Big Versus Small

This post by Rick Lewis was originally published at Seventy Two

I forget which Henri Nouwen book it was – one of you reading this will know – but he wrote about how God most often works in ways contrary to the preferences of our culture. Nouwen specifically named our culture’s fascination with things big and fast and famous. In contrast, God’s kingdom comes in ways that are small and slow and hidden. The counter-intuitive methodology of the incarnation is a classic example. God decides to step into his creation, so why not make a huge splash? Why would he not bring his kingdom cataclysmically and get the job done? Why not go straight to the centre of the most extensive commonwealth on the planet, defeat the Emperor and take over the Roman Empire?

But no. God tends to approach things differently – starting with the small, the slow, the hidden. And Jesus tells parables about the mustard seed and the leaven in the lump of dough. Of course, that’s just the beginning. In the end, the small thing grows and becomes vast; the kingdom that commenced slowly will be consummated in a flash, like lightning across the sky when Jesus returns; every eye will see him and his fame and glory will be boundless. But where are we now? Are we basking in the joy of a job well done, the harvest in, the fruit of the church’s faithfulness becoming evident for all to see? Or have we slidden back to the beginning, having to start all over?

Even before this pandemic, there was a sense that the church in the West is facing a massive crisis. The big, fast and famous bubble of Christendom has been popped. Our influence and reputation is in tatters and we’re back at the beginning, in need of a way to rebuild credibility so we can get a hearing for the gospel among people who have ‘cancelled’ the church. Is ‘big’ going to work for us now? Before Covid, a few churches were having some success with running big gatherings that pulled in the curious. Most of us didn’t have the resources for that, and some of us who tried ended up with embarrassing and/or frustrating results. But apart from issues of reputational damage and shortage of the sort of resources necessary for a ‘big’ methodology, right now big gatherings are a public health risk and less likely than ever to be a potent way to either present the gospel to those far from God or to bring disciples to maturity in faith.

Big versus small is an important tension for us to think through at the moment. I heard Alan Hirsch say recently that missional leadership is like playing chess and it’s as if the queen has been taken off the board – the queen being our large Sunday gatherings. But he pointed out that that is how chess champions learn the game. They deliberately take their queen off the board in order not to depend on the most powerful piece and to learn how to use all the other pieces more effectively. Later, they replace the queen and then they can really play! I like that illustration because it affirms that the queen is good, but not essential. There are other pieces to play with.

So, in missional leadership currently, what are the other ‘pieces’? I suggest this is a time to emphasise the small, not as a quantifiable outcome but as a methodology by which we put most of our effort into doing little things well. In the past, we have favoured missional initiatives that we expect will impact the largest number of people possible. Now it’s time to experiment with many little adventures in mission, each of which may only impact a handful of people, or only one! I suggest putting less effort into corporate, ‘church gathered’ missional activities and more into individual ‘church scattered’ ones.

For the internal life of the faith community, a ‘small’ approach means, in part, lots of small gatherings: small groups, one-to-one mentoring partnerships, prayer clusters of 3 or 4 people and so on. Many more leaders are required for this approach so delegation and release of others will be essential. You may not be able to fully train people before they are released – they may need to learn on the job, and you may have to clean up some messes. Leaders also need to reacquaint themselves with the skills needed to patiently deal with people one at a time – very different skills to those required for dealing with crowds. Furthermore, the ‘small’ approach requires small communication. Little, bite-sized chunks of input delivered frequently and in various ways rather than the ‘big meal’ of a weekly sermon.

The persecuted church has been dealing with a situation something like this for a long time. They can’t afford to hold big gatherings or make a big splash in any way. They have to keep their head down. Every facet of how they operate as a faith community is small, slow and hidden. But take the Chinese house church movement for example – it doesn’t seem to have hampered their effectiveness for the gospel!

The day may come when once again the church in the West will have a good reputation, significant trust and influence in society and ‘enjoy the favour of all the people’ as in Acts 2. And we can expect that, in time, the restrictions due to this pandemic will be completely lifted and we will have freedom to gather in whatever numbers we please. But for now, we’ve suffered a setback in these respects and we have to adapt and rebuild from where we are. If we start small and remain true to our calling, not over-reaching, my prayer is that we’ll hear the master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”.

 

The post Big Versus Small appeared first on Seventy Two.

