Monthly Archives: February 2009

Sabbatical, Day 18

Thank you to everyone who has offered prayers and advice regarding Mark’s illness. He has now been clear of vomiting for two days, but the problem has moved to the other end. He remains reluctant to eat, which brings back all the fears of the two years (only recently ended) during which he barely picked at food. However, it could just be the bug. He also remains pretty tired.

Today, I drove to Kent and picked up Rebekah from her sleepover. She had been rather subdued, but was much closer to her usual more-bouncy-than-Tigger self today. Pat, her old childminder, has come to stay with us for two days.

On the way back, we were coming over the new bridge-like slip road from the A2 to the M25 when we hit one of those first-gear-if-you’re lucky traffic jams. It did not surprise us remotely when it cleared the moment we got through the tolls at the Dartford Crossing. Tolls were introduced here with the south-to-north tunnels and the north-to-south Queen Elizabeth II bridge. Once the bridge was paid for, they were due to be abolished.

But governments are good at lying. Or at least of playing along with a previous administration’s policy, and then changing when it suits them. So, as is well known, once the crossing was paid for, the tolls were kept in place. Now it is supposedly a congestion charge. So let’s just call that the lie that it is. When the tolls cause traffic to stack up in the way they do, fuel consumption worsens badly. Therefore they do not save environmental damage, they cause more pollution. It can hardly be argued that the tolls work by deterring people from taking that route and that if they were abolished more people would use it for two reasons. Firstly, those on the route often have little practical alternative. Secondly, the few who might change would be on the roads anyway. No, the Dartford tolls only increase greenhouse gas emissions and human tempers. So let’s just call the government a big fat teller of porkies. I know people will find it hard to believe in a dishonest government, but there you go.

So little has happened on sabbatical topics today. However, I have just noticed this report on the BBC News site: the Vatican says that the two sexes ‘sin in different ways’. Never mind personality differences, there are sex differences in terms of preferences for the classic seven deadly sins. For women, the popularity of sins comes in the following order:

1. Pride
2. Envy
3. Anger 
4. Lust
5. Gluttony
6. Avarice
7. Sloth.

For men, it is 

1. Lust
2. Gluttony
3. Sloth
4. Anger
5. Pride
6. Envy
7. Greed.

So now you know. The top three in the men’s list sounds very much like the profile for certain seedy men’s magazines, such as Zoo and Nuts (which I’m not going to dignify with links).

The Vatican is reacting to a decline in the practice of personal confession. One third of Catholics no longer consider confession to a priest necessary, and one in ten consider it an obstacle to their relationship with God. All this, despite the fact that the Catholic Catechism still states that 

“immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into Hell”.

The objections to confession sound vaguely similar to traditional Protestant objections to the rôle of a mediator between humans and God other than Jesus Christ. All this at a time when some streams and traditions emanating from Protestantism are rediscovering the importance of accountability groups, which may not have the formalised place for the priest, but which can respect the injunction in the Letter of James that we should confess our faults to one another. I don’t suppose we’re going to wave to each other as we pass one another going in the opposite directions, but isn’t this one of those cases where it would be good to listen carefully to one another and pick out strengths and weaknesses from the various traditions? 

Finally tonight, something that should have drawn a comment from me yesterday. I visit an osteopath every couple of months, as I have previously written. Yesterday, I saw Tom again. In addition to treatment for my usual neck and back issues, I mentioned that a practice nurse at our doctor’s surgery had recently diagnosed some pain in my heel as plantar fasciitis.

Tom being Tom, he not only proceeded to treat it and give me some exercises to do, he launched into an explanation of the condition and the physiology. He told me how the plantar fascia is like a mesh that changes shape, tensing and relaxing, in relation to the movement of the foot and pressure on it, and said something about energy storage that I confess I don’t now understand. He explained how the fascia is linked to the calf muscle. When the latter is tight all the time, it puts strain on the plantar fascia. Therefore, he prescribed some gentle stretching exercises for the calf muscle that would release it and therefore relieve the plantar fascia. He said that unless we started to work quickly, the condition would set in for months and months. 

