Is God calling me to be a priest?

The following is adapted from reflections I shared this weekend at the Diocese of Chester’s annual vocations event: Called to Serve.

Every person is called to serve God in some way – vocation is always part of our discipleship. Ordained ministry is one way among many to serve God as a disciple, and it is by no means the best way, the purest way or the holiest way. It is certainly not the only valid ministry within the church and the world – and I hope you’re getting a sense of that today.

One of the things candidates for ordination wrestle with is the question of what is distinctive about ordained ministry. No longer is it the case that ordination is the only way to have a full time ministry – many lay church based ministries can also be full time, and many who are ordained have a full time ministry away from, and not within, the church, in their communities and places of work.

So what is distinctive about ordained ministry? I always encourage candidates to look at the Ordinal – the liturgy for ordination – when they’re considering this question.

Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the Church and in leading God’s people in worship. They preach the word and bring the needs of the world before the Church in intercession. They accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism. They assist in administering the sacraments; they distribute communion and minister to the sick and housebound. Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God’s people, that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins. With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love. They are to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith. They are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death. Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.

For some people, this way of life – as a deacon or a priest – is what God is calling them to as part of their discipleship. Vocation to ordination always begins with discipleship – with a deepening of your relationship with God, and a growing or nagging sense that God is asking more of you.

So you might be here today because of that growing or nagging sense – because you’ve felt it in yourself or because someone else has seen it in you. Or you might be here because you’re really unsure what you’re feeling, and you simply want to know more.

How might a person know that God is calling them to ordination? Well – the short answer is that there are no quick answers! Vocation to ordination travels through us in two directions, and it takes time to sense this movement of God and discern what is going on.

The first direction is from within. A person called to ordination has to sense and own that vocation for themselves. If everyone else around you tells you that you would be a good vicar, but the thought fills you with dread and loathing – then it’s probably not your vocation! Of course, there are always a few Jonahs – those dragged into this way of life begging for it to be otherwise. But, on the whole, if you can’t get to a point where you articulate yourself why you think God is calling you to this, then it’s probably not the right path for you.

Of course, the other side of this is that if ordained ministry is something you really would like to offer your life to, then we need to hear that desire and take it seriously. So often in the church we believe that God wouldn’t possibly ask us to do anything we actually want to do! But discipleship and vocation, at their heart, are not chores to be endured, by a joyful and freeing way of offering the whole of our life to God. Desire and vocation always go hand in hand.

So vocation comes from within and flows out of us – we sense it and we own it and we become open to where it will lead us.

But vocation also comes from out here – from the world around you. It might be someone else who firsts recognises your call to ordination – your vicar or a friend or family member. Or it might be that as you begin the process of exploring the possibility of ordination, that others see in you a growing vocation to this. It might be that in the process of exploring your vocation, the church begins to affirm and recognise that calling. And so what other people say matters too.

When a candidate for ordination comes to see us, we look at an early stage for this movement of vocation – moving out to the church from within you, and moving towards you from others in the church.

And the vocations process is designed to help you grow in these two ways: candidates exploring ordination will find that their inner sense of vocation grows and deepens as they journey through the process. And they will also find that outer confirmation increases too – that others encourage them and see that deepening calling as they explore it.

So how might we know that God is calling a person to ordination? It all comes down to the word “yes”. A candidate’s “yes” to God, the church’s “yes” to the candidate – which comes through the vocations process, and then in both of these we find God’s “yes” – to the candidate and to the church.

What sort of person is called to ordination? There’s another short answer to this question – and the answer is “anybody”! Those called to ordination will usually already be serving their local church or community in some way – although some may not be. They will have a growing, attractive faith. They will be people of integrity who can be trusted. They will have a love for God, for God’s people, and for the Church (despite its shortcomings). They will have a passion for the flourishing of the Church, and for sharing God’s love with the people around them. And they will almost always suffer from imposter syndrome!

But people of all ages, genders, nationalities, occupations and backgrounds are called to ordination – and thank God for that!

So what next? I hope today is a helpful early step for you as you begin to work out where God might be calling you. The first thing we always look for is this sense of vocation. We are looking for a sense of vocation which, as I’ve said, is coming from within you, and from around you. We are looking for a sense of vocation which is changing you and drawing you nearer to God. And we are looking for a sense of vocation which is informed, obedient, and realistic. Informed – in that you’re willing to learn more about the life to which you think you’re called (which I’m guessing is why you’re here today!) obedient – that is, that you are ready to make sacrifices as a response to God’s calling, and to follow it through wherever God leads, and realistic – that is, that what you are offering for at this point in your life is do-able and deliverable. Informed, obedient, and realistic.

