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.

christian-ministry-can-feel-like-trying-to-flog-dial-up-modems-to-kids-with-4g-phones

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.





we are place

23 06 2016

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
Bad relationship advice, of course. But what if it applied to place?

If you can’t live in the place you love, love the place you’re in.

IMG_0711

The place we are in matters. We may love it, we may hate it. We may romanticise it, we may not even notice it. But it is. And a Christian theology of place says that where we are, we must love. Or try to love. Or to be love in. Because God is in that place. And God is love.

We anglicans have a systematic understanding of place, called parish. We are intentionally territorial, neighbourhood-focused. It means we cannot just focus on the town centre, the streets near our building, or the people we happen to know. We voluntarily take on a responsibility to pray for, be there for, support and protect those within our parish. Which is most definitely not just those who come to church.

Roads. Trees. Parks. Shops. Bus stops. Woods. Canals. Fields. Industrial estates. Schools. Houses. People. Businesses. Networks.

There are so many things that shape our place. I cam across the term ‘ecclesiastical geography’ this week that explains how we understand our – the church’s – place in our place. Understanding the historic factors that have shaped our area  and the people in it, from hills and rivers to mining and industry and immigration and town planning. And understanding the contemporary issues that build on or challenge or supplement those.

A theology of place goes hand in hand with a theology of the kingdom of God. If we believe this world is to be escaped from, then we have no responsibility to love and care for the place, only the embodied souls that happen to briefly dwell within it. We become ‘evaporated Christians’, with no roots on earth just vapour in the sky.

But if we believe that the incarnation of God in Jesus roots the work of God in a place, this place; if his resurrection and ascension means he is Lord over place, this place; if we believe he will return to a place, this place; and if we believe that in the meantime he dwells in a place, this place, no longer in a particular specific Temple or nation but through the Holy Spirit in all who turn to Jesus… then this place, our place, is where the Kingdom of God is coming.


This is why as Christians we love our place, whether naturally or as a choice; whether it’s ‘our place’ or an adopted place, or a place that has adopted us. In that love we want to bring and to be hope, to live lives of hopefulness and to spread hope in our place. Not an unrooted hope, which is just optimism, but hope rooted in Christ.

IMG_0713_Snapseed

Over the last few years the local churches on our estate have established a presence at the local St Helier Festival, organised by residents associations. As well the hospitality of refreshments, amazing cakes, games and children’s activities, we also asked people their hopes for their lives, for the area we live in, and invited them to write them on these 1-metre high letters. Their responses were many and varied, and are a great insight into how people in this place are, and think, and aspire to.

Here is a sample of what was written on them, and our prayer is that they will speak to us about the people in our place. And maybe in your place too.

Hope letters montage.001

Hope letters montage.002


The idea of ecclesiastical geography and the reflection on space was inspired by a talk from Revd. Andrew Rumsey, though obviously I’ve reinterpreted it through my own eyes.





celebrating a spirituality of the body

5 06 2016

Our bodies are so precious. No matter what we think of them.
Bodies are at the centre of our faith. No matter how our history has erased them.

Somehow the most embodied faith about a God who was (and is) literally embodied has become disembodied. A faith with an enfleshed Jesus (Gk: incarnate) somehow became about escaping bodies into a ‘spiritual’ heaven. Yet when we neglect our bodies for more ‘spiritual things’ – usually words, prayers, thoughts – we do a disservice to God and to ourselves.

2016.06 Celebrating Body title.001

The early church grappled with this unspeakable notion that the Holy God could be fully human, yet they pursued it and Paul, even Paul the Pharisee, could say our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. No longer the Holy of Holies once a year in the Temple – but you, and me, where God dwells, in our broken and wrinkly crinkly lumpy blotchy flesh and blood and bone bodies.

So, our bodies matter. What we do with them matters. How we treat them matters.

I know this is tricky ground for some. Many people I know, male and female, suffer from serious body image problems, from eating disorders, from other related problems, and from bodies that simply do not work properly. I’m in no way trying to solve those problems here. I am trying to help us see the importance of our bodies, that we don’t neglect them, mistreat them, or simply forget that God cherishes them.

Jesus was very body-conscious. Not in the sense he went to a gym and wore lycra. In the sense that he saw people with broken bodies, worn-out bodies – the disabled, the blind, the bleeding, even the dead. And he hung out with them, honoured them, used physical touch to restore them, when no-one else would go near them. He made them whole, physically, socially, mentally. He hung out with people who sold their bodies to people like us for sex, honouring them in a way slipping them a tenner for a fumble under the table never would.