In the midst of the explanation about how things should work in this part of the body, Tom suddenly said, “He thought of everything, didn’t he?” Now Tom knows my profession and has dropped hints before about believing in God. It was he and not my previous, Christian, osteopath, who told me that the discipline was founded by a Christian, Andrew Taylor Still. However, one thing Tom has never suggested to me that he is a Christian or a disciple of any other faith.

I imagine he might be one of the many who hold to a belief in God without ‘formalising’ it, but my concern here is less with theorising about his convictions. My point is that I wasn’t ready, even within a friendly, warm relationship to make an appropriate response. Sometimes I am so into building a good relationship with someone and avoiding the preachiness of my Christian youth that when an opportunity for spiritual conversation comes up, I blow it. Someone must know how to keep a good balance!

Sabbatical, Day 17

He may not have vomited again today, but Mark remains far from well. He was awake most of last night, complaining of painful legs and stomach. I took him to the doctor today. She said it was potassium depletion, caused by the sickness. He needed Dioralyte and potassium-rich food. Just one problem: when Mark is ill, he won’t eat. Only back in December did he start eating healthily again for the first time in two years, a spate that began with – yes, an illness. Tonight he wouldn’t even eat his favourite sausages and broccoli. I couldn’t convince his four-year-old brain that eating would help take away the pain of which he was complaining. All he wanted was his bed. We’re hoping and praying we’re not into another protracted spell of refusing food. 

First thing this morning, Rebekah twice thought she was going to be sick, too. And since the doctor later in the morning told me that every GP in the practice was seeing two or three children every day with this virus, we wouldn’t have been surprised. She was distraught, because today she was due to travel to Kent for a sleepover with her old childminder. By late morning, nothing untoward had happened and so we relented. However, we’ve spoken to Pat the childminder this evening and she says Rebekah is unusually quiet. We wonder whether she is brewing the bug, and has been putting a brave face on things today, just to get her sleepover. 

With all these family concerns, then, today has not been a day for much progress with the sabbatical. I did manage to read sixty pages of Goldsmith and Wharton’s book that I mentioned yesterday. I used to think I was sure which Myers Briggs type Debbie was, now I’m not so sure after reading the pen portraits. I’m only certain she’s extraverted, but you wouldn’t need a psychologist to tell you that!

I did, however, think it might be worth emailing Trinity College, Bristol, where I am due to be next week to look at this question of ministry and personality type within a wider course entitled ‘Management, Leadership and Professional Practice’. It’s a good job I did. They had forgotten to book me in. That’s all corrected now, and it’s all systems go. 

Time to sign off for today, I don’t fancy being late to bed after last night’s disturbances with poor little Mark.

Sabbatical, Day 16

We thought Mark was getting better. He wasn’t. A persistent tummyache, followed by spectacular vomiting this afternoon has proved he still has a long way to go. So much for a twenty-four-hour bug.

Rebekah has also been struggling on and off with a headache over the weekend and today. Thankfully, it had disappeared by bedtime. Hopefully she is on the way up, and Mark will be before too long. It isn’t how they’d want to spend half term.

All of which means I haven’t done that much today. However, one theme of my sabbatical is meant to be about faith and technology. Really it’s bottom of the list, ‘do something on this if I have time’. Yet I’ve found more than one blogger (Brother Maynard was one of the most recent) point to an interesting article by Kevin Kelly called Amish Hackers. This is fascinating. Kelly debunks the popular image of the Amish as hostile to technology. The Old Order Amish may fit that image to a large degree, but it isn’t true of all Amish streams, he says. What does he say? Here are some important themes.

Firstly, the Amish tend to use technology without owning it. Someone who is part of the Amish community but who works outside (there isn’t enough work on all the farms for them all) may well hire a car or a taxi to get to and from work. There are even Amish websites, often put together in local libraries.