So some questions that might help your reflections today are:

  • Am I sensing any stirring of vocation within myself to this way of life?
  • Does what I am hearing today leave me feeling excited and enthusiastic, or exhausted and drained?
  • What might my desires tell me about any vocation I may have?
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Go and share your bread: Austerity, Abundance, and the Kingdom of God

The following is adapted from a sermon that will preached at Holy Cross, Timperley, on Sunday 29th July 2018 (Trinity 9).


austerity
ɒˈstɛrɪti,ɔːˈstɛrɪti/
noun
noun: austerity; plural noun: austerities
  1. 1.
    sternness or severity of manner or attitude.
    “he was noted for his austerity and his authoritarianism”
    • plainness and simplicity in appearance.
      “the room was decorated with a restraint bordering on austerity”
    • a feature of an austere way of life.
      “his uncle’s austerities had undermined his health”
  2. 2.
    difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure.
    “the country was subjected to acute economic austerity”

Austerity has become one of our defining narratives. Stories – life – based on the assumption that “There is not enough to go round”. We’re told that we must tighten our belts, adapt to scarcity, get used to hardship, and guard the resources we still have.

Thank God, I’m not a politician or an economist, but a theologian. Because I believe that austerity is not the way of God, nor is it the way to enable a society to thrive. Short term hardship for long term benefits doesn’t wash when the short term becomes the long term, and the gap between the rich and the poor grows larger and larger. But I’m not here to preach economics.

Austerity is not the way of God, and yet it is the starting point for Jesus’ followers in John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Philip and Andrew are anxious, and we can hear the cogs whirring:

Get the people home. It’s nearly dark and there’s no food. Send them away to fend for themselves. There is not enough to go round. We have to come up with a different plan: we could invest six month’s wages in this crowd and it would be money down the drain.

But Jesus knows a way better than anxious austerity. Anxiety is never a good state of mind to be in. Anxious leaders create anxious followers, and anxious people suppress creativity, increase irritability and achieve little.

And so Jesus shows these anxious guys a different solution to the impossible. Not austerity, but abundance. Not scarcity, but generosity. Not fear, but trust.

What are we to make of the Feeding of the Five Thousand? Some of us think it was a divine supernatural act. Others of us acknowledge that God can work miraculously through the most ordinary of acts, such as a shared lunch. But this miracle was not divine conjouring trick, nor an exercise in sharing.

This miracle was about God and about what God wants for God’s people. Jesus showed that crowd, as the Gospel writers show us, the lavish, endless, inclusive, compassionate abundance of God: in God’s Kingdom there is always enough.

God’s abundant goodness. A God of love who has enough for all. This is the love that Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians: a love of incomprehensible, endless depth and height and breadth. A love so all encompassing, so abundant, that we will never fully grasp it.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

The narrative of austerity has no place in God’s kingdom, because austerity is rooted in fear and suspicion of the other. Austerity is not about love, but control, or simple, catastrophic indifference. These are not the ways of God.

What about us?

We don’t have endless resources. We have limited time, energy, health, money – as frail humans, even our capacity to love and to have faith is limited. Some of us are giving all that we can. Perhaps some of us might, at some point and through the grace of God, feel moved to offer more.

But as people of limited resources, how do we model and live out the abundant love of Christ?

Perhaps it is enough, at first, for us to know God’s love for us. Perhaps it is enough only to grow deeper into this love. To own it and experience it and share it: to claim it for ourselves and for those around us. To see God’s love for the darkest, most rotten parts of ourselves; for those we love and those we despise and those we are indifferent to. To know a love of endless abundance. Perhaps the whole of life is about coming to dwell more deeply within that knowledge. Perhaps on the deepest level, that is all God asks of us.

And yet, as we go more deeply into love, as we come to dwell within it, we are always changed. Perhaps we discover a corner of our heart that is more austere than we knew. Perhaps we discover a hardness within ourselves: an unresponsiveness and a frantic, anxious clinging on to a finite resource that, in the end, will never bring us joy. Perhaps, as we know God more deeply, so we become open to the question: “Are my resources really as limited as I believed?” Perhaps we find that we do have more to offer, and we come to know a deepening of our generosity.

And as we ask that question, perhaps we also discover a depth of abundance within ourselves that is without limit and full to brimming. Maybe we discover gifts to be handed away endlessly: Love, tolerance, kindness, compassion, understanding of the other, trust, faith: perhaps beyond our time and our material resources and hardness of heart, we do have quite a lot to offer by way of abundance.

Imagine a world where each of us modelled abundant kindness. Endless tolerance. Endless compassion. Endless forgiveness. Endless understanding. I don’t think that such a world would be a world of austerity. I think that world would be God’s world.

As we hear this story of bread broken, shared and left over, our eyes are drawn to the table before us. It is only in our own breaking of bread and pouring of wine, as we celebrate Holy Communion, that we find the fulfilment of this story. Here, week on week, we enact the abundant, self-giving, inclusive, immeasurable love of God.

As I preside at the Eucharist, I always try (and sometimes fail!) to ensure that there is more than enough bread, and more than enough wine. The theological significance of having some leftover shouldn’t be lost on us after reminding ourselves of this miracle of abundance. In the Kingdom of God there is always more than enough.

And it is no use partaking in this sacrament, week on week, if we remain unchanged by this abundance. We cannot change the ways of others. We cannot alter the stinginess and miserliness of the world around us. But we can change ourselves. My hope and prayer for each of us here who feast on the abundance of heaven, is that we do not leave this place unchanged, but that we renew our resolve to give everything that we have, and everything that we are, for the good of the people of this world.

