i am not

15 04 2015

I am not the sum of my successes
I am not the sum of my failures
I am not this community’s only hope

I am not the number of people in my church
I am not the number of people who aren’t
I am not God’s employee

I am not holding the future of the kingdom in my next finely crafted sentence
I am not my statistics

I am not meant to grow a hard shell
I am not defined by what people think of me
I am not defined by the fact most people don’t think of me at all

I am not an island, immovable and independent 
I am not a plastic bag blown by the wind
I am not aware enough of my place in God’s heart

I am who I am because of who Jesus is
I am learning to start there
With him.

I am. 

This is something God spoke to me about at Spring Harvest. I forget it so easily. By God’s grace he uses the glorious ruins of ours lives. It’s the counter-cultural order of self-discovery:
1. who God is
2. who I am in God
3. who I am
4. who we are. 

If you appreciated this, you may also appreciate I am the vicar, I am, from the archive.

a complicated relationship with pride

1 10 2014

We church leaders have a complicated relationship with pride. We want to do things well; often we do do things well; and when when we do do things well, we worry more about whether everyone went away laughing at the word do-do than being proud that we did well.

None of us – hopefully – want to be ‘proud’. Not that bad sort of proud that lives on a pedestal and becomes arrogance. So, we easily fall into false humility instead. No no, it wasn’t me, it was the Lord! Bless the Lord for my wonderful preaching! I mean his wonderful speaking through this broken vessel…

And we’re back to do-do.


I thought long and hard about this when I finished my Snowdon challenge. Because I was proud. Seriously proud. Not badly, not arrogantly. Look, see, I’m already defending it. I was interested because I allowed myself to be proud. This was ok to be proud about. Why? Because I had worked flipping’ hard, trained for 3 months, run further and faster than ever before, taken on a big challenge, and succeeded. Yay!

So, why is that different from, say, feeling proud after a successful fun day, or assembly, or service. I put loads of work into all those; some are massive challenges. Challenge, success, pride. Yay! No?

It is different because we are not ‘meant’ to say that ‘we’ have done those things. Because without God, we couldn’t. And without God, I could have run Snowdon. Probably. But I think so many of us do ourselves down because we won’t let ourselves be proud at our achievements, because we fear becoming arrogant, self-serving, and, well, proud. And we all know what comes after pride…

But I am proud. Hopefully in a gentle, humble, but confident way, I am proud. Proud when I have played a part in helping someone stay dry from an addiction for several years; proud in being part of leading a church that has changed from 14 older ladies to enough for a harvest lunch for 50 (and that not being everyone) (eek, pride); proud to see young people we have influenced doing so well; proud when people grow and develop their faith; proud to have managed to hold together a diverse and complicated community, along with family and other responsibilities; proud to win Banstead Woods parkrun.

Are you proud?

Proud? Yes. And I think that God says, yes, be proud. Celebrate what is good. But temper it with humility, absorbing praise and then reflecting it upwards; knowing that we do all things in his strength, not our own. Because none of us want to be the arrogant church leader who looks down on everyone else’s church or ministry or lighting system. And anyway, most of us are not really arrogant, we’re insecure; we’re not proud, we’re terrified. But we are the people God has made us, with gifts and talents, and when God uses them, and when we work with him to hone them, that is something to be proud of.

We are not meant to be faceless, identikit personality-void vending machines of God-iness. We are meant to be ourselves, partnering with God, for the kingdom. So let’s be confident and tender and proud and humble.

I said it was complicated.    

staying faithful in a small church

25 02 2014

Small churches are important. And often unnoticed. So I was wonderfully surprised when I was recently asked to give a short training seminar in our Diocese called Staying Faithful in a Small Church. The unique privileges and problems of small churches are often overlooked by those from bigger churches. Subconsciously, bigger means more successful, leaders of larger churches are seen as more skilled therefore asked to do training, speak at events etc…and small churches are the ones that you go to to ‘learn’ before going somewhere ‘proper’. 

Small church. Big Vision. Realistic plan.

Small church. Big Vision. Realistic plan. Stay focused.