When I first read this, I thought it was a hypocritical stance: we don’t want to own something, but we want to get all the benefits. However, on reflection, I think they are trying to enshrine an important point. It’s the problem of possessions and idolatry. That which we possess often ends up possessing us. Have they found a way to guard against temptations to idolatry? Someone somewhere still has to own the car or computer, but they do seem to be onto something important. 

Secondly, their attitude to technology is not so much negative as cautious. They do not assume that new inventions are automatically bad. Instead, some Amish who are excited by an invention will go to their bishops and ask for permission to trial it. The bishops will often let them in order that the technology may be evaluated to see whether it would benefit the community. They have been trialling mobile phones since 1999, and the bishops could still say ‘no’. If the bishops do decide something would be harmful, the early adopters have to relinquish it.

What’s important about this? It’s the emphasis upon community, that much-overused-yet-sucked-of-its-meaning word in other Christian circles. The well-being (shalom?) of the community is paramount. Individual preferenes have to be subsumed to the church. The initial objection to cars a hundred years ago was about the danger of unbridled mobility in taking people away from enriching the local community: they would not shop locally or visit the sick on Sunday. I don’t think this is the way Marxism despises the individual in favour of the society to the point that people are but cogs in the machine, but it is a profound sense that we are not merely redeemed individuals, we are called into a redeemed community. 

As Kelly observes, we haven’t seen any evidence of widespread social relinquishment in broader society. He realises it isn’t simply about a mass boycott (we’ve seen them, albeit not generally permanent), but also mutual support. The Amish have a closeness of relationship in order to provide that, too. Social relinquishment is very difficult in a technological-consumerist society as ours, even in a recession. 

Not only that, there is a process of discernment going on here that goes beyond the wooden application of texts by some fundamentalists. You can query how long the bishops take to evaluate not only the usefulness but also the goodness of an invention, and it does – according to Kelly – put the Amish about fifty years behind the rest of society. However, this is a serious attempt to find the mind of Christ.

Have a look at the article for yourself. Do offer your comments here. I think it’s intriguing. Naturally, as a lover of technology, I think the Amish are too cautious, but my image of them has changed radically and I have to admire their profoundly Christian values that they bring to the subject. 

One last thing before signing off. Next week is my second trip as part of the sabbatical, when I shall be visiting Trinity College, Bristol to study ministry and personality type. I began dipping into one book I already have that touches on the subject, Knowing Me Knowing You by Malcolm Goldsmith and Martin Wharton. At the end of the introduction, they mention two books that have shaped their thinking: Prayer and Temperament by Chester P Michael and Marie C Norrisey and Personality Type And Religious Leadership by Roy M Oswald and Otto Kroeger. Goldsmith and Wharton’s book was published in 1993, so these other two titles will be older. Does anybody know them and are they any good? Michael and Norrisey’s book has two good reviews on Amazon, and seems to be written from a Catholic perspective. Likewise, Oswald and Kroeger get one five-star review. 

Does anyone know any other decent works in this field? Searching on Amazon uncovered Who We are is How We Pray: Matching Personality and Spirituality by Charles J Keating. It also found Prayer Life: How Your Personality Affects the Way You Pray by Pablo Martinez. However, while personality type and prayer is helpful and interesting, my primary focus is about ministry and leadership issues in relation to personality type. 

The course at Trinity uses the Myers Briggs Type Indicator as its basis, so work connected to that approach would be especially helpful. However, if you know material that comes from other approaches, particularly that of Hans Eysenck, I’d be quite interested, too.

I mentioned this theme before on Day 5 of the sabbatical, but didn’t make any particular appeal regarding literature, and it provoked some helpful comments, and Tess Giles recommended some reading on the Enneagram. However, this time I want to appeal a little more specifically regarding literature on the ministry and personality issue, especially looking at Myers Briggs, whether favourable or critical. Thanks for any help you can offer.

Sabbatical, Day 15

Change of plan today. We were all set to visit Holy Trinity church, Springfield, but little Mark woke up vomiting. Debbie said she’d stay at home with him while I took Rebekah to church. However, she was nervous about going into a Sunday School on her own where she didn’t know anyone. However, she had a Plan B. She said she’d prefer to go to a church where she knew some people.

