Cricket – a metaphor for global mission?

Source: www.freeimages.com

As the England men’s cricket team scrapes through by the narrowest of victories to win the World Cup and joins the women as world champions, it may be time to look at cricket and see how it is the perfect metaphor for global mission.

  • It’s a team game.  Although individual players may perform brilliantly, nobody can do it on their own.  One of the things that several teams in the recent tournament had in common was that they were overly dependent on one brilliant player.  If he didn’t do well, the whole team failed.  In contrast, England have several excellent batters and bowlers.  The best teams may not have the best individual players, but they have a broad range of good ones.
  • Occasionally there’s a prima donna.  Every now and then some talented person comes along who believes he’s God’s gift to the team.  They don’t adapt the way they play to the needs of the team.  People like that disrupt the team and although they may perform well they often undermine the performance of others.
  • There’s a huge support network.  The cricket team is built not on the 11 but on the coaches, managers, physios, dietitians, travel operators…..  our team consists not only of those in the field and their field admin teams, but the homeside admin, churches, families, and other supporters all in the mix.
  • Successful teams are good at every discipline.  Teams that bowl well but can’t put runs on the board don’t win.  And vice versa.  A winning team needs to bat, bowl and field well.  Likewise, we’re not all good church planters, Bible teachers, childrens’ workers, social transformation agents, but together we can have a big impact in our field
  • Flexibility in the field is important.  One of the regular criticisms of the England cricket team is that the batters don’t adjust their style of play to the state of the pitch.  We need to be able to read what is going on in our host nation’s politics, society, religion and economics and be able to adapt our activities and presentation of the gospel to be current and relevant.
  • Some of us are specialists, others all-rounders.  A good team needs them all.  Some of the cricketers who had the biggest impact for their team were not the best players in any discipline, but people who made a good contribution at any stage of the game.  While the biggest hitters and the fastest bowlers might grab the headlines, there is always a need for the mission worker who can turn their hand to anything.
  • Players who are not in good form are seldom dropped.  Modern cricket recognises that everyone goes through periods where they disappoint, and is tolerant of this, understanding that given a change, underperforming team members can frequently play themselves back into form.  Are Christians are more likely to drop such players from the team?
  • You may spend a long time on the boundary and then have your brief moment of glory.  Not everybody is in the midst of the action all the time, and we may feel jealous of those who seem to have a lot going on around them.  But stay focused – you don’t want to miss your opportunity when it comes along.
  • And finally, lots of people in the church still don’t really understand it and think it’s boring!

Communication let us all down

For most of my life I have been part of various organisations – schools, employers, mission agencies, universities, churches, societies – and almost invariably they have a communication problem.  I should imagine there are few of us who feel we are in an organisation that communicates well.

Either the information is left to trickle down (or not!), it’s all pumped out in one deluge, or there is such a commitment to communicating that information comes out so frequently that people stop listening.  Rather like the rain down in Africa, good communication not only needs to come at the right time, it needs to come in the right quantities, otherwise there is huge damage caused by flood or famine.

Good communication involves expressing ideas clearly, listening with a view to understanding rather than contradicting, and being prepared for an open, frank discussion while still remembering to love those who don’t agree with us.  Without these prerequisites, a meeting can be held, words said and heard, but communication hasn’t actually happened.  As George Bernard Shaw remarked:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

So how can we communicate effectively in our churches, agencies and teams?

First, think about who does the communicating.  Some leaders can feel uncomfortable that they don’t have the ability to communicate well, whether orally or verbally, or cope honestly with any difficult questions, and therefore they start the process defensively, which can lead them to going on the attack if challenged.  Others may be communicating simply because they think they it’s their responsibility.  Some do it because they need to make sure their people’s need for information is met and are not committed to taking people with them on the journey.

All of these are likely to do a bad job of communicating because their heart is not in it.  They would benefit from letting someone else manage the communication – a person with an understanding of what is needed, a person with the right skills and a passion for getting a message across.  Which is why important people often have press secretaries.  They think about what is being said, and how and when.

