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Theology Degrees And Spiritual Growth

Churchleaders.com has some interesting articles and videos; I’ve included some here before. But a piece that was highlighted in their daily email the other day bothered me.

The content of the post is fine. A man called Rick Howerton argues that pastors should not assume that because they have a Theology degree they are spiritually mature. Churches seeking new ministers should also not be seduced by that error. Spiritual growth is demonstrated in the fruit of the Spirit and increasing embrace of kingdom ethical standards, amongst other things. Quite right, too.

The problem came with the headline: ‘Are Theology Degrees Keeping Pastors From Spiritual Growth?’ It didn’t seem to me that was quite the thrust of the article. Moreover, a headline like that risked playing into the anti-intellectualism of some popular evangelicalism: “Don’t go to theological college, you’ll lose your faith.” Yes, the issue of pride in one’s academic knowledge must be confronted, but at best I want to argue good theological knowledge can enhance spiritual growth, when detached from pride. When I read a Tom Wright book and his vision stretches me, I end up in worship. Didn’t Jesus call us to worship with ‘heart, soul, mind and strength’?

For me, George Carey put it best. When he interviewed me for a place at Trinity College, Bristol, he told me, “Trinity is not just about information, it is about formation.” I think the two can hold hands. What do you think?

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Sermon For Aldersgate Sunday: ‘I Submitted To Be More Vile’

Luke 10:1-20
On 24th May 1988, two hundred and fifty years after John Wesley’s conversion, I was exploring my call by being a Methodist independent student at an Anglican theological college in Bristol. Some months prior to that big anniversary, I had nabbed the Vice-Principal, who was also the lecturer in Church History, and asked if we could mark the anniversary at college. He readily agreed. We had a display in a corridor, and I led an evening in chapel.

One memory I have of the celebrations is the debates that raged in Methodism over the conversion. Was Wesley’s experience of his ‘heart strangely warmed’ a conversion, or just the assurance of faith? Well, you can make your own mind up on that one. I’m not going to touch on that this morning.
But another debate was whether we should only celebrate 24th May 1738, or whether we should also remember 1st April 1739. Why? Because that was the day John Wesley was finally persuaded by George Whitefield to preach the gospel in the open air to the miners at Kingswood. Up until then, Wesley said he would have regarded preaching outside a church building as a sin, but from that date he noted that he ‘submitted to be more vile’ by taking the Gospel outside the doors of the church.

And I think it must be in that light that Luke 10 is the Lectionary Gospel reading for Aldersgate Sunday. Today, I propose that we learn from Wesley and from Jesus how we might ‘submit to be more vile’. After all, if we have warmed hearts but just stay within the safe walls of the church building, what good is the experience, apart from it being a private religious bless-up?

Firstly, we have here a mixture of prayer and action. Jesus kicks off with prayer: ‘ask the Lord of the harvest’, but the people who are to pray are also the people who are sent out with the message. How wrong we are to divorce prayer from action, support from mission.

Wesley’s own life was marked by an extensive commitment to prayer, but also to mission. If there is one area where we do not reflect our founder in contemporary Methodism, it may be this. When the subject of mission comes up in the local church, often all that means is us raising money for other people to engage in mission. I’m not about to decry the fact that when we raise money, various organisations can achieve certain things on a large scale that are beyond us, but I do question the assumption that all we do locally is act as support services.

But for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, and who follow Jesus, we cannot stop there. Whatever the benefits of contributing to large scale projects, we have no justification under the Lordship of Jesus for stopping there. We are called to pray and to support – but Jesus also calls us to be part of the answers to our prayers. Those of us who walk in the ways of Jesus are junior partners in his kingdom. Jesus calls us not only to enjoy the benefits of his kingdom, but to let it overflow to others. It isn’t just the leaders, the Twelve – Jesus does that one chapter earlier. He calls ‘seventy others’ – people from his wider circle both to pray and to engage. I think that implies all of us.

Now I am aware that in saying this, I can easily load a burden of guilt on people. If preachers tell congregations they need to share their faith, so let me put it like this. This is not about obligation. It is not a series of ‘oughts’. It is about overflow.
Put it this way. Our son enjoys drinking milk. He particularly likes it gently warmed in the microwave. Forty seconds – or fifty seconds during winter. The other day, he went to collect a full mug of milk from the microwave. But as he came out of the utility room and into the kitchen, he tripped up on a step between the rooms. So what happened? Spilt milk.

Similarly, our faith will spill out into the world when we are full, and someone or something trips us up. If we want to have a missionary effect upon the world, then it starts by becoming filled up with God – which will probably happen in prayer – and then overflowing when we get tripped up. So – prayer and action contribute to an overflow of God’s love to the world.