One church fitted the description: our local parish church, St Andrew’s, where the vicar is my prayer partner, the curate is our next-door neighbour, the reader was one of the children’s pre-school teachers … and tens of other people, too. Checking their website, I learned that the third Sunday morning of the month was all-age worship. I explained to Rebekah that she wouldn’t be going out to Sunday School but would be staying in the service with me, where we would all do things together. She was happy, and off we went. 

It’s always interesting to see how another church handles these things. I think all-age worship is notoriously difficult to carry off well. It’s hard enough pitching something for a group of adults at some times. And it isn’t without cause that children are split into year groups at school to focus the teaching. (Even then, the teacher has a challenge.) With breadth of ability, background and so on, I envy any church that can turn in a good act of worship that helps people across the generations to connect together with God. For my part, I don’t assume that all-age worship or ‘family service’ simply equals ‘children’s service’. I try to include several little elements, each mainly pitched at a different group within the congregation.

So what did I think? Well, naturally I’m not going to write something here on a public blog that constitutes a review of worship largely led by good friends of mine. However, one observation struck me in particular. As an Anglican church, they are largely constrained to use official liturgies in their services. What we had this morning looked like it must be a General Synod-sanctioned order of service for all-age worship. It was like a cut-down version of Morning Prayer. However, if some liturgist thought this was sufficiently simplified to include children in the worship, then I’m afraid someone at Church House needs to meet some kids. I wouldn’t expect everything in even an act of all-age worship to be accessible to a nearly six-year-old, but I was on a permanent translation exercise with Rebekah. Phrases like ‘source of all life’ are way too philosophical and abstract to work with children. If only the liturgists had rewritten things in a more narrative form rather than thinking they had to give them a taste of Chalcedonian or Nicene Councils, it would have been promising.

Haveing nevertheless been sold a pup by the hierarchy, I have to say that St Andrew’s did put two or three good things into the service where they had the liberty to do so. The Bible reading was dramatised effectively. I still needed to explain to Rebekah what leprosy was, but I would have had to have done that anyway.

Then there was the use of a DVD clip at the end of the talk. The theme was how we exclude people whom God wants to include. They used Hans Christian Andersen singing ‘The Ugly Duckling’. It resonated with older people who remembered the song and/or the film, and children were invited to the front to get a better view. It made sense to them, too. 

Finally, one song in particular that I didn’t know but probably millions have known for aeons. Jim Bailey wrote a version of the Lord’s Prayer in the mid-90s (yes, 1990s) and I found it very singable. Definitely one to note for trying out when I return from sabbatical.

Welll, there’s nothing very interesting in blog terms to report about the rest of the day, as it mainly consisted of me taking Rebekah out while Debbie continued to stay home with Mark. But hopefully what I’ve written on the all-age worship will stimulate a conversation. I look forward to any comments you’d like to make.

Sabbatical, Day 14

Valentine’s Day. Debbie and I had it all worked out. A nice day with the children, then we’d pack them off to bed at the usual time and share a Marks and Spencer’s meal. 

And the day started so well. The children had signed Valentine’s cards to Mummy. They had also jointly signed one to me. But then they derailed things.

For the better, I might add. This evening’s quiet meal somehow ended up off the agenda in favour of a family lunch trip to Pizza Hut. And since I had been away for five days until yesterday, I think a family meal out was probably the better option. Our romantic evening has instead become me clearing down hundreds of emails that arrived while I was away (no exaggeration – I’ve deleted four hundred) and Debbie doing the ironing.

However – in response to popular demand – well, one comment by Olive – here is some more information on what I sketched last night about ‘the life cycle of a congregation’. I don’t have time to rework this substantially, so what follows is simply a copy and paste from OpenOffice of the notes I made in Stephen Skuce‘s lecture. Therefore, please be aware that the structure of what follows is his, not mine. All that is mine is my attempt to record as faithfully as possible what he was sharing with us in the lecture. I went straight from this lecture to coffee and then drove home. There are some compelling parallels with a lot of church experience, but also some gaping holes, as he indicates in the section entitled ‘reflections’. But I hope they might lead to a useful debate in the comments below.



