Category: Empowering Leadership

Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to embody what I’ve previously been unwilling to accept?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

Exodus 3:7-14

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’

‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey – the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’

But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’

And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.’

Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’

God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I am has sent me to you.”’ 

We’ve all been there. You discern God is calling you to do something, ‘but’ …!

Forty years previously Moses had a gut feeling the Lord wanted to set his people free from Egypt, but his feelings ran away with him, literally. He took things into his own hands, killed an Egyptian and then buried the evidence (Exodus 2:11-12). We have no real idea how clearly Moses either heard or saw God at work in the forty years which passed, until he hears the voice of God calling him at the burning bush. Forty years without any headlines, profile or leaps of faith. Forty years when, to the outside world, nothing significant was going on in the life of Moses. Sound familiar?

It’s always a huge mistake to assume nothing significant is going on simply because we don’t see the immediate evidence before our eyes. Remember Jesus, concludes preaching his manifesto of the kingdom of God in Nazareth, where he grew up, by quoting Isaiah and saying, ‘today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’. This episode ends with his old neighbours and fellow Nazarenes ‘furious’ and they ‘drove him out of the town’ (Luke 4:1-30). What was going on in the life of Jesus during those thirty years?

For forty years in Moses’ life; for thirty years in Jesus’ life; they lived in relative obscurity, but we can be sure of one thing: I AM was working his purposes out. This is because the primary desired way for God’s purposes being worked out are in us, before they flow through us. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain on our reality, the spotlight is on. Now is the time to ensure what’s on the inside and the outside match up. Am I living on purpose?

No mistake these are big questions, but we all need to answer them. I need to answer them for myself. Here’s where I am with this one:

I want to pursue every step of the purpose of God

These are the kinds of words I pray … in my best moments! There’s a recognition here I must act. If God calls me in a particular direction, my job is to follow. If God calls me to stand up and be counted, my job is to step up.

Jesus’ all-embracing call is ‘come follow me’. [1] Paul tells us we have an ‘obligation’ and ‘those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God’. [2] John reminds us ‘we know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands’. [3] Peter comes straight to the point ‘just as he who called is holy, so be holy in all you do’. [4] I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the biblical imperative to avoid compartmentalising Christianity and driving a wedge between doing and being, but I do need to remind myself. I find it interesting it is James who, I believe was the earthly brother of Jesus, warns us: ‘do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says’. [5]

‘Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God’ (Exodus 3:6). This is not very present day is it? We live in a day when the primary appeal to the world appears to ‘come and find a new best friend called Jesus and walk together with him’. I’m not suggesting that is an invalid basis for first encountering Jesus, but if we don’t get beyond this to recognise more of the character of God, we don’t end up following the Jesus revealed to us in our Bibles.

I’ve needed to face again, whilst I am influenced by and sometimes carried along by the cultural tide of post-modernity, so my feet don’t feel as if they’re on the ground, that God has called me to faithful obedience, or as Eugene Peterson put it, ‘a long obedience in the same direction’.

Mark Sayers makes me uncomfortable, because his words resonate so deeply within me when he writes about:

The disappearance of a mode of church engagement characterized by commitment, resilience, and sacrifice among many Western believers. In its place a new mode of disengaged Christian faith and church interaction is emerging. This new mode is characterized by sporadic engagement, passivity, commitment phobia, and a consumerist framework. [6]

When I boil this down to my ordinary life, pursuing the call of an extra-ordinary God, the daily time when I both listen and seek to discern my next steps, beyond listening, has become again the wellspring of my life. Covid-19 if nothing else has provided a wake-up call to the UK church: this is not a game; eternal issues are at stake; ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ [7] Daily, a step at a time, incremental change is what I’m committed to. If unforgiveness, bitterness, or any particular kind of sin is what I need to attend to, then that’s my next step.

When I think about my leadership of others, I have to recognise I’m limited in what I can achieve. I need to regularly work through in the presence of the Lord, my own issues (for which I need to take responsibility) and others’ issues, which are not my responsibility. However, sometimes I can shine a light, just a little ahead, to help another’s next step.

Evangelicals were criticised a lot when I became a Christian in the mid 1970’s, for making people feel guilty if they missed their daily quiet time and for not providing much guidance beyond ‘pray and read your bible’ to new Christians. I must admit, my experience wasn’t like that. But please take some time out to reflect on:

  1. What pathways do I/we encourage new Christians on today?
  2. What is the cultural framework new Christians are most influenced by today?
  3. How can I more clearly reveal the pathway of Jesus, ‘the way’?

Today I am called to be braver, truer and kinder than ever before. My conviction has never been greater: I can trust the word of God and I can trust the Holy Spirit. Both are true for me, so they must be true for others too.

I want to align my whole life with the purpose of God

Will I allow God to sift my heart, so the purposes of God are not eclipsed? ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ (Exodus 3:11) Where did Moses’ reluctance come from? Is he merely recognising who he thinks he is? Was it low self-esteem, a lack of personal ambition or a lack of leadership capacity? My hunch is probably a blend of all.

