Receiving the baton

A couple of months ago we did a blog on how we can support new leaders when they take over in our church, agency or team.  This week we’re going to look again at the same topic but from the perspective of the new leader.  How can you make sure you pick up the baton safely and get off to a good start, particularly if you’re following in the footsteps of a significantly strong, influential or much-loved leader?

Believe in yourself.  If you genuinely believe you are called by God to fill this role, you need to be bold enough to recognize that you’re in that role because of who you are.  You have your own set of characteristics and abilities which are different to those of your predecessor.  You don’t need to apologise for being who you are, but to trust that you have come into your position for such a time as this (Esther 4:14).

Take your time.  Before you make major decisions you should wait until you’ve got to know the organization (if you’re new to it) or understand some of the leadership dynamics if you’ve been promoted within it.  You need to take time to become informed before initiating significant change.

You also need to be aware that needing to stamp your mark on the organization is an indication of character weakness, and a response to feeling insecure.

Don’t waste time.  Paradoxically, there is a fine line between acting too rashly and too indecisively, and taking too much time to find your feet can create the impression of indecisiveness among your team.  They need to feel that there is a firm hand on the tiller, even though you’re not changing course.

Let people know you’re listening, but lead the decision making.  Much milk has been spilt over different leadership styles being needed in different situations, but one very good example of leading a very diverse group through potential conflict is the Jerusalem council of Acts 15.  Everyone had their say, then the leader – James – summarized the discussion and made a decision (“my judgment” – verse 19) which appears to be unanimous (verse 22) and is later couched in a press release as “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (verse 28).

You can recover from a bad start.  If it doesn’t start well, don’t panic.  Endurance and perseverance can recover the situation.  After Southampton football club defeated Man U to win the 1976 FA Cup their manager Lawrie McMenemy, reflected that although people were now waving to him in the street in Southampton, three years earlier he’d been used to ducking whatever the people were throwing at him, as he was unable to prevent the team being relegated.  A Biblical example would be Moses, coming in from outside to lead his people to freedom.  The people were opposed to him because of the increasing hardship they faced, and Moses was ready to quit (Exodus 5:20-23).  But it worked out alright in the end.

 

Taking over a new role is not easy.  It will drive you to your knees in prayer – and if it doesn’t, beware of trusting in your own skills and ability rather than the grace of God who provide all you need.

Match report: Malaria scores twice!

Image courtesy of Gabor Bibor on www.freeimages.com

In the latest phase of the close-fought match between world champions Malaria and the tenacious challengers Researchers, the champs showed their style by putting two quick goals past the over-confident Researchers defence.

Researchers hoped that their two new star players Artemisinine and Piperaquine, working well together, would soon put the result beyond doubt, but one should never underestimate the resilience which has helped Malaria stay at the top of the game for so long.

First, Malaria quickly got the measure of the expensive new attackers, finding their way around first one and then the other. Then while the Researcher’s defence was still reeling from the sudden riposte, Malaria broke out of the Cambodian midfield to threaten on both wings.

This is a worrying setback for Researchers who have poured so much money into developing their team.  Their manager Mozzie Spray told our reporter “I’m as sick as a parrot.  But it’s a game of two halves”

While much of the play is taking place in S E Asia at the moment, it should be remembered that no how well Researchers develop, they still have to get the ball past Malaria’s massive African goalkeeper, whose sheer size means that any tactical wins in other parts of the pitch could seem relatively insignificant in the chase for the global title.  This game is a long way from over.

 

[Very loosely based on two articles in Lancet Infectious Diseases.  For a simple summary go to the BBC]

When the baton is passed

I have recently been reflecting on how hard it is to take over leadership from someone who has done well.  Think, for example, of the difficulties Manchester United has had since Sir Alex retired.  It can often be the same in churches or mission agencies following the tenure of a particularly significant leader.