Understanding this helps us know where we are and help us diagnose what to do next. Various proponents can be found on the web, including George Bullard.

Western linear thinking – but much of life is cyclical.

Gene structure of a congregation (Bullard)

  1. E-factor is concerned with energising a congregation or group, such as a project within a congregation.

  2. P-factor is for programmes and schemes. A congregation that is to become stabilised and growing needs structures.

  3. A-factor is concerned with intentionality. The way a congregation expresses itself in mission statements, and how human and financial resources can be used efficiently. Specific goals, outcomes, plans.

  4. I-factor is concerned with inclusion. How are individuals and groups drawn in and assimilated into the congregation. How are factors like power and conflict handled?

Ascent scale of a life cycle

  1. Birth – high energy levels, organised around vision, or the charisma of the founder. So many ideas bubbling up they can’t cope. The need isn’t dreams and visions but needing to broaden the congregation in order to carry them all out. People are generally very unified in a church plant, because they have all chosen to be part of the project.

  2. Infancy – time scale of this move from 1 above is hugely variable. The high quality of personal relationships matches the enthusiasm. High level of inclusion immediately. Programmes not particularly developed or thought through: this is not a problem. One or two who were present at birth may have drifted away, however. Time needs spending to develop the sense of mission. Ministries start to develop – worship team, social caring project, etc. Distinct roles and places within the church, rather than stage 1 where everyone pitches in everywhere.

  3. Adolescence – energy levels high, focussed on development of congregation. Everyone busy. Early unrealistic idealism has been curtailed. Not completely seeing eye to eye over future direction any more, although not falling out. Early leaders from stage 1 are beginning to take a less active role. The church planters are moving off to start something else. Others have been burnt out already. Paid staff may burn out. Membership still needs to be broadened to cover a range of interests and different understandings of faith.

  4. Prime – by now comparatively a large and successful congregation with strong interaction between inner and outer members. Intentional and inclusive. Still working well for newcomers who join. A number of programmes, which are organised, visible and attractive. We are pastorally caring for one another. By this stage the danger of the dominance of one or more groups has started to emerge. Youth leaders and children’s leaders may conflict, for example. Separate roles become more important than the group identity. Starting to splinter. Conflict resolution skills need to be developed in order to keep things smooth. Overall the church still moves where it’s meant to be going. Visitors from elsewhere come to see good practice. Commitment levels and financial giving are both high.

Descent scale of a congregation

  1. Maturity – hard to distinguish from ‘prime’. The movement happens as soon as the repeat of good practice is desired. Comfort zone instead of risk-taking. Maintaining high standards mean that changes start to be questioned. Still a good welcome for newcomers, but those who are a little different don’t fit in so well. Church members very busy, just not quite so enthusiastic as they were before, because they’ve been busy for a long time. Members feel important and affirmed. Corporate vision of the church, e.g., mission statements begin to develop, even though they become an exercise in navel-gazing.

  2. Aristocracy – more like a club than a church. Busy but not energetic. People enjoy coming to meet their friends. They defend their positions and territory. Status and inclusiveness can be factor. Dwindling base of support as fewer newer and younger people join. Newer and enthusiastic members are not joining. Lost sense of mission. Nobody can recite mission statement, even if it’s on all the stationery. A need to restore God’s sense of purpose through the history of the church. What was our secret in the past, and can we recapture it?

  3. Bureaucracy – people are disillusioned and the good old days are no longer sought. If loads of kids turned up we wouldn’t have the leaders. People defend status. Boundaries. People are a bit suspicious of each other – why are you doing that? Several factors induce the suspicion, but the reasons are lost in the mists of time. Structures are rigid. Hope still exist if the silent or powerless can be heard. Change is possible with new leadership (not the minister, because that post has been changing, but rather the key lay leaders).