And so go out today, back into this austere, weary world full of people who are under so much strain; go from here and share your bread. Model kindness, compassion and love as if there is no other currency by which to live. Because in the Kingdom of God, kindness, compassion, and love need no guarding, no rationing, and no hierarchy. They are for all and they are endless. As people of God, will we hear the call to grow into abundant love, and to allow ourselves to be shaped by that abundance?

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Drop a ball. Smash a plate. It’s okay to be just “good enough”.

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When I drew this sketch I had no intention of showing it to anyone. Ever.

That was the beginning of this year. I was recently back to work after maternity leave, and for 6 months I had sat on the sidelines of my ministry and tended to our third child. It had been tough. I thought that being a mum third time around would be something I could do with my eyes closed. It wasn’t and I couldn’t.

I had planned to continue an element of my priestly ministry while on maternity leave. And to an extent, I did. I know some people question the wisdom of that decision. It’s one I took seriously and for me it was the right thing to do. But balancing these commitments with a failure to thrive baby, expecting “easy” and getting “tough”, led to something of an identity crisis.

Was I a bad mum for even trying to keep a part of my ministry going through these precious months?

Was I a bad priest for having a third baby? (yep – those irrational postnatal hormones were rife!)

Here were two vocations – two ways of living – coming together and working out how to coexist. As a priest who is a parent, and a parent who is a priest, this is a  source of both agony and joy for me.

How can I give my all to being a good parent, as biology drives me to do?

How can I give my all to being a good priest, as I have been formed and trained to do since first sensing a call to this half a lifetime ago?

How can I do both these things that are not mere ‘jobs’, but calls to ‘be’, when they sometimes seem to be at odds, each demanding every small piece of me and taking everything I have?

Last time I seriously wrestled with this stuff, this sketch was my attempt to work through the pain of this. The chalice and paten at an abandoned table. The empty sanctuary. The messy house. The screaming baby. The kind, compassionate children. The hollow, torn apart mum-priest ready to leave the house but getting nowhere. The darkness and shadow and out-of-reach window. A sense of being trapped in one place, while the other place waits, empty.

In other moments the picture could probably function the other way around: the demands of ministry crowding out bewildered children who wait patiently for their mum to come home and play.

I’m in a better place at the moment. I know that being a parent and a priest are not incompatible roles, and that each nurtures, informs and gives energy to the other. I know that because, on the good days, that’s how it works. That’s why I’m still in ministry, and still loving it, with three kids under 5.

The reason I’m sharing this, is because recently I have heard others say that they, too, struggle with this constant juggling. Once or twice, I’ve shown them this picture. And so I’m showing you, in case it helps you.

What balls are you juggling?
What plates are you spinning?

List them.

Go on – even just mentally.

In how many directions are you being pulled?
How many roles are you holding in tension?
How close do you feel to it all coming crashing down?

And I want to say this.

It’s okay. It’s okay to feel like this.

It can be a dark place to be in.
I know – I go there often, and I’m a priest.
(Priests go to dark places more than most people realise)

But if you feel like this, don’t ignore it.
Draw it, sing it, write it, exercise it out – but don’t keep juggling.

Drop a ball.
Smash a plate.

And when you do, be kind to yourself.

For me, this means remembering that I am not perfect. The illusion that I am gives my ego a boost, but eventually it is only myself that I disappoint.

I’m not perfect. And that’s why I’m happy to show this picture and share this particular journey.

Good enough.
That is all I have to be.
That is all YOU have to be.

And sometimes not even that.

And that’s okay.

 

The well-keeper: Clergy in an age of busy

I wrote recently about self-care, with this caveat:

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

And I’m grateful to David, who left this thought on the post:

I love the connection you have made about the importance of self-care and being a wellspring. Wellspringing- could that be the refreshing replacement for the overused “wellbeing”?

Some months ago I was part of a conversation with clergy colleagues about how Church of England clergy can – and should – grow a deeper awareness of what their congregations do when they’re not in church. As the conversation inevitably meandered, the question arose:

“What’s the point of clergy?”

There are a million different ways to hear this question, never mind answer it. In this instance, it arose out of an understanding that those who are not clergy (“the “laity”) – that is, the majority of people who walk into churches – might be nurtured by, and grow through, not just activities that happen “inside” churches, but in a life beyond church.

Forgive me if I say that this is a frightening thought for clergy in a church which has at times, however inadvertently, failed to hear, understand, nurture and liberate its members through previous decades (think: sheep and shepherds, children and fathers, ekklesia and presbyter – all metaphors with both deep value and severe limitation).

But if clergy are no longer to be (only) shepherds, fathers and presbyters, then what metaphor might serve a church which is intentional about “Setting God’s People Free”? The Ordinal offers powerful and deep descriptions of priestly ministry, and these deserve much meditation, consideration and reflection (I often tell candidates I see for ordination to spend time reflecting prayerfully on these images).

Priests

 

Father doesn’t know best

Well, not always. For a fleeting time, I used to catch my 5 year old up to no good. Responding to his amazement at my 360 degree omniscience, I would say “Well, mummies know everything”.

I stopped that pretty quickly. One day soon he’ll discover it’s not true, and I’d rather have my integrity intact when he does.

How tempting is it for those of us in priestly ministry to assume an air of “the ministry professional knows everything?” I suspect most of our people know that’s not true, even if we’re adamant that it is!