Contrast this day with the day he killed the Egyptian forty years before when outwardly he didn’t appear to be struggling with any of these (Exodus 2:11-14). As I ponder this, two conversations come to mind, this week: one where the person in front of me tried their best to convince me what a great job they were doing, which included a demolition of their predecessor. The other, with someone who appeared too keenly (in my opinion) aware of their own limitations but was determined to press on in pursuit of God’s purposes. To other people, what they see of me, tends to be the edited version I’m prepared to reveal. I know sometimes my weaknesses can sound like strengths and my humility can sound like arrogance. The truth is the Lord sees me, like Moses, for who I really am, plus who he’s called me to become. In his presence, I need to allow him to search my heart, because I find it too easy to allow either my strengths, or my weaknesses, to distract me from pursuing God’s best for my life, which turns out to be his purposes too.

I want to guard my heart, to make God’s purpose, my purpose

Will I recognise God has equipped me to follow him in my life? I am learning from Jesus to live my life as He would live my life if He were me. Plenty of people have said these words before me, but I don’t put them in quotation marks because I’ve made them my own. What has the pandemic revealed to me? Following Jesus is about following Him! It’s his way, not the Church way, I’m looking for.

‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it’ (Proverbs 4:23). I keep coming back to this one and I marry it up with what Paul says, in Philippians 4:7 when he says ‘the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’. This is how it actually works. Everything does either flow or get dammed up, depending on my heart before the Lord. It is the reality of our relationship with Jesus: it’s ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you’ versus if you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers’ (John 15:6-7)

If we fast forward through next forty years of Moses’ life, we see he comes up against two particular challenges time and time again: himself and the people of God. (oh no, this really is acting like a mirror). The reality is Moses’ journey was far from straightforward – ‘wandering though the wilderness was more than a metaphor! But then, when I stop and think about it, why wouldn’t it be? Here we have a human being, trying to lead other human beings.

What keeps Moses on track, or keeps bringing him back on track, is he keeps stepping into the presence of God. Moses does get drawn away by busyness, He does moan again and again about the people of God. He does get down, he does allow his reserves to practically run dry. But note this, it’s not so much the Lord has an answer for his every question, more his presence is the answer.

‘I will be with you’ (Exodus 3:12). God’s call is God’s enabling.

 

[1] Mark 1:17

[2] Romans 8:12-14

[3] 1 John 2:3

[4] 1 Peter 1:15

[5] James 1:22

[6] Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience.

[7] John 15:5

 

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Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to uncover what I’ve previously tried to bury?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.  Exodus 2:11-15

If you’ve read my previous episode, rooted in Moses and the burning bush, you’ll realise I’ve gone back in time. The journey back to the future however, has been essential in my life on occasions as it was for Moses and maybe yours? Although only one chapter, it represents forty years of Moses’ life. [1]

We’re all in this thing called ‘Ministry’, I may have been involved for many years, but then something pops up from the past, my past. What I do next is crucial. It never changes the past, but it has the potential to transform my future and also impact my present. What I’m always tempted to do is … anything, which avoids digging up what I thought had been buried, with time, with layer upon layer of avoidance, barriers of defensiveness, or just using the easiest excuse in my repertoire: ‘I’m too busy’!

Moses life falls neatly into three equal sections. He lived to be 120 years old (Dt. 34:7); the first 40 years of his life were spent in Egypt, learning first from his mother about God (12 years) and then learning from Pharaoh the skills needed to run Egypt. This particular episode in Exodus 2 takes place when he’s 40 years old. There’s a lot going on here, not least I imagine, in Moses heart and mind. Charles Swindoll called this episode, ‘God’s will, my way’ and that’s something I can identify with rather too much. [2] Moses then spends another 40 years working as a shepherd for Jethro in Midian. God needed to teach Moses patience and trust. It’s not until he’s 80 God calls him specifically to return to Egypt to free the people of God from slavery. The period in-between, (‘wandering in the wilderness’ and/or ‘en route to the Promised Land’) marks the third slice of 40 years.

One thing I do enjoy about reading Moses life is I feel relatively young, after all, I’m only 62! Other elements are scarier … I’d been leading churches for 14 years before I was 40 … before Moses had learnt patience, trust, or what Hudson Taylor spoke of: ‘God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply’ … before I’d learnt too many things to highlight here!

When the pandemic hit, in the aftermath of the panic to get online whatever we’d been doing offline, it was clear to me the virus was revealing, not creating, reality. Some of us thrived. Some of us love a crisis. Some of us simply went up a gear. Some of us were paralysed. Some of us dived for cover. I love the way someone put it early on, it’s as if ‘God has pulled back the curtain on our reality. (I wish I’d thought of that one first!) However, my question today almost a year on is not simply, how did I respond then, but also where am I now?

I remember a conversation with Ray Brown, who was Principal of Spurgeon’s College, the very first week I began studying there. He’d wanted to have a conversation with me about a mutual friend who’d left Baptist Ministry and almost split the church in the process. I came away thinking and committing myself to learning from other people’s mistakes, so I didn’t need to make them myself. Ray Brown taught me so much, not solely from his preaching and lectures, mainly from how he spoke and his posture. I’m still trying to learn, not simply from my own mistakes. I’d encourage everyone to do the same. The leader in the church down the road from you won’t get everything right first time, so remember that the next time you’re tempted to simply duplicate what appears to be working well for them. Use their experience as your experiment. It’s easier to notice anyone else’s reality, than our own, but don’t stop there, take a look. Look and learn.