  4. Death – the congregation is all about preserving the past or the building. The building is of great historical importance and the community would miss it if it weren’t there. Despair about the congregation’s future – it’s not going to last but it’s going to last while I’m alive. A hospice church, allowing me to live out my life of faith in ways I like until I can die with dignity. No missional impact in the community. Doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. You can’t change the hospice church, where people are now so tired and old and can’t change that now. Alternatives for the building or mergers with other churches or circuits are considered. We kid ourselves we’re doing it for mission and growth, but we’re doing it to eke out another ten years of existence. Mergers are like two drunks staggering out of the pub at closing time, holding onto each other, but they can’t and they collapse to the ground. More chance if congregations are going to come together if all the premises are sold and something completely new built.


  1. This may illustrate a relatively small congregation or groups and ministries within a large congregation.

  2. There is nothing inevitable about the growth or decline.

  3. It depends more on the spiritual leadership than on sociological factors.

  4. External factors, such as good or bad actions, can have a significant influence.

  5. The changes in the surrounding community are not included.

  6. Times of revival (as a God thing) are discounted in this analysis.

  7. Death is deserved if a church is apostate.

  8. What does the picture of the early church in Acts and more established congregations in Revelation 2-3 impact on this?


  • Bullard, G., ‘The Life Cycle Model’ (2007)

  • Grundy, M., Understanding Congregations (London: Mowbray, 1998)

  • Saarinen, M. F., ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’ in Action Information (Alban Institute, May/June 1986)

Sabbatical, Day 13

Just time for a very quick note before bedtime tonight. The course finished this morning, and I was home late afternoon, surprising the children by turning up at the birthday party of one of Rebekah’s friends to see them for the first time.

I’ll confine myself to mentioning the content of our final lecture this morning. This was on the theme of ‘the life cycle of a congregation’, based on the work of George Bullard and others. Roughly, there are eight typical phases in a church’s life (or of a group within a congregation). There are four stages of ascent, and four of descent. As we reflected, it seemed obvious that many Methodist churches are in the final three stages.

While the theory is open to criticism for ignoring certain factors, it still raises difficult and painful questions. Just tarting up existing church life is not an option. Such things only delay inevitable death. The kind of rationalisation going on in major denominations at present (in the case of Methodism, the amalgamation of circuits into even larger ones) is, said our lecturer, like two drunks stumbling out of a pub at closing time. They try to hold each other up, but eventually they collapse to the ground together. 

The only serious options are twofold. The first involves facing up to the specific issues that have caused decline, and that means having quite a grasp of a church’s history and then applying lessons from a deeply spiritual perspective. The second is to give the church ‘hospice care’ and look to raise up something different in its place.

If that interests you, I’m sorry this is short and tantalising. Maybe something longer another time.

Sabbatical, Day 12

Yesterday, Olivia Newton-John. Today, the Rolling Stones. Mixed emotions, that is.After breakfast today, I helped another minister lead a communion service for the college body in the chapel. She had found some excellent material in Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson‘s book ‘Nothing Too Religious‘, including a powerful retelling of the institution of the Lord’s Supper that we used as a thanksgiving prayer.

An intriguing morning either side of coffee with Nick Helm, the Bishop of Sheffield’s Advisor in Spirituality. He lectured us on spiritual direction. Quite a lively debate ensued about the similarities with, and differences from pastoral care and Christian counselling. The second half was less lively, being a rather protracted history of the movement. That could have been shortened and we could have got into more meat, I think. But stimulating.

This afternoon, though, Phil Meadows once again led us into powerful and painful places, spiritually. His subject was Anabaptist Discipleship. He emphasised just how radical their rejection of infant baptism was, because it also conferred citizenship of the state. Rejecting it in favour of believers’ baptism was an act of civil disobedience. Hence, given the (unholy, in my opinion) alliance between the Magisterial Reformers and the state, vicious persecution followed. This was the first example of Protestant persecution of other believers. Phil shared with us two stories, including that of Michael Sattler. To hear the details of the persecution reduced some of us to tears: me for one. Hearing about their children just did for me.