A second strand of Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus would be simplicity. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road,” says Jesus (verse 4).

Whenever I read that verse, I always think of a friend of mine who works for an Anglican evangelistic organisation. When they hold missions in an area, they have a rule of simplicity for those on the mission team. It involves taking no accoutrements with them like mobile phones, and only an allowance of £2 per day. They rely on the hospitality of the local church. Usually this works out quite well – despite the restrictions and all the physical effort of the mission, many participants return home, having put on weight!

However, what would it be if there is a general pattern that Jesus sets here of simplicity in our lifestyles? Not that every Christian does without everything pleasant in life, but that we resist the pattern of our culture to acquire more and more ‘things’, to think that buying the latest fashionable object will somehow make our lives complete. As well as making income available for others in need – ‘Live simply that others might simply live’ is the old slogan – there is also the fact that living in a way that says we do not have to lust after all the latest consumer items is itself a testimony to the fulfilment that can only come through Jesus Christ.
Is it surprising, then, that in some quarters of the church, not least among some young adults, there is a movement that has been called ‘new monasticism’? People are seeking to live by a rule of life that involves self-denial, not cloistered away behind abbey walls but in the midst of communities. Others put a big stress on hospitality – not simply in terms of inviting your friends for a meal, but in sharing food and care with strangers.

Now I say all this as someone who tomorrow morning is having the so-called ‘superfast’ fibre broadband installed at the manse! I am far from opposed to us enjoying good things in life. As Paul puts it:

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4).

But we have a society that is drunk on consumer goods. And Christian testimony needs to stand in contrast to the false values embraced by many. It isn’t enough to preach the Gospel with our words, it must be lived with our actions and our attitudes, too.

A third element of this ‘submitting to be more vile’, this Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus, would be what Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’, or what regular people call God going ahead of us to work before we get there. We see this in the part of the passage where Jesus tells his followers to go into a home saying, “Peace to this house!”, and waiting to see whether ‘anyone who shares in peace’ is there (verses 5-6).

Fruitful mission, in other words, is not where we take the initiative, where we force the pace, but where God has already gone ahead of us and is at work in people’s lives through the Holy Spirit to prepare them for the good news of his love.

It’s exactly how Jesus himself shared in the mission of the Father. In John 5:19 he said, “I only do what I see my Father doing.” Even Jesus didn’t take the first step: the Father did.

It’s a principle that – once you know it, you will notice it here, there and everywhere. Sometimes it comes in a dramatic form: I have heard stories of people taking the Gospel to a community somewhere in the world that has never heard of Jesus Christ. However, when the Christians begin to tell the stories of Jesus, people say something like this: “Oh, so that’s the person who has been popping up in my dreams!”

Or it is as simple as having an ordinary conversation with a friend whom you think has no interest in spiritual matters, only for them suddenly to ask a major spiritual question. You think, “Now where did that come from?” Well, maybe it came from God going ahead of you, working to woo that person with love before you ever arrived on the scene.

When I talk about this, I usually tell people this is good news! You see, it takes the pressure off us! We don’t have to force or manipulate situations – and of course we shouldn’t! But we can pray and see how God leads. A common catchphrase is to say that mission is ‘seeing what God is doing and joining in’. Just as Jesus told the seventy to offer peace and see whether anyone else [already] shared in it, so we go blessing people in his name, looking for where he has already started prompting people and we then share in his mission as junior partners.

And that mention of ‘blessing’ leads to the fourth and final aspect I want to share this morning about mission: blessing people is our priority. It’s not only the offer of peace, it’s not merely the preaching of God’s kingdom, the mission includes ‘curing the sick’ (verse 9) and I take that to include not only physical healing but also a mandate to meet all sorts of needs in Christ’s name.

I believe that provides a corrective to the way we often view the relationship between Christians and the world. Too often what we are known for is the way we declaim against the wickedness of the world. I’m not denying a proper place for prophetically speaking against sin in all its forms. But there is something about the way we do that, which has earned us a reputation as self-righteous people who consider themselves above everybody else. Ask many MPs what their image of Christians is, and they will tell you that these are the constituents who write the nastiest letters. Ask a Christian MP about their witness in Parliament, and they may well tell you this is one of the greatest hurdles to their being received sympathetically.

What if we were known as the people who are a blessing to anyone in distress? How would that portray the love of God? What if we were the people always available to the hurting in the neighbourhood? What if each of us took seriously the different networks we move in, and sought to be blessings there? The workplace; the street where we live; the people we mix with socially when we relax. All these are places where we can be a blessing.