Whilst there’s something to be gained from the above approach, it will never genuinely nurture your own growth in leadership unless you act on what you think they’ve got wrong (more often you think you could do better) yourself. After all, I can watch Liverpool playing football and, as I do frequently, shout at various players, deplore missed opportunities and goal scoring chances, but have never come anywhere near their performance levels myself, even when I thought I was a half-decent player. Leadership is a series of behaviours rather than a role for heroes or a place for spectators.

That idea is so fantastic. Stop talking about it and do it. Simon Sinek from Together is Better (with pictures!)

The virus has revealed the lack of fruitful evangelism, as well as the shallowness of our discipleship across the UK church. Our realities have become clearer than ever. When we’re leading a larger church our realities can become less obvious. We have, by definition, more people around than most churches (across the Baptist union for example, there’s only around 100 out of 1900 churches who have a formal membership over 180 people). What’s the biggest reality the virus has revealed to you?

It’s easy when we see our buildings full to overflowing on a Sunday, to make assumptions everyone who turns up is growing in their lives ‘in Christ’, pursuing the mission of God wherever they’re placed during the week and demonstrating the fruit of the spirit in all their relationships. But as the number of ‘views’ to our sermons and services on YouTube, or ‘likes’ on Facebook, have slid over the year, many of our assumptions have been shattered. It may be a harsh reality, but we’ve had to face it nonetheless: there’s more to someone growing in faith than turning up in a church building on a Sunday morning, even though they might express their worship with all their hearts and take notes during my sermon!

In my experience, the crowd and the filled or too few empty seats, were amongst my major obstacles in helping see the need for other people to come to know Jesus and receive his salvation. It was almost as if people’s eyes glazed over and a screen came down with the words ‘job done’. I used to work against the idea that the larger the church, the fewer proportion of new people come to faith. Sadly, although I’m yet to do enough research to be sure, it still appears to be the case. We may look like we’re growing in size, we may be accepting new members, but take a closer look at how many people you need per annum, to reproduce one new follower of Jesus.

You may or may not be aware of the wonderful children’s book ‘The Lost Words’ by Jackie Morris and Robert McFarlane. It’s addressing the fact  ‘there are words disappearing from children’s lives. These are the words of the natural world; Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn, all gone’. Today I infrequently hear, when listening to preaching, reading church mission/purpose/values statements, or general church communications some words, such as ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’. When I take a look at church websites or those of Christian organisations, I’d love to see the words such as ‘Jesus’, or ‘forgiveness’, or ‘obedience’ a lot more than I do. None of them, of course, politically correct. I’m up for finding language which communicates in any culture, but we need to ensure we’re communicating the same gospel, don’t we? It’s worth checking out your own communications, just to ensure you’ve not made too many assumptions.

What’s your leadership based on? I’m looking to help as many leaders as I can to take a step up, but I know we all need to take stock of what we’re standing on. Take a look, if you’ve not already done so, at John Maxwell, ‘5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximise Your Potential’, and Jim Collins, ‘Good to Great’, where he introduces his version of ‘Level 5 Leadership’. Whatever we think about the words and the language they use, my hunch is all of us know there’s another step we could/need to take, if we’re to fulfil our potential. Some of us may well have already discovered that’s not something, which happens automatically if you simply move church. One of the biggest lessons I’ve tried to take on board from John Maxwell is, ‘you can move up a level, but you never leave the previous one behind’. Once you’ve built relationships with people for example, and move to a higher level, do you abandon or neglect those relationships? As John Maxwell says, ‘you’d better not! If you do, you’ll find yourself back down at level 1 again’. I remember talking to one leader about their first day as the new Senior Pastor of one of our churches. They sat there in the church office, almost in awe of ‘having arrived’ and then wondered ‘what is there for me to do? There appeared to be a team with a team leader for everything I’d previously had to take responsibility for’. I won’t tell you what happened next, but to neglect anything on the basis we’ve moved beyond it, is akin to walking out on the lake near where I live, where there was ice which would hold your weight around the edge, but it didn’t go far across the deep.

Maybe, like me, you’ve often heard it suggested Baptist leaders are defined by what we stand against. The origins of such statements have neither a biblical nor historical basis (our Baptist origins arise out of obedience to God’s word and the recognition Jesus Christ is Lord). However, any leader who pays more attention to commenting on other leaders, whether they be spiritual, or political, than to their own leadership integrity and development, will risk contributing to a poor reputation.

Moses tried to do what his gut told him was God’s will and purpose, but in his own way. He tried to take the lead, but when we are called by God, our job is to follow. Jesus made no mistake in choosing his words: ‘Come, follow me’. Only this morning I had to pray about something: Lord, search my heart and show me where I need to repent, if I need to be re-aligned with you. I don’t want to do this, but I believe you are calling me. Lord, I don’t to be alone, but if I stand alone, I know you are with me.

Going back to the future, going back to look again. Returning to the scene, not so much ‘of the crime’, but the sin … to the place where I took my own way, diversion or short-cut has been painful. However, when I look ahead and I see Jesus out there in front, it’s the only way I can get going again, pursuing the mission of God in and through my life.