Phil’s point was that we don’t have tongue screws attached to prevent us preaching the Gospel, so what are our metaphorical tongue screws? What things have colonised our minds and hearts to prevent us sharing the Good News, at the risk of lesser persecution? Clearly, the Anabaptists held strongly to believing that Jesus was Lord of all creation, way above all earthly rulers.

I was relieved we had a coffee break followed by the MA students having tutorials and library time. So I wandered out of college into the nearby village where I found a craft and gift shop. I shall be returning tomorrow with little presents for the family.

This evening, a session in which Stephen Skuce argued that what he called ‘evangelism in the power of the Holy Spirit’ – namely, evangelism where there is a clear demonstration of God’s power (for example, healing) – is the normative form of Christian evangelism. Another debate on that one. Nobody here seriously doubts that God can and does work in that way, but an interesting and passionate discussion about the relationship between evangelism and signs and wonders, also bringing in the question of large-scale missions versus one-to-one sharing. We covered a lot of ground.

In between all this, I seem to have earned the reputation as the techie on the course for the week. I have been in demand to help people with what to me are simple tasks, but which to others are daunting. Installing a Java update and uninstalling earlier ones for security reasons. Discussing phishing emails. That kind of stuff. I’m only too conscious of those friends who know far more about this than I do, but I’m glad if I can put my moderate knowledge of the area to use in helping others.

I shall be leaving here after coffee tomorrow. The MAs have a final question and answer session, but there’s no point in me staying to that if the consequence were to be hitting the M25 at Friday rush-hour time, so I’m looking for an earlier getaway if I can. I shall be said to leave behind the teaching and spirituality of this place and the people I’ve met. However, I’ve missed Debbie and the children, and I’m looking forward to a happy reunion.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 8: There Are New Rules To The Game

Here is the final part of the series. You will see a number of recurring themes here, in what virtually amounts to the book’s own summary of itself.

1. Diseconomies of Scale – small outfits with minimal overheads can bring revolutions. How the church needs to hear that, in place of megachurches, buildings, stipends and so on. I seem to be doing myself out of a job!

2. The Network Effect – adding one more person to the network costs little but adds value to them and the existing network. Assumes greater sharing by new network members – this won’t work if we treat people as pew fodder.

3. The Power of Chaos – standardisation squelches creativity. In a starfish, anyone can have a go. Churches think of newcomers as those who can be fitted into the currently vacant jobs. We don’t start with people and see what they can do and then shape church around that.

4. Knowledge at the Edge – not just from on high but the margins too. (Typically postmodern!) Body of Christ metaphor. God works from the fringes, too.

5. Everyone Wants to Contribute – people join a starfish for this reason. This requires reconceiving received models of church if we are to operate as starfish. Many wouldn’t join us for this reason.

6. Beware the Hydra Response – attacking a starfish organisation conventionally generates a many-headed response. Again, I think of persecution in the early church. As they were attacked in one town, they fled to another and more churches began.

7. Catalysts Rule – they inspire people to action rather than running the show, and they know when to let go. However, if one becomes a CEO, the starfish is in jeopardy. This is a radically different vision for leadership. How easy it is to default to CEO.

8. The Values Are the Organisation – ideology is the fuel of the starfish. In the church we have too easily defaulted to ‘institution’ as the definition of organisation, whether it’s seeing episcopacy as the esse of the church (as in Anglo-Catholic theology), or in seeing recruitment of new members as a matter of maintaining the institution rather than sharing the Gospel.

9. Measure, Monitor and Manage – measurement still happens despite ambiguity, but in different ways. It looks at the activity of the circles, how distributed the network is, the health of a circle, continued participation of members, etc. They are more dynamic measurements than static numbers and harder to quantify. Puts a new light on the October Count for Methodists. How would we go about assessing the spiritual health of our groups? How would we handle the inevitable subjectivity? It would also require sensitive handling when the assessment is negative.

