Month: April 2011

leadership and the sovereignty of God — illustrated

I’m aware that the suggestion I made in my last past — Christian leadership shouldn’t be played off against prayerful trust in God’s sovereign work — lacked specificity on the positive side.

I’ve had a bunch of stuff to say about distinctively Christian leadership before. None of which I mean to set aside.

But I thought it’d be worth illustrating what I mean when I suggest that leadership shouldn’t be played off against God’s sovereignty.

Let me draw an example from my own experience:

I was once involved in leadership in a congregation that met in a fairly traditional, ‘churchy’ building.

In my zeal to see my fairly non-traditional friends be able to engage, I put to the congregation a proposal that we move out of the ‘churchy’ space into the more bland and generic hall.*

To prepare the ground, I prayed and ‘preached up’ what I understood to be the biblical doctrine of church — that it’s more about people than place, that it’s about building each other up and being accessible to the outsider, etc.

Then a congregational meeting was called. I outlined my proposal and the reasons for it. People asked some questions. We put it to a vote…

My proposal was voted down. Resoundingly.

I walked away reeling: ‘How could these people not want what I wanted for my friends?’.

And I began entertaining dark thoughts in which I was cast as one of Israel’s much-misunderstood prophets — speaking truth out of season only to fall on deaf ears.

Was this an issue of people’s hardness of heart? Did they prefer their own comfort in familiar surroundings to active engagement in God’s mission in which we put the outsider first? Was this primarily a spiritual issue?

Or did it have more to do with my failure to hear the congregation’s concerns? My failure to consult widely enough? My attempt to impose my preferences under the veil of ‘heeding biblical truth’? Was this primarily a leadership issue?

In God’s kindness, I saved by a trusted, wiser friend who took the time to help me process what had happened.

She affirmed my heart for my friends. And she helped me see that it may not have been entirely spiritual hardness that fuelled the congregation’s resistance to my proposal.

In the end, I had to pray and study the Scriptures more diligently. At the same time, I could have done with a bit more relational wisdom and experience with leadership and change management.

It was a matter of both trusting God’s sovereignty and having my head screwed on better as a leader. Both/and. Not either/or.

*I doubt I would propose a course of action like this now.
On the one hand, my proposal reflected a fairly disembodied, Platonic understanding of church. Yes, church is primarily about the people. But no, the space in which we meet — which amount to a kind of ‘home’ for our spiritual family — is not insignificant.
Aesthetics matter. That’s part of what it means to be embodied creatures.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I’d ever asked my friends if they’d have been put off by a ‘churchy’ building. They could just as easily have been put off by meeting in a space that didn’t match any of their expectations about church: ‘Is this legit? Who are these people? And what’s with the uncomfortable plastic chairs?’
Either way, I’m not longer convinced guessing about what would or wouldn’t put barriers in my friends’ way is the wisest approach.

leadership and the sovereignty of God

There’s a fairly common assumption doing the rounds about leadership — and it’s one I’d like to challenge.

The assumption is that leader’s can either look to God to judge their work or they can judge their work by its visible effectiveness, success and approval here and now.

It’s kind of a motherhood and apple pie sentiment.

We all know we can be tempted to seek the praise of people rather than God. And that that’s a bad thing.

And it’s right to recognise the clear and present danger of succumbing to this temptation. It’s not just a vague threat lurking ‘out there’ — something ‘other churches’ and ‘other leaders’ might suffer from (but from which we’re insulated).

But I’m increasingly uncomfortable with playing off trusting in the sovereign God and effectively exercising (or developing) leadership gifts.

My main problem is that once we start doing this, we can let ourselves off the hook too easily. Was that church event poorly attended? People’s priorities must be in the wrong place. Did that sermon fail to hit home? The congregation must be particularly hard hearted.

What’s more, we wouldn’t play prayer off against God’s sovereignty. Or evangelism.

In each of these cases, God retains the initiative. He remains sovereign. Any effectiveness, fruitfulness or growth gets chalked up to him.

Yet he still wants us to pray. And he provides us many opportunities to promote the gospel — speaking of Jesus, pointing people to him, giving them a taste of his life-transforming grace and power.

What’s more, this isn’t just about making us feel better — so we feel like we’re involved or like we enjoy a relationship with the Creator and Ruler of all. Our involvement and relationship is real.

In the case of prayer, for example, God has appointed our prayers as ‘means of appropriating the blessings that are ours in Christ Jesus’ (D. A. Carson, A Call To Spiritual Reformation, page 99).

That’s why Paul can say things like “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Philippians 1.19).

And it’s the much same with evangelism. So why not with leadership too?

remembering war in the light of Easter

I struggle to know how to feel about war — and public rememberances of war like Anzac Day.