He also had strong words about how we can misuse our bodies. If your eye causes you to sin, he said, gauge it out, for it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than not at all. He was exaggerating for effect of course, but this was before you could watch hard-core porn on your iPhone during the sermon. What we do with our bodies matters. We can do great good or great harm, to ourselves and to others.

body_temple

Developing a spirituality of the body is not about a feel-good self-help programme indistinguishable from a couch-to-5k phone app; it’s not about becoming a vegetarian; it’s not about yoga or running or being happy with how we look, though it could include those.

It’s about being real with God and ourselves that this sack of flesh we live in matters. That Jesus would have us care for ourselves well. That the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life is all about BODIES; a resurrection gained through the BODY of Jesus, God made BODY, who lives in our BODY by his Holy Spirit.

And if you truly struggle with your body, as many of us do, imagine Jesus sitting down next to you on the bus. Where does he look, how does he judge, and what does he treasure? Evidence from the gospel suggests:

He treasures the whole of us.
Us, as a whole.
Us as we come, broken or whole.
Wholly holy.


 

We are starting a new series with this title at church, and this is a version of the opening talk. Over the series we’ll be looking at eyes, hands, tongues, scars, heads, shoulders and feet as we explore what it means to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, to be temples of the Holy Spirit, and to honour God with our bodies. 





food banks, polling stations and the colour of hope

8 05 2015

As I try to untangle my thoughts across the worlds of politics and faith and family and community and my own selfish interests, you will know that politically I land on the left. And so this photograph, from outside our church yesterday, sums up the last 5 years for me, and the disappointment I feel about the result.

2015 polling station foodbank BA

My prayer is that with the Conservatives in power, they will

  • have the will to challenge their own obsession with austerity, which hits the poorest hardest, as we all know, but for some reason think they are worth sacrificing;
  • that they will have the will to challenge the obsession with private business running public utilities and services for profit;
  • that they will own up to the clear fact that unaccountable private individuals cannot (in large part) be trusted to redistribute wealth through better pay, and it needs to be done through good taxation and a Living Wage. Which is not perfect, but is at least accountable.

In 5 years time

  • I do not want to have a Foodbank in our church.
  • I do not want the poorest taxed for a ‘spare room’ when there is nowhere else to move them;
  • I do not want target-led benefit sanctions,
  • I do not want blame culture for the jobless, and these lies about people ‘on benefits’ who are so lazy, when the majority are in work, it’s just so badly paid they need to claim welfare to pay for living costs,
  • I do not want housing association properties sold off for private profit, the extension of ‘right-to-buy’ which benefits a few individuals and many landlords who gladly receive housing benefit from their tenants (1/3 of Tory MPs are landlords, maybe there’s a connection). 

If you are a business owner, pay your staff what you can, not the least you can get away with. If you are a taxpayer, pay your tax. If you can work, work. If you read a newspaper, never read the Daily Mail, especially since this headline “Trust Labour? I’d rather trust Jimmy Saville to babysit my kids.” If you care, get involved.  

There are many political questions that remain the same regardless of who is in charge. Europe, the UK, Scotland, debt, jobs, the environment, energy, fracking, the cost of living. As Christians we do our best not to get personal, but to get community. My prayer for us is that we get stuck into our communities, serving, helping, campaigning and hoping on behalf of others, prioritising the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable as our God commands and exampled us to do time and time and time again throughout our salvation-history story.

Whatever colour we are. 





speaking in circles

13 03 2015

We – the church – do not always say it well; we do not always say it to the right people; we do not always say it at the right time;  we don’t always say it coherently; but we do say it. Honest.  

Speaking in Circles

We – the church – are deeply involved and engaged in so many issues in our local and national and international communities, and speak out and act consistently on a wide range of issues. Many of these do not fit the media narrative, so are ignored, culminating in an ironically self-fulfilling prophecy  of the church only speaking about certain things, then being criticised for only speaking about certain things… speaking in circles, anyone? 

Find out more about what the church actually speaks about here:

Archbishop of Canterbury
Church of England
Joint Public Issues Team (Baptist, Methodists, URC, Church of Scotland)
Theos Think Tank
London Institute for Contemporary Christianity
Ekklesia
Archbishop Cranmer/God and Politics
Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (Canon Andrew White)
TEAR Fund
Stop the Traffik 

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list!  





church ≠ damage limitation

16 11 2014

The Holy Invigilator stares at the class, pacing, watching, eager to make the eternal boredom of heaven worth it by catching someone cheating, or not letting them go to the loo, quietly chuckling at their terrified expressions as the clock slowly… ticks… tocks… ticks… then the bell goes, out comes the red pen, and the fun of marking their pitiful lives truly begins.