Communication is also complicated by the variety of viewpoints among the followers.  Some will have principled objections to any suggestions of change, others will be personally inconvenienced or hurt by it.  Some will feel they haven’t been heard if they’re not agreed with, and others (like football supporters) will always be of the opinion that they could do the job better than the current manager.  Many will think the organization ought to be more ‘democratic’ – in other words they feel they have a right to have a say.  And the different ethnic mix in any given context means that any communication is filtered through the differing cultural blinkers of each nationality.  These factors  complicate how well organisations communicate.

Second, think about why you are communicating.  If you are giving people information so that they will do something, you may want to communicate differently than you would if you are leading a consultation.  Sometimes communication needs to get a message across in a hurry, as in a combat situation where lives could be lost if there is not clear communication.

Other communication may be about an organisation’s change of ethos or policy, which may require more consultation.  Sometimes communication, as in marriage, may not be for any particular purpose or about a specific issue so much as maintaining and building on a relationship, for which it is important to ensure communication channels stay open and that people have an opportunity to be heard.

Finally, think about the process of communicating, particularly if it’s about major change.  What is the mix of face-to-face meetings, social media and written/email letters?  How do people express their views or ask questions – particularly those who are reluctant to speak in meetings or only have space to marshal their thoughts once a meeting is over and they can be alone.  What about those who are afraid of reprisals if they speak out?  How can you avoid simply going through the motions of communicating to try and soften the blow of change – because being seen to be an open, transparent and accountable leadership enhances trust, and being seen to listen reassures people that they are valued individuals and not just expendable commodities.

Decades ago a famous study of change in the Shell oil company showed that talking about change long before it happens gets people used to the idea, so that by the time it happens, it’s not a challenge anymore because they’ve already processed the transition in their minds.  Good communication was key to delivering a seamless transition.

Good communication, whether about selling a much-loved head office building, merging with another organisation, or major changes of direction, is not often talked about and it would be good to hear from any of our readers what their experiences of good communication are.

The Alpha Leader is not what you think

Frans de Wall has spent 40 years working with chimpanzees, studying their emotions and relationships.  In his book Chimpanzee Politics (1982) he c oinedthe term Alpha Male, but he insists that this term was so misinterpreted that in his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, he has written a chapter explaining how the concept was completely misappropriated.

Apparently, the Alpha leaders among chimpanzees are seldom the domineering, aggressive bullies we connect with leaders who force their way to the top of the tree – these ones are frequently dethroned by coalitions of their underlings.  The most successful Alphas get there by forming mutually-beneficial alliances.

More importantly, the Alphas defend underdogs, comfort the distressed, maintain peace and resolve disputes.  Significantly, they hug others more than any other chimp in the pack.  The underlying message is that the most effective leaders care for the weak, build teams and ensure unity.  Where have we heard that before?

Jesus would not be the first person we think about when we hear the words alpha male, but clearly as the greatest ever leader he embodied the traits outlined above.  He washed his disciples’ feet, a task so demeaning that some rabbis argued that no Jews should do it, not even a Jewish slave.  He then told them:

“If I, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

(John 13:14)

We are understandably squeamish about the physical washing of other people’s feet, so we prefer to interpret this today as prioritizing care for the most needy, which is exactly what Jesus did.  St Paul was clearly keen to do likewise (Galatians 2:10).  He is often portrayed as more alpha male than Jesus, but look at how he claims he led the Thessalonian church – “gently, like a nursing mother tenderly caring for her children” and “exhorting and encouraging each one, just as a father would his own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11).

So why is it that we, who are committed to defending the marginalized, promoting harmony and building teamwork, still end up with some leaders who appear to have pushed their way to the top and seem intent on staying there by force?  Where are the community builders who with meekness and humility forge and unite a team, and lead with gentleness rather than drivenness?

Becoming meek is an outworking of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  It takes time, and active co-operation with God at work in us.  Frequently it requires elements of withdrawal from work, community and daily life in order to reflect and to listen to God as we process the things that happen to us.