Leadership in Anxious Times – Part 3

This post by Rick Lewis was originally published at Seventy Two

Effective leadership is always shaped by context. One of the features of our present Covid-19 context is the presence of a raised degree of anxiety in society in general and in Christian communities. By considering the impacts of anxiety on human behaviour, we can identify particular leadership initiatives called for by the current situation. In the first two blogs in this series I listed three of these initiatives:

  1. Remain calm: prayerfully lean into God to receive his peace
  2. Communicate: frequently, accessibly, consistently and interactively
  3. Engage emotionally: acknowledge feelings before moving to facts and decisions

Now I want to turn to aspects of leadership that relate to vision and strategy. Anxiety causes our field of vision to contract. Pressure and stress cause us to close up in various ways, becoming absorbed by short-term, inward-looking technical activity. We tend to pay greater attention to:

  • Immediate circumstances rather than the long-term outlook
  • Inward concerns closer to home rather than an outward, other-centred focus
  • Presenting issues rather than quiet, underlying realities

In anxious times, an effective leader will push back against these tendencies with three strategic emphases.

  1. Positive Future Outlook

In many parts of the world the spread of Covid-19 has become overwhelming. Every news item is somehow related to the virus. It threatens to completely fill our field of vision so that everything else is blocked out. Future thinking drops off the radar; all there is, is now and it’s crushing. If there is any thought of the future it is tinged with a fearful expectation of doom and gloom. Anxious people either go inside their shell or start to engage in frantic, short-term activity to secure a quick fix.

It’s instructive to consider how Jesus responded to the intense pressure and stress of his imminent crucifixion. While the disciples show signs of anxiety, Jesus remains calm, communicates extensively over the Passover meal, engages emotionally and takes a long-term view. He tells the disciples that he is laying his life down and will take it up again. He flags that he expects to eat the Passover with them once again when it finds its fulfilment in the kingdom of God. For the joy set before him he endured the cross. Jesus pushes out the time horizon to see beyond the present crisis and thereby stays strong in hope. With good leadership, uncertainty can be fertile ground for hope.

This is not an exercise in wishful thinking or jollying people along without any foundation in the truth. When we say, ‘It’s Friday; but Sunday’s coming!’ we are appealing to the promises of God, rooted in the scripture, which are true. We can lead with a positive future outlook because God can be trusted. We don’t know what the future holds but we know who holds the future. With that reassurance we can turn back to the current circumstances, not overwhelmed by them but curious to discover the possibilities they might offer for a new imagination. So, we have not been able to gather. But what are we discovering about fresh ways of being a community of faith? Many people have lost their lives and livelihoods. But see the huge upswing of interest in spiritual and eternal matters?

Lead in such a way that pushes out the time horizon to include an expectation of the coming of the kingdom of God, just as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

  1. Outward Missional Focus

When people become anxious under stressful pressure they tend to close up by attending primarily to the things that concern themselves and those closest to them. We saw this demonstrated clearly in the panic buying that broke out in the early phase of the Covid-19 crisis. Although that particular behaviour has passed the tendency persists to prioritise personal interests over the interests of others. One person thinks everyone else should observe travel restrictions but he and his own family are exceptions. Another person is determined that her special family gathering will still go ahead – no-one needs to know. Churches become absorbed in questions of survival rather than energised by opportunities to express the love of God to those least equipped to handle this crisis.

Once again, Jesus gives us a great example here. Under the pressure of the looming cross, he notices the needs of others. He sees the disciples’ feet need washing, and does it. He speaks compassionately to the thief dying next to him. He sees his mother at the foot of his cross and cares for her, entrusting her to his best friend, John. He commits his own welfare into the hands of his Father in heaven and pours himself out for the sake of others.

The kind of Christian leadership needed in anxious times is that which draws the attention of God’s people away from their own concerns towards God’s concerns; His mission, his priorities. Too often the church has acted like a club that looks after its own interests. We must remind people that if the church is a club, it is a club that exists expressly for the benefit of those who are not yet members. Especially in a time of crisis, when people are liable to become anxious, we must expand the range of vision to see that, indeed, ‘the fields are ripe for harvest’.