Institutions are wrecked. We have moved past the point where authority itself is license to speak or act or persuade.

And amazingly, how few of these priestly metaphors are about knowing everything? How few are about authority (at least in a worldly sense) and power and control and knowledge?

Watching, walking, telling stories, discerning, sustaining, delighting, searching, offering: what intense metaphors these are for the awesome and impossible task of holding a community of faith together!

The well-keeper

Ever since that conversation with my colleagues, I’ve been musing on the metaphor of well-keeper. In an age where 90% of Christian ministry happens outside the church building, where Christians spend perhaps just a few hours a week coming into church, where the church as institution is dying while spirituality unfettered by religion is booming, then what’s the point of clergy?

Perhaps clergy are the well-keepers. They are the ones who might find life-giving water, and share it round. They start with no special knowledge or strength: it is their own thirst which drives them to the well. And when they find it, they have no monopoly on the water. The water is a free-flowing gift, although it might be that clergy have the time and resources to dig a little deeper and set the flow going.

To those who seek rest and sanctuary, clergy might offer peace, a sounding board, a listening ear. To those who live frenetic lives, they offer attentiveness and availability. For those facing uncertainty and doubt, their listening and their words instil value and build confidence, renew vocation and discern God’s voice.

Clergy are the well-keepers. They find the water and build the wells. They maintain them, and repair them when they’re damaged. They signpost others to them. And they draw from them themselves.

The pun is deliberate, and this brings us full circle.  It is only from the path to wholeness that we can call others to join us. There is a calling on clergy to keep well as they keep the wells. Of course, wholeness and wellness are destinations yet to be reached. Sometimes they feel far away or only mirages. But clergy must be committed to their own self-awareness, self-management, and self-care. Not only for themselves, but for the flourishing of the whole people of God.

In busyness and panic and chaos and simple everyday life, in the mutuality of lay and ordained vocations, perhaps it is clergy who have – or should have – the gifts, the time, and the tools to stop, to dig, to drink, and to call others to do likewise.

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“I think we’re nearly there” – Leading through brokenness

The story of The Exodus – the escape over three millennia ago of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey homeward bound – is one of the greatest stories ever told. And it begins with a broken man being called to rescue this broken people from a broken tyrant overseeing a broken economy within a broken culture.

I was reflecting with Jim today on the brokenness I have seen lately in people around me, and in myself. This brokenness is not a bad thing: the opposite, in fact. Some of the people I most admire and look up to; those who have taught me how to live well; are broken.

Actually, on some level, we are all broken.

And the more I become aware of the brokenness around me, the more I realise that my leadership – in all areas of my life – must begin in the brokenness.

Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
Exodus 6:9

The people of Israel were so broken; their inward (and probably outward) cries of pain were so overwhelming, so unbearable, that they could hear and see and feel nothing that didn’t hurt.

We may not be slaves, we may not have experienced oppression to the same degree as the Israelite people under Pharaoh, but life hurts, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, life hurts so much that we can hear nothing but our pain.

Disillusionment, disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, hurt: these things begin to shape our narratives: they become the dominant stories that we tell. We lose sight of the future we were promised. We forget that there might be promise beyond the pain. We become hope-less.

A few weeks ago, I had a particular day where a number of people asked me to listen to their pain, and to pray with them. Thankfully, I had my anointing oil on hand! Following that day, I made a decision to always carry the oil – at least, as much as I would remember to. I think this decision arose from a realisation that I am ministering to a broken people. Not that the people I minister to are an anomaly; rather, I see in them the brokenness that many of us wear as casually and normally as our clothes. With the oil, I am ready to hear their brokenness, to embrace and anoint the darkest of their fears, and to speak words of comfort and hope and freedom.

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But…
Broken people don’t listen.

Why should they?

And yet, the story we have to tell – of resurrection and life and love and hope – needs to be heard.

So how do we tell it?

Anyone called to or engaged in Christian leadership needs to be ready to minister to the brokenness. Sometimes, the pain of our people is so profound – and shapes their story so crushingly – that before we can begin any meaningful work of discipleship or teaching or building up we need to address the pain.

Effective leaders must be pastors, listeners, healers, and encouragers.

If our people are broken in spirit, then the first – perhaps the only – tasks of leadership are:

To understand the brokenness
To listen, painstakingly, patiently, undefensively.
To hear the story behind the story; the meaning behind the words; the pain behind the aggression.
To be able to retell the story back to the storyteller in their words.
To empathise, and not sympathise.
To be there, with no agenda.

To bind up the wounds
To speak little, but incisively.
To offer words of healing balm, rather than explanation, defence, challenge, or frustration.
To embrace, without turning away.

To earn back trust
To recognise this is slow work.
To teach by listening rather than talking.
To offer freedom, autonomy, and space to make mistakes.
To be ready to go back to the work of listening, hearing, understanding, when the pain crowds in and this inner work is too much.

As a church, we are broken, and we have a difficult time ahead. Trust in us as an institution – as with many institutions – is at an all-time low. The narratives all too often turn to desperation, failure, regret. We must learn to lead our people through despondency, through disappointment, through brokenness.

But these things must never come to define our story.