So, because I was asked, and not because I think I’m an expert or that this is in any way a definitive list, I offer you ten principles for staying faithful in a small church:

  1. Know your purpose 
    We are an open community of disciples, who gather to worship God, live the kingdom and serve the world. We are not a closed group of faithful people who maintain a shrine or a museum. We are not yesterday’s church but tomorrow’s church. We are not a social club, a community centre, or just a venue for a toddler group. We must know our primary purpose. To worship, to live, to serve. So do that well.  
  2. No more empty chairs
    Shrink the worship space to be realistic. Don’t lie to yourself about how many people are in your church, or are likely to turn up. We used to have 40 chairs for 15 people, so I took 10 away. It felt good when we had to put them back, and then get extra ones. It’s demoralising – and impractical – leading a service with a few people dotted over a large worship space. It may be comfortable for those already there, but it’s not welcoming to newcomers.
  3. Plan for growth
    Being small doesn’t mean you can’t have a big vision. We have one: the transformation of the St Helier estate. But it’s realistic: 1 person at a time. On a small estate church like ours, any more that that and we’d be overwhelmed. But plan for growth – it does need a plan. We got a colouring table ready so that if a child came, they would feel welcome. They did. We’ve now had Sunday School for 3 years with 5-15 kids. Our welcomers  used to count their friends in and close the doors, as no-one else was expected. Now they don’t. Grow a sense of expectation. Have a plan. 
  4. No more disheartening singing
    We have no musicians in the parish. We used to sing to organ backing tracks, but with just a handful of mostly older ladies and me, the singing was not great! So we soon moved on to singing to MP3’s from a laptop over the PA system. There are hundreds of suitable songs, and it takes a while to get used to but then it feels normal. Let’s face it, it’s no weirder than singing to a pipe organ. Now we sing a blend of traditional and current songs, from Wesley to Rend Collective. It took the pressure off the singing, and makes the congregation feel much fuller! You don’t need to be young to operate it – one of our laptop operators is in her late 70’s. It is much more welcoming to new people when the singing is filled out by the backing tracks.
  5. Share the jobs
    In a small church it is easy for (accidental) monopolies of power to occur, as the same people do the same jobs. So I created the “I’m happy to help list”, in which people could indicate what they wanted to help with, and what they didn’t. I know, it’s a rota. But it worked in sharing out the jobs, involving people who had felt sidelined and giving a break to those who felt they couldn’t stop doing things because nobody else would. It is also a great way of including new people. 
  6. Only do what you can resource 
    This might apply especially if you’re church is small because it has shrunk. You will need to shrink what you do to match your resources. An important role of a leader is to give permission for things to stop, rather than them being sustained for the sake of it. This can be tough, but we did it with an older ladies group and they appreciated being able to stop gracefully. It’s also important if you are a small church with an enthusiastic vicar who wants to change the world (!). Only do what you can resource. Fragility is ok – you live with it daily in a small church – and don’t take things on to ‘save them’. Let them go.  
  7. Be the vicar to the parish, not chaplain to the congregation
    Our church is small, but our parish has 20,000 people in. Be careful not to get drawn in to simply maintaining the church building and it’s faithful inhabitants. When we look outwards, so do (some of) our congregation. Tell them what you do – assemblies, occasional offices, hospitality – and learn what they do and praise it. It was looking outwards that began our detached youth work on the church roof a few years ago, which led to a previously unchurched young person being baptised. It means we might take our eye off the ball close to home, and that people need to realise Sunday isn’t actually the focal point of your week. Gasp. 

    bin us together lord

    bin us together lord

  8. Find your allies for change and growth
    Listen, pray, and watch. There will be those who surprise you in their acceptance and desire to see things grow. I was lucky in that most of our older ladies were so happy that they had a vicar and people were beginning to come that they forgave my informal style and lack of robes. In fact, because they know I love them, and that I understand the pain they feel at how small their once proud church had become, that they work with me and not against me. All those who were there when we arrived are still coming and 5 years and still the bedrock of service. I am forever grateful to them for that. 
  9. Connect to networks
    Small church leadership can be lonely. Find yourself supportive networks, and don’t be ashamed about your need for that. Whether it is chapter, or a the local church leaders breakfast; or maybe it is going to another church every now and then, or to conferences. Don’t be lonely, don’t feel nobody shares your experiences. This applies also to your personal life. Small churches can take over your life as you are the caretaker, the warden, the musician and the youth worker. Take your days off, maintain your hobby, which for me is being part of a running club. This is important! Oh, and read I am the vicar I am, of course. 
  10. Know yourself 
    Know your strengths and weaknesses, and build a team around yourself that compensate for them. Practically, and theologically. In a small church you might be the only voice they hear. Work out how to give different perspectives, and invite others to lead and preach. Know what makes you feel good, know what you default to when you are tired, and know when to ask for help. And know when to laugh. Nurture you sense of humour! You’ll need it. 

