Runs on the Board

athersWriting in Thursday’s Times (19th January 2017), Mike Atherton (above), their cricket correspondent and ex-England Captain wrote a piece about leadership. It’s worth a read if you can get behind their pay wall. Apparently the English Cricket Board (ECB) has enlisted the help of an ex-Army Officer now Management Consultant, Gemma Morgan to help them develop new leaders.

In doing so, they assess potential leadership candidates in four areas;

  1. their impact within a group,
  2. their ability to make things happen,
  3. their interpersonal skills and
  4. their thinking skills.

That’s not surprising. It’s what you might expect. But what’s striking in the article is her insistence on character being key. The overriding message at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst is that leadership is service. Their motto ‘serve to lead’ is everywhere. Now that’s remarkable. It’s almost the polar opposite of how things ordinarily work in the world of sport. Normally captaincy is about having ‘runs on the board’. As  Morgan, an ex-international lacrosse player, observes,

‘Coming from the sports field initially this turned leadership on its head for me, because until then I understood leadership as hero-based: am I the best player, the leading goal scorer, the go-to player that kind of thing’.

Many of us in church planting and  pastoring resonate with that kind of thinking. But our competencies have to do with preaching, evangelistic effectiveness, theological knowledge and strategic thinking and so on. But, she goes on,

‘At Sandhurst I came to understand that it was not about me but about duty and service to others. It opened my eyes. Before they teach you any technical stuff, they underpin everything with values that are uncompromising. Integrity, for example, if you breach integrity you’re gone and you won’t be invited back. Once you’ve got these anchors in place, they add on the technical bits. In sport and business it is the other way around. In the army, they will not take a risk on character’.

In recent months, the England One Day Captain Eoin Morgan decided not to tour Bangladesh citing security risks as his issue. He copped a fair amount of flak for that. This was interpreted as a leader choosing to abandon his men when faced with hardship. It looked self-interested. It may not have been if he was making that decision in such a way that it gave implicit permission for others to follow suit. Interestingly Alex Hales decided not to tour as well. When pushed for her verdict on this decision Gemma Morgan would not be drawn because she simply didn’t know the rationale and motive behind Eoin Morgan’s decision. But she did say this, ‘You have to lead by example and my experience is that people will follow if you think you have their best interests at heart’.

It turns out that leadership is not so much about having ‘runs on the board’. And England’s own history bears that out because one of the most respected and most successful Captains was a man who arguably wasn’t good enough to get in the 2nd XI. He was the man who got the best out of Bob Willis and Ian Botham in the 1981 Ashes series. His name is Mike Brierley and he’s written a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy’. It’s on my Amazon wish list!

For those of us who suffer under the delusion that we might still be the hero every church needs, Morgan did close with this encouragement,

‘There is a time for autocratic and direct leadership but to get people to follow unquestioningly you have to have invested a lot of time in the relationships. If you’re selfish you will get found out. If you get a combination of a brilliant player, a charismatic leader, and someone with the interests of others at heart? Then, great. But they don’t come along very often’.

The odds are that most ofus are not in that category. And neither are our leaders. And so character really matters. And self sacrificial service is paramount. Who’d have thought it?!

In Mark’s Gospel Chapter 10 verse 45, we read this, ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’. That’s leadership. And it’s runs on the board. Just in a different kind of a way.

Camp – Abnormal Ministry

It’s not like real ministry. It’s abnormal. But it’s brilliant.

I’m talking about teaching students for a week. I’ve just come back from our Pathfinder Venture, Woolie 1 in rural Berkshire. Together with a couple of brilliant female colleagues, I was responsible for the teaching programme for a dozen students whom we call Bereans (after the more noble characters in Acts 17). The students were converted and keen and consumed anything we put in front of them. And that made for a fabulous ministry experience.

I spent all week watching the lights go on as we worked our way through a load of material. We thought about the fruit of the Spirit in our morning and evening thoughts, the letter to the Colossians in Bible study and the skills involved in understanding and applying different types of biblical literature in our seminars. I used Jerry Bridges’ book ‘The Fruitful Life‘ to stimulate my thinking on Galatians 5:22. And I slavishly followed the excellent material in Andrew Sach’s and Nigel Beynon’s book ‘Dig Deeper‘ and then supplemented it with stuff I’ve picked up along the way in training expositors and Bible study group leaders.

