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On Recycling And Moving Home

How is house moving for you? It’s stressful for most, if not all people. In the case of a minister, you are not just moving home but work base, too, if (like me and probably most British ministers) you work from home. In our forthcoming move, we are bringing together the following factors:

There are minimum standards for a Methodist minister’s house, but they vary hugely (that’s inevitable). When we moved here, we downsized from an Edwardian house with six bedrooms, two reception rooms and a huge kitchen that had once belonged to a Navy Admiral to a small three-bedroom house with a lounge-diner. We became Mr and Mrs eBay as we prepared to move. Now, we are moving back up the scale to a four-bedroom house with separate lounge and dining room, plus a conservatory. Whereas here it has been difficult to offer hospitality, in the new manse it will be eminently possible, and we need to kit ourselves out to that effect.

To do that, we need to rid ourselves of certain items, such as the small sofas we bought to squeeze into this house, a redundant wall unit, the current dining table and chairs and several other smaller things. We need to replace them with a new three-piece suite, conservatory furniture, a sideboard, and miscellaneous other items. How can we afford this? We have been given some generous financial gifts by the churches here, and we are sourcing good second-hand pieces on eBay. In some cases, we are using an excellent website called Shiply to arrange economical transporting of them. So this morning, we took delivery of the conservatory furniture we wanted, which came 150 miles, and which we could not reasonably have collected.

Next, we tried the local branch of Freecycle. If you don’t know Freecycle, it’s a great way to offer items you no longer need, or request things you do need. It’s all done by an email to a list that circulates around people in your geographical area. With our local branch, however, all emails have to go through moderators and can take up to two days to appear. When you do get rid of something, it also takes that length of time for the email you circulate telling people the item has gone to go round. In the meantime, you have to tell maybe ten other people that what they want is no longer available. However, most of the people who have collected from us have been grateful. Only the odd one or two have expected us to dance to their tunes.

In fact, Freecycle was so slow when we first started using it that in our frustration I rang the local council and booked a delivery slot for them to take away some of our stuff. I didn’t want to do that for two reasons: one, it would go to landfill, and two, I had to pay! Thankfully, as of tonight everything I had asked the council to come and take next week has finally gone on Freecycle. Tomorrow I get to ring the council again and see whether I can get a refund.

I can’t help thinking all this could be a lot simpler. Maybe you could strip the moderation out of Freecycle and just ban those who break the rules. All I do know is that I’m glad we have a three-week break between me taking my final service last Sunday and our actual moving date! Right now, I wouldn’t have time for ministry!

So – do you have any tips to share on successful ethical disposal of possessions? Do you have any stories about moving to share? I hope nobody has had incidents like this one.

Sabbatical, Day 45: The Gospel At The Post Office

You don’t go to our local Post Office when it opens on a Monday at 9 am. Not unless you need your benefits payment. The queue slithers out of the door and along the street. You’d better have something to occupy your mind.

For although our manse is on a prosperous estate, the nearest Post Office is across the park in a deprived area of town. It’s the only part of Chelmsford to have a tower block.

And, it turns out, you also don’t go there on a Tuesday at 9 am for the same reason. I know, I did that today. To keep things manageable in our small manse, Debbie sells toys, books and clothes the children have grown out of on eBay. She has sold about two dozen items in the last ten days, and I have been taking most of them to the Post Office for her. 

As I waited today, distracting myself with music on my MP3 player, I looked at the variety of people waiting. The tracksuited teenage couple with their toddler. Already, the mother was getting irritated by the child’s independent exploratory jaunts. The mother and adult daughter. Was one of them long term sick? The short, elderly lady immaculately turned out in a red coat far cleaner than any garment most other people were wearing. It was her public signal of dignity. The preponderance of up-to-date mobile phones, clutched by people whose demeanour suggested they couldn’t afford them.

And I thought, what is good news in a culture like this? I lived in such a place for eight years before moving here. Often, there was terrible low self-esteem there. People had been  rejected, dismissed and ignored by governments and commerce. You would have thought it were a simple case of ‘good news for the poor’.

But it wasn’t. For just as the good news is preceded by bad news as Wesley put it (preach law and then preach grace), there was the attitude that society owed them a living. 

Somewhere in between those two attitudes locally is something my local vicar friend Paul has described to me. His parish strides across half of our middle class estate and half of the deprived area. In one half, he has competent, educated, professional people who will volunteer for activities and get things done. In the other, he has people who either cannot or will not take the initiative to do things, because they swim in a culture where everything is done for them. Either they are disabled by that, or they have reason never to grow as people by taking more responsibility.