[1] Acts 7:23

[2] Moses. A Man of Selfless Dedication. Charles Swindoll.

 

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Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to pay attention to what I’ve previously avoided?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” Exodus 3:1-3

These are the verses which stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been dwelling in the Bible passages which relate the story of Moses for a few weeks and I’ve become captivated by the need to pay attention to whatever and wherever it is, where the presence of God is (just as in this episode of Moses’s life) ‘on fire’. That’s what I want to put my best energies into because as Moses recognised, ‘the bush does not burn up’.

When we entered the first lockdown of 2020 my primary question was ‘Lord, what is it I need to see and hear from you?’ Well, the Lord has spoken and revealed himself above and beyond my prayer on the global stage. It’s not been so loud and clear for everyone to hear and see, but as in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation: whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

The virus has revealed the reality. The reality of the nature of my/our relationship with the Lord either as churches, leadership teams or individual leaders. The curtain has been pulled back. From my perspective the church in the UK was deep in crisis before we’d heard of Covid-19, in terms of Christ-like leadership, authentic discipleship as well as fruitful mission. At the beginning of 2020, the beginning of a new decade, I wrote:

My sense, at the beginning of this decade, is we’re headed for some significant challenges. As Baptists our faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord will be tested in ways we have not seen for a long time. We face a crisis. This is not a warning we shall, but a recognition we are in crisis.

  • A crisis of leadership: we are not developing sufficient numbers of missional leaders to meet the need
  • A crisis of discipleship: the shallowness of our distinctiveness as followers of Jesus Christ is a deep concern
  • A crisis of mission: our confidence in the gospel is a reflection of our confidence in God and it doesn’t appear to be very high

To be perfectly honest, most people didn’t want to hear. I don’t recall anyone disputing any of my three areas of concern, but that’s not the same as hearing is it? That’s being polite, simply waiting for the next, hopefully more positive conversation. Those who did hear or could see clearly with their own eyes, were mostly similar to me, feeling paralysed, wondering what on earth could I do about it? But what about now? The pandemic has thrust us into a place where I tend to think the reality of all three are in plain sight, or are they?

At the turn of this year, I found myself reading the story of Moses again. Honestly, I felt I’d read/experienced enough about ‘wilderness’ during 2020, so I was either a sucker for punishment or desperate!

I also read alongside my Bible, ‘Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership. Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry’ by Ruth Haley Barton. She uses aspects of the life of Moses to illustrate what she describes as a book ‘about the soul – your soul, my soul and the soul of our leadership’. She quotes Gordon Cosby, who said, ‘when a local church loses its soul it begins to slip into mediocrity and is unable to give life’. [1]

The pandemic has revealed what deep down we already knew – there are too many mediocre churches out there. The deep, nagging concern is whether this is a symptom of too many mediocre Ministers, whether they be, like me ‘regional’, or ‘local’.

Looking closer at Moses has given me a growing list of questions. Top of the list is:  Am I willing to pay attention to what I’ve previously avoided?

I thought I’d already answered this one, but it turned out I’d not looked carefully or sufficiently enough. What was it I particularly needed to pay attention to? The One, True, Living, God grabbed Moses’s attention with a burning bush. With me, it was the state of the church. What is it for you?

Moses didn’t simply glance, he stopped and went over to examine what he had seen. Moses was willing to be changed by God and allow his life to be re-aligned by Him.

The ‘strange sight’, Moses was confronted with was outside his experience: how can a bush on fire not burn up? What’s your experience? My sense is too much of what I’m seeing in the church contains too much of the world. I’m all for being contextually relevant in terms of style and presentation, but the cultures of this world are often in conflict with the culture of the kingdom of God. Mark Sayers puts it like this:

‘Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit. Post-Christian culture attempts to retain the solace of faith, whilst gutting it of the costs, commitments, and restraints that the gospel places upon the individual will. Post-Christianity intuitively yearns for the justice and shalom of the kingdom, whilst defending the reign of the individual will. Post-Christianity is Christianity emptied of its content’. [2]

I’ve had to come face-to-face with something I’ve always known since I first encountered Jesus Christ, but had shoved closer to theory/theology, pushed away from practice/rootedness: without God, I am nothing. The big priority for my prayers right now is Lord without you, we’re done for. What will still be standing after the shaking? We are being shaken and my sense is the Lord is in the shaking and looking for our response. We have shifted authority to a gospel of self, in which the individual seeks to power their own development and salvation. That fits the government’s agenda, but it’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What about you? When God pressed the pause button what did you do?

No time to stop and think? It felt like that was the response I was being given by most leaders I talked with during the first phase, following the pandemic hitting our shores. Many of us felt everyone was looking to us to lead them through the crisis. And what do we do in that situation? We perform. Generally speaking, we’re all able to perform under pressure. I used to smile (only inwardly) when listening to a colleague leading a church who was ‘struggling with a couple whose marriage is in crisis’. What I wanted to say was ‘only one! That sounds more like you’re leading a holiday camp’! What if it is just that, however, a performance without substance?