One comment I especially enjoyed came from a young Cambridge male undergraduate who said, ‘I feel that I’ve learnt how to read’. I think that’s fair. And I was delighted to hear it. I repeatedly find that even our Bible Study Leaders at CCB don’t know, forget or choose not to read literature accurately and sensitively. I’m no expert. I’m still learning. My undergraduate degree was in Engineering and from what I can remember that was all equations and graphs. I’m pretty sure I gave up reading aged 14 when I finished the Arthur Ransome series about middle class kids’ sailing adventures in the Lakes and on the Broads. And since then all I’d choose to read was the sports reports. But then I went to a church that paid careful attention to the Bible. And I had to learn to read. I reckon that most of us read the Bible far too quickly and with insufficient care, perhaps especially when we’re in the New Testament. But when we slow down, paying careful attention to what the author has said and the way in which he’s said it, our experience of meeting with God in His word is deeply enriched. And so we tried to help the students do that in our seminar sessions. And ‘Dig Deeper‘ was a great help. We virtually managed to get through all sixteen of Nigel and Andrew’s tools in our six ninety minute sessions.

Camp remains my favourite week of ministry. And there are lots of reasons for that. But undoubtedly one of them is that it’s an unusually fruitful time. Many of the frustrations of church ministry are left behind. It’s ‘all good’. It has something to do with the intensity of the week and the stage of life that they’re at. And for sure, being together as part of a cohort of similar aged like-minded students generates momentum. No matter how keen our church members are (and most of ours really are), they can’t show quite the same appetite when they’re understandably giving their best efforts and hours to their employers up in town. And, although some of them need to find work to pay off student debts, these guys are on holiday. It’s a perfect environment for rapid growth in spiritual maturity. It’s like a greenhouse for godliness!

Normal ministry isn’t like that. It’s slower. People don’t usually make changes as quickly as they do when they’re just beginning their twenties. There tends to be less baggage at that age. Life is a little more straightforward. It’s easier to untangle. And it’s not so complicated. Of course, few of them realise that. I didn’t, even though I remember being told exactly that at the time! And for most of them, not much of the big stuff has gone wrong yet. But they’re willing to root out and tackle their sins rather than rationalise and excuse them. And so even the personal work on camp is constructive. As we get older, we struggle to retain the desire for genuine repentance. We’re a bit less optimistic about change. We’re a bit more cynical about sin. And we’re far too willing to call a truce with our faults and point the finger of blame at others for our own character flaws.

And so, camp ministry remains an abnormally fruitful but utterly unrealistic time for which I’m very, very grateful to the Lord!

The Urban Pastor and his Rural Retreat!

Just got back from four days in the north of Scotland. It was very rural. And rather nice. A little flat but some lovely walks along the beaches of the Moray Firth.

I wasn’t alone. I went there with 16 fellow Co-Mission staff . We had a fairly full programme of talks and sessions. But we also had time for meals together, walks and clay pidgeon shooting!

I left behind a logistical nightmare for Rosslyn and a family who’d have preferred me to be at home. And yet it was worth doing for at least these three reasons.

1. Relationally it was beneficial

Going away with likeminded senior pastors is always hugely stimulating. We have the great advantage of singing off the same theological hymn sheet. And so lots of our foundational convictions can be assumed. I had some very useful conversations about how to run and grow churches. Occasionally you come away with some new ideas but often it’s just reassuring hearing that others are doing the same things, facing the same issues and toughing it out for the sake of the gospel. One or two of the  churches are at a similar stage to us and so it was good to be able to bounce ideas off one another. One or two of the congregations are a stage further back and so we try to reassure them that they’re doing the right things and encourage them to persevere. And one or two of the congregations are a stage or two ahead of us and so they’ve faced issues that we have no idea are coming and so it’s good to be forewarned. We know each other well enough now to have put the issues of testosterone and male competitiveness to one side. Most of us have coped with the hard yards of growing small vulnerable churches and so the delusions of grandeur are just that; delusions. We’re battle weary and value the encouragement of those who are also in the trenches.

But our relationships count for a whole load. We’re not really a staff team but we’re on the same team. The team we happen to be on is called Co-Mission and we’re about planting churches together in London. We work together but we also work apart. Together for the gospel in church planting but seperately in launching and running those church plants. It’s an odd dynamic. But we inevitably rub each other up the wrong way, misunderstand one another, get competitive over resources, become resentful when we feel neglected and have to make sacrifices for one another. And that’s so much easier to cope with when our relational links are strong. And there’s nothing like clay pidgeon shooting, a few big boys breakfasts and comedy moments round a large log fire to aid the bonding!

2. Spiritually it was refreshing

We had some first rate speakers with us. John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Phillip Jensen and Simon Manchester came along; virtually. It was great to be taught by someone else for a change. And then to be able to head off for some uncluttered time to pray. I really needed some spiritual refreshment and the Lord was kind enough to give it to me. In the past we’ve taken it in turns to expound a passage and that’s been helpful. But the emphasis this year was on minimising our preparation and so listening to some of the ‘greats’ expounding the scriptures was a real treat. In the evening we listened to some 9 Marks interviews. They were long and so they needed to be worthwhile. Mark Dever usually asks some great questions. The one with Phillip Jensen was more profitable than the one with Don Whitney.