We are broken, but our brokenness is not the end of our story. The great story of the Exodus probably never felt like an epic tale of adventure to the broken Israelite slaves. At what point did they, as a generation, realise the extent to which their story would be told, retold and learned by heart?

Probably never.

My greatest heroes, my cherished role models, are all broken people. But it is their brokenness, and their embrace of that brokenness, that makes them heroic.

We are all on a path through brokenness to wholeness. And increasingly, we need leaders who have walked that path, and who are willing to walk it again with their people; as slowly and as painstakingly as it takes. The best leaders never sprint off ahead. The best leaders stay with – and unite – the group. The best leaders tie up shoe laces and wipe snotty noses and sit with those who have given up and hand out snacks and plasters and jokes and say,

“Look ahead – I think we’re nearly there“.

And there is the wholeness we glimpse in brokenness. It is in the people among us to are ready
to listen,
to hear,
to heal,
to hope.

“I will weep”: Leaders as pain-bearers

Apparently babies cry a lot. You’d think I would know this by now, having had three. But there is a biological switch that flicks off between one baby and the next: the same switch that helps women forget the pain of labour. You forget just how much a newborn baby cries. Babies cry for all sorts of reasons.

But mostly, they cry for no reason at all.

This is the toughest crying to deal with. Nothing can make it better. And in these moments the reality of parenting a newborn; the exhaustion and the pain and the frustration; seem so far removed from the fantasy world of happy families. Every scream says to new parents “You can’t help me! You’re not good enough!” Every intake of infant breath brings new hope that the sobbing might subside, and then a fresh bawl that splits the ears and crushes the spirit just a little more.

Emily is 10 weeks old. She’s a crier. She starts at about 6pm, and will keep it up all evening. She cries so hard that she won’t take her bottle. The only thing that soothes her is movement. And so we switch from bouncy chair, to swaying, to walking around, and then back to bouncy chair. Each transition triggered after a few moments of calm, as her face crumples again and her little body becomes racked once more with sobs.

And we ride the storm.

The other night it got a bit much. Nothing I could do for her was right. Everything I tried brought a fresh round of tears. Holding her hot, sobbing body – staying on the move to try and calm her – was just exhausting. I had to put her down and walk away. Gut wrenching.

A little later, as I held her again, I came across this article. It says:

However, there’s another major purpose crying serves. Babies also cry to heal and recover from stressful experiences. When babies come into the world they have often had a difficult journey. Even the gentlest of births leaves a baby with feelings to process as they get used to being in a new and stimulating world.

Crying, often every evening (for what appears to be no reason), is natural for babies, and providing we have triple-checked that all their needs are met, we don’t need to do anything to stop them. We can simply listen, pay warm attention, and allow them to release their feelings.

When a baby is supported to cry in a parent’s loving arms, they will release feelings of stress, then naturally sleep well.

And it got me thinking:

When babies are at their hardest to love – that’s when they need love most of all.
When babies seem to struggle and resist any form of affection – that’s when they need the security of being held.
When babies are inconsolable – that’s when they need the consolation they refuse so determinedly.

Are any of us any different?

We might learn to express some of our basic needs – hunger, or clothing, or security. But do we really? Which of our unreasonable or irrational behaviours are actually a cry for help? What do we still have to learn about expressing our need for affection, or security, or love, or healing? What trauma have we experienced, that we are yet to process?

These seem like really important questions for those of us who are in leadership and ministry roles. A few weeks ago I facilitated a session for colleagues in Chester Diocese on Resilience. As part of that morning, I said this:

A focus on our self is about developing a healthy foundation from which to listen and respond to others. If we can deal with and transform our own pain, we are better able to meet others in theirs, even when their expression of that pain is a threat to us, or is hurtful.

Managing ourselves gives us a better perspective when it comes to dealing with others. It allows us to stand back from the hurtful comment, the unfair criticism, the attempt at conflict, and to ask “What is behind these words? What is going on for this person, at this time, that is causing them to lash out in such a way?”

And I quoted Richard Rohr:

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity.

And Notker Wolf:

We must be aware that we are never dealing with angels of light. People are more or less strong or weak, and we are all subject to envy, dislike, wilfulness and even deceit. This awareness preserves us from disappointment. It makes us compassionate and also alert to the uniqueness of people and situations. We must meet the challenge of taking human shortcomings into account without also passing judgement on them.

I wonder whether an effective model for leadership might be that of the pain-bearer?

The pain-bearer is the one who hears the cries of the world around them.
The one who holds those cries, as a parent holds their sobbing newborn, until they subside.
The one who is simply present: calm, reassuring and comforting.
The one who doesn’t turn their back and walk away from the pain, but who sits through it and suffers alongside.
The one who knows that they themselves are hard to love.
The one who listens, who pays warm attention, who is unafraid of feelings.

Pain-bearers are self-aware, secure, and committed to confronting and working through their own pain. They recognise their own inability to express their basic needs, and are ready to work through that inability. Pain-bearers are able to face the pain of another – their anger, frustration and fears – and sit with that pain. They hear past the cries of “You can’t help me!”, “You’re not good enough!” and they stay anyway.