During our experience of the pandemic here in the UK, I’ve seen many wonderful examples of heroic servanthood and I don’t want to ignore the green shoots of the kingdom I see springing up in the most unlikely of places. Yet I also see a handing over of God’s agenda into the hands of the government, the NHS, or social services.

The big themes of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic have been: the environment (remember March-April when people heard birdsong, which had always been around, again?); mental wellbeing (I’m all for it, yet ‘the peace of Christ, which passes all human understanding’ has the biggest impact on anyone’s life); human relationships (isolation, touch, proximity, support, an endless list of news and TV hours have been devoted to this). These are all vitally important, don’t get me wrong; they are potential signposts towards the kingdom of God, but they are not the kingdom itself. The biggest challenge of the pandemic remains the reality of death. For the first and only time in our lifetimes a subject, which the church of Jesus Christ has the answer to, has been the top item of news for almost a year now. It’s churches who don’t burn up, in-spite of everything, which reveal the presence of God. It’s leaders, like you, who create the culture which makes churches like that.

“Leaders create culture. Culture drives behaviour. Behaviour produces results.” (Edgar Schein). Edgar Schein is an expert in organisational management, but Damien Hughes, the Sports Psychologist who wrote The Barcelona Way about the winning culture of Barcelona Football Club, says the same thing. Damien Hughes talks about a ‘commitment culture’ being the essence of Barca’s success and ‘commitment’ is a word we’re danger of losing from the UK church. Whatever else disciples of Jesus are however, they are committed to pursuing him, whatever.

I see the need for the renewal of the Church, but I need to be willing to offer myself, wholly and sacrificially. Pay attention! Unless I’m aligned with the purposes of God, I cannot continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God and anticipate fruitful responses, which look like the life of Jesus. Jesus didn’t do or say anything which he wasn’t wanting to see reproduced in the life of the person in front of him.

 

[1] Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton, p13.

[2] Disappearing Church: From Cultural relevance to Gospel Resilience’, Mark Sayers, p15.

 

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A Journey in Missional Leadership: What are they hearing?

This post by Joth Hunt was originally published at Seventy Two

As I conclude my reflections over the past 25 years of missional leadership, I want to finally focus on a subject that I have become more and more convinced is essential in our desire to be Church with mission at its heart. It is the subject of communication. When I worked with Viz-A-Viz we held close to our strapline “Relevant communication of the gospel to people today.” Much of our emphasis was on the word ‘relevant’ but most of our energy went into ‘communication’. In a fast-moving world, that has been speeded up by COVID, growing and developing good communication I believe is vital. I was recently in a Zoom conference and one of the speakers, Laura Treneer, the previous Chief Executive Officer of CPO and now Managing Director of Frank Analysis Ltd. said these words, “Marketing is communication and communication is mission.” I think she has a point.

Every church is communicating something. When I arrived at Harlow Baptist Church in 2001 the church had been through a torrid decade. As I began to listen to the community around the church the general impression was that the church had closed. It hadn’t, but the silence and lack of activity from the church was communicating that nothing was happening. A message was still being heard, be it a wrong one!

Communication is happening regardless so we should stop to ask some key questions; What is our message? What is our method? How are we communicating? Is anyone listening and if so, what are they hearing? These, I believe, are all essential questions for the missional leader. I want to look at each of these but at that same time recognising the importance that good communication holds all these aspects together. 

What are we communicating?

In a world of a myriad messages, we cannot overlook the importance of the content that we are seeking to portray. The disciples are clearly called to be Jesus’ witnesses to the world and will be called upon to declare the truths of the Kingdom of God[1]. Content is central to the message.

My son is a fan of a group of YouTubers called ‘The Sidemen’. They have 10.5 million subscribers to their YouTube channel, but they don’t have a message. People watch them for their entertainment value that focuses around trivia. In this multi, self-made, self-promoting, media world, there is a real danger of focusing on style, image and trivia to the point of losing content and ultimately truth. The gospel is true and it’s good news. It is a message that cannot be lost, and I believe we need to continually work hard at presenting it well.

How are we communicating?

If we focus just on the ‘what’ of the message the danger is that our communication becomes outdated, irrelevant and unheard. The ‘how?’ is just as important as the ‘what?’.

The church over many decades has generally lent towards two main forms of communication: the spoken word, (mainly through sermons) and the written word, (through books and articles). Please don’t miss understand me, I believe that both sermons and books still have a key role within our faith, but when it comes to our culture today the methods of communication are now many. If we are going to be serious about mission, we need to radically rethink and engage with the ‘how’ of communication and appreciate that digital communication in its many forms is becoming predominant.

One of the few positives that we can take out of this year of COVID is that it has shaken up the Church’s default for communication. We have had to engage with new technology and rethink how the good old news of the Gospel can be communicated well today. My personal view is that this rethinking is only just beginning. Most of us have had a good attempt at embracing new technology. It hasn’t been easy but it’s a journey I believe we must embrace.

How is the message presented?

I’ve also learnt over the years that the ‘how of communication’ must also engage with the issue of quality. I remember being at a conference many years ago where J.John was the guest speaker. He said a lot about evangelism, but one phrase has always stuck in my mind.  He was instructing people about how to invite people to an evangelistic event. He emphasised that the invitation should be offered not in any old envelope but in a “nice envelope”! His point was, that if we have a quality message, we should work hard on the quality of how it’s presented.

