Planning to fail

Planning to fail?

My wife is a Christmas planning ninja; no sooner has summer drawn to a close, she gets the Christmas card list out and begins to calculate who should receive a card from the ‘Mattholies’ this year, adding those who sent for the first time and removing those we have not heard of for two years (we work on a one year grace period to ensure the forgetful are not excluded!). She has lists of present ideas, potential present ideas and meal planners. I’ve come to somewhat rely on her planning abilities. You see I am not a natural planner; I love to go with spur of the moment ideas and just try stuff out, but because I know I am bad at planning, I have become super focussed on planning better utilising my calendar as a to-do list, marking up things to do in advance as appointments, relying on action lists and undertaking a weekly review to see what I need to do in the coming weeks and pick up anything I might have otherwised overlooked. It is not a full proof system, and I still miss things, but it certainly helps.

As leaders, many of us are familiar with the saying, “failing to plan is planning to fail”. Perhaps a better quote is “plan for nothing, and you’ll be sure to achieve it”. My suspicion is many leaders within the Church are not natural planners; perhaps they feel that planning is primarily a management tool, and as such ‘not for them’ and yet some of the worst services and groups that I’ve attended were not bad because the leader wasn’t gifted to share or teach, nor because she or he was not fully capable, but primarily because the person leading hadn’t taken the time to prepare.

I think God is a great planner; Christmas for me is a beautiful reminder that the incarnation was something that God had planned ever since the fall; God didn't send his only son on a whim, or spur of the moment idea – it was intended from the beginning and was very much intentional. I think Jesus, in teaching his followers the cost of being a follower in Luke 14, gives the nod to the importance of planning; he uses the illustration of the foolishness of beginning a tower-building project without assessing the resources needed - surely this is a good example of the need for careful planning in ministry?

So, in this e-news, we include a link to a couple of helpful resources. The first is a year planner available through our friends at CPO that might be a useful prod to your year ahead in terms of planning for particular services and events. (For a FREE A3 paper version, simply spend £3.85 or more at CPO and use the promo code RURAL at checkout.) The second is a resource I discovered to help with planning for services, but I think it could be equally used for events. It can be tailored for your context and can be downloaded free of charge here.

Let me finish with one last piece of advice; our families deserve our undivided attention. Christmas can be an incredibly busy period in ministry, where much time is given to creating various services and outreach initiatives. In your planning, please do ensure that you include ‘family time’; a time where you can give those around you your full, undivided attention. It might just be the most missional thing you do this Christmas!

It’s leadership Jim, but probably not as you know it

It’s leadership Jim, but probably not as you know it

Being a leader in uncertain times is challenging, ask any of the current leaders of our political parties during the Brexit process. Uncertainty can result in people becoming more cautious in their attitude – not taking action or not making decisions because of the lack of clarity about the future. In uncertain times there is a tendency for people to feel increased levels of anxiety and even fear, either because of the perceived loss of control or loss of a routine or perhaps because they feel threatened that they may be unable to cope with what lies ahead.

Within Christian circles I am observing a growing unhealthy expectation for ‘church leaders’ to know what to do in every situation, perhaps suggesting that we may have modelled church leadership more on Captain Kirk than anything else; after all, did he not always know what to do? Certainly, there is a growing level of uncertainty in ‘the church’ because we realise that the old ways of doing things no longer seem to bear the same fruit as before.

But I would want to argue that uncertainty isn’t all bad; the motive behind many a pioneer and explorer is that there is something to be discovered that we do not yet know. The opening lines of ‘Star Trek’, if you forgive the split infinitive, is to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before.’ The five-year mission of the USS Enterprise and her crew was to explore, discover, seek out new things - inevitably this involves uncertainty?

So, are there any lessons that those of us in Christian leadership can take from Captain Kirk, as we lead in times of uncertainty?

  • Listen to a wide range of opinion, not just those who think the same as you. Consider how many times the logic of Spock, the ingenuity of Scotty and the linguistics of Uhura got the Enterprise out of a scrape. Ask for the input of others, as consensus builds confidence in the face of uncertainty.

  • Communicate clearly. Andy Stanley says, “You can't always be sure, but you can be clear.” Remind everyone of the mission you are on and the eternity which is at stake in those we seek to share Jesus with.

  • Be positive. Keep your fears to yourself but share your courage with others. There were numerous moments when the brevity of Kirk carried the crew through uncertain times.

  • Don't rush a decision. How many times was Kirk et al., able to see beyond the immediate knee-jerk ‘Fire all phasers’ and instead broker a peaceful solution?

  • Create small wins. Identify small wins that the team can achieve quickly and easily; these quick wins need to be meaningful and celebrated, as that will help to boost confidence, increase morale and create momentum.

  • Finally, and I am not sure this has anything to do with Kirk, remember God has not retired, grown hard of hearing or lost interest in the church. When it seemed there was no hope, God saved a baby called Moses who would one day lead His people out of captivity. In a time of war, when there was a struggle for national identity, God called Deborah to lead a military campaign. When a ruthless, godless culture opposed to God’s people, God acted using Daniel and a faithful few to influence and change an entire nation. I could go on. God is the same God who spoke a word and galaxies were formed – there might be a supernatural solution that you haven’t even dreamt of, and you never know, it may involve you going on your own ‘five-year mission.’

