assault course

20 02 2019
assault course

Assault course. A complicated means of getting from one place to another.
Assault coarse. Abrasive things that can engage and entangle us.

I was musing today on some of the struggles and temptations that assault us as church leaders. So often we are the ones that tell others they are loved by God, but weirdly struggle to know it for ourselves. I mean, we know it, but we so easily place obstacles in our own way.

Instead of our identity being in who we are as adopted children of God, we allow things to creep in that add to that. Our worth becomes connected to our
being busy
really long meaningful spirit filled prayers
church is growing
being indispensable

I think that’s where it culminates. All we want is to know we are loved. But we climb so many obstacles to get there.

We don’t need to. That is all. 

intentional disillusionment

12 02 2017

Leadership. Wow. So many models. CEO, manager, teacher, mentor, shepherd, autocrat. Cultural life these days is like a case study in leadership, or mis-leadership. From leadership in sport to politics, church to the media, the judiciary to education, you name it,  it’s probably been dissected, criticised, humbled or idolised. Coe, Corbyn, May , Trump, Welby, Hodgson, Ecclestone, Murdoch.

I am currently reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor-theologian in the 1930s-40s who was martyred in a concentration camp. Stay with me, there is a link. He wrote about leadership. In his context, writing in 1933, he was addressing a Germany in pieces, desperate for strong leadership, of any kind, to pull it out of its post-WW1 mess. A culture was growing around the need for a strong leader, any leader, who would bring change. Any change, just to do something. Ring any bells? And I’m not talking about the England football team.

This concerned Bonhoeffer, and he preached this, in 1933:

A true leader must know the limitations of his authority. If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers clearly of the limited nature of his task and their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol – then the image of the Leader (German: Führer) will pass over into the image of the mis-leader… The true Leader must always be able to disillusion… He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those who he leads… He must let himself be controlled, ordered, restricted.

Wow. Bonhoeffer here is calling for substance, not personality; for leadership rooted in principles of humility not just for the sake of power.

We have a crisis in leadership at the moment. For many good reasons, the status quo is being challenged, authority is being questioned. However, we must not let that gap be filled with low-grade ideas, cheap populism, or personality cults. For him, all authority ultimately comes from God, so we cannot place ourselves on a pedestal above God. For me too, that is the case; if you don’t believe in God, I think the principle is still the same. Pedestal? Off.

Humble leadership, in which we intentionally disillusion those who would make us idols, is the solution to ultimate-authority leadership. Humility is not weakness, and it encourages collaboration, shared power and a servant-heart. That is true across sport, politics, church and the media.

I end with a poem I wrote about leadership in the church, which can be particularly pedestal-hungry, originally posted here, entitled I am nothing:

I am nothing
I am just me
I have no divine right to speak for you
or to you
I have no pedestal I can call home
Though some would try and barricade me on one
And have me live their faith for them
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no certificate of authenticity
Or qualification
I have nothing from my ordination that sets me apart from anyone
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no power residing in my fingertips
I cannot command holiness to appear at will
I cannot pray in a way that bypasses the queue
I am not owed any favours by God and
I cannot command him with my whispers
I am nothing
I am just me
Anything else I appear to be
Any power
Any wisdom
Any heroic tendencies
And that recurring pedestal of owning holiness
Anything I appear to be
That is beyond anyone else
I repent of
All I am is because of who He is
And I claim nothing as my own.

Christian ministry and disappointment

16 09 2016

“There’s a lot of disappointment in Christian ministry.” It was a passing comment made during a conversation in the pub. But it stuck in my head. It’s one of the great unspokens, because we are not meant to feel disappointed. Not only can disappointment undervalue the achievements or encouragements, but it feels kind of disloyal to God.

At its best, Christian ministry is the most profound and amazing role, a privilege and blessing and yes, there are those times.

But it’s worst, it can feel like trying to flog a dial-up modems to kids with 4G mobiles.


Selling a product nobody wants, let alone needs. Blank expressions of pity, or just… blankness. In early-church days, everyone believed in (a) god(s), so telling them about your (better) one made sense. Like going to a football match and telling people about the new team you’ve discovered that are way better than this one. And the pies are enormous. People will be interested. You just have to win their loyalty.

These days in this place it can feel like telling people about the new football team. Except you’ve gone to the pet shop to do it. At night. Dressed as a pelican.

We have this amazing message of hope and transformation, yet nobody gets it. We have the best ideas for social cohesion yet struggle to organise a an hour-long Sunday service. We celebrate when a few people come to church, when the other 19,000 in the parish don’t.

In Christian ministry you have to be able to genuinely celebrate small things, all the time hoping for greater things. You have to be able to manage church-envy, because no matter how good yours is, someone else’s will always look better run/resourced/taught/supernatural or just won’t have the same old crockery.

Yes, there is a lot of disappointment in Christian ministry. It is an incredibly labour-intensive project, but that’s how God works. In terms of farmers sowing seeds, God still operates in the old ‘fling it out a see’ method, no matter how much we try to adopt intensive-farming methods to streamline, make efficient, guarantee success.

It comes down to this. God is. And he calls us to exactly the same as Jesus called his friends to. And they called theirs to. Conversations, communities, the slow-burn of incarnation, of relationships, of lifestyle. Of being seeds in the dirt, that may or may not burst into life right now, or  next year, or in a decade.

Feeling disappointment isn’t failure. It doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong job. See Elijah. It’s being honest. To feel disappointment is at least to feel something, to know there’s more, to be a person who believes in hope.