I learnt more about this when I was at Viz-A-Viz. We worked tirelessly with excellent specialists in their field of communication such as design, sound, drama, schools work, video production and music to produce quality material that, in itself, indicated that the message was of precious value. As a pastor, of both a small under-resourced church and then of one with great resources, I strived to encourage each church to offer the very best communication possible. If we care about the good news of Jesus the quality of how the message is communicated must say something of how important that good news is to us.

Who is communicating?

If I’m honest, one of the things that has held back my effectiveness in proclaiming the gospel has been my fear of ‘new’ media. I have been slow to embrace social media, arguably for good reasons, and often slow to leave the comfort zone of the ‘old forms of communication’ that I know so well. I believe I’m on a continued journey of learning but a key part of this has been finding people who have this new skill set and calling from God.

As we journey into this new ‘multi-media’ era I believe God is raising up a new generation of designers, video creators, writers, musicians, artists, YouTubers and social-media experts, to guide the Church in its missional communication. I believe that part of the missional leader’s task is to go and find these people and release them into God’s calling. I am finding that they don’t look like your traditional communicator. They are geeks, IT specialists, video creators, artists, poets and social-media influencers but they are a special and essential gift to the Church.  

What is the big message?

If you went onto the streets of your town and asked people what they thought the message of the Church was I wonder what they would say. My expectation would be that for many there isn’t a message or that the message is one of irrelevance or even decline. I believe that missional leaders need to be considering the big message that people are hearing about the Church and the gospel and work hard at making sure this message is true, alive and transforms the life of the listener.

After several years at Eastleigh and working hard at seeking to support and connect with our local community I was delighted when I heard about a Facebook posting from a non-church attender, commenting that Eastleigh Baptist Church was a church that cared about the local community. It was a moment when I was reminded that people do gradually begin to hear the bigger message.

I am beginning to see missional leaders like painters who are painting a huge picture but often with tiny paint strokes. The big picture can’t be changed overnight but we do need to realise that the small messages within the life of a missional church are essential. A quality leaflet through the door, the conversation on the street with a Street Pastor, the welcome at a Foodbank, the availability of a conversation in a coffee shop are all tiny actions of mission that are gradually adding to and revealing the big picture of God’s truth. We should never devalue the small things of mission because without these acts of grace the larger picture of salvation will never be seen, but at the same time we must keep our eyes on the whole picture and recognise where more paint, texture, tone and colour are needed. 

What is being heard? 

The best communication is two-way. A message is offered, received and then reciprocated with some kind of feedback. Most miscommunication takes place when there is no feedback. The Church is often so busy talking that it doesn’t take time to listen to those it’s seeking to converse with. Did it make sense? What did you hear? How do you respond to the message? What questions do you have? What don’t you agree with? These are all helpful feedback questions, which will inform our communication into the future. Most modern-day medias offer opportunity for comment and feedback. These, I believe, should be embraced. No one wants to hear negative feedback but often this can be the most helpful feedback we will ever receive. It gives us an opportunity to review, learn, grow and re-communicate.

Doug was a ‘breath of fresh air’ when he arrived at Harlow Baptist Church. He was a new Christian, but he would tell me honestly what he had and hadn’t heard, whether he had understood and whether he agreed. At first it was daunting but gradually I came to embrace and value his feedback. It informed me, taught me and honed my communication and I believe I now communicate better because of him. The missional leader will seek, embrace and delight in feedback because two-way conversation is always more effective that one-way presentation.

Is our message authentic?

Finally, but of most importantly, in a world of many many messages, we must ask ourselves ‘what is it about the Christian message that will resonate the longest?’. My answer is its authenticity and truth! I’m not convinced that just being on social media or having a YouTube account is the full answer, although these helpful tools may play their role. What I am convinced of is that if we remain authentic and don’t get caught up in the danger of becoming image focused, the great picture of the gospel can be painted again for this generation.

This means that our lives and words must be aligned to the truth of the gospel. We must appreciate that communication is more than words, spoken and written. It is also about us. Our lives, our love, our compassion, our faith and our willingness to share authentically what we know about Jesus.

 

Thank you, for taking time to read and reflect on these articles. I hope and pray that something of my journey in missional leadership might have helped to inform and encourage you on your own journey.

This is article 8 of 8. You can view the whole series here.

[1] Acts 1v8 & John 15v26-16v15

 

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Further, Faster … Or Fewer, Deeper?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

My life during this pandemic has been like living on a pendulum. Challenges and opportunities, losses and gains, sorrows and joys. It’s neither one thing nor the other for long. I know I’m not alone, but hopefully the balance for you is tipping in the right direction.

One thing I either regret not having so much of or am glad it’s hardly present varies from day to day and that is the amount of time I spend in the car on my own. Since March I don’t miss the average of around twelve hours a week spent driving from person to person or team to team. However, I do miss the oasis of time it provided; to think, pray and listen to music and podcasts. It’s the lost listening time I’m yet to adequately find an answer to. One of my favourite podcasts is the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast. The tagline he uses is ‘conversations to help you go further, faster’. That’s me, I want to go further, faster. However, the lessons I’m learning from following Jesus right now are more akin to ‘fewer, deeper’. My reflection, from numerous recent conversations with other Christian leaders is we’re so addicted to ‘further, faster’, we don’t know how to step off that particular treadmill.