Adopting a posture of ‘sentness’

Adopting a posture of ‘sentness’

For many, September marks the start of a new term in their church, perhaps following the pattern of the academic year. While I accept that there is a general tendency to slow down over August as many enjoy holidays, I have been reflecting on whether the analogy of a new term is that helpful. I recently attended an induction service, where the speaker, who previously held a senior position in a theological college, made much of the role of the pastor to teach; it left me with a question around the danger of building a relationship with God principally as an academic exercise, and that the role of the congregation was simply to learn, not that this was what the speaker was saying I hasten to add!

It seems to me that we like to find models in society to which we can overlay onto the church, hence the academic parallel and the reference to ‘academic terms' in many churches. To a degree, I do see education as being an important part of discipleship; however, I would argue that practical outworking needs to be at least as essential as theoretical learning. From my own time at theological college, and from many conversations with other students over the years, it does seem that we communicate, either inadvertently or intentionally, the primary role of a minister is to organise services and meet the needs of those paying the bills. Invariably we use the metrics of 'Sunday morning attendance' and ‘giving' as the way of understanding and measuring church health; on this basis of these metrics, the rural church is often understood to be struggling.

I cannot help but reflect that this needs challenging and that we need to recover our ‘sentness’ as Christians. I am not calling for a raft of new programmes, nor am I rejecting traditionally structured churches, I am merely questioning if we are placing too much emphasis on the pastor or minister to be the one to bring renewal and a missional impact on our communities. Our Anglican sisters and brothers have been wrestling with multi-parish ministry for quite some time, the Methodists and United Reformed church have similarly been working by circuit ministry, and I understand that the Baptists are also exploring this approach. My anecdotal research questions whether this is a viable rural model if we continue with the premise that the minister will primarily be the one who does all the teaching and preaching, while the congregation consumes. It strikes me that this approach apes that of a consumer culture, where retailers try harder and harder to attract people to them.

Now I know I have now mixed my metaphors and moved from school to shopping; however, my gut instinct is that we are merely using the wrong model when it comes to church. I have been reflecting on John 20, that just as God sends his Son into the world, so Jesus sends us to continue His work and share His life*. I would love to see the role of the church to be more of an equipping station, which prepares and then sends people out for works of service where they are; that we become less focussed on consumers and more focussed on sending out, being centrifugal in force. This could be a great opportunity for the rural church to lead the way by showing our ‘sentness.’

So, my challenge as we begin the ‘new term’, is not to think and strategise along the lines of attracting people to our next big event, but instead focus on how we can encourage our church to adopt a posture of sentness, which perhaps begins with those of us who lead.

*Just as the Father has sent me, I’m now sending you.” John 20:21b (The Passion)

A little bit potty?

potty image.jpeg

A little bit potty?

God spoke to me recently through a plant. It wasn’t an audible voice emanating from a flower, or the shaking of leaves to form a recognisable Bible verse; it was in my sharing with my spiritual director about my walk with God, that I became aware of the fact that my heavenly Father had been speaking to me for a few weeks. I simply hadn’t made the time to quieten myself to hear. Without boring you with unnecessary horticultural detail, I made several cuttings from a Hawthorn bush some months back, many of which I had planted out earlier in the year to thicken an existing hedge. I had a cutting left over which I placed in a pot and have been watering and feeding over the past weeks, along with my tomatoes, runner beans and beetroot; I have done this day in and day out without thinking. 

So how did God speak to me through this plant? It was in the realisation of this plant’s utter reliance on me for care, feeding, watering. Just this past week it was infested with caterpillars (Swafly) which I promptly removed. Without my intervention, it would be just a stick by now. I imagine this Hawthorn wants to be a tree, or indeed a larger bush as part of a hedge. It was never designed to be stuck in a pot, however, at the time there wasn’t a visible gap for it, and I didn't want to discard it – it was one of the better specimens, so I kept it in the pot and had been caring for it ever since, looking for the right place and right opportunity to use it. 

Perhaps some of us in ministry have wanted to do great things for God; we have a killer sermon that deserves an audience of hundreds, a new idea for mission which will transform our country or a style of leadership which could remodel church meetings across an entire denomination - but instead of having the opportunity to exercise this gifting we found that we are pot bound. 'Lord, if only you would release me into something bigger - I could grow for you in so many ways, bear fruit, be productive’ we may have pleaded. 

You see a pot has constraints; a pot limits growth and confines the roots in their search for food and water; but a pot also creates a micro environment of conditions most suited to the plant at a particular time. It was whilst reflecting on this that I came to recognise that what was being offered to me by God was so much better than being planted out; I was being offered care, nurture and watering from my heavenly Father. Rather than being reliant of my own abilities, I am wholly dependent on Him for all things. I don't see this as a negative; actually, it gives me the opportunity of encounter and ultimately affirmation by my heavenly Father which I am not so sure I would have benefitted from if I were growing freely in the soil. 

It can be all too easy to view other leaders with envy; many are leading large churches or working in senior positions within some of our denominations. There is a temptation to put oneself forward for similar positions of significance, perhaps believing that a larger platform will afford us the opportunity to influence for the Lord, and that this is our destiny. I am certain that God has a place and purpose for each of us, but at the moment could He be saying that we should be content with living under His care and provision in a pot? He will use us, but at this time we are too precious and vulnerable to go it alone. Now is the time for intentional feeding, care and support. Father God has already a great place in mind for you, but to be ready for this you’ll need to be just a little bit potty. 

Simon Mattholie