Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Temptations in Leadership

In his little book on leadership, ‘In the Name of Jesus’, Henri Nouwen reminds us that we need to be rooted in the love of God.  He describes the three temptations that seek to draw us away from God – relevance, popularity and power.  

When we think it is important to be relevant, we need to remember that that was the first temptation faced by Jesus – to turn stones into bread.  What an impact that would have had!  But, as Nouwen reminds us: “the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.  That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.  The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love. … “   

The temptation to popularity is the temptation to do the spectacular – like jumping off the pinnacle of the temple.  We may think we won't fact that one, but the fact is that it is there.  As Nouwen says, “Not too many of us have a vast repertoire of skills to be proud of, but most of us still feel that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo.”  We need to remember that the leadership to which we are called is servant leadership “in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need him or her.”  

The third temptation is the temptation to be powerful, to possess all the kingdoms of the world.  Nouwen sums it up beautifully – “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”

Monday, 19 October 2015

More Insights from Jude

In verse 1 Jude has focussed his readers on their relationship with God.  In verse 2 he shifts the focus to our relationships with other people, in other words to our leadership.  May mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance.

This can easily be passed over as just a greeting.  Mercy and peace were the common Jewish greeting of the day.  The reference is to the covenant kindness of God – hesed – and the sense of shalom, total well-being that flowed out of this experience of covenant faithfulness.  To this Jude adds the word ‘love’ so bringing Christian overtones into the leadership relationship.  I wonder if we can see such an expression as a description of our relationship with the people to whom we are called to minister.

These three aspects of Jude’s greeting surely represent three critical aspects of servant leadership.  If we are going to be Christian leaders, we need to be demonstrating these elements that describe the kind of people God calls us to be.

Having set the bar high, but where it should be, Jude proceeds to engage in a strong and stark critique of leadership.  In verses 12 and 13 he uses five graphic images of the non-leader and in so doing, Wright suggests, and I agree, offers us five working principles for effective servant leadership. 

So, the first principle is that leadership is about influence and service.  Jude’s first image is of those who feast with you without fear, feeding themselves.  That is what the NRSV says – but I am going to rather use the alternative translation which it puts in a footnote.  They are shepherds who care only for themselves.  A shepherd who cares only for him or herself is a contradiction in terms.  These leaders, condemned by Jude, use their power for their own benefit.  The shepherd is a common image for leadership in the Bible, modelling the care and investment that the leader must make for the growth and nurture of the followers.  These leaders are not using their power to nurture the community, but to draw people to themselves.  They are putting themselves on a pedestal.  They are getting fat off the flock.  Servant leadership, on the other hand, uses its influence and power for the growth of the people who are being led.  Leadership is always a relationship of influence.  The leader seeks to influence the vision, values, attitudes or behaviours of the led.  Otherwise it is not leading.  The question is as to the direction of that influence. 

Jude’s second image is that leadership is about vision and hope.  The condemned non-leaders are waterless clouds carried along by the winds.  A cloud promises rain.  The image perhaps works better in climates other than ours.  Imagine the farmer, desperate for rain, who sees a cloud, but it just passes, blown away by the wind.  Leadership is about vision.  It is about tomorrow.  It is about hope.  Leadership focusses the dreams and commitments of the people.  It takes them forward.  It captures the vision.  If we are just consolidating, look the past, wallowing in our difficulties, that won’t move us on.  We might catch a moment, like the waterless cloud, but it’s a waste of time.  It disappears.  Servant leadership offers hope and vision.  It empowers people.  It makes a difference.

Jude’s third principle is that leadership is about character and trust.  These qualities are missing from the non-leaders.  They are autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted.  Now, if I am honest, when I am picking up the conkers and the apples, I sometimes wish that my autumn trees would not have fruit.  But, of course, if that were the case, something would be wrong.  The leadership of false teachers doesn’t produce growth.  There is no fruit.  We need to be grounded in our relationship with God.  If we are “uprooted” from that, we are in trouble.  Leadership is a relationship of trust.  We listen to the people we trust.  An American professor of leadership, Warren Bennis, says that “the three things people want from leaders are direction, trust and hope.”  Are we bringing these elements to those among whom we minister?  Leadership points people in the right direction.  Leadership believes in people and foster relationships.  The great words are enabling or facilitating – but that is what we need to be doing.  Leadership offers hope.  It provides a vision that takes folk forward.

Jude’s fourth principle is that leadership is about relationships and power.  The fourth condemning picture in Jude’s descriptions is of wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame.  Jude points to the power of the waves of the sea.  Power without purpose inevitably leaves a trail of debris behind it.  Self-appointed leaders use their influence to make a big splash, to adapt the metaphor, but they are going nowhere.  Leadership is a relationship of power.  Power without purpose is very dangerous.  Leadership must be responsible and accountable.  Servant leadership points people away from the leader to the mission of the community and enables each one to see how they can contribute to the realising of that mission.

Jude’s fifth principle is that leadership is about dependency and accountability.  The fifth image, like the others, challenges the false leader in what he or she is doing.  They are described as wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved for ever.  Putting it another way – “these leaders are like shooting stars, streaking onto the scene with flash and excitement but eventually fading and disappearing.”  One of the things that we need to remember is that our congregations are around a lot longer than we are.  A quick fix is unlikely to be sustainable.  Another way of putting it is that God’s picture is bigger than ours.  Leaders need followers.  Otherwise there is nobody to lead.  We are dependent upon the people.  How do we exercise responsible leadership that recognises are dependence on those we lead and in which we offer accountability of our leading to them.