I finish with something that was said to me in my interview for this job, and it’s about frailty and failure. The church was very small, and though they felt it was right for a vicar to be placed there, they didn’t know if it was to close the church gracefully, or to be part of growing it. The question I was asked was: if closing a church feels like failure in ministry, can you handle failing? My answer was something along these lines: this is where I feel God is calling me to be. If that leads to the church growing, or to it closing, this is where God has called us, so this is where we come. To do what, we don’t know. Yet. But here we are. That was 5 years ago. Now we intentionally aim for growth. Smaller churches are more likely to grow.    

Live with the fragility. Enjoy the intimacy. Serve faithfully. Risk failure. Small churches rock.   

a collateral benefit to existing

7 01 2014

When I was at vicar college I thought I was being prepared for radical church. Not being a lifelong Anglican, and then only extremely low-church, and with warnings from friends about not becoming ‘domesticated’ into the Anglican way ringing in my ears, I thought God would send me to the more radical fringes – youth congregations, fresh expressions, the sort of thing that usually needs lots of wires, boot space and where the only sacred object is the worship leaders album-smile.

It turns out God had other plans. You see, he doesn’t just want the radical fringes to grow. He doesn’t just want young, motivated and skilled clergy (I was in those days) in those places. So, after a curacy learning the ropes in a mid-tempo low-church and very supportive environment where I still got to play the drums, I was called to my current estate church, which was then a very tired, very faithful remnant of 12-14 older ladies in the parish sister church, meeting fortnightly with a robed communion and singing to MIDI file organ tracks on floppy discs. Floppy discs!

A question: what would a successful ministry be in that church? The then Bishop of Croydon Nick Baines said to me in interview that they didn’t know if God was calling me to close the church gracefully, or to foster new growth. I had to be prepared to fail, if success is growth. So, we came here not knowing what would happen. Except that, in my licensing service, he said to the congregation that I was not to be chaplain to the congregation, but vicar to the parish. That I must do what vicars must do, which is not only enable and foster spiritual growth in the current congregation, but look upwards and outwards to those not yet ‘in’. Our ministry is not and cannot be solely ecclesiastical.

4½ years on, and despite setbacks along the way, we have grown. In faith, and in number. And then not grown. At least in number.

Why am I saying this? It is in response to Justin Welby’s interview on the Today programme, to qualify his words:

“…but the reality is, where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches.”

This has many truths within it. What he doesn’t mean is that a good vicar will always mean growing churches. Sometimes it is all we can do to support and enable things as they are. Many vicars will constantly feel guilty that they haven’t found the key to people flooding in. Sometimes success is people getting through life from one week to the next. Sometimes it is getting the vicar through life from one week to the next. This isn’t reflected in parish statistics.

But. As Justin Welby went on to say, there is a pattern. And that pattern is this:

“[the church] need to be flexible in how it engages locally and it needs to be very clear in its intention to grow in numbers… All the research we’ve got is that if we don’t actually set out to grow the number of people and draw people to the reality of the love of God in Jesus Christ, it doesn’t happen. It’s not a collateral benefit to existing. So you’ve got to be very intentional…”

The pattern is intentionality. When we came to this church, the congregation knew when everyone was there, so the welcomers closed the door and sat down. When we begin to expect and anticipate newcomers, it changes how we approach the welcome. Intentionality. From nothing for kids at all, we went from a kids colouring table at the back, to kids sitting at the front on the mat, to a regular kids group. Intentionality.