So what is the shape of the Gospel in such a place? I’m still wondering.


This made me laugh: British nurse told to ‘take English test’ before she can work in Australia. The Daily Mail has gone all morally superior over another easy target case of ‘political correctness gone mad’ (™) but it is crazy. However, it does make a change from the Mail criticising people in this country who can’t speak English. 

Anyway, Happy St Patrick’s Day to you. I commend May We All Be Irish by James Emery White as a suitable Christian reflection for the day.

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.

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). 

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.

Sabbatical, Day 7

Just a quick post tonight as I’m busy packing for the drive to Cliff College tomorrow. The weather forecast for the Peak District tomorrow isn’t as sinister as it sounded a couple of days ago, so it looks like the trip is on after all.

By the way, if you’re in the UK, check out the new Weather Beta service on the BBC site. Much improved. You can set several favourite places, see three-hourly forecasts for them for the next twenty-four hours, and a five-day forecast. Plus you can see a video of the forecast on the relevant BBC regional news programme.

Today has had little overt sabbatical work. I took Mark to the library this morning while Debbie took Rebekah to her ballet lesson. This afternoon I took Rebekah into town while Debbie took Mark to a party.

Coming home, I went to check and pump up my tyres ready for tomorrow. Having trouble with the digital pump I have that plugs into the cigarette lighter, I borrowed Debbie’s foot pump. However, I have some kind of Midas touch, except that rather than everything I touch turning to gold, it tends to break. She has just ordered a new pump off eBay. After that, my pump more or less decided to work – well, enough to get the requisite quantities of air into every tyre.

Tonight I’ve tried to catch up on comments here on the blog, and apologies again if my replies have had to be brief. I’ve also been photographing objects Debbie wants to sell on eBay.

If you have a moment, say the odd prayer for our children. They’re not happy about me going away for five days, and aren’t used to me disappearing like this. And it’s the first of three such trips during the sabbatical. Thanks.

Hopefully the next update will be via wifi or mobile broadband from Cliff tomorrow night.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 1: Some Introductory Notes

As reported in recent posts, I have been typing up some quick notes on The Starfish And The Spider as part of my sabbatical work. I have split them into several parts. They will appear over the next few days, one part per day. You will find certain themes recurring, not least those of humility and trust.

I am following a convention in that my comments should appear in a different colour from the rest of the text.

I would be very interested in your comments.

So here goes with some introductory words.

The main thesis of the book lies in the metaphor to which the title alludes. Historic organisations are like spiders, with a central control point of a brain. If the legs are progressively removed, the organisation is crippled more and more. Starfish are different. There is no central nervous system. Neural characteristics are distributed throughout their body. Cut a starfish into two and they will both grow into new, separate creatures. Today, we are seeing similar changes in companies and organisations in society. On the Internet, P2P networks, eBay, craigslist and others all exhibit this starfish characteristic. Similarly, political campaigning organisations such as the Animal Liberation Front and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda operate like this.

Historically, tribes like the Apaches were able to survive the attacks of Cortes because they were decentralised and ‘leaderless’, unlike the Aztecs and Incas, who were simply weaker spiders than the Spanish spider.

The book examines the characteristics of starfish groups in more detail, considers how they might be countered and looks at hybrid companies that combine elements of starfish and spider.

My interest in the book comes from it having become influential in emerging and missional church circles. I want to consider how far its models are consonant with a biblically rooted faith, and how far it is simply a business management model that has been as uncritically adopted in these parts of the church as the consumer corporation approach, where the senior pastor is the CEO, has in megachurch and other post-Enlightenment style churches.

Centralised organisations have a coercive structure and they need this to function well. Decentralised groups have an open structure. Leaders have influence through their example but not power. Rules exist, but they are not enforced from the top, they are distributed across the network. Decisions can be made anywhere. How does this compare with apostolic ministry? Paul has authority, but he has to plead and exhort; he also calls people to imitate him as he imitates Christ. It is not completely decentralised, although Paul himself pops up separately from the original apostles. However, it seems far from later and contemporary authoritarian or centralised models of church and leadership. There is a question here about the biblical appropriateness of much church leadership. 1 Thessalonians 5:12ff talks about ‘leaders’ in the church who ‘are over you’, but the basis for their receiving respect is their ‘hard work’.

Epiphany And The Recession

Today is Epiphany, the day millions of Christians have traditionally celebrated as the appearing of the Christ. It is particularly associated with the visit of the Magi.