It is when we fail to feel anything that we are in the wrong job.

theology & the warm fuzzy feeling

4 09 2015

what we think about God is usually birthed out of our story,
our biography,
our experience;
not from a deeply thought-through and thoroughly developed theology.

we preachers, church leaders, theologians, might need to read that twice.

sometimes we try to re-interpret our story to fit our theology,
making what we think we ought to think about God fit into our experience;
or what we are told to think,
even if we don’t really think it
(but don’t tell the vicar).

perhaps insisting people understand theology
(important though right theology is)
isn’t the catalyst for changed lives or a revitalised engagement
or understanding of God.

perhaps helping people to understand their story,
and God’s role within it – is;

God’s role neither as
passive bystander or autocratic micro-manager;
as causer of bad things for educational purposes
or perennial sender of blessings;
but as the source of all life,
as the breath we breathe,
as the essence of presence and the pinprick of light
that prevents darkness being darkness at all.

God as Jesus,
not the swear-word or chintzy china doll
not the pithy Facebook meme of bland truisms
or the bloodied sin-drenched sacrificial voodoo doll –

but Jesus, who was and is,
the invisible God and the visible man and the resurrected presence;
he who spoke and pooed and walked and sweated,
who was alone in a crowd and crowded with loneliness;
he who is in our story, my story, your story
his story in history.

Jesus who isn’t a book to take to bed with you
or a manual to live your life by
who isn’t your Sunday morning diary appointment

but is the ink in the story of your life
written on your pages

pages that speak of groaning hips and decaying eyes
and splintered families and the gnawing loneliness of being
the only one left in a once-full home;

pages that speak of the pleasures of a bargain-saver in Lidl
and a surprise visit from a friend
and the kindness of a stranger that caught us unawares;

pages where normal is normal
and much the same happens today as yesterday
and the exceptional is the exception and rapidly slips away;

pages where we rarely write about our views of atonement
or what our theology of anything is but we do know
that when we go to church something feels better
and though we don’t always understand the words
they make a connection with the deeper parts of us

and we feel
we feel

we feel our story being shaped and challenged and carved and sculpted
we feel a connection with You, the Other, the One Who is Bigger
and we describe it as a warm fuzzy feeling
because putting into words things that don’t happen in words
never quite catches it

so please don’t dismiss the feeling
because sometimes and often and for more people
than we church leaders like to think

it is all that we truly, really have
and it matters.

After quite a long break from writing, I have come back with this one, which is a bit longer than usual. Is it a poem, a stream of consciousness; is it even coherent? I don’t know, but it’s what fell out of my head as a I was re-reading the excellent Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford.

Because I think I have a tendency to dismiss the ‘feeling’, and want people to ‘get it’, to ‘understand’, to grapple with deep truths and be better and deeper and holier for it. There’s a place for that. But there’s times when I just need to let it go and embrace the warm fuzzy feeling, and let others do it to. 

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.

i am nothing

27 01 2015

I am nothing
I am just me
I have no divine right to speak for you
or to you
I have no pedestal I can call home
Though some would try and barricade me on one
And have me live their faith for them
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no certificate of authenticity
Or qualification
I have nothing from my ordination that sets me apart from anyone 
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no power residing in my fingertips
I cannot command holiness to appear at will
I cannot pray in a way that bypasses the queue
I am not owed any favours by God and
I cannot command him with my whispers
I am nothing
I am just me
Anything else I appear to be
Any power
Any wisdom
Any heroic tendencies
And that recurring pedestal of owning holiness
Anything I appear to be
That is beyond anyone else
I repent of
All I am is because of who He is
And I claim nothing as my own.

In response to the ordination of Libby Lane as the first female bishop in the Church of England, one of my friends commented “Women bishops? The jury is still out on male bishops“. And that got me thinking about church leaders of all shapes and sizes and flavours, and how each of us find ways to elevate ourselves, or those who lead us. The greatest gift God can give those with responsibility and authority is humility. Because all of us are nothing without Christ.

God bless Libby Lane, and all who serve and follow Jesus, in all forms and with whatever badges, with grace, patience and humility. And, hopefully, a sense of humour.   


I have come to replace you

24 10 2014

I have come to replace you. That is what babies are really saying when looking adoringly into your eyes. And, of course, where’s my lunch? Though perhaps then it’s not the eyes they are looking at.

I have come to replace you. When put like that, it sounds like a sci-fi film. But it is reality. We will not live forever. This is not our world to clutch hold of tightly like an angry toddler. Instead we are guardians of it, like parents, tending, caring, nurturing, but the whole point is we then let go.

I have some to replace you. Here’s the nub. Are we brave enough to embrace and nurture those who will change everything? Because that’s what we do with babies. They will take our jobs, our money, and yes, our church. Yet it is our responsibility to nurture them. So, do we make it easy, or make it hard?

I have come to replace you. As we get older we often fear change more. As Christians, who follow a God of change, who journeys with his people through desert and sea via occupation and liberation and ending in resurrection, we do not need to fear change.

I have come to replace you. Whatever position you hold in your church, look at those who will replace you. They may be much younger than you now. Don’t fear them. But consider how you can nurture them, encourage them, and how you can shape the world they will take over from you. Why? So that when they do, they will be grateful to you. That’s dangerous thinking for grown-ups who like to clutch church like angry toddlers, rather than letting the real toddlers in. 

I have come to replace you. Yes, and you are most welcome.

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:

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

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