While it will be a perfectly natural response to miss a much-loved leader, and wonder what will happen without them, or even have fears for the future, such feelings can easily become negative thoughts about their successor.  We can start to wonder if she is fit to follow in the footsteps of such a great saint.  Or possibly even resent every change that she makes even if it is for the better.  This then gets us into the habit of continually being cynical about her tenure.

So how can we be good team members at a time of transition?

1. We can recognize that transition destabilises us emotionally. We are crossing over from a place of certainty and we need to be aware of our own fragility which can make us overreact to even the smallest changes.  At times like these we need to focus on what has not changed, and this helps us through.  Other colleagues, friends, and of course God!

2. We remember that we support the team not the leader. After Sir Alex, retired, very few Man U fans will have stopped supporting the club.  In fact their subsequent disappointment and frustration are functions of their love for Man U!  Likewise we are in partnership with an organization, a family, a movement which is bigger than any one person.

3. We understand that any agency evolves over time as leadership passes from hand to hand. For some organisations that has been happening for decades, maybe even a century or more, and the agency still goes on.  Each new leader has the opportunity to shape the agency but it has weathered handover before and probably will again.

4. We can give the new leadership time. In fact we can empathise with them because no matter what our current role, we too were once rookies and had to learn the job from scratch.  We asked stupid questions and made silly mistakes which would embarrass us now if we remembered them.

5. We acknowledge that each new leader needs our support. When King David headed off a power grab by his ambitious son Adonijah (1 Kings 1) by publicly crowning Solomon instead, it was only the loyalty of brave people like Bathsheba, Nathan and Zadok that created a groundswell of popular support.  We have a choice – we can be a backstabber or a cheerleader.

Not everybody taking over the baton does well.  Sometimes they drop it, or get off to a slow start.  That’s not the time to lose faith in them.  They may be able to pick it up and carry on running.  If they do, it’s our cheers that will help them catch up.

 

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!

You had one job…

Lindsey Jacobellis is not a household name.  In fact, unless you’re passionate about snowsports, you have probably never heard of her.

She is a champion snowboarder, winner of five gold medals in the World Championships over 12 years, and has twice been ranked world number 1.  That is awesomely good, particularly winning her last world championship in 2017 at the relatively advanced age of 31.

But she hasn’t won an Olympic gold.

Her best chance came in 2006 when she was favourite in the finals of the Snowboard Cross.  This is a simple discipline where four boarders race to be first to the finish line.  No points for style, control, damage or aggression.  Just get there first.  Simples.

Jacobellis got into an early lead and two of her rivals crashed.  The other was quite a way behind and Jacobellis, grandstanding, tried to perform a stunt on the final jump.  She fell on landing and was overtaken as she lay on the ground.  She got up and continued to an embarrassing silver medal.

One of the paradoxes of snowboarding is that the casual attitude boarders show to the sport they enjoy can almost be at odds with the professional focus demanded of professional athletes.  Jacobellis subsequently justified herself by saying “I was having fun”, and ironically there is nothing wrong with that – it is what boarding is all about.  Sadly for her, it distracted her from her primary goal.

Which brings me to the point: do you have one primary goal which God has called you to?  Are you passionately committed to it with the discipline of an athlete?  What is currently distracting you from it – even if it’s good or it’s fun?  And what are you going to do about it?  Are you enthused by the desire one day to hear the Lord say to you “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

 

If you want to enjoy the race, you can find plenty of versions on YouTube!

 

Cricket in Crisis?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Anyone who has followed the defeat of the England cricket team at the weekend, and indeed over the last winter, cannot escape the conclusion that English test cricket is in a crisis, as has so frequently been observed over the last 100 years or so.

The appointment of a coach who was selected for his track record in the shorter forms of the game (“white ball cricket”) as opposed to test matches (“red ball cricket) has only highlighted this problem.  Their defeat at the weekend by Pakistan only highlighted the fact that many of the England players, while being highly adept at the sort of aggressive fast scoring that is needed in white ball cricket, are woefully underprepared for the patient, slower building of a large innings over the course of several hours, like Alastair Cooke is so good at.