I am lucky to know one or two pain-bearers. They are shy people, but they are leaders nevertheless. Theirs is a leadership that is wholly and completely for the other, so that those whose pain they bear may flourish and shine.

There’s a lot of pain around at the moment. Perhaps we need just a few more pain-bearers to help us navigate these times?

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Contemplative Leadership

20170112_142438Along with several colleagues, I have recently discovered Keith Lamdin’s Finding Your Leadership Style. Keith’s work is full of common sense, optimism, realism and encouragement. He examines different paradigms of leader: the monarch, the warrior, the servant, the elder, the contemplative and the prophet. Each of us, he argues, will have a dominant paradigm in our leadership (and, he says, if leadership is “influencing others”, then anyone can do it and most do). David Herbert has written a helpful overview of Keith’s book in his blog post Leadership Styles and a Political Divide.

If there was a part of the book that was disappointing, it was the chapter on contemplative leadership, which seemed to lack detail and depth. Keith recognises a growing desire in church ministers to connect more fully with this paradigm and to claim something absolutely distinctive for Christian leadership. He acknowledges the core value of contemplative living as holding God in your heart and knowing that you are precious… and loved for who you are, and yet by the end of the chapter I was left wondering what he felt contemplative leadership might look like, or why it is needed.

Well-rested leaders

In my own ministry, I often return to Wayne Muller’s quote on Sabbath: The world longs for the generosity of a well-rested people. Here, I interpret “rest” not necessarily as sleep or holiday, but as the radical, life-giving, world-changing rest that we find at the heart of life with God. Rest that relieves us from the burdens of isolation, overwork, and self-interest, and places us in a secure centre from which we interact with and relate to the world around us. It’s the rest that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11:28: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Rest (in this sense) is at the heart of the contemplative life. It is the rest that the world craves for its people. Rest enables us to be outward looking, non-anxious, compassionate, unhurried, positive, unruled by our ego, and champions of the other. These are values I see rarely in leaders. They are generosity in action.

The contemplative life

In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster identifies seven “characteristics and movements” of the contemplative life (words in italics are his):

Love: A deepening love for God. A love that is sometimes intense, and sometimes cold, but deepens and strengthens over time.
Peace: A firmness of life orientation that grounds us. This is not a feeling of freedom from anxiety and pressure, but rather a feeling of security and centredness within it.
Delight: A sense of friendship and fun in our relationship with God: God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God.
Emptiness: A dissatisfied satisfaction. A sense of frustration within the intense highs of contemplative living. This might be a yearning, an emptiness, a dryness or a darkness.
Fire: A growing, painful knowledge of everything within us that doesn’t please God, and an awareness of his purifying work within us.
Wisdom: A deepening knowledge of God: not intellectualism, but a knowing and inflowing of God himself.
Transformation: The gradual changes within as God captures our heart, will, mind, imagination and passions.

Contemplative leadership

Mary is often cited as an example of a contemplative leader: known as the God bearer, she bore Christ not only in her womb, but in all the sufferings and heartache that came with nurturing a beloved child who also happened to be God incarnate. Her life and ministry were rooted in inner contemplation. Amidst the activity that surrounded her new born baby, there was a simplicity in her own response: But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19).

As Keith Lamdin notes in passing, the metaphor of God-bearer is a good one for contemplative leadership. If, as Richard Foster argues, a potential peril of the contemplative tradition is a separation from the real world, and a lack of engagement with real life issues, perhaps contemplative leaders are those who manage to do both: to gently nurture and fiercely protect their inner life, while allowing God to flow out from that life and into the world. Contemplative leaders become the God bearers within our communities. Another way of phrasing this might be (as many contemplative traditions do) active contemplation.

So what might contemplative leadership look like in the present-day? I wonder if these characteristics are a good place to start, although there will be more:

Awareness. Contemplative leaders are growing in their awareness of God, self and other. They manage their own inner life effectively, and deal with their own negative emotions and reactions (or seek help in doing so). They are expert listeners and observers, and are able to identify where God might be at work in any number of situations. And they often help those they lead to identify and work on spiritual, emotional and material blind spots, bringing God into the ordinary, the painful and the hopeless.

Prayer. Contemplative leaders have a prayer life rooted not in cerebral knowledge, but in hard-won experience. Their prayers will often go beyond words (indeed, words may be a barrier to prayer) but this enables them to pray in any number of ways and moments. Just as contemplative leaders are God bearers, so they become people bearers, holding in prayer the lost, the lonely, the suffering. The practice they devote to prayer in private enables their whole living to become prayer.

Creativity. Contemplative leaders usually have active imaginations and lively dreams! They give time and attention to thinking creatively about problems and situations, and the space they allow themselves enables a better response than ‘we’ve always done it this way’. Fresh expressions of faith and worship are rooted in this time alone for the contemplative leader to reflect and create. The active imagination of the contemplative allows for possibilities for God to minister in ways not otherwise enabled. (Keith Lamdin discusses dreams and visions as an expression of the prophetic paradigm, but I wonder if they are perhaps more an expression of the contemplative?)