I’m not quite a pacifist. But I lean pretty strongly in that direction.

I find some of the more overdrawn comparisons between Christ’s sacrifice and those of our diggers hard to take.

There’s something to them of course (Loren does a good job highlighting some of the similarities without making too much of them). And yet…

I was especially worried about the proximity of Anzac Day to Good Friday this year. But then something really interesting happened — Easter got in the way.

Although the message of Christ’s sacrifice rightfully looms large at this time of year, Easter itself is about the resurrection. It’s about God’s triumphant “Yes!” to life and peace (rather than death and violence).

To me, this sheds light from at least two different angles on the way we remember war.

First, it casts into sharp relief the fact that death is not God’s intention for his world. Now — and even more so in the new creation Christ’s resurrection guarantees — war doesn’t fit.

Second, it changes how we understand death itself.

In the light of Easter, we see that death may be the last enemy to be defeated, but it is not the greatest enemy. There are things worse than death.

And so, doing everything we can to avoid death may evidence its own pathology — and plunge us straight into some of those things (making us complicit with evil, for example, if we fail to stand against it).

I may be wrong. But, taken together, these two points at least give a foot in the door to a way of remembering war that mourns its tragedy at the same time as it admits that there may have been good reasons to fight…

Christ is risen!

The reality which is the resurrection cannot simply be “known” from within the old world of decay and denial, of tyrants and torture, of disobedience and death. But that’s the point. The resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world, though it is that as well; it is the defining, central event of the new creation, the world which is being born with Jesus.

— N. T. Wright, ‘Can We Believe In The Resurrection?’

Chris is risen!

He is risen indeed.

without murmuring and arguing

I was reading Philippians 2.12-18 yesterday and noticed something really interesting — a treasure hidden in plain sight in a very familiar passage.

You probably know how it starts:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Verses 12-13)

But what’s fascinating is what comes next. How does Paul immediately apply this to work with the grain of what God’s doing in the Philippians?

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without belmish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. (Verses 14-15)

Those given to mirror reading may detect a problem with murmuring and arguing lurking behind this application. And that may well be true.

But I wonder if Paul has put his finger on something more universal here.

To begin with, he seems to think that doing ‘all things without murmuring and arguing’ will mark out Christians from pretty much everyone else.

And he’s probably also drawing from the well of Israel’s historical experience, reflecting on how even those God had just rescued from Egypt fell to murmuring and arguing without much delay.

On top of this, he may possibly be channelling his experience as a Christian leader.

You see, casting vision, promoting creative dissatisfaction — all that leadership stuff — makes it all too easy to become a murmurer and complainer. The kind of ‘visionary dreamer’ Bonhoeffer talks about, who’s always accusing the brothers and sisters.

The remedy isn’t to give up dreaming dreams or imagining how things don’t necessarily have to be the way they are.

The remedy is to follow Paul’s advice: trust God to be at work, and fall into line with what he’s doing — that is, to pray (entrusting it to God) and to knuckle down (taking seriously our responsibility under God).

whose vision is it anyway?

I want to use this week to try to process some leadership dilemmas I have faced or am currently facing. (It’s not very liturgical for the week leading up to Easter, I know — I might try to correct that on the weekend.)

Gary Willis defines leadership as ‘mobilizing others toward a goal shared by the leader and the followers’ (Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders).

According to most, a big part of this has to do with setting vision. As far as I can tell, there are two parts to this:

  1. Articulating the goal towards which people (and resources) will be mobilised.
  2. And seeking to ensure that the goal is in fact shared — reflecting the dreams and aspirations of both leader and followers.

The challenge I’m facing is how to marry 1 and 2.

You see, when I go to do 1, I find myself reaching instinctively for inclusive language — usually in the first person plural: ‘Our vision is…’, etc.

But because I’m aware that job 2 needs doing (and may well be incomplete), I don’t want to claim too much. So I try to soften it — adding verbal hesitations like ‘I guess’, ‘I suppose’, ‘kind of’.

I think I may have picked up this habit here — on the blog, where softening and hesitating is the name of the game.

Wherever I picked it up, the outcome is not good.

So I’m going to try a new strategy:

I’m going to start articulating vision using ‘I’ statements. I’m going to own it personally, ditch any hesitation, and let people make up their own minds about whether or not they share the vision and want to jump on board.

Sound counter-intuitive? Sure. But I reckon that’s what you’re doing when you articulate vision anyway — testing the waters, seeing whether anyone bites.

What’s more, it’s probably healthier to give people space to ask themselves if they share the vision, rather wrapping talk about ‘our vision’ in so much fluff that no-one knows what they’re signing up for.

something preachers always knew

The latest post over at Copyblogger confirms something preachers always knew:

Repetition is ‘a linguistically valid way of increasing the effectiveness of a message’.