Yet in the UK today marks less an appearing than a disappearing. The last Woolworths shops have closed their doors tonight. That is especially poignant in our house. They were my wife’s first employer, initially when she did a ‘Saturday job’ while at school. Then, when she left school, they took her on full time.

A couple of weeks ago, we walked through the Chelmsford store and tried to explain to our small children that it would be closing forever. This place where they had enjoyed getting a tub of ‘Pick and Mix’ sweets,and  where we had bought toys and cheap Ladybird clothes for them, would be no more. Rebekah cried inconsolable tears. How do you explain ‘recession’ to a five-year-old? I’m no economist (which is partly why I’ve been loath to say too much on the subject), and I find it hard to understand.

Looking on as an adult consumer, it’s easy to see where Woolies fell down. They fell betwixt and between, a Jack of all trades, master of none, with no clear vision. What kind of a shop was it? Something of a hotch-potch in recent years, doing several things reasonably but none of them well.

And that makes them sound like many churches. They try to do this, that and everything, because X, Y and Z are all things that a church should supposedly do, but they overstretch themselves and do few of them well. I received a good piece of advice early on from a minister friend called Paul Ashby. He said, “No church is the complete Body of Christ.” We don’t need to do it all. I don’t see anything wrong in an individual congregation specialising. It happens to an extent, even when we don’t acknowledge it, simply through the kind of people in a said church and its location.

Yes, there are shops that want to do a bit of everything, notably the major supermarkets, which have gone way beyond groceries. However, they have done so from positions of economic strength and market dominance, much in the way a large church can cover a lot of bases. But we aren’t all large supermarkets or megachurches.

Likewise, we’ve had the news in the last twenty-four hours that Waterford Wedgwood has gone into administration. Who’s buying bone china tea services any more? Not us. When we moved from our six-bedroom manse in the last circuit to our small three-bedroom house here, we had to downsize considerably. Not without cause did we call ourselves Mr and Mrs eBay. Among the possessions to go were our cups and saucers. We decided to rely entirely on mugs. They are far more acceptable today than the day when it seemed like only builders drank from one. Moreover, when we hear about the need to take in sufficient fluid, who wants a small cup? Even some churches are dispensing with the hideous green crockery! Besides, I need a pint mug of tea to get me going first thing in the morning.

All of which implies for me that a company like Wedgwood has had too narrow a vision. I can best illustrate what I mean by reproducing a story I found in the December 1990 edition of the now defunct MARC Newsletter. It came from an article entitled ‘Doing research with eyes to see’ by Bryant Myers:

There is a story of a company that manufactured drill bits for over forty years. It had been very successful, but the industry was maturing and profit margins were getting thin.

The son of the founder attended his first senior staff meeting after his father died.

“What business are we in?” he asked the older men, who had served alongside his father for many years.

“We make drill bits!” came the exasperated answer. “Our customers need drill bits.”

“No. Our customers need holes,” the young man quietly replied. Today the company is again successful. In addition to drill bits, it manufactures lasers that make very precise holes.

And maybe that too has been a problem in many churches. We have made drill bits instead of holes. I’m not arguing for some corporate-style approach to vision and mission statements, but I am saying that a time of crisis is one that should make us remember the basics of why we exist.

That’s where I get into my usual points about the fundamental orientation of the church being missional. Too often, if you ask church members what the purpose of the church is, they will answer ‘worship’. And while if you push them they will accept that worship is more than the Sunday service, it is everyday lifestyle, really the heart of the answer betrays an assumption that the Sunday morning gathering is the main event.

I don’t wish to disparage Sunday worship at all. But defining ourselves by worship has ironically turned us in on ourselves instead of focussing on God, who is the object of our worship. When the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost in Acts 2, it is hard to know where you draw the line between worship and mission that day.

What I’m saying, then, is that the pressure of the recession has exposed problems of confused vision in companies. The confused vision on its own hasn’t taken them under, but it has left them vulnerable at a time when the economy stopped swinging. Sadly too it is often only a crisis that makes us notice the confused vision in our churches.

There is much more to be said about the moral dimension of the recession itself. I particularly commend a blog post from Sunday by Dave Perry, in which he notes the remarks of a secular journalist who wonders whether the recession will make us a better country. ‘Can we spend our way out of emptiness?’ asks Dave, implying of course a ‘no’.

Similarly, I commend a podcast of a sermon by Ken Costa entitled ‘Surviving The Financial Tsunami‘. Costa is a church warden at Holy Trinity Brompton and chair of Lazard International. As well as some gentle pastoral advice for those facing financial woes at present, he identifies the current crisis as a ‘shaking’ from God, yet eschewing any easy claims to it being divine judgment. Having said that, the sermon carries a clear call to a fundamental change of the values by which we live – as individuals, as commerce and as nations. There is a useful comparison with the downfall of Tyre in Ezekiel 27.