Depth. Contemplative leaders do not offer quick, superficial fixes. Their response – to God and to others – is measured and thoughtful. This can be frustrating for those being led in the age of the instantaneous. Often problems arise, and are addressed and dealt with more quickly than the contemplative can sit down to consider them. Their own response to a problem will be to step back, to reflect, to consult and to wait. If they are allowed time to do this, they will often find solutions that are more deeply effective and longer lasting than the quick fix. The challenge for the contemplative leader is to make themselves heard, and persuade others to slow down and allow time for a deeper solution to emerge.

Security. Contemplative leaders are rooted in God, and devoted to nurturing attention to God above all else. This growing awareness of God and their own place within his love enables them to be centred and secure. Because of this groundedness, contemplative leaders are perhaps more able than other paradigms to lead in ways that are differentiated and non-anxious. This, in turn, enables the community as a whole to flourish free of anxiety. A secure leaders forms a secure people. For more on this see Edwin Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership. Because of their centredness, contemplative leaders are strong leaders, but not in the ways we would expect: their strength manifests inwardly as much as outwardly.

Leading by example

Every person is called to contemplation. Every person deserves to give time to nurturing the inner life. As we become more attentive to God within us, so we notice him more around us and beyond us. Contemplative leaders help us, by their example, to pay attention: to God, to ourselves, and to others. Attention, depth of character, and love are increasingly absent from modern life, and so who better than the contemplative leaders among us to draw us back to our still centre? In the coming years, contemplative leadership could be a prophetic task for the whole church, if we were equipped and ready to offer this to the world.

I have not only repeated the affirmation that contemplation is real, but I have insisted on its simplicity, sobriety, humility, and its integration in normal Christian life.
Thomas Merton.

Buffers and safety nets: managing busyness

The bigger your empire grows, the more you have to look after your hinterland.
Ed Balls, quoting advice from Denis Healey.

Advent is a busy time in this house. We are two clergy with two churches and two children. Every year it challenges our discipline of remaining unbusy and resisting a culture of overwork. Every year we become busy and we overwork. We reach Christmas Day feeling grumpy, tired and ill. And every year we look back and feel like perhaps we missed out on the prayerful preparation that the four weeks of Advent are set aside for.

But this is never failure.

As I look back, I can see that each year, we have developed a little bit more awareness. We have learned more about managing our time better. We have become slicker at preparation and invested more time in people – and ourselves. We have realised that perfection is out and “good enough” is in. We have scaled down our expectations, and taken pressure off ourselves. We are learning.

In his memoirs, Ex-politician Ed Balls writes insightfully about balancing leadership and life. Those who watched his recent performances on Strictly Come Dancing will have seen a man full of energy and vitality: someone whose world is bigger than his work.

For Ed, his growing “empire” was his career, as he became a political adviser, then an MP, then a cabinet minister, and then shadow chancellor. His “hinterland” was the hobbies he nurtured to keep him sane: sport, music, family and friends. He speaks powerfully of Denis Healey’s influence on his own work/life balance, and the importance of being a multi-dimensional leader with a life beyond politics.

It’s not so different for anyone else.

For clergy in local churches, the empire grows each Advent as we take on extra work, meet extra people, hold extra services and keep friends and family (of all shapes and sizes) entertained. In these moments, perhaps our hinterland gets neglected. Perhaps we don’t have a hinterland to start with.

And this isn’t just a problem for clergy. I suspect most of us feel the pressure of Christmas mounting through Advent. I suspect we all know the rising guilt of failing – yet again – to create the perfect Christmas, as we reach the day itself feeling tired, ill, grumpy.

The lesson in our house this Advent has been simple, but profound. I hope it will transform the way we work well into next year, so that by Advent 2017 it has become habit. Our lesson is this: buffers and safety nets.

Buffers are stoppers. They make us pause, reflect and turn 20161218_172747around if necessary.
Safety nets are there to catch us when we fall.

In a usual week, by accident rather than design, we have breathing space. Time to catch up with each other, and other colleagues and friends. We have time to tinker with a sermon, read a chapter of a book, respond to a pastoral crisis, make a decent cup of coffee, and take the kids to the park for an hour.

This availability is our hinterland, our buffer, our safety net. And in busy times, as the diary fills up and every waking minute is used, we lose them. Busyness becomes dangerous as the buffer is no longer there to make us pause, and the safety net is no longer there to break a fall.

We don’t notice until we have a small problem. A poorly parishioner, a family argument or a broken printer. And then we need the buffer of time, and the buffer has gone. A small problem becomes stressful, drawn out and more difficult to resolve. We tire, we fall, we crash.

So, I say this to myself, and to anyone else who has felt the pressures of life lately. It’s become a mantra in our house this month: Get to know your buffers. Rig up your safety nets. Don’t neglect your hinterland. And when things get busy as your empire grows, defend them fiercely and cling to them at all costs. Without them, we become one-dimensional and wrung out. With them, we become people who have time, energy and joy that flows beyond ourselves and transforms those around us.

Safety nets and buffers: the best gifts you can give yourself this Christmastime.

Hineni: Here I am

I’m a bit young to know Leonard Cohen’s music well. But since his death I’ve discovered his final album, released last month and a profound insight into the wrestlings of a man staring death in the face.