Yes, there will be times when we run into conflict with the world, and when what we do or say is not appreciated. There will be seasons where we experience rejection. Then – and only then – do we wipe the dust off our feet in protest and move on elsewhere (verse 11). But I have to tell you, that if I wracked my brain for examples of this, the main one I would come up with wouldn’t be about a parting of the ways with non-Christians, but with church people!

In conclusion, there is so much more I could say about this passage. It is one that has meant a lot to me over the years – so much so that I had to limit what points I wanted to make today. But if it does one thing for us this Aldersgate Sunday, I pray it gets us out of our churches and into the world with the love of God, rather than forever vainly waiting for people to come to us.

John Wesley ‘submitted to be more vile’. What about us?

A Novel Approach To Missional Church: Mike Burke’s ‘Daydream Believer’

No, not that one.

I first met Mike Burke at Trinity College, Bristol between 1986 and 1989. He was a guitar-toting, wisecracking Anglican ordinand, and I was a Methodist wondering where on earth God was calling me. When we left, we all had to pen fifty words about ourselves for a magazine sent to college supporters. It was no surprise when Mike wrote that he had fulfilled an ambition to get U2 played in college chapel.

Then we lost touch. He went off to his curacy in Sheffield, and I returned to the dark bowels of Methodism.

Years later (2001, I think), we bumped into each other again at an Evangelical Alliance conference in Cardiff. By then, he was a vicar in Gloucestershire. This time, we kept in touch. Often it was Mike sending me emails that I found ridiculously funny and my wife (who doesn’t share the same sense of humour) found ridiculous.

In recent years, Mike has come out of parish ministry. He now networks for the Church Mission Society with local congregations. He has used his creative gifts to turn the difficulties of traditional church life today and the need to find new forms of missional church to reach today’s cultures into a witty and poignant novel.

It makes sense from my perspective to communicate missional thinking in a narrative format. Much of the literature talks about the importance of story, so let’s use story! The only other example I have ever encountered in this field (perhaps there are others) has been Brian McLaren‘s ‘A New Kind of Christian’ trilogy. However, McLaren has in my opinion more of an agenda for revising classical theology than Mike does. Moreover, the American church situation is considerably different from the British contexts.

I know I’m biassed, but do read Mike’s book. You will find a healthy and humorous dose of reality, right through to the inner thoughts of the clergy. If you’ve ever wondered, then buy this!

Oh, and his first cultural quote is from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. You can’t go wrong.

My one gripe would be with Highland Books, the publisher. They seem to have laid off a proof reader in place of a computer spell-checker. It was The Forsyte Saga, not the Forsyth Saga (Brucie, you can have a rest). A quantity of paper is stationery, not stationary. Something you can’t quite catch is elusive, not illusive.

Although I have just linked to it on Amazon, they were unable to fulfil my order, but I went through Amazon Marketplace to the trusty Book Depository, who sent me a copy quickly.

More On Royalty And Republicanism From One Christian Perspective

Following my last post, and especially the initial comment by Phil Ritchie, I thought I would write a little more, especially as Phil asked about a Methodist perspective. What follows is entirely my own views.

I nearly became an Anglican. I had grown up in Methodism, and sensed God calling me to something – I didn’t know what – and to explore that I ended up studying Theology as an independent student at Trinity College, Bristol, an evangelical Anglican theological college.

While I was there, my calling crystallised. It was the ordained ministry. However, did I stay in my native Methodism or follow the highly attractive advertisement I was seeing for Anglicanism at Trinity?

Many factors came into play in making my decision, some pro- and some anti- both traditions. For the purposes of this discussion, there were two that I found decisive in feeling  I could not go over to the Church of England. One was knowing that if I changed, I would have to be confirmed by a bishop in the so-called ‘historic succession’ as if I had never been a Christian before. That seemed – and still seems – to be a denial of the Holy Spirit’s work in my life prior to any such time. That was the most fundamental objection I had.

The second reason was that I couldn’t come to terms with the idea of an Established Church. Tying the church to the structures of government was to risk seduction by privilege, wealth and power. I didn’t regard it as being as insurmountable, but I cringed every time I saw an ordinand kneel (or even prostrate themselves) before a bishop and take the Oath of Allegiance.

The reason I don’t see the Oath of Allegiance as an insurmountable objection (although I’m uncomfortable with it) is because Article 37 of the C of E’s Thirty-Nine Articles, ‘Of the Civil Magistrates’, can be read simply to affirm that Christians respect those in civil authority. It just happens to be with the monarch in this country:

The Queen’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other her Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the Queen’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen doth most plainly testify; but only that prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoers.