  1. Integrated Faith Perspective

Leaders of Christian communities have been adapting to the Covid-19 restrictions in a multitude of ways – learning how to ‘do church’ online, getting up to speed with hosting Zoom meetings, dealing with financial challenges, becoming adept at interpreting health advice and so on. There are so many instances in which the usual ways of doing things don’t work in the current environment and we’ve had to swiftly manage all that and try to keep everyone on board at the same time. Each of these adaptations has been necessary but, in a sense, they have just been scratching the surface. Dealing with urgent presenting issues could simply be an exercise in management. However, we are called to be more than managers; we are called to be leaders. The difference is dealing with things at depth, beyond how things appear on the surface.

The apostle Paul reminds us of this in his exercise of true spiritual leadership in Ephesians 6. He calls attention to the fact that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. There is more going on than appears to the eye; things that are apparent on the surface are deeply connected to the unseen spiritual realities. Our task as spiritual leaders is to bring a faith perspective to every aspect of what we do in Christian community. It’s vital that we do this not just as a superficial overlay, applying religious language to everyday practices, but in a fully integrated way that addresses how God is involved in the new ways we are finding to operate.

As my friend Nigel Coles says, “To adopt new practices, in order to adapt to a new normal, without the perspective of faith or being rooted in our life with Jesus, will simply accentuate a false sacred/secular divide. We must adapt so our practices, responses and attitudes are aligned with the character and person of Jesus Christ, so as to align ourselves with God’s purposes and the life of His spirit, expressed through our corporate life.”

I hope these six, simple leadership initiatives will prove helpful as you navigate the unsettled waters of these anxious times.

To read the whole series click here.

 

The post Leadership in Anxious Times – Part 3 appeared first on Seventy Two.

Leadership in Anxious Times – Part 2

This post by Rick Lewis was originally published at Seventy Two

In my first blog I wrote about relating to God in prayer as the foundation for leadership in anxious times. The first leadership initiative I’m recommending is to remain calm, and prayer makes this possible. The next two initiatives on my list are about how we relate to the people who look to us for leadership.

  1. Communicate

In order to slow the spread of Covid-19, regulations have been put in place to drastically reduce physical contact between people all across society. Christian communities generally operate with significant physical contact at gatherings at which members of the group gain a sense of belonging and connection. That sense of belonging does not only come from hugging people or shaking hands; it comes from knowing what’s going on, hearing from others and relating things from our own lives. In short, communication is key to community. With the loss of gatherings, our communication must increase to compensate for that loss.

In anxious times, such communication must have four qualities in particular:

  • If you used to gather weekly, it will require more than weekly communication for people to feel connected when they are anxious. Consider how you can keep people in touch every one or two days. Remember that people are being bombarded by information in this season. There’s a lot to take in. So keep communication brief and simple.
  • Utilise multiple methods of communication and make it as easy as possible for people to stay in touch. Different communities have different levels of technical capacity and preferences. WhatsApp and TikTok might work well in one place while in another phone calls and letters through the post are better. Adapt to your own setting rather than trying to imitate what the church down the road is doing.
  • When using different communication platforms, ensure the messages you’re sending out convey the same content. If not, you’ll only increase anxiety when people discover that others knew something they did not. You will need to say the same thing several times before people will remember the core information. In my last blog I quoted Peter Steinke about how anxiety affects human functioning. He notes that ‘people cannot hear what is being said without distortion’ when they are anxious. Be patient and willing to repeat yourself.
  • This is possibly the most important quality of communication in anxious times. Anxious people need to vent, to express what is going on for them, to ask questions, give feedback and tell their story. Make sure you don’t only engage in one-way communication. Whereas in normal times it might be sufficient to send an email or simply post information on the church website, that simply won’t cut it in anxious times. More than half of your communication as a leader should be listening. Pick up the phone. Yes, it is time-consuming, but it’s absolutely worth it. Remind people of how they can get in touch with you and emphasise your desire that they should take advantage of those pathways. In addition, think about how to foster communication between members that does not involve you and the other appointed leaders. Communication is not just a leadership issue, it’s a systemic health issue. So do all you can to help people feel connected and in touch with one another rather than isolated.
  1. Engage Emotionally

When people are anxious, the rational content of their interactions decreases and the emotional content increases. Adrenalin gets pumping and people can’t think straight. Feelings rise to the surface. Logic is the first casualty of stress. The old saying, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’ is never more true than in anxious times.

The first person to engage with emotionally is yourself. You are not immune from stress and anxiety and you know that your thinking and actions are going to be impacted by what you’re experiencing in ways that may not be self-evident until you stop and consider what’s going on. Practice the self-awareness techniques that you have no doubt picked up in your leadership training – take time to reflect, listen to your body, get feedback from others, and so on.