3. Strategically it was necessary

We considered some of the big issues facing us as a network of churches at our stage of growth and development. We read Tim Keller’s paper on the dynamics of movements compared to institutions to better understand what we are and how we operate.  We read Tricia Neill’s little book ‘From Vision to Action’ and talked about refining our vision statement and what that would mean if it permeated every level of our organisation. We thought about training and what we’re trying to do with apprenticeships and preparing our pastor teachers for ministry. We read some papers by David Powlinson from CCEF and thought about how we train ourselves and others in Pastoral Theology. As you would imagine it’s pretty hard to come to a common mind on those things. But under God we made some real progress. We asked the hard questions even if we didn’t always like answering them and I think we’re in a better place than we were. We’re work in progress but at least we’re going somewhere. It’s incredible to think that Co-Mission is only five years old. Under God we’ve definitely done more together than we would on our own. We just need to work out how we can do more, more quickly, for the sake of the gospel!

It was a faff going away. Inverness isn’t just down the A3. It’s a hectic time of year. A Passion for Life looms. But it was so worth it. The benefits much outweigh the costs. I’m looking forward to returning to our rural retreat already. But I’m glad it’s a year away!

‘I’ve got an idea!’

A member of our congregation came to me last term with an idea for a new ministry. I’m enthusiastic. I think it’s a good idea. I think it’s an imaginative and appropriate way to get people to engage with the bigger issues of life. I’m thrilled that he’s taken the initiative to give something a go. He’s owned an idea and he’s prepared to try and get it off the ground. I think it’ll work.

Often I’m the one trying to come up with these ideas and making them happen. But this time I’m not. And I’m delighted. It’s this kind of ‘self starting’ that Ministers long for. But it got me thinking; what do you need to launch a new venture?

Here are ten things that sprang to mind.

1. Encouragement; above all else you need someone to encourage you and provide the confidence necessary to give it a go. Trying to make things happen can be profoundly discouraging because usually things don’t go as you want them to. Having someone who sticks by you with positive feedback makes the world of difference.

2. Vision; you need to know what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it. It doesn’t need to be thought out in every detail just yet. But there does need to be an idea that sounds plausible and captures people’s enthusiasm. You would expect that to be fairly self evident but I’m amazed how many meetings I sit through where people have failed to identify these two issues.

3. Leadership; you need to be able to take people with you. If you don’t it’ll be lonely! Leadership involves recruiting people by selling the vision and persuading them to join you.

4. Loyalty; you need a group of people that will back you to the hilt. The team will help one another turn the dream into reality. They don’t need to be undiscerning or foolish in their loyalty. They just need to back you and not undermine you.

5. Organisation; you need to be able to fill in the necessary gaps between dream and reality. It doesn’t need to be you but it needs to be someone who can ‘sweat the detail’. It’s often the case in any organisation that you have the visionaries and the pedants. The visionaries think big picture and have bold plans. The pedants think small picture and have concerns about the minutiae. The visionaries think that the pedants are nitpicking naysayers! The pedants think that the visionaries are recklessly underprepared and have lost touch with reality! They’re both right. And they’re both necessary. This creative tension, when harnessed, means that dreams become reality.

6. Dependence; you need to be prayerful. We don’t operate in God’s world as independent agents. But sometimes we think that we do. And so we therefore need to drench our new initiative in prayer. We have no right to expect any of our plans to come off even if it they are brilliant ideas. We depend on God for everything and we express that dependence on our knees.

7. Perseverance; you need to be able to keep going.  You mustn’t be a quitter. When many would have simple thrown in the towel you need to dig deep and press on. Few things worth doing happen easily. Most things worth doing require sacrifice and so we need to stay the course.

8. Humility; you need to be open to the fact that you may have got things wrong. Everyone will have an opinion about how it could be done better, how it should have been done better and why it should be done better. The positive spin on this is that at least people are engaged. The negative wide is that people are needlessly critical. In that situation it’s easy to become defensive and respond badly. That kind of approach saps the energy.

9. Wisdom; you need to be able to make the judgement calls about what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Confidence in your ability as a leader will increase when you get these right! Respect in your ability as a leader will increase when you admit that you didn’t!

10. Godliness; you need to be holy in everything that you say, think and do. There’ll be countless occasions where ungodliness would be your preferred course of action. Fight those urges!

They’re not really in any order. Number 10 ought to be higher up. I’ve probably left a few things out. ‘Getting things done’ is essential; procrastination is disastrous and there’s nothing about prioritisation. But there you go.