I meet many vicars who have no intentionality in their mission. If it happens, it will be a collateral benefit to existing – through baptisms, or choir membership, or church schools. This used to work, and does sometimes lead to sustaining the status quo. But actively drawing people into the reality of the love of God in Jesus Christ needs more than a passive hope. So, we need to actively engage with local schools, primary and secondary; we need to actively engage with local kids and families and older people.

view from BA cropped

Here, our main ministries outside of Sunday church have been coffee morning, toddler group and kids on the church roof. Radical? Not really. Done intentionally, with the aim of drawing people into God’s love? Yes. Not the radical I had in mind at college, but it works. 

So let me encourage those ministering in traditional contexts, that we don’t have to be radical but we do have to be intentional. The way it has always been is not how it will always be. For us that has meant singing to MP3s of worship songs and hymns, not robing, being informal in our style but serious in our love and serious in our welcome. It has meant giving love from the depths of our hearts, to those in the congregation who would rather things were like they used to be but actually delightfully welcome the presence of children – children! – in their previously dying church; and giving love to those who have no background in church, know nothing of the Bible stories, or when to stand or sit and why we have so many candles.

The key is what Justin Welby said about the love of God. We set out to grow people in faith and knowledge of the love of God in Jesus Christ; not to grow churches or maintain a museum. You can’t grow a church without faith. But when you grow faith, you grow church. So yes, good vicars are more likely to grow churches because they have growth as their intentional plan. It is not and should not be solely a collateral benefit to existing. That will surely only lead to exiting.

And at the end of the day, it’s not just about leadership and strategy: without the Holy Spirit at the centre you’re building a kingdom of jelly anyway. 

You can find the interview with Justin Welby here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01p3z2v

If you don’t know what vicars actually do, click here for a job description. 

sacred static

5 11 2013

The sacred static is the noise you hear
from the heads of those so attached to how things
never were.

The sacred static is that which hasn’t always been
but feels like it ought to have been
and if we tell ourselves it has then we will believe it.

The sacred static is the sound of dust falling
onto things that once moved with life
but now feature in a museum of an imagined age.  

The sacred static preserves memory like the ashes of a loved one
in a golden urn upon the shrine of how things were
that cannot be moved or questioned.

The sacred static is the sound you hear 
when you ask the question:
so how about this worship we do that doesn’t reach anybody
and hasn’t for years; shall we do something different…?

Sacred static drowns out creative conversation
and the faith of our children’s children
with it’s fear of all but the most familiar.

Sacred static is like staring at the telly in the old days
when it went off air but you were so lonely
you just kept watching the meaningless dots.

Sacred static holds things as they are
nailing them to the floor and
claiming them as eternal
yet ensuring their mortality with the very same nails.

Sacred static is all that has been and cannot un-be. 

The sacred static is nothing to do with moving pews
or updating hymnbooks  
but everything to do with safety and familiarity 
and being anchored in a bewildering world of change
where it is ok to change homes, jobs, supermarkets, TV’s and partners
But do not change my church.

The sacred static is the sound of the Spirit
breathing out for the last time.  

This lament was inspired by a conversation with a friend who is a vicar in Cornwall, and is exactly that: a lament. I do believe there is hope, and the church is doing new things in Cornwall. But sometimes you just need to lament. 

how to be content when you don’t feel like you’re achieving anything

13 09 2013

“How do I grow spiritually?”
“Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

It’s hard to measure spiritual formation. It’s not all relative – that would make it meaningless. But it does depend where you are starting from, and what else is going on in your world. How do we measure spiritual formation in someone with mental health problems, or who’s life is consumed with complex parenting, or who has no reliable relationships? Or all 3. Or more.  

So easily we use measures that are, well, measurable. Bums on seats. Numbers in home groups. Baptisms. Retweets? 

Small churches in deprived areas can be hard to organise, to develop, to grow. People often have multiple issues in their lives, and also an outlook often unfamiliar with ideas of progression, change, development, responsibility and leadership.  So forget detailed programmes of discipleship courses based around growth and professional development.

Sometimes you have to accept that standing still is an achievement. Really? Is it possible to be content with standing still? I didn’t want to hear that when I was at college. But yes, it is, if the ground beneath you is constantly dragging backwards. That is how it feels for so many people. Aspiration? How can you aspire if simply not going under is an achievement. 

