a quarter of a century to my times as a social worker. In the final year of my BSW degree, I focused primarily on studying family therapy and the writings of Murray Bowen were very influential. I loved this stuff. It was so helpful to see people as part of a family system and to explore the influences and impact of relationships, family members, experiences, and expectations. One time we saw an adolescent boy for counselling. He had been acting out at school and finding a multitude of ways to get into trouble. It wasn’t until we met with his family and discovered that his father had become dependent on a kidney dialysis machine, that we were able to begin understanding and helping him. It wasn’t his problem alone–it was a family problem.

I enjoyed reading through this book and discovered many insights relevant to my circumstances. I know others have found much benefit in this material, but one or two have commented to me that they’ve found it hard going, like entering another world with its own vocal and jargon. Perhaps, my earlier training made this book easier.

Jenny Brown has built heavily on the work of Bowen in her excellent book, Growing Yourself Up. You could probably describe this as a ‘self help’ book, but with a difference. It’s about helping the reader to gain an increased sense of ‘self’ to enable them to enjoy better relationships with others. We grow into personal maturity as we learn to more clearly differentiate ourselves from others so that we develop healthy personal relationships. This book draws on family systems theory to help us understand who we are in the light of, and distinct from, our relationships with others. Our families of origin have a profound impact on who we are—how we think and act and speak.

Brown’s underlying conviction is that it’s never too late for any of us do do some more growing up. Greater emotional maturity is at the heart of this goal.

This book starts with the big question: Are you willing to take a fresh look at your own maturity gaps, instead of declaring that another needs to ‘grow up’?  (p8)

Growing Yourself Up helps us to see and understand the immature part that that we are playing in our relationships with others. Instead of pointing the blame, we are helped to see our own contribution to the problems and impasses we find ourselves caught up in. Unlike much recent psychotherapy which focuses on finding our inner child, this approach is about growing our inner adult in all areas of our relationships. Moving beyond childhood to adulthood can be expressed by the following attributes:

  1. Have your feelings without letting them dominate; tolerate delayed gratification
  2. Work on inner guidelines; refrain from blaming
  3. Accept people with different views; keep connected
  4. Be responsible for solving our own problems
  5. Hold onto your principles
  6. See the bigger picture of reactions and counter-reactions  (p17-19)

It takes time to work through these things. We need to learn about ourselves in relationship with others. We need to learn not to let our emotions dominate our thinking. We need to learn how to take control of our anxieties. This is all part of growing our inner adult—slowly.

Relationships—close relationships, while remaining a distinct self—are at the core of adult maturity. Our experiences of relationship from our earliest times vary along a continuum of feeling isolated and abandoned, through to feeling inseparable or smothered by others. We are helped to understand more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of our previous experiences of relationships—especially those in our family of origin—and how they impact our decision making in the present.

This book takes us through various key life stages, circumstances, and changes. It looks at the threats to and opportunities for growing in maturity. Such areas include leaving home, single adulthood, marriage, sex, parenting, work, facing setbacks such as separation or divorce, midlife, ageing, empty nests, retirement, old age, and facing death. Pretty well covers it really! In all these situations there are issues to face in our quest to grow into adult-maturity. This book helps us to understand our part in navigating these changes and stages wisely.

One section in this book, I found particularly helpful deals with the temptation to triangulate our relationships, especially in situations of conflict. This is one of the major threats to adult maturity. A relationship triangle is where the tensions between two people are relieved by escaping to a third party. (p44) This may serve to dissipate tension and help families and groups to manage, but it also results in issues not being addressed and often placing the third person is a vary awkward position. It’s helpful to examine how we might have been (or currently be) involved in such triangles, and why. Such triangles are very common and universally unhelpful for dealing with conflict and tensions in families, churches, teams, and a range of relationships.

This is the type of book that you benefit from reading through completely and then returning to digest the most relevant sections in more detail. As a pastor who deals with people all the time, I found this book offering many helpful insights. It is especially important to understand people in the context of their relationships. And it’s in these relationships that we grow ourselves up.