So the meek, far from inheriting the earth, may be overlooked when leaders are being selected, because they are not so visible, possibly seen as not so competent, and therefore can more easily be overlooked than those whose confidence makes their presence felt wherever they go.  The more visible candidates may seem as if they present strong leadership qualities, but this may end up being at the expense of their own people.

The real alpha leader is probably serving right there on the sidelines, picking up the pieces of broken team members and working to maintain team cohesion.  Though he or she may never be recognized as a leader, they may be achieving more for the team than the leader in whose shadow they serve.

Bruised, confused, abused

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This term was used recently in a discussion by a colleague reflecting on how many mission workers return to the UK, whether permanently or short-term, with serious emotional or spiritual damage.  It may be somewhat overstated but nevertheless expressed well what many of us working in member care see regularly.  Quite apart from the normal stresses of living cross-culturally, many of these people had been victims of their own organisations and leadership.  Incompetence, error and even malpractice are far too prevalent in the senior echelons.

We at Syzygy are not happy to highlight the weaknesses we come across in churches and agencies, or the personal shortcomings of some of their leadership, but we come across this sort of situation quite frequently and from time to time we feel the need to bring it to peoples’ attention.  When mission workers are harmed by their own people/organisations, something is desperately wrong.  It is not honouring to God, it’s not loving to our brothers and sisters in Christ, not a good witness to the people we are working with, and it’s not a sensible way to treat what we all acknowledge is an extremely limited and valuable resource – our people.

So why does this happen?  We have already blogged about the fact that many leaders feel pushed into a role they’re not ready for, with the result that they either abdicate responsibility or become dictatorial in enforcing their authority.  Add into this the pressures of increasing age, the cross-cultural stress which most people in a mission environment work under, the shortage of finance and personnel in most agencies, and unrealistic demands of supporters and sending churches, contribute some compassion fatigue and some cross-cultural exhaustion, and the result can be a number of people who are not really fit to be on the field themselves let alone be in a position of managing others.

So what can we do about it?  Here are some suggestions from Syzygy’s own experience:

Specific training for leaders.  We suspect that few mission workers ever have the opportunity for personal development as they transition into a new role.  Professional training on such topics as managing people, communication skills and understanding team roles would be an appropriate part of such a package, as well as specific training on areas where new leaders self-identify as vulnerable.

Mentoring for leaders.  Leadership can be a lonely place.  There are issues you can’t talk about with your friends, and decisions you have to take alone.  Many leaders are aware they are struggling but have nobody they can honestly talk to about it: they may well be afraid that their church or agency will terminate their support if they think they can’t handle the pressure.  So facilitating somebody from outside the organisation to be an independent mentor for each leader would be a big step forward.

Downsize the agency.  Many agencies believe in perpetual growth, and to be honest there is always more work we can do.  But just because there is a need we don’t have to meet it ourselves.  Rationalising what we do, withdrawing from some areas or ministries, and reducing the number of team members may all be good responses to an overworked leadership.

Encourage better self-care.  No matter how busy leaders are, time when the phone is switched off, families relax together, people can go on holiday or retreat, or engage in hobbies is always worthwhile.

Provide better member care.  Member care in some areas is still unreliable.  More people with a pastoral role focussed towards the mission workers will help keep self-c are on the agenda.

Syzygy provides support for mission workers and agencies in all these areas.  For a totally confidential discussion email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

What do you to when someone throws a spear at you?

Saul and DavidThis is the attention-grabbing tagline of a book with a much milder name, A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards.  Written in 1980 to counter the threat of authoritarian leadership in the church, it has become a minor classic which has proved highly therapeutic for victims of domineering leaders.

We have mentioned before in these blogs how some mission leaders can be ill-equipped for their leadership role, which is why Syzygy is committed to leadership development and mentoring, and are looking at other ways of supporting leaders.  Sadly, many Christian workers have been hurt by leaders who, uncomfortable in their role, resort to domineering or manipulative leadership styles to enforce their authority, brutally crushing ‘rebellion’ and marginalising the ‘rebels’.  We know, because we’ve been there.  And reading this book was part of the recovery.