The virus has pulled the rug from underneath us, so if our leadership has been too reliant on people feeding into our need to be affirmed in our strengths (which have often revolved around up-front-performance in preaching & one-to-one ‘likes’ from pastoral care), then we’ll be questioning why we are here leading a church. The virus has been challenging where our personal identity and security really lie, or is our problem the virus is revealing our realities?

For me, when circumstances begin to reveal my weaknesses to the point they start pricking at my awareness bubble, I invest even more energy into that, which is becoming more and more obvious, is not working. A simple example, which has acted like a mirror for me is my MacBook. For some reason my storage capacity has been getting less and less. I’ve deleted as many things as I can, but it seems as though data breeds like a virus on my laptop, so no sooner do I delete files, they appear to breed, until I get the dreaded message ‘you do not have enough memory to remain online, Outlook is shutting down’. Even I was shocked to just check my diary – it was on May 4th, no less than six months ago, I was advised by a guy from AppleCare, to get a complete, ‘clean re-install’. I said then I’d do it ‘next week’. It seemed OK next week, so I didn’t bother, pretending the problem had gone away.

During this same period, I’ve listened to the near euphoric accounts of the number of views Ministers have been notching up from their streaming of Sunday services. In many situations, although not all, euphoria has been replaced by realism, realism has been replaced by disappointment and now disappointment is being challenged by anxiety: ‘what if no one comes back’?

My question to anyone who’s willing to listen is the same I ask myself: where do I need to go deeper, even if that means impacting fewer?

In terms of my personal leadership, that’s meant intentionally cutting hours, reducing appointments, risking frustration from other people. In terms of challenging others, I’ve seen relief and release, almost as if people needed permission from someone else.

For church leaders the out-workings of such conversations has revolved around small groups. It’s been hard to penetrate the defence mechanisms many of us have been building for many years. We’ve invested a lot in gaining real ‘likes’, collected on the door after preaching on Sunday mornings or visiting over a cup of tea on a Thursday afternoon. It’s hard breaking the co-dependency between many a congregation and their Minister. There’s a powerful, collusive, bond between a congregation shaped by a consumerist culture and a Minister who’s keen to serve (and please?).

Nurturing small groups where we receive little feedback, equipping people to facilitate others, which don’t give us any credit, investing in other leaders, which is more likely to profile them, are all skills we weren’t trained for, or anticipated needing. But during the Covid-19 season, need them we do and so does the church.

As many people have commented, it was as if God pressed the ‘pause’ button back in March. I believe he’s now asking us to do what we can do: press ‘re-set’. If we truly believe we are called to make disciples, then maybe we will take time to slow down and observe how Jesus went about it. Mark 3 is a graphic reminder how Jesus more typically withdrew from the ‘crowd’ and opted to invest his best time and energy in twelve people through whom he changed the world.

 

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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!”.

 

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A Journey in Missional Leadership: Finding the Best Road Map

This post by Joth Hunt was originally published at Seventy Two

I was due to write this article back in April of this year but then we were in lockdown. All of a sudden what I thought I was going to share was thrown up in the air and I was asking myself, “who would even read it in the unique circumstances that we now find ourselves in?” It has taken me six months to feel that this next article was worth writing and hopefully worth reading.

My main problem was I wanted to write about the importance of strategy in mission but COVID-19 seemed to throw this in the air and any strategy we had known or that made sense was suddenly thrown in the bin. Yet over this period I have relearnt that it is not so much that we need a strategy but more that we need strategic thinking. There are moments in the life of the church when everything does get thrown into the air. It is in these moments that we should not stick rigidly to the path we have known but instead find the new path that now makes sense.

Back at the beginning of this year I was driving back from a SCBA trustees meeting only to discover that the A34 had been closed. Believing that this couldn’t apply to me I ignored the warning signs and just headed on to where I was certain I would be able to take my normal journey. When arriving at the A34 I discovered that the warnings had been correct! I had to turn around and head back the way I had come. You will have thought I would have learnt a valuable lesson but instead I decided to ignore the diversions signs and headed off in another direction convinced that I could somehow find my normal route. Eventually after an extra 10 minutes of driving through tiny country roads in the dark I arrived right back where I started! It was time to take a new route and follow the diversion before I ran out fuel!

I have found that the word strategy is over-used and highly misunderstood or misinterpreted. In fact it only appears in the Bible once in Isaiah 8v10 (NIV) and the vast majority of translations use the word ‘plans’ or ‘courses’.  ‘Strategic thinking’ is never listed as one of the gifts of the Spirit we find in the Bible. So you could ask, “Is it Biblical?” Yet it seems to me that there are plenty of Godly examples of good strategic leadership[1] and the early church was not bereft of acting strategically. I want to suggest, therefore, that it is very much is an essential a tool of the Spirit to guide us in our missional leadership.

Let me suggest five characteristics of the gift of strategic thinking that I believe are of great value to the Kingdom of God.