That it should be used by bloggers such as Cranmer to accuse Pete Broadbent of not believing the Church of England’s doctrine by virtue of being a republican seems to push the language too far. It depends what import you put on the phrase ‘godly Princes’. Does that and must that merely invoke royal rulers? Romans 13 is more general about authority, even if it is written under the Roman Empire.

Those who fervently defend the connection of the Church of England to the monarchy should remember how equivocal (to put it mildly) Scripture is about royalty, something that Article 37 potentially overlooks. When Israel demands a king from Samuel, the Lord says it is a sign they have rejected him. They want a fashion accessory, and kings come with a record of oppression, was the reply. And in the New Testament, where there is no option but to live under Caesar, while his rule is respected, his claim to lordship is emphatically denied.

Royalists may counter that a republic brings all sorts of ugly notions, and until a few years ago they raised the spectre of Cherie Blair as First Lady. Yes, all forms of power and authority come with risk. The quasi-messianism of some who campaigned for Barack Obama should make us queasy, too.

But insofar as I understand these things, a biblical approach to authority includes the following:

1. Respect those who are called to rule;

2. Do not exalt them beyond their status as human sinners;

3. Be prepared to call them to account.

4. Pray for them.

Can a constitutional monarchy fit this description? Can Christians put their names to it. Can a republic? The calling to account seems to be the issue for me. How is an institution called to account when the eldest son automatically succeeds to the throne? And for a republic or democracy, does calling to account become corrupted to a desire merely for what the people fancy?

Maybe I am neither a royalist nor a republican.

George Kovoor On The Web

I don’t think I’m going to preach a brand new sermon this week. The Lectionary Gospel and Epistle are both fascinating: both Luke 7:36-8:3 amd Galatians 2:15-21 (especially if you take the latter in its context from verse 11 onwards) raise the question of table fellowship being used as a sign of who is included in or excluded from the people of God. In the case of the Luke reading, I don’t think I can yet improve on a sermon I preached three years ago on it, despite yesterday reading the chapter on the incident in Michael Frost‘s recently reissued expanded edition of Jesus The Fool. (Highly recommended, BTW.) When it came to Galatians, I again dug out Tom Wright‘s book from last year, Justification, which inspired my recent sermon about justification based on Romans 5:1-11. However, this time, much as Wright enlightened my understanding of the text, I didn’t come away feeling I had something to share with a congregation in a sermon.

So I thought I’d point you to something else on the web. Someone else, actually. Last year while I was on sabbatical, I blogged about my encounters with the extraordinary George Kovoor, current Principal of Trinity College, Bristol.  Well, George has just launched his own website, Kairos Global, and I commend it to you. At this stage it’s rather sparse, but you can start to gain a feel for the ministry of this remarkable man. The lead article that begins on the home page will certainly give you a flavour. There are also a couple of videos, showing five-minute extracts from longer presentations. One is also available on YouTube, so by the magic of WordPress I reproduce it below:

I can’t say I can work out what he’s doing broadcasting on TBN Europe in the company of the Creflo Dollars of this world, but Jesus didn’t worry who he mixed with (any more than the late Rob Frost worried about broadcasting on God TV) and at least it gets some sound teaching out there.

I think George’s site will be well worth watching, especially if it is updated frequently. If his admin can put on some of his talks, whether text, audio or video, in full, it will be invaluable for all of us who care about the evangelisation of the West – and, indeed, the entire world.

Oh, and for something lighter, you can always join the Facebook group George Kovoor Is Mad.

Sermon: The Wilderness – Jesus’ Favourite Getaway Destination

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

At this time of year, much conversation revolves around, “Are you going on holiday? Where are you going?” One of Rebekah’s classmates was missing on Friday’s final day of term, because his family was driving and ferrying to France. Others have flown to Disneyland. Our children wonder why they haven’t been on an aeroplane yet, but we have more modest ambitions and budgets. It still doesn’t seem long since we weren’t confined to the school holidays, and could book cheaper holidays.

Where would you get away to, if you had the choice? I would fancy New Zealand (not just because I’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films), parts of the United States and I’d like to return to Norway, having once done a mission there. After all, where else would you spend nine days in August, but north of the Arctic Circle?

Where would Jesus go? Like a couple in my first circuit who every year travelled with a holiday company specialising in camping in the wildest parts of the world, Jesus’ preferred destination was the wilderness. When he wants a break with the apostles, he invites them ‘to a deserted place’ (verse 31), and that almost certainly means a wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of a wilderness as a good place for a spot of R and R. I think of somewhere that is too hot, and too dry. That’s why it’s a wilderness, after all. I think about the children of Israel wandering aimlessly and disobediently in the wilderness for forty years, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. A wilderness doesn’t have good associations for me.