This is basically how many see God. Life is an exam and being a Christian is the art of avoiding getting in trouble with God, appeasing him with good behaviour, keeping our heads down. Which is weird, as Jesus was the exact opposite. He even said I didn’t come for the goody-goodies, but for the dubious

But. The parable of the talents. At first glance it seems to corroborate the exam paradigm. But it doesn’t. Jesus is talking about people who have been entrusted with something of great value. A ‘talent’ was a huge amount of money, maybe 15 years salary for a labourer, so roughly £187,000 on the minimum wage. Two servants take a risk, one doesn’t. He was scared of falling foul of the master, so instead of doing something productive with the money, he went for damage limitation. He buried it.

Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have been entrusted with the treasure of God, but have been so scared of losing it they’ve buried it in the ground. It is not lost, it is preserved, but nobody benefits from it. At least you don’t get into trouble for losing it, right? Wrong. 

When we meet Jesus and follow him, we are entrusted with a great treasure. What are we going to do with it. Bury it, for fear of losing it or getting it wrong, or take a risk with it? It’s like any sort of training – running, cooking, discipleship. Practice, and you get better. But if you just sit around, you will not. We may have been given faith, but if we don’t practice it by actively living it out, it will not grow. To those who have, more will be given. Bury it, and you’ll lose it.

The point of this parable is not that we must work hard to avoid being told off by the Great Invigilator in the sky. The point is there is far more to our faith and this life than we can ask or imagine, but if we bury the treasure in the ground we will not discover it. Church is not meant to be the place we celebrate damage limitation by showing off the dusty treasure we buried that hasn’t changed in years. God help us, but that’s what it can seem like sometimes. 

Church is where we gather to say ‘look at the risk I took and the mistake I made and the blessings I discovered’. Church is an encouragement not to be lazy, but to grow in our confidence, and to see the treasure grow and grow and grow.

Don’t bury yourself in the ground. Take a risk. Dare you. 





(funda)mental health

7 10 2014

Many people who are a part of church have mental health problems. One of the reasons for this is that churches are – generally, frequently – places of kindness. Places of welcome. Why? Because we try to follow Jesus, who wasn’t a malevolent warrior, a political obsessive, or a brainwashing control freak. 

We follow Jesus who went to those on the fringes, the edges; to the broken, the hurting. Our hope is that that Jesus is reflected in the everyday life of churches. What we do is rarely glamorous, or violent; it is rarely newsworthy. We are not generally world-conquering fundamentalists who want to kill anyone who isn’t like us; neither are we hotbeds of scandal. What we do is mostly under the radar, but it is not secret. It is revolutionary, but not political. 

What we do is welcome all who want to come. Serve all who want to come. We invest in communities through coffee mornings, toddler groups, youth clubs, food banks, debt counselling, curry nights and yes, being a place of welcome and kindness for those with mental health problems. We welcome ‘them’ – us, you – as we welcome anyone. Yes we get it wrong. Yes we don’t always understand. Yes we can be impatient. Yes, long-term illness of any kind can bring out the worst in any of us. And for that we are sorry. After all, we all struggle with poor mental health at one time to another. Maybe we are struggling right now and nobody knows.  

But if you struggle with fragile mental health, whether briefly, occasionally, frequently or every single long and frightening day, I hope you feel welcome not just ‘in church’, but as part of the church community. Know you are loved. And please, come as you are, and when you feel able to. If you have a mental health problem you have a lot to offer, a lot to teach, and church is worse off without you.  

Church is where the knowingly broken gather to walk life together. Forgive us for the times we forget that.

October 10th 2014 is World Mental Health Day. Please take some today to think how you can support those you know who suffer from mental health problems.
Here are some helpful links:
MIND
Samaritans
Friendly Places 





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.

Snowdon.001

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.    





lite of the world

20 07 2014

I’m not usually one to bang on about duty. The Protestant work ethic ends about 10am after my first hot chocolate. But. Yes, a cheeky but.

I have a worry that there are too many people like me in danger of leading the faithful into a lackadaisical lazy religion-lite. I’m so fearful of placing a burden on people – the burden of religion, of ‘works’, of doing lots of churchy things and being busy – that I fear I under-emphasise the commitment and the cost.

lite of the world.001

 I wrote this at our last parish Day of Prayer:

Lite of the world
means you just come and go
as you feel like it
especially when you need something
or have nothing better
to do.

Light of the world
means we are sent
into darkness
to serve the needs of others
often at great
intentional cost. 

So many people do not realise that the faith, fully and properly lived, is about intentional cost. Duty. Service. But it is so hard to talk about this sort of thing without sounding like a grumpy old vicar who just wants his church full of busy guilt-ridden high-achieving religio-warriors with no time for their family or work or getting out there being the light of the world. Believe me, it’s really not that.

It’s just that it’s tough being the light of the world. Religion-lite is so much easier. So much less demanding. But let’s not settle for that.





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.   








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