So, five descriptions from Jude of what we have called non-leaders – and, from those, five challenges to effective servant leadership.  What does it mean for us?  What will we do with our power?  God has given you gifts and abilities.  How are you using them?  How are you going to use them?

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Jude on Leadership

I want to consider the letter of Jude and some of what Jude says about leadership.  In doing so, to acknowledge my debt to Walter Wright’s book ‘Relational Leadership’ (Paternoster, 2000) as what I am going to say is largely drawn from that book’s first chapter. 

Jude is challenging his readers to be effective Christian leaders.  He is worried about their going wrong.  He urges them to resist false teaching.  There is a lot of stuff there about the dangers of going wrong.  However, there is also much that we can draw from this letter that will get us on track with good leadership. 

The foundation is laid in the first verse.  Here Jude addresses three questions that are essential to effective leadership. 

The first question is: who am I?  Or do I have worth?  It deals with the issue of identity.  The second question is: will I be here tomorrow?  It deals with the matter of survival.  Putting it another way, am I going to last the course?  And the third question is: why am I here?  It deals with the issue of meaning.  What’s the point?  What am I about?

So how does Jude answer these questions?  Who am I?  We are those who are beloved in God the Father.  That is what gives us worth.  We are loved by God.  We are valued by God.  We are precious to God.  When we start describing ourselves, we nearly always begin with what we do.  That is how we identify ourselves.  But here is a timely reminder to take a different approach.  Our identity is not in our work.  It is not even in our leadership.  It is in the fact that we are loved by God.  What is essential to our identity is that we are in relationship with God.

The question of survival is dealt with when Jude points out that we are kept safe for Jesus Christ.  God keeps us secure.  The fears and anxieties of today fall into perspective when we remember God’s promise to accompany us.  Our relationship with God enables us to hold firm.  We need to remember that God has the bigger picture.  We need to learn to trust God, even when things aren’t turning out as we might wish.

Next comes the question of meaning.  The point here is that we are called.  To those who are called.  We have been chosen by God to be his people, to be his servants.  What is the meaning – what is the purpose of my life?  It is to be a child of God.  Leadership for Christians is about God, not about us.  

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Defining Reformed

Near the end of his book Reforming Theology, David Peel lists for us what he identifies as the five principle features of the United Reformed Church’s reformed theological heritage. 

“First, our emphasis upon the Bible.  …  We seek God’s mind, Christ call and the Spirit’s leading through the Bible, and thereby we allow our present belief and practice to be reformed anew.”  As the hymn has it – ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.’

Second, we recognise the importance of tradition, but “we fully recognise that tradition is not static.  The need for reformation in the church is ongoing.”

Third, our “openness to ideas and insight” from outside ourselves.  This is part of our ecumenical commitment.  “We do not believe that the ‘right’ way necessarily is the URC way; nor do we un-church those in other churches which do things differently.”  Part of this is our engagement with secular society and other faiths.  Recognising the value of diversity, we are ready to listen to others.
Fourth, “URC theology should be thoroughly practical.  It seeks to reform individual lives.”

And, fifth, we look to God, recognising that God has a bigger picture.  As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it, “God is God, unbounded and all-encompassing.”  We are servants of the Word of God and “we can be totally sure that the interpretation of God’s Word remains a task for each new age.”

Monday, 12 October 2015

Together - The Church

We are each part of the church – but we are not the church of ourselves. The church only works as a community. One person does not make a church. Where two or three are gathered. It does not need to be big to be a church, but Jesus set the minimum at two. As a recent United Reformed Church document "What is the Spirit saying to the Churches?" says, “The future of the Church depends on participation in the life of the Trinity.” God, as three in one, one in three, shows us how to be church. The Church is diverse, and yet the Church is one. That is true within the denomination, as well as beyond the denomination.

The apostle Paul explained it in terms of being a body. And so we think, in terms of Paul’s image, as to whether we are to be a nose, an eye, a hand, a foot, whatever.

One of the questions for us must be: how is God shaping the particular piece of the Body of Christ that is the us? What is that we are called to be and to do? As the United Reformed Church, we know that we are united and that we are reformed – as they are both in our name. But what do they mean?

I suspect that most of us talk a lot more about being united than we do about being reformed. We know that Jesus prayed that we should be one – that’s in John 17. Our commitment to unity is expressed in our commitment to ecumenism. I want to say three quick things about that. First, that shows itself in our working together with churches from other denominations in all sorts of ways from the activities of Churches Together groups to united congregations. Second, much of the ecumenical emphasis these days is on shared mission in things like street pastors, foodbanks and credit unions. I welcome these important initiatives. Third, Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEPs) are a bigger part of our life than they are within other denominations. Approximately a third of the churches in the Eastern Synod are LEPs. There are those, including many church leaders, who are saying that LEPs are no longer the way to do things. I want to say that I profoundly disagree with that view. LEPs are not the only way to do ecumenism, and they are not for everybody, but they are a viable, valid and vital part of the church scene.

If we move to thinking about what it means to be reformed, we might consider what that same document says, that: “Being Reformed means re—formed, being renewed, not by our own endeavours, but in dependence on the Word, and shaped by the Spirit.” As the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church says: “we affirm our right and readiness …. to make new statements of faith in ever new obedience to the Living Christ.” The Latin phrase is ‘semper reformanda’ – always reforming. But the single word that we can use to define ourselves is, of course, the word ‘love’.