But I want to talk today about how the wilderness is a good place in the spiritual life. It is somewhere the Christian Church has known in former centuries as a desirable destination, but in our comfort-saturated world we have lost sight of that. I am thinking not simply of the wilderness in a literal, geographic sense, but also the spiritual wilderness, when our lives seem dusty and barren. Come with me, and see why it is good to be in the wilderness with Jesus.

The Apostles
At my first theological college, we were introduced to the tradition of the Quiet Day once a term. A visiting speaker would address us in chapel two or three times during the day, but we spent the rest of the day in silence – even our lunch. One of my friend made a cardboard speech balloon with the word ‘hello’ on it and brought it to the dining room once!

One year, I decided I would spend the day reading a short book about community. Only a hundred and twelve pages long, I thought I could easily devour it and think about it in a few hours. It was called ‘Life Together’ and was by the famous German Christian who resisted Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

A hundred and twelve pages? Fat chance! If I got through twenty, that was all. Why? Because every paragraph was challenging. The comment I most remembered was one where Bonhoeffer said that nobody should attempt to live in community if they couldn’t cope with solitude.

The apostles in our reading learn community and solitude in the wilderness. Jesus invites them there in order to rest, because he wants to get them away from the notion that non-stop busyness is what makes someone a good or valuable person. You have to come away from that way of life at times in order to reset your priorities. And our priorities are not just to do, but to be. After their recent mission, Jesus calls them away from people to the loneliness of the wilderness, so that they might be with him. When he had chosen them in Mark chapter three, he had not only set their ‘job description’ as including preaching, healing and exorcism. Before all that, their call was ‘to be with him’.

How we forget that for ourselves, too. We reduce Christianity to a series of lists – a to-do list, a tick list, a shopping list. We forget that we are also called to spend what one Christian called ‘A Royal Waste Of Time’ with God. So Jesus urges us sometimes to put the busy schedule away, because it is ruining us. We become like car drivers who never fill their tanks with petrol, and then wonder why we stutter to a halt. And if it requires the drastic action of removing us from the busy place to restore us, then Jesus will take us to a wilderness, so that all we have is him – not our status, not our rôle in the church, just him.

Whether you are an introvert or an extravert, this is a challenge. For the extravert, who gets energy from other people, the wilderness reminds her to depend not on other people but on God. For an introvert like me, who is energised by being alone with books and the like, I am challenged to rely on God and not on other tools. But what is sure is this: Jesus knows we need to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’, and he will take us to the solitude of a wilderness if that is what it takes.

The Multitude
And yet the apostles still can’t get away completely. They escape in a boat (verse 32) from the ‘many [who] were coming and going’ (verse 31), but when they arrive at the deserted place, there is no peace for them:

‘Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.’ (verse 33)

The apostles have preached the good news, cast out demons and cured the sick (verse 13). It’s like they are victims of their own success. Well, not their success, because it is the work of God, but right now the multitude can’t see that. All they see is need – their own need – and that this group can help them.

Thus we traditionally interpret this episode as being about the importance of putting aside your own need for rest in order ‘to spend and be spent’ for others. But what if we turned it around and considered the thought that God had a purpose for the multitude in bringing them to the wilderness to receive what they needed? What if we concentrated on that?

If we did, I think we’d see that when we are in need, God may well bring us to a wilderness for our own well-being, renewal and healing. Why? Because God calls us to come out of our ‘Egypt’ and journey to our ‘Promised Land’, but the route often goes through a wilderness. We need to leave Egypt behind, with all its temptations and bad influences, but the journey to Canaan is not a quick and simple one. In purifying the pagan influences of our own personal Egypt, God takes us to a stark place in the wilderness where he strips away the toxins that have infected our souls.

When God draws us into a wilderness experience, it is the most natural reaction in the world to kick and scream as we are dragged there. But God the loving Father does this for pure, holy purposes.

One thing is for sure: when God leads people into a wilderness, his intention is to do great things. What happens to this multitude? What we’re reading is the preface to the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They have tracked down the apostles, rather like first century stalkers of paparazzi, but whatever their motives, they end up stranded a long way from civilisation and without food. In that wilderness place, God through Jesus provides generously for their needs.

So it may be with us. We may wonder why we are in a wilderness. It may be due to our own rash choices, or it may directly be in the purposes of God. But God in Christ has good things for us in the parched places of life.