And why would they be?  Test matches last five days, and the players have no other experience of five-day cricket.  County Championship matches last four days, most other tournaments last one day, and in the shortest form of cricket a game is over in just three hours.  Now the cricket authorities in England are planning to introduce an even shorter competition to attract more interest.

A similar change is taking place in the missions world.  56 years ago, when first-class one-day cricket was introduced, the concept of ‘short-term’ mission barely existed.  Now the number of British people, mainly students but increasingly retired people, going on a short term mission trip number in the thousands every year.  Like white-ball cricket, it’s popular and accessible.

Unlike long-term mission, which is more like test cricket.  It requires a lot more training, time and commitment to get established.  The quick results that are needed for short-term are replaced by the disciplined and patient endurance that builds into powerful impact for the kingdom of God even if it’s not quite so spectacular.

How we can get the thousands of people who love the thrill of short-term mission to convert to the longer form is as challenging as making test match players out of T20 players.  We would love to see more of the short-termers coming back as long termers, and while many long-term mission workers started their vocation with short-term there is apparently little evidence that short-term engagement increases long-term recruitment.  Just as in cricket, they are two different forms of the game and there is not an automatic crossover from one into the other.

Many facets of mission need long-term commitment.  Quite apart from the challenges of language acquisition and cultural adaptation which need a significant investment of time, activities such as theological education, community transformation, and Bible translation don’t readily lend themselves to being done by short-termers.  So we still need more long-termers, rather than less.

Short-term mission can be justified in its own right, and has a place alongside long-term, as long as it is done well, contextualised, and done with cross-cultural sensitivity and respect (see the Global Connections Code of Best Practice for examples of how this might be achieved).  It is not merely a recruiting ground.  But there does also need to be a focus on maintaining and developing the long-term workforce that keeps mission going forward when the short-termers go home.

Just like England will never win the Ashes with a team full of IPL stars.

Onward and upward!

img_20161028_104636Walking in the Lake District last week inspired me with this final blog in a series examining how we react when it seems God’s plan for our lives isn’t working out.  That’s the experience of most of us who have tried to walk up a mountain.  The path doesn’t go where the map said it should.  It disappears from time to time.  Sometimes it’s rocky; sometimes it’s boggy.  Our legs ache, our feet are blistering and our boots are leaking.  The fog comes down and we can get no objective sense of where we are.  We can get cold, wet, frightened and confused.  Just another October day on Helvellyn!

Yet we persist!  There is something in our desire to get to the top that propels us onwards no matter how hard it gets.  Only injury or safety issues would make us quit.  Why?  What motivates us to slog, exhausted, up a steep rocky path?

For some of us it’s the sense of personal achievement, or the glory of the selfie on the summit.  Perhaps it’s the prospect of an incredible view, or another mountain ticked off the to-do list.  Or the gulp from our hip-flask which is our reward.  But it might just be that it links us in to something bigger than ourselves.

Christians too keep on slogging forwards even when the going gets tough.  Something draws us onwards and upwards and we can’t stop no matter how hard it gets.  St Paul wrote about this impulse, in a very dynamic passage reflecting his love of sport:

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus

Here, in Philippians 3:14, he expresses the same drive as the fell-walker not to be deflected by the challenges in his life, as he makes progress in his spiritual life.  He has a goal in sight and he is determined to get there.  It’s not dissimilar to his focus in the famous passage in Hebrews 12, which also references sport.

I once drove in a Swiss tunnel which took a road up a mountainside in a novel way.  It was constructed inside the mountain and was a spiral.  Drilled with precision, every 360 degree rotation raised the driver a few hundred meters until three complete rotations took the car to the top of the pass.  Sometimes this is what is happening in our spiritual lives while our circumstances seem unchanged.  So next time you feel like you’re stuck in a tunnel going round and round in circles, remember you may actually be going up!