Be gracious in your interactions with others, patiently accepting that they might not be perfectly logical or balanced in what they say. Keep in mind that you are not necessarily seeing them at their best right now. Listen carefully for the emotions that are being expressed and acknowledge them gently and sincerely. No doubt there are points of fact that need to be clarified and perhaps decisions that need to be made. You will get there more effectively if you first of all deal with the emotional content of the interaction, then move to the rational content.

In the next and final blog in this series I will share three more leadership initiatives for anxious times that relate to vision and strategy.

To read the whole series click here.

 

The post Leadership in Anxious Times – Part 2 appeared first on Seventy Two.

Leadership in Anxious Times: Remain Calm

This post by Rick Lewis was originally published at Seventy Two

Uncertainty and stress due to Covid-19 in recent days are producing a pervasive anxiety throughout society. That anxiety can look different in different people but, if you pay attention, it’s there in the excited and upbeat people as much as in those who are negative or fearful or even cynical. Anxious people act and react in ways they normally would not and that puts particular demands on leaders. Fortunately, we know quite a bit about the psychology of anxiety and that helps tremendously in planning appropriate leadership responses.

In his wonderfully insightful book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times[1], Peter Steinke helpfully lists the principal ways in which anxiety affects human functioning:

  • decreases our capacity to learn
  • replaces curiosity with a demand for certainty
  • stiffens our position over against another’s
  • interrupts concentration (everything takes longer)
  • floods nervous system so that we cannot hear what is being said without distortion or cannot respond with clarity
  • simplifies ways of thinking (yes/no; either/or)
  • prompts a desire for a quick fix
  • arouses feelings of helplessness and self-doubt
  • leads to an array of defensive behaviours
  • diminishes flexibility in response to life’s challenges
  • creates imaginative gridlock (not being able to think of alternatives, options or new perspectives)

Does all that look familiar?

In this series of blogs, I’m going to suggest a short checklist of leadership initiatives that take into account these impacts of anxiety. You are probably already doing most of these things instinctively, but it may be helpful to have clear points to do a mental self-assessment so you can decide where you might want to give a bit more attention.

  1. Remain calm

Family therapist Edwin Friedman first coined the phrase, ‘non-anxious presence’. Pastoral ministry training will often include a reference to how important it is for a pastor to remain calm and collected in the midst of an emotionally charged situation. Of course, if you have any level of care for the people you’re dealing with it’s virtually impossible to be non-anxious. But we can, with a little focus and determination, be less-anxious, and it’s vital that we make that effort in these times.

Bear in mind that coronavirus is not the only infectious thing going around. Anxiety itself is infectious. Seeing other people around about us in a worried state tends to intensify our own unsettledness. Unless something is done to cool things down, anxiety can start to spiral out of control. As a leader the idea is to nip this in the bud. But what can you do when you have your own anxieties that are perfectly reasonable and very real? Peter Steinke says we can learn to manage our natural reactions, using the knowledge we have about how anxiety works to suppress our knee-jerk responses, choosing to be patient and proactively taking more time than usual to listen to people and observe what is happening around us and within us.

All that is excellent but as Christians we have an additional secret weapon: prayer. Leaning into God, we find a genuinely non-anxious presence. Our heavenly Father is never in a flap, never fearful, never uncertain. His calm gently seeps into our soul, bringing a sense of stability and a recovery of faith and hope. This is what Paul writes to the Philippians:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7 NIV)

At the risk of sounding super-spiritual, the ‘peace of God which transcends all understanding’ is precisely what we need when facing a pandemic. We need something supernatural to cut through the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity; something to guard our hearts from emotional disturbance and our minds from racing into imagining all kinds of scenarios that might never happen.

If it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what you’re anxious about, David’s prayer at the end of Psalm 139 can serve as a good reminder of how to approach God:

Search me, God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps 139:23-24 NIV)

Sounds really obvious, but how many of us have neglected serious, focussed prayer in the rush to attend to all the adaptations we have to manage? Through the practice of prayer, we can remain (relatively!) calm with a settled spirit, drawing from deep wells in order to be ready to lead God’s people in anxious times. There are five more leadership responses I want to share in the blogs which follow, but you can’t effectively implement those until you have this one sorted.

[1] Steinke, Peter L., Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon: Alban, 2006) p.8-9

Catch up with the whole series here.

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