Jesus
Finally, we read about Jesus and the multitude:

‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Verse 34)

What does that have to do with a wilderness theme?

The clue comes in the phrase ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. To which a considered response might be, ‘Huh?’

If it makes no sense, the clues come from the Old Testament. When Jesus thinks the crowd are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, there is a strong Old Testament background to that thought. In Numbers 27:17, Moses in the wilderness asks God to provide a new leader for Israel ‘so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ They need a leader in the wilderness.

And in Ezekiel 34:5, God’s people are scattered in the wilderness of exile ‘because there was no shepherd’.

Both times, God’s people are in a kind of wilderness, and they need shepherds, or leaders. However much God wants to bless his people in the deserted places, they still need a leader. But how does a Jesus-like shepherd lead the people of God in the wilderness? Isn’t it complicated, leading people in strange, unfamiliar and unwelcome lands – rather like we find ourselves in today?

Surely the ministry of Jesus was like leading his people on a new exodus to the salvation he would bring. He helped them navigate the way through the wilderness into the good things of God’s kingdom. You might list a whole catalogue of things that could involve, but the navigational work of the Christian shepherd in the wilderness comes down to the three priorities elucidated some years ago by Eugene Peterson in his book ‘Working the Angles’. They are prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. Anything beyond that, whether a current fad or a venerable tradition, is probably extraneous. Just because ‘it has always been done that way’ or because loud voices demand a particular course of action are no reasons to depart from the essential practices necessary to navigate the way through the wilderness.

You may say that Jesus walked this earth in a simpler time, and he did. There are complications provided by the society we live in today. But that is no reason for the Christian Church to add unnecessary complications to the cause of leadership in the wilderness we find ourselves in today. The compassion of Jesus when he saw the crowds simply led him, in the words of Mark, ‘to teach them many things’. Through prayer and study of Scripture, he knew the word of his Father and how to navigate the rocky terrain of the wilderness. There, in the barren desert, Jesus led the multitudes by teaching them the kingdom of God, and by feeding them and healing them. Simple stuff – and therefore a challenge for the likes of me!

Conclusion
So – it may be surprising to cosseted twenty-first century Christians that Jesus wants to bless his apostles and his multitudes in the wilderness. It may surprise us that his favour does not rest on fevered activity, but on a rhythm of ‘being’ followed by ‘doing’ (and never the other way around).

Yet we’re used to Jesus turning the values of the world upside-down, aren’t we? This is the kingdom where the king was enthroned upon a Cross. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so astonished that Christ would use the privations of a bleak location as the scene for our growth in grace.

And in a complex world, the way in which Jesus leads and guides us through the rocky places towards lands of milk and honey lacks much of the complexity our culture deems necessary for everyday living. He also cuts out the all-singing-all-dancing approach the Church has mistakenly baptised, in favour of simplicity: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction.

Maybe it’s time that a church in the wilderness pared things down to essentials.

Maybe then, we might find life.

Going Back

So the sabbatical is over. No more for another seven years.

OK, that last sentence is mean, especially for the vast majority of people who don’t receive sabbaticals. What have I gained from this one? Some spiritual encouragement from the week at Cliff College.  A sense from the time at Trinity College, Bristol that I’m not insane to feel out on a limb as a minister with my personality type. And the sheer pleasure of using my long-dormant hobby of photography in Christian fellowship at Lee Abbey. From both Cliff and Trinity has come the desire to explore PhD research, although there are obstacles. Right now would not be a tactful time, ministry-wise. There would also be the small question of the finance.

What do I bring back from it into ministry? Actually, I’m not sure right now. I’m aware that some people in my churches are already talking about the things I shall be bringing back from the sabbatical for them, as if it has been a three-month trip to some extended version of the Christian Resources Exhibition. Sorry, that’s still for me just one day of the four next week.

What will I bring back for my churches? I don’t think it will be (or ever could have been) specific resources and ideas. I hope it brings a revitalised me, even if – quite honestly – I still don’t have the answers to the questions about why I feel so frustrated in ministry a lot of the time. I only have, as I said above, the sense that I am not mad, after all.

But I hope they’ll see something in me. What that is, I don’t know. I had some comments today. Given the assumption that no sooner shall I be back than I shall be off for a fortnight recovering from the upcoming nasal surgery, we did some things with my churches today. One church was holding a fund-raiser for Chelmsford Street Pastors. A couple at another church were celebrating their golden wedding. People made some strange comments. One person thought I had gained a suntan. 

“Must have been all that snow at Cliff College in February,” I joked.