Can we be content with this? When all around us books affirm growth and development and ‘success’; when our very being is one that yearns for and believes in God’s power to transform and redeem. And what we mean by that is lives led less chaotically, listening to the Spirit, families at peace, worship lifting the ceiling and the gaps in the rota filled voluntarily. And what we get, for the most part, is tiny incremental moves and an unreliable PA system nobody knows how to fix.

Is that ok? 

I imagined asking Jesus this and him replying with “How are you?” Trust him to  have a left-field perspective. 

A universal must of ministry [that especially applies in a deprived area?] is character. Am I consistent? People don’t expect it. Am I trustworthy? People don’t expect it. Do I lead by example? People don’t expect it. Do I only talk to people because I want them to come to church, or do I actually care? People don’t expect it. Do I model a faith rooted deeply in Jesus, yet expressed and lived honestly and in the same world as those among whom I live? Have I let go of my internal markers of ‘successful ministry’ that grind me down with their voices of comparison and criticism and simply let God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – be the most important things in who I am and what I do.

Because we are building the Kingdom, not churches. Though churches are easier to measure.

Then my eyes are opened to what God is doing that I simply couldn’t see before. That the tiny increments are a massive deal for those they happen to. My world can be so churchy. I’ve been working out my faith all my life. Many of my people have not. It is new to them. 

Forgive my haste. Grow my character. Build your church. 

how to not really have plan

13 09 2011

There are many books about how to be a good leader. There are many strategies on church growth. There are many conferences for conference types to share conferencey ideas. I haven’t yet seen a book, strategy or conference called “how to not really have a plan”. Funny that. Though most of us work that way.

a building, not a church

Do I? Well, I do have a plan, it’s just it… changes. Or maybe it’s not so much a plan as an idea, or a vision, or a hope. I know roughly where I am going but I haven’t planned how to get there. That doesn’t make for a very good book.

Let’s begin 2 1/2 years ago, when we first felt the call to come here. On paper it didn’t look our kind of thing. A small church with roughly 14 older ladies, one child, fortnightly robed HC services, no musicians, no kids work, living under the shadow of threatened closure. So many people said to me, what is your plan?

My response was always: I have no idea. How can I know until I am there? Except to love. We will go, and we will love. But you must have some idea, people said. Nope. Except that I feel that God has called us here, and that we will not achieve anything unless we love. And we could not achieve anything without the foundation of 80 years that has gone before us, and specifically the prayer that led to the parish and the then Bishop supporting a new appointment in an apparently dead-end outpost of a cash-strapped and difficult parish. That was brave.

"...and this is how not to have a plan..."

Here we are 2 years later, with an average of 25 -30 adults and 10-15 children on a Sunday, which has blown us away. And brought its own problems! 2 adults to 1 child is a pretty tricky ratio, and not a problem we foresaw! But what a problem to have. Especially as the 14 ladies are still on board.

And those of you who have followed our story on this blog will know about the detached youth work we found ourselves doing, which began as chasing people off the roof and grew into our trampoline ministry, and supporting families and helping young people into college; and this week we take on a new risk as our youth work student begins for the year, with the plan to build on the detached youth work. Apparently not many churches take on youth workers specifically to do detached work – maybe we are about to find out why.

I wanted to tell you about it, because it is exciting. I wanted to tell you about it because I haven’t seen this sort of change happening before. I know it does, I have read about it, but always with a cynical and jealous tone. Ministry is not a competition, but I have yearned for stories to tell. And here we have them. It is a fragile ministry, as I have written before. My boss is going on maternity leave as the youth worker begins, upping my workload considerably; 2 people leaving or falling ill could cause everything to crumble; we have gained a son in the last year which has changed our availability and energy levels; the parish has no money for new projects; people growing in faith is so hard to quantify and it’s a tough place to grow faith… endless is the list of things that could change everything.

houses or community?

But on Sunday I thought to myself, if I had had a plan, this would have been it. This is where I wanted us to get to, but I could not see how. I could pretend I did have a plan, and that it worked. Then I could write a manual. But there was no plan, only a dream, a hope, a future unseen.And love.

Thomas asked, if we don’t know where you are going, how then can we know the way? That is the beauty of following the Way.

And these 3 remain: faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love.

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