Cohen was deeply spiritual, with Jewish heritage and a grasp of concepts from across different faith traditions. His final album pulls together the threads of a lifelong relationship with the spiritual, as he addresses, argues with and gives in to God, swinging like a pendulum between anger and contentment, questioning and acceptance. In the dying words of the album there is little resolution, with the wistful line, addressed to God: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”. Cohen’s final words after a lifetime of grappling with God through song.

This album is full of vocational darkness, which I’ve written about before. We might think of God like a fairy godmother – a myth who makes all our dreams come true and keeps us living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is far harder.

Vocational darkness is the cloud that settles when we say “yes” to God. Becoming who we are made to be – realising our full potential – these are painful journeys. The gateways and bridges to contentment and fulfilment have names such as sacrifice, cost, grief, pain and death. There is deep joy and peace to be found with God. But not without cost.

Death is the ultimate vocational journey. None of us knows exactly what happens beyond it. But I am confident that death is transformational, redemptive and an ultimate fulfilment of who we are – somehow. Only after will we know.

Cohen puts this vocational darkness at the heart of his title track: You Want it Darker.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a song for our time, in a 10 minute reflection well worth listening to.

Surrounded, as we are in the West, by fearful uncertainty and anguished disillusionment, here is a song of challenge and protest and prophecy.

Cohen rails against God:
Why are we so broken?
How have we, created in the image of God, become so ugly and disfigured?
God how could you let this happen?

And within his anger is disillusionment about his own place in the world:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Do you want me, or not?
Am I willing, or not?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then comes his response to God. Hineni, he says. A Hebrew word owned by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Here I am.
I’m ready.
I don’t understand or I don’t agree or I don’t know… but I’m ready.
Here I am.
Choose me.

Cohen gives us glimpses of the invitation to respond to God. Hineni, he challenges us to say.

It’s a tough word. A mirror. It draws our questions and doubts away from God and back to ourselves. It is not God who is responsible for the terror of our world. It’s us. We might do it in God’s name but it’s still we who do it.

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame.

How could we let this happen?

There is an antidote to the world’s suffering. It’s the work of good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to responding to their own vocational darkness and bringing about change. The hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Frankly, it’s easier to ask the questions without being bothered to find the answer.

The answer, Cohen says, is hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.

Donald Trump: The fairy godmother

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world”. Socrates.

Why has Donald Trump been elected president today?

That’s a question I’ve seen asked time and again on social media this morning. I’m not an expert in American politics, and the reasons for Trump’s rise to power are complex. But there is a subtle factor in his success that isn’t unique to the USA.

Across the Western world, privileged people are feeling disempowered. Those who have always done well, socially and economically, suddenly find themselves feeling hard done by.

There is a mistrust of the establishment and a suspicion of institutions. We can speculate on events of the past decade that have fed this ill feeling.

A vote for Trump, or (in the UK) for Brexit, or UKIP or Corbyn is, for some, an anti-establishment protest vote. Here are people or movements, set slightly apart from the establishment, who promise a voice to those who have been told that they are voiceless.

(This in itself deserves some unpacking. What has gone so wrong that those who have most privilege, most opportunity, most wealth, feel like they actually have least? What about those who are truly voiceless: victims of violence, racism and trafficking, asylum seekers, those who can’t afford to eat or stay warm – who is giving them a voice?)

Amidst the fear and anxiety and disempowerment appears a man who can promise to make all our dreams come true. He hears these narratives of disappointment and disillusionment, and he tells a winning story. The shady tycoon plays the part of fairy godmother. What does he offer that is so attractive that it sells to the USA a man so otherwise repulsive?

These quotes are from his victory speech this morning:

Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, we have to get together.

I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me.

We will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream.

Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

We will double our growth and have the strongest economy anywhere in the world.

Nothing we want for our future is beyond our reach.

We must reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring.

While we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone.

Sounds pretty good right? The perfect remedy, in fact, to fear and anxiety about the future. The people will come together. Every man and woman will be encouraged to reach their full potential. No one will feel forgotten any longer. Jobs will be created and wealth generated. America will be safe, secure and successful. The dream will come true.

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But these words are the first bricks in the wall that will shut the privileged in, and everyone else out. There are no bridges promised here. Here is America saying me, me, me. In Trump’s references to international relationships he made it clear that any such relationships would be on America’s terms:

We will get along with all other nations [pause] willing to get along with us.

Watching this speech live, Trump’s pause was deliberate, manipulative and threatening.

This is a fairly tale that feeds fear and denies America’s responsibilities as citizens of the world. It reassures the disempowered by offering them safety and security at a cost that they won’t have to pay. America’s dream becomes the world’s nightmare.

There has to be another way. What story can people of faith – the everyday theologians on the ground – tell, to counter these narratives of fear and the fairy tales that promise all and deliver little?

One of the greatest challenges facing faith communities this century is the rise of religious and political extremism. I heard Rowan Williams speak recently about how the Desert Fathers and Mothers – the theologians of 2000 years ago – were “thinking through what it means to live as a guest in God’s world”.

Here is the seed of a radical theology of hospitality. We are not citizens of our nation, but of the world. And this is not our world, but God’s world. God is the host, and we are his guests. The people we hate are his guests too. You and I, Donald Trump and the jihadist fighter – all guests of God.

How does this begin to reshape our narratives of fear, anxiety and disempowerment?