the Holy Spirit is my strategy?

It’s time to turn a corner and leave behind my recent reflections on ministry, strategy, and time management.

This is partly because I’ve run out of puff (having felt the need to process some stuff after a stupidly frantic February and March). And it’s partly because I’ve now got to put my head down and get stuck into preparing for our campus group’s mid year camp, Summit.

We’re tackling the topic of the Holy Spirit this year.

I’m really excited about this. Largely because one of my tasks is to wrap my head around the theology of Edward Irving, a ‘pentecostal’ theologian from 70 years before Pentecostalism hit the world-wide church scene.

So to mark this change of direction, I want to quote from Tom Wright’s recent appreciation of Rowan Williams (originally published in the Times and made available in abridged form at Fulcrum):

Rowan’s style has been private and unstrategic. Once, questioned about strategy, he responded crossly, “I believe in the Holy Spirit!”, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the Spririt might work through long-term planning.

My hope is that the Christian Union at La Trobe will emerge from a five-day soaking in what the Bible says about God the Holy Spirit not only believing more deeply and sharply in Him but also thoroughly energised by Him to take on the strategic and long-term challenge of being a mission fellowship on campus!

where ‘people not structures’ can sabotage you

“Christian ministry is about people not structures” is probably a fairly familiar imperative. A kind of evangelical Motherhood And Apple Pie statement.

The thought is that our structures should serve people. They should help them become disciples, grow in maturity, and make other disciples. And when they stop helping people like this we should stop pouring resources into keeping them running.

And it’s a great thought as far as it goes. I’ve certainly encountered ‘mothers’ groups’ full of octogenarians (I guess they’re still mothers) and ‘youth groups’ with an ever-expanding penumbra of young adults — as well as some not-so-young ones!

Someone’s got to start asking hard questions about these structures at some point — especially if they’re sucking up significant time and resources without helping anyone move forward very much.

But I suspect this idea could also sabotage us. Especially when it gets drawn into the ministry Time Management Vs Open-Endedness nexus I’ve been posting about recently.

This happens where it functions as a fig leaf to cover up our own failings in leadership, administration, or strategy — even justifying these failings to ourselves.

When we start saying to ourselves (as I have in the past): “Oh. Ministry’s all about people not structures. Making phone calls to newcomers is just a structural responsibility (one I don’t particularly relish or feel very good at). So it’s no big issue if I don’t get around to it — my plate’s already full enough of good ministry things like pastorally significant conversations with key leaders.”

What happens if we let ‘people not structures’ thinking like this side-track us from our structural responsibilities like calling newcomers? Before long there won’t be any people for us to do ministry with!

good ministry or bad strategy?

I want to continue poking around the dense underbrush of time-management in Christian ministry. Who knows what I might startle and flush out into the light?

If you’ve been involved in Christian circles for any length of time, I imagine you’ve heard people say ‘Good ministry always generates more ministry’ — or words to that effect.

I’ve definitely heard it. I’ve even said it myself.

But I’d us to scrutinise it. Because, as I noted in my previous post about working out our limits not by policing the boundaries but by focusing on the centre and making sure all the big and important things are locked in, the fact that ministry is open-ended makes it even more difficult to say No.

Perhaps it’s just because I wrestle with perfectionism, but there always seems to be another person to follow up, another person needing help, another task (or six) to do to wrap up the day.

And so the idea that good ministry always generates more ministry can console me and help me draw a line that says ‘Enough’.

On the other hand, it can also let me off the hook. In particular, if my strategy is bad — or if I’m not on top of my admin (as I would be expected to be in any other job) — then the ‘good ministry…’ mantra becomes self-serving.

Let me explain:

There may be too many people to follow up and push along the road to maturity because I’m being effective — ie. the ministry is multiplying as those I’m working with are involved in making disciples themselves. Or there may be too many people to follow up because I’m failing to do my job and aren’t touching base with newcomers, helping them connect in with others, or grab hold of Jesus.

Which is it for you?

Social Design for mission and ministry (3): utilise community

According to the guidelines at Facebook Developers, the first imperative of good social design — which, of course, works from the outside in — is to utilise community. In the virtual world this means:

  • Personalising your content for the people engaging with your product or service — so that it’s obviously relevant to them.
  • Connecting people with those of their friends who are already engaging with you — so they can see that people they know (or, taking a step down, people like them) trust and benefit from what you’re offering.
  • Highlighting social context — ie. the real names, faces, and stories/testimonies — since “associating content to people that users care about naturally draws them in”.
  • And working on being teflon-coated in how you gain, handle and use any information people share with you.

Basically, it’s about starting where people already are and helping them ground whatever you’re offering them in their existing relationships and experiences. Rather than asking them to put blind faith in you and then taking control, you continually give them social “proof” and put them in the position of power.

My sense is that where this leaves those of us wanting to apply social design principles to Christian mission and ministry is at the intersection of a three trajectories:

  1. Tim Keller’s helpful approach to missional community in terms of a primarily affirming and appreciative relationship (within which there is scope for criticism — although this shouldn’t be the first foot we put forward) to the existing culture of the neighbourhood, workplace, community, etc.
  2. An emphasis on building bridges of love and relationship so we can welcome people into the distinctive community we’ve discovered in Christ as well as maintaining a faithful presence within our wider community context.
  3. A properly Christian practice of leadership and power that follows the grain of an Asset Based Community Development-type approach.

More on what this might look like in practice next post.

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?

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.

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!

leadership that’s full of loving attention

I reckon it’s probably about time I resume — and then round off — my recent musings about leadership.

I’ve been getting into the Duke Divinity School Faith and Leadership initiative lately. And I was particularly inspired by the picture Andy Crouch paints of Christian leadership here:

Crouch is the author of Culture Making, which is one of those books near the top of my ‘must read’ list.

In terms of the clip, I do wonder whether ‘contemplation’ is the best way to pitch the alternative to exploitation.

Maybe it’s just personal preference. But I think I’d want to speak about ‘loving attention’ instead of ‘contemplation’ — as a way to more explicitly embrace the affective dimension of this take on leadership.

I also find that after I’ve cheered and pumped my fist at how deeply right his thoughts about resisting exploitation feel, I’m left wanting more concrete detail about how to make it a practical reality…