A Tale of 3 KingsA Tale of Three Kings traces the life of King David, first as a young man working for a tyrant, and later as a king overthrown by his ambitious son, Absalom.  These are the eponymous three kings.  Edwards uses them as types – Saul as an insecure leader who wrongly feels threatened by anyone competent, Absalom as a proud, ambitious achiever quick to claim power that is not his, and David as a humble, broken leader who will not fight to take what is not his, nor to keep it.  He argues that despite the great suffering caused to him by both Saul and Absalom, David is the only one of the three who acts righteously throughout.

The answer to the opening question is “You get stabbed to death.”  Because in the brokenness, the dying to self that pain brings, you kill the Saul within you whose fleshly response is to retaliate.  That is what helps equip you to become a leader.  The minute you pick up the spear and throw it back, you become another Saul, Edwards argues.  Moreover, he argues that it was David’s suffering at the hands of Saul that equipped him to become a great king, because he saw first hand how a tyrant destroys.

Saul’s response to the challenge he perceived from David was to destroy.  In doing so, he revealed his own character weakness.  As Edwards puts it,

 Outer power will always unveil the inner resources, or the lack thereof.

This book is not to everyone’s taste, and its literary style takes a bit of getting used to, but for the Davids among us it brings great comfort, and to the Sauls and Absaloms, a thought-provoking challenge.  Many people who think they are Davids will be brought up short to discover how much Absalom is in them!  The book deserves its subtitle A Study in Brokenness because that is exactly what it is, as it aims to help us study the brokenness (or lack thereof) in our own lives.  A helpful section at the back makes this specifically personal by asking such questions as:

  • Who throws spears at you? How does God want you to respond?
  • What needs to happen to put your own inner Saul to death?
  • Sauls see only Absaloms. Absaloms see only Sauls.  Neither can recognise a David.  How can we distinguish the one from the others?
  • David considered the throne to be God’s, not his own to have, to take, to protect, to keep. Could you say the same about what God has given you?

You can read more of the story behind A Tale of Three Kings here, and buy the book online at Seedsowers or other online retailers.

Setting the pace

Chris Chataway with the Sports Personality of the Year Award.

Chris Chataway with the Sports Personality of the Year Award.

Sir Christopher Chataway, who died last month, may not have been a household name, but had many achievements in the fields of business, broadcasting, politics and athletics.  Together with Robin Day he was the first newsreader on ITN, and he was the first person to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.  He was a Company Director, public servant and Chair of development charity ActionAid.

Chataway was also an accomplished runner, competing in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics and winning a gold medal in the 1954 Commonwealth Games and a silver in the European Championships.  Yet one of his most significant achievements was running in a race he didn’t win, and never intended to win.  In 1954 Chataway was one of the two pacesetters for Roger Bannister, when Bannister became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes.

Bannister crosses the line in 3:59:4

Bannister crosses the line in 3:59:4

My friend Bob, the Vice-Principal of Springdale College, mentioned to me recently that in a seminar when his students attempted to define leadership, one of them chose the word pacesetter.  I think it fits well.  The pacesetter helps others win.  He initially keeps up a good pace to ensure momentum while helping his followers not to tire too soon.  He has the wisdom to know when to move aside and let others take over the running.  He has the humility to let them finish well while he ends up possibly not even finishing the race.  He has exhausted himself so that others can achieve their best.

It seems so obvious that this analogy also applies to a leader that the point hardly needs to be made.  The leader is not there to take the glory but to help others to do better.  She serves them, not the other way round.  She may be completely forgotten by history while her followers go on to become famous, but if that is what God has called her to do, she has done well.  Jesus, of course, the greatest leader, clearly did that.  He came not to be served but to serve.  He laid down his life for others.  We are all beneficiaries of his sacrifice.

Bannister (centre) thanks Chataway for his support

If you are a leader, please take the opportunity to ask yourself how good a pacesetter you are.  Are you committed to helping your followers achieve, or are you competing with them?  Are you sacrificing yourself so that they can do what God is calling them to do?  And do you know when it’s time to move over and let them run their own race?

In a delicious piece of historical irony, the year in which Bannister broke the four minute mile was also the year in which Chataway won Sports Personality of the Year.  Bannister came second.