Another thought I looked relaxed. With small children? Rarely possible!

So I’ll see what tomorrow brings. I have a communion service in the morning at St Augustine’s. In the evening, I have café church at Broomfield, where I am going to show some DVD clips from Lee Abbey. One is ‘Words Are Not Enough‘, some mimes to biblical passages by Dave Hopwood, their creative arts director. The other is ‘Lee Abbey Reflections‘, which contains meditations and music that can be used worshipfully.

Oh, well. Once more into the breach …

Sabbatical, Day 90: Ministry And Personality Type Survey Data Part 2

Yesterday, I showed that replies to questions in the first section of the surveys showed that congregations roughly preferred a minister of Myers Briggs type ENFP. 

Various descriptions are available in books and on the Web of the personality types. Here are some of ENFP: at Personality Page, Type Logic, Similar Minds and good old Wikipedia, just to get you going. 

Before exploring more what might or might not be appealing about this personality type in Christian ministry, there were further tests in the survey about preferred personality types. In the next few days, I shall introduce you to the results from other sections, but tonight I just want to mention one of them. 

There was a question I posed to ministers which did not have an equivalent in the survey of congregational members. I asked:

From the four descriptions below, please choose the one which most closely describes your style of leadership:

I see myself as a visionary, an architect of systems or a builder. My orientation is towards a strategy that ensures the future of the church.

I am a traditionalist, a stabliser or a consolidator. My oreintation is towards a church whose activities and ministries meet certain standards.

I function as a trouble-shooter, negotiator or fire-fighter. I wan the activities and ministries of the church to reflect current needs.

I like to work as a catalyst, a spokesperson or an energiser. I want to motivate the church into greater holiness and witness.

So what was this about? The second and third of the four elements in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator can be taken together to explore a person’s likely leadership or management styles. The four statements above represent, in order from top to bottom, NT, SJ, SP and NF. Remembering that I am an INTP, I would expect to fall into the first of the four, and I do, because that statement emphasises the importance of vision and the future. If ENFP is to be verified as the ministers’ main preference, then we would expect the fourth of the statements to poll the most votes.

So did it? Yes. NT polled 26.2%, SJ and SP both gained 7.1%, but NF took 59.5%. The intuitives (N) who see the big picture more than the details who are also feelers (F), who stress harmony among people  more than logic and evidence, represent the most common leadership style among those ministers who took the survey.

Again, on its own it is just a tentative result, because a proper questionnaire would ask many more questions to refine this. However, that is two results now looking the same in the survey.

Here is a description of ENFPs at work that Jerry Gilpin took from the book ‘Introduction to Type and Teams’ by Hirsh, Hirsh and Hirsh (CPP, 2003) in his notes for the course I took at Trinity College, Bristol in February:

Lively, charismatic and encouraging, ENFPs work well when they can innovate and be creative, persuade others to take action, and stimulate positive change. They generate enthusiasm for startup activities, are tireless in pursuit of newfound interests, and anticipate the needs of people and organisations.

So, ministers – do any of you recognise yourselves as being somewhat like this? And church members, is this what you are looking for?

More generally, here is a description of an ENFP’s general characteristics (also from Jerry’s notes):

Warmly enthusiastic, and imaginative. See life as full of possibilities. Make connections between events and information very quickly, and confidently proceed based on the patterns they see. Want a lot of affirmation from others, and readily give appreciation and support. Spontaneous and flexible, often rely on their ability to improvise and their verbal fluency.

Is this what you would put in a person specification if you were looking for a new minister? (To which I’d cheekily like to add the typical examination questions, if so why? If not, what would you include?)

Finally from Jerry’s notes, some things he included about the temperament in leading for an NF manager:

Focus Growth needs of an organisation

Abilities Communicates organisational norms; make decisions by participation; had personal and insightful style

Questions asked How does that affect workers’ morale? What is most important to people? What impact does this have on values?

Beliefs People potential is the organisation’s strength; organisation should develop people’s talent

Values Autonomy; harmony; believes in co-operation

Needs Approval

Irritated at work by … impersonal treatment; criticism; lack of positive feedback

Irritates others by … Emotional and moralistic standards; creating dependencies; getting over-extended

Potential pitfalls Sweeps problems under the rug; plays favourites

Appreciates in self High energy; ability to value others

Does that sound like you or your minister? Does it seem like a description of a valuable minister who (thankfully) is not the Archangel Gabriel?

I’d love you to tell me how far these descriptions do or do not describe your ministry or your minister.