We finally moved

Long time no blog. It’s three and a half weeks since we moved and finally we’ve nearly unpacked everything. A combination of moving with two small children plus having to move rather closer to the date I was beginning ministry here have had their effect. Just got to set up the hi-fi now, I think.

It’s a much smaller house. We knew that, of course. We’d been Mr and Mrs eBay for several months prior to the move. Some much-loved old possessions had to go. In my case I said goodbye to over a thousand vinyl LPs. Some I sold, others had to go to the dump.

But the house has been beautifully decorated and refurbished. A working party from one of my churches removed all the prickly plants from the garden to make it safe for our children. Some basic food and drink was here for us to see us through our first few days. They even bought some toys to amuse the kids while the removal men did their work.

We’ve also found them to be uncommonly principled and generous in what they pay for expenses, too. The circuit stewards (don’t worry if you’re not a Methodist, it’s simply the senior ‘lay’ office in a Methodist circuit) had told us repeatedly that they look after their ministers.

We’ve also found it to be a lovely area for bringing up the children. The area where our manse was situated in the last appointment was pretty grim. In the Old Testament ‘salvation’ can mean being brought into a spacious place: the house here may not be spacious, but the area has that feel. We feel peaceful about our children being here.

So if I think of the move as also being a spiritual journey what have I learned so far from it? A number of things:

I’ve learned to do without some cherished possessions. However I shouldn’t sound too virtuously ascetic there, because we were able to buy a new digital SLR camera, so I can revive an old hobby. I had had to sell my old film SLR gear.

Then there is the love we have received. It’s been amazing. The mantra we kept hearing, “We look after our ministers”, had been hard to believe before we came, mainly due to previous bad experiences, where much was trumpeted and little delivered. I have to learn not to let old scars damage the way I treat new people. I thought I was better at that than I obviously am.

Not that I am expecting a picnic here. I am clearly in a different spiritual tradition to at least two of the three churches I am serving, but we’ll see how it goes. We firmly believed God had led us to accept this appointment, and we wait to see some of the reasons why he brought us here. Watch this space.

You Can Never Go Back Home

Well, it’s been a full six days since I’ve blogged. Life has been manic. We are busy selling possessions bit by bit on eBay (if you want to see what we’re currently selling, I pasted some code into the home page of my main website). Then there is all the protracted negotiations over work to the manse where we shall be moving in August. I might do some real minister’s work some day soon.

But last Sunday was a highlight. I had been invited back to the church where I grew up to take their Church Anniversary. It has changed so much, and for the better. Only the ‘old guard’ remember me from thirteen years ago. It was great to catch up with them, embarrassing when I’d forgotten someone’s name or didn’t recognise them, of course, but also thrilling that there were so many people there who didn’t know me from Adam. A church that had between sixty and eighty adults on a Sunday morning when I left now has about one hundred and seventy, plus fifty to sixty children and teenagers.

The most heartening change was this, though: even by the time I left the majority of the congregation had become majority African-Caribbean (and woe betide you if you mixed up the Ghanaians with the Nigerians, or assumed that somebody from Montserrat was Jamaican!). However it was still in many ways a ‘white’ church. I remember when the first West Indian became a church steward. All the usual comments came out about not understanding what he said when he gave out the notices in a service. But now all the stewards are black and it was apparent that the lady on duty on Sunday morning could comfortably do her duties in the vestry and in the worship gathering in a way appropriate to her culture, and it was now the norm. Her greeting was very West Indian in style, the choir sang a few pieces before the service that would have been known back home in the islands, and so on. No longer were they marginalised, now their culture was at last central to the way the church functioned.

So you can never go back home and find it just as you remembered it, and my sermon took up that theme, with reference to postmodern culture. Too many churches behave like that: a yearning for ‘how it used to be’ when we actually have to live in a different world. Even the West Indians and Africans at my old church, although they bring their customs into worship now and do not suffer the stigma of the past, cannot simply recreate how it once was back home. And for the younger generations, ‘back home’ never was their home: this place is.

It would be interesting to see what shape that church takes if Methodism ever sends them a black minister. That hasn’t happened yet, although I’d hate that to be read in any way as casting an aspersion on the current minister, because he was wonderful in facilitating things for me, and he seems to be regarded very warmly. I just hope he isn’t treated with the old colonial-style deference.