  1. Strategic thinking first seeks God’s wisdom

Finding the right path/strategy must always start in prayer. Psalm 119v105 encourages us to look to him who is a “lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” The path or strategy that we seek must be His and therefore we must start patiently on our knees asking for His wisdom and His insight. He ultimately is our navigator. Personally, I would encourage sharing this with others. Discernment shared together is so much stronger than discernment alone.

  1. Strategic thinking values logic

Logic doesn’t sound very spiritual. I have noticed over the years that sometimes spiritual discernment ignores all logic. Yet, if God created a rational world we would be foolish to ignore that which makes sense. Many of the sayings in Proverbs are common sense logical statements and Jesus himself encourages rational thinking[2].

In terms of mission we need to ask the question, “What makes sense?”. By asking this question honestly of an activity, initiative or project I have discovered that sometimes the answer is “No, it doesn’t!” The missional team or leader must have the courage to accept that the answer might be ‘no’.

On one occasion at Eastleigh we invited a number of people to join a faith questioning group. We set the date and time with the expectation that this would work for all involved. We discovered that that was not the case. Not all could make a Thursday evening, not everyone was ready for the group dynamic and everyone had a different set of questions. Logic suggested that instead of running a group we should offer each individual bespoke opportunity that fitted their time, with people they could relate to and in an environment where they could ask their unique questions. It made sense to make the change.

  1. Strategic thinking recognises when it is time to change

I have found in the business of church life we rarely stop to ask the question, “Are we on the best path?” We often plough on regardlessly hoping that the route we have always taken is still the best route. The problem with this mentality is that the landscape has changed and society has moved on. People are asking new questions and right now COVID is having its own cultural impact. A different strategy is required and we need to be brave enough to embrace the change and to be willing to take a risk at finding a new way. Excellent strategic thinking is when a team realises that now is the time to find a new route.

The gift of strategy is that it recognises when something just isn’t working and that change is needed. This is invaluable in our mission today.

  1. Strategic thinking looks for the best routes

Over the years I have enjoyed playing the game Risk many times but I fear playing against my brother-in-law who seems to have the gift of winning! At the point it looks like he might lose he seems to find another way to win. He is always prepared to change his plan and to find a better way.

We need people in our churches who recognise when change is needed but who also are able to discern a better path for the present. COVID has taught us this. When everything is thrown into the air and everyone around us is panicking because the old norm has gone, it is the strategists that often step forward with possible new ways forward. I find that strategists are optimists and creative and prepared to think in new ways. They don’t give up but instead keep searching for the better way. They are risk-takers who are trying to work out which paths are the best paths.

In these times of COVID asking the question, “What is the best route now?” is an important missional strategic question. I’ve been amazed by how many churches have not strategically considered what the new missional path during COVID might look like. Many have focussed too much on how to do church and to keep pastorally connected to existing members. Many churches have continued to exist behind even tighter closed ‘virtual’ doors. Let’s face it, if you are just doing ‘Zoom’ Church you are closed to the world. At a time when so many people are asking deep questions about meaning and purpose now seems to be a time to open up the experience and message of the Church to the wider community. Credit to those churches who have managed to find new ways of engaging with their community or opening up a virtual experience of worship and hearing from God for both their members and the onlookers.

  1. Strategic thinking connects the route together

Lastly, but far from least, a strategic thinking does not just focus on the destination but on the journey. If you don’t have a road map (or SatNav) you probably won’t arrive at where you hoped to go. The road map for a missional church is crucial but so is connecting up the various stages.

I’ve always enjoyed doing mazes. I’ve even got a maze app own my phone. There are three ways of completing a maze; you can start at the beginning, you can work backward from the end, or if you are really clever you can start from both ends and meet in the middle. A strategic thinker considers the steps needed to be taken from both ends in mission. From where the church begins and from where the not-yet-follower of Jesus starts. From the church perspective work must be done to prepare people to go on a journey in order to meet them as they seek to discover Jesus. But great consideration must be made to understand the journey required for those who are seeking. From the seekers perspective we need to consider carefully what the paths are that help someone come to faith today. If you don’t know, go and ask someone who has recently come to faith.

I was speaking to one of our pioneers yesterday and she told me that a person she has met recently, who has no faith, had requested to come to their “Outdoor Church”. Apparently she admitted that she wasn’t religious but just “loved hanging out with you guys”. This is not just accidental. It is recognising the importance of relationship and belonging as important initial steps in strategically outreach in our times.

Personally, I believe that strategic praying, thinking, conversation and implementation is at the centre of good missional leadership. I think this is what Paul is hinting at in 1 Corinthians 9v19-23, when he says that to reach the Jews he became a Jew; to reach those under the law he places himself under the law; to reach those not under the law he became like those not under the law; to reach the weak he became weak; so that “by all possible means” he might save some. This sounds like strategic thinking to me!

 

[1] Noah’s Ark, Joseph’s management of the famine, The Exodus, Joshua, Gideon, King David, Solomon’s temple, Proverbs, Daniel, Nehemiah, Jesus’ public ministry, Paul’s missionary journeys etc…

[2] Matt 6v19-21, 7v9-12, 24-27; Luke 14v28-33, John 11v9-10

 

This is article 7 of 8. You can view the whole series here.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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