What we can learn from Sir Alex

FergieThere can be no doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson, who announced his retirement from Manchester United last Wednesday after an incredible 27 seasons, is an extraordinary character. Love him or loathe him, it is impossible to deny his impact on MUFC and his achievement as the club’s most successful manager, despite many other great names having held the same position. He has won the Manager of the Year award more times than any other British manager.  The news of his retirement hit news headlines and front pages, and the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson even did a prime time report analysing his qualities as a leader – ‘I’ve yet to see [a leader] to match Sir Alex’, he commented.

This is something that leaders in mission agencies might want to reflect on. Probably more flawed and controversial than many of us (how many of us have kicked a boot at one of our team members?!), Fergie nevertheless has a number of qualities we would do to emulate:

A long-term view. As well as staying in his post for an incredibly long time (he was MU manager before many of his current players were born!), he has also taken a long-term approach to team development. While the success of the team has often revolved around star players like Keane, Cantona, Ronaldo and Beckham, Fergie has always brought new players in to ensure a broad and deep skill base, even rebuilding the team when necessary. He recognises that his players are only with him for a few years, and he plans beyond that time frame.

Perseverence. It hasn’t always gone well. Some years have yielded no silverware at all, and there have been calls for his resignation, particularly in the early days. MUFC won nothing in his first three seasons, their best result being runner up in the league. But he remained focussed, and over time has delivered an unparalleled collection of trophies. Results are more often delivered over time than in the first few years.

AFAbility to manage volatile people. Let’s face it, most of his players are young, overpaid prima donnas. Many of them have personal issues, particularly with anger. They’re not ideal team players. Their egos can get in their way. Does that sound a bit like your team? Fergie didn’t change them – he channelled them. He gave them a vision of what they could achieve together and enabled them to raise their expectations above their own personal goals.

We should also take note that there are aspects of his character however that are completely incompatible with Christian mission. For example, his leadership style is utterly uncompromising – ‘My way or the highway’ – which while delivering excellent results does not always deliver good relationships. It is widely rumoured that many of his best players ultimately moved on because they didn’t like the changing room environment his iron hand created. But this did not seem to matter significantly to him, since there were always plenty of new players to replace them. As one member care agency comments – The Great Commission should not be fulfilled at the expense of the greatest commandment.

All of his success of course, has been achieved on the back of a massive investment budget which has turned Manchester United from a football team to a global brand. Maybe developing inward investment should be our first priority!

Whether we like Sir Alex or not, or follow his team, we would do well to study his leadership style and cherry pick the best of it. He understands how to motivate and inspire people.

Featured Ministry: Member Care Media

We have mentioned before in these pages the extraordinary ministry of Member Care Media, which provides a valuable service to mission workers worldwide.  A project of TWR, Member Care by Radio (as it was originally named, was set up to provide a daily radio broadcast aimed specifically at the needs of cross-cultural mission workers in places where they were physically beyond the reach of regular and proactive member care.

With the arrival of the digital age, the project became Member Care Media, though the basic concept remains unchanged.  Each recorded ‘broadcast’ is now available to listen to online, with some of them also featuring as transcribed articles, and an entire library is available on the website for you to browse through.  They cover a range of subjects including emotional health, family, short term mission, cross-cultural living and working, teamwork, leadership and TCKS, and are all dealt with by professionals working in the relevant field.

While the broadcasts are aimed primarily at people working in a cross-cultural context, there is a wealth of resource available on emotional health, marriage and leadership which will be of use to all Christians in helping them cope with the demands of their life and ministry.

We suggest that you may like to use these broadcasts as part of your regular times of self-maintenance.  They are all fairly short, so listening to each daily broadcast might be a bit demanding on your time, but it’s not unfeasible to listen to one a week.  Couples could listen together to ones about marriage and family, and work teams could listen to the ones about teamwork and use them as a basis for discussion afterwards.  Small groups could use them as part of their devotional times together.

This collection of resources by some of the member care sector’s most prominent practitioners is too good to be kept a secret!