Mo Farah

RioMo Farah is not a Christian, yet in Rio on Saturday night he demonstrated something that we all could learn a lesson from – he got up again and carried on.

We all know what it is to fall.  We make mistakes ourselves, or like Mo, we get innocently tripped up by life.  Sometimes somebody deliberately trips us up.  But however it happens, we find ourselves on the floor.

Dazed, confused, hurt, our instinct can be to give up, thinking it’s all over.  Maybe we lash out, to try to regain some pride by implicating others, or look around for sympathy to make us feel better.

But Mo showed us what the Christian’s discipline should teach us: don’t mess around, just get up and start running again.  In a 100m race that would not be possible.  But in a distance race, there is time to make up lost ground.  And the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint.

The Bible is full of people who fell.  In a temper, Moses killed a man.  Out of fear, Peter denied he even knew Jesus.  Abraham, the man of faith, took events into his own hands rather than trusting in God.  But that isn’t what they’re remembered for, because they didn’t let failure become the final word.  They carried on.  There are many others who tripped up, but finished well.  Falling isn’t final.  It has been rightly observed:

Falling isn’t failure.  Failure is not getting up again.

Guest blog: Keep on keeping on!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Today’s guest blogger is Alex Hawke, a mission worker in Cambodia. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexGTHawke.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics John Stephen Akhwari ran in the marathon representing Tanzania. Part way through the race he fell badly and dislocated his knee. He valiantly kept running as best he could and finished last. He was asked why he had kept going. He replied, “My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me to finish the race.”

As those serving cross-culturally we face a whole variety of things that can distract, frustrate, upset or disappoint us. At times we may feel really discouraged and be tempted to give up. Like you I’ve faced some disheartening circumstances and various challenges to my faith and call, even recently. I often return to Hebrews 12:1-3 where we find both stunning reasons to keep running our race and some ways to do that. Whether we’re doing fine or experiencing deep discouragement or uncertainty I hope this will be fuel for the journey, some help to keep us keeping on.

Jesus is worthy. He sits ‘at the right hand of the throne of God’ v2. We keep going because Jesus is worthy of praise, glory and honour that He’s not receiving from most of the people we see around us. If this doesn’t motivate me to keep going then I am definitely not here for all the right reasons. Ultimately what we experience in the course of our race, the trials, the risk-taking, the frustration is worth it first and foremost because Jesus is worth it. Other people’s lack of response to the gospel message must not take my eyes off Him. I can still worship; He is always worthy, always wonderful and faithful. Also, if we think this is about us then we’ll either be proud or feel defeated, both of which hinder us from running our race.

Jesus understands. v3 exhorts us to ‘Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’ Jesus suffered way more than we ever will. It’s a huge comfort when I’m weary or discouraged to know that Jesus has been here and has ‘shared in our humanity’, Heb 2:14. Have we been lied to? Taken advantage of? Persecuted for doing what’s right? Misunderstood? Had our loving efforts rejected? Jesus knows. We follow the Suffering Servant and He’s promised to be with us. He understands both us and the broken people around us. This has a way of drawing us nearer to Him as we identify even a little with his sufferings and know he has identified with ours.

Throw off hindrances and sins. Athletes run or play with just the essentials so nothing gets in the way. Is grumbling hindering our teams? Is self-pity weighing you down? Are we neglecting private prayer and worship? Are we giving in to sexual temptation? If it’s pride let’s see Jesus as worthy and as the one who endured the cross. There’s no room left for pride when we’ve seen Jesus for who He is.

It’s a classic strategy of Satan to accuse us and make us feel condemned. V2 says Jesus sat down in heaven. His great work of redeeming us from the power and penalty of sin was done and He’s alive to reign, live in us and work through us. So accept God’s forgiveness anew, remembering we’re free from condemnation and don’t have to carry the burden