The key example is “free gift”.

Apparently, split-testing indicates that “free gift” outperforms “gift” — even though a gift is free by definition.

This isn’t just about emphasis.

Where a technically redundant combination of words (“free gift”, “PIN number”, etc) works better than the more streamlined version, ‘those words become necessary, and perhaps even essential, to the success of a message’.

Worth remembering for those of us who are in to communicating — and communicating about the “free gift” of God’s grace in particular!

we need to work on the context as well as the content of our evangelism

Earlier this week Tim Chester posted an excellent little snippet from a new book, Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing To Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well by Randy Newman.

It’s definitely worth reading in full. But here’s the punchline (it doesn’t spoil the joke):

We sometimes present our gospel-masterpiece in a context that belies our message. We speak of measureless love, unmerited grace, and infinite goodness but our tone of voice, demeanour, and lifestyles convey the exact opposite. We want people to quiet their hearts so they can hear the music of the gospel, but we’re performing in a context of judgmentalism. We want them to feel loved by God, but they feel unloved by us. We want them to be amazed by grace, but they can’t get past the smell of condemnation.

At the La Trobe University Christian Union, we’ve been praying a prayer along these lines this year.

We’ve been asking God to move us to love and serve the campus and its people. We understand that this means sharing our lives with people as well as the good news about Jesus — the one who transforms our lives and relationships.

It’s such a privilege. And it’s been an absolute joy to watch as some people who are asking questions and exploring Christianity get a taste of the power of Jesus through getting to know us and hanging around our community.

But it’s also a huge challenge. Because if our lives matter this much, then (as Randy Newman puts it) “we need to work on the context as well as the content of our evangelism”.

living as if the dead are not raised

If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15.32b)

I find it ridiculously easy for my horizons to shrink. The present — its successes or its challenges — tends to fill my vision and occupies me thoroughly. (I guess it’s the dark side of my very minor super power: my freakish ability to focus.)

It takes a lot to shock me, make me lift up my head and look around — looking out in particular to the eschatological horizon: our hope in Christ that death isn’t the end, that the dead will be raised.

But, as far as Paul is concerned, this kind of thing guts Christianity.

As Tim Chester puts it, “Without eschatology we are left with a limp Christian existentialism in which immediate experience is everything” (‘The Kingdom of God is at Hand: Eschatology and Mission’, page 7).

And lest we be tempted to shrug and say, “Yeah, yeah — that’s the prosperity gospel (which, of course, none of us buy into)”, Chester lays out three common varieties of this ‘limp Christian existentialism’:

  1. Charismatic existentialism — emphasising emotional highs, healing, etc.
  2. Conservative existentialism — emphasising freedom from guilt, a reassuring orthodoxy (in which I’m sure I’m right).
  3. Pietistic existentialism — emphasising God’s leading and peace in the heart.

Ouch! No-one gets out of that one unscathed.

The problem isn’t with any of the things we might emphasise. It’s with our horizons shrinking to the point where these things fill them instead of ultimate realities — like the dead being raised…

people don’t moan unless they own

A Christian leader I once worked with was fond of saying, ‘People don’t moan unless they own’.

I guess it was his way of highlighting the reality that grumbling and complaining aren’t necessarily the opposite of ‘buy in’. They could actually be indicators of it!

So if a group of people you’re part of start vocalising dissatisfaction about how they’re pursuing their shared goals (or questioning what those goals should be), it doesn’t automatically mean they want to give up. In fact, it may speak volumes about how safe they feel to be able to articulate their dissatisfaction in the first place.

Some writers on leadership would call this evidence of an ‘adaptive challenge’.

An ‘adaptive’ challenge, according to Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky — the author’s of ‘Managing Yourself: A Survival Guide for Leaders’ (Harvard Business Review, June 2002) — is one that can’t be fixed with a purely technical solution.

Think of a car that needs to be repaired over and over again because of the way it’s being driven (rather than a design fault). Tackling this problem is an adaptive challenge — it requires changes that run to the springs of human behaviour: our values, motives, and affections.

I find this all massively liberating as well as thoroughly challenging.

It’s liberating because until now I think I’ve been tempted to view low-level, repeated complaining as something to be overcome.

I’m not saying that there’s nothing that needs to be done about whatever people might be moaning about. What I am saying is that the moaning itself need not be discouraging.

What’s challenging is that while it may offer a brilliant diagnosis (I was already inclined to find ‘systems’ approaches like this one thoroughly compelling), knowing how to apply it is a whole different thing — something, no doubt, for a future blog post!