Sabbatical, Day 30: Victorian Children, Books Books Books, Personality Type Survey And New Blog Theme

Mark stayed home today as a precaution. We don’t want the symptoms of his ear infection to disappear while the bug remains around and then recurs. So he came on the school run to take Rebekah in, then we went to see her board a coach with her friends to visit a museum in Braintree for a Victorian-themed outing. 

All Rebekah’s year had to dress like Victorians (as did the staff and parent helpers). There were additional restrictions on what they could take in their lunch boxes. Becky was nervous, knowing that part of the day would include a simulation of a Victorian school, complete with strict teacher! However, she survived, and although her own real-life teacher has a reputation at the school for keeping rather firm boundaries, Becky came back believing her teacher isn’t strict at all in comparison!

Those of you who are my Facebook friends can see on my profile a photo I took of her this morning in her £10 bargain eBay costume. You’ll also see there (and here on the blog) a changed profile picture. All the children on the trip were given a slateboard and stylus. Rebekah drew a picture of me, I photographed it and cropped it. So if you’re wondering what happened, that’s the story. Besides, she took the previous photo that appeared here and on Facebook on her own digital camera. I like to think she’s a very artistic little five-year-old.

Keeping Mark at home gave us the opportunity to stretch him. Academically he coasts at school, and the reading books sent home for him are well beneath his literacy powers. He devours books like a shark eating human flesh, and so we keep ourselves stocked up with titles at or just above his ability level. Not only do we find Internet bargains, his favourite shop is Waterstone’s and he is well known to the staff at the local library. This morning, he read me ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker‘, stumbling only on the words ‘midnight’, ‘sewed’ and ‘hammered’.

Even with all this going on, I actually managed to do some sabbatical work today. Having done the work on ministry and personality type last Thursday and Friday at Trinity with Jerry Gilpin, I began devising a questionnaire today. I want to survey ministers and members of congregations about the personality types of ministers, and what level of tension might exist between actual personality types and the aspirations of churches. It won’t be the most scientific survey ever constructed, because I won’t have the facility to question an accurate cross-section. Respondents will inevitably be self-selecting to a certain extent, and that may well mean I attract answers from people who have stronger than average views. However, within those constraints, I hope I can learn to some extent whether the tensions I feel are substantially replicated elsewhere or not. 

As to distribution of the survey, I plan to host it on Survey Monkey, and possibly distribute it using Mail Chimp. Both these services have free options for those working small scale. I’ll find other ways of distributing the link to the survey through Methodist sources, Facebook and, naturally, here on the blog.

Finally, I was fiddling around in WordPress earlier and noticed that two weeks ago they had launched another new blog theme, Vigilance. It looks quite clean and is apparently customisable, so I think I might change over to that and then see what modifications I fancy making over the coming weeks. Let me know what you think of it. 

OK, time for bed, said Zebedee.

Sabbatical, Day 27: This Is Turning Into The George Kovoor Show

I met George Kovoor outside his office at 7:45 am for breakfast. One moment we were heading to a student common room to eat, the next we were going out for a fry-up at Asda. It was an exhilarating meeting. He told me about the impact of the context-based training at Trinity, where groups of students are based with a church long term. One congregation has grown from forty to a hundred and ninety in two years.

I heard too about the recovery of morale at a college that had slipped into the doldrums in recent years, and the exciting recovery. Certainly, there is a buzz around the place, and no-one had a bad word to say to me about George and his leadership. 

I had wondered why he was so keen to meet with me. He is keen to make use of alumni to promote the work of the college. I told him the amazing story of how God provided the money for me to study there. I’ve told it briefly once or twice on the blog. I don’t have time to do so now, as I’m typing this late at night. However, George would like me to recap it for the college mailshot. If I do PhD research, he is keen for me to do it through Trinity and knows exactly which tutor would be right as a supervisor. 

We covered other things too that are best kept private, much as they excited me. I could get him into trouble, and that’s the last thing I’d want to do for a visionary leader in God’s Church. 

George is such a vastly different person from me, one of the few people I have met of whom the description ‘larger than life’ is worthy. Yet he is sensitive to people of other dispositions. Meeting with him has been an exhilarating experience, and that is why I have written about him for three consecutive days. 

Final lectures followed this morning. Jerry Gilpin introduced us to the work of Meredith Belbin. I’d heard people speak of Belbin Team Rôles, but not done anything on it myself. Potentially very useful in putting together teams or diagnosing problems within them, if a little tricky to expect everyone to complete a questionnaire first!

Drove home this afternoon, giving a lift to a distance learning student who lives in east London. 

Glad to see the family, but time to sign off now for the night. More tomorrow, I hope.

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