10. Flatten or Be Flattened – the power of decentralisation is causing more companies to flatten or at least become hybrids. Decentralisation looks chaotic, even like entropy, but it is powerful. This sounds like an argument of the ‘You must move with the times’ variety. The real question is whether decentralisation is consistent with Scripture. In many ways it is. We have to be wary of where particular applications contradict Christian theology, whether it is eBay‘s ‘people are basically good’ creed (which they couldn’t completely live with, hence the hybrid with PayPal) or the use of the theory in support of violence (al Qaeda, Animal Liberation Front). 

Sabbatical, Day 11

First of all, a bit of techie stuff: late last night I finally succeeded in installing Ubuntu Linux in a separate partition on the hard drive of my laptop. Previously, I’ve managed to install it within Windows using ‘wubi’ on our desktop, but that PC always protested regarding a separate installation. Anyway, I saw a suitable hand-holding article in Computeractive magazine in a newsagent last week. I bought it and it came in handy yesterday evening. So now I can have some fun.

Or so I thought. Ubuntu doesn’t recognise the wireless receiver in the laptop, so I can’t connect to the Internet through it while I’m here. Windows Vista only for that task. I’ll be able to use it when connected via an Ethernet cable to our router at home. Not exactly the flexibility you hope for with a laptop, but at least there is an operating system that will to some extent substitute should Windows ever fall over or crawl in RAM.

Anyway, to change the words of Olivia Newton-John, let’s get spiritual. The lectures have been extraordinary today, right from the get-go. Phil Meadows could hardly read a quote from Samuel Chadwick at the beginning of our first session this morning without weeping. A lecture that began in prayer ended in prayer, with some overcome by the power of the Spirit. A constant theme today has been pain at people in church not receiving Gospel basics. It hasn’t been the judgmentalism of such people that can be found in some evangelical circles: it has more been an agony. And the recurring response has been that we are just as free to proclaim the Gospel as we always have been, but with it we are free to be persecuted. There is a constant historical thread that people who have initiated reform or renewal in the church have done so from the margins (how postmodern is that? If you’ve followed my Starfish and the Spider posts, you’ll have seen it recurring there) and have suffered for doing so.

After lunch we had the coffee and cakes I mentioned yesterday. I ended up sitting again with Stephen Skuce, talking about all sorts of things from family to church life to – yes, the question of a PhD again. I shared a particular misgiving I have about the idea. Not the money: we’ll pray about that if it’s right. But I’ve been deeply concerned about motivation. I don’t want to explore this if it’s just an ego trip to get more alphabet soup after my name. Stephen encouraged me that there might be a number of worthy reasons for pursuing one. I really wasn’t ready for these conversations. Suddenly these ideas are accelerating and I’m thinking ‘Oo-er’. Clearly, I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth on Monday!

Well, I’m going to draw this to a close in a moment. I’m typing this whilst taking part in a chat with three other students about children’s openness to God and other aspects of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. Also, someone wants to find the Lego Gospel on the web and have a look. There are a few possible sites she might mean: The Brick Testament, this YouTube clip

or maybe this site.

See you tomorrow.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 7: The Hybrid Organisation

Part seven below – a bit shorter today.

Not everything about centralisation is bad. It is sometimes possible to hybridise spider and starfish philosophies in an organisation. There are two main types of hybrid:

1. A Centralised Company that Decentralises the Customer Experience – eBay is built on mutual trust between buyers and sellers – ‘people are basically good’ – but  PayPal operates on ‘no trust’. Amazon is centralised, but user reviews are read avidly. Some Christians are understandably nervous about the eBay creed that ‘people are basically good’, and rightly so, but a church will not function without trust. It also needs accountability.

2. A Centralised Company that Decentralises Internal Parts of the Business – e.g., make each section of the company independent and accountable on a profit-and-loss basis or use ‘appreciative inquiry’ to pair people from different parts of the company who share their ideas non-hierarchically. Methodist churches are not independent in this way, except for the schedules. Non-hierarchical sharing is probably something many would like, though, but may generally be resisted by some ministers.

The decentralised sweet spot is the point along the centralised-decentralised continuum that yields the best competitive position. It may change over time. This is a problem of agility for the church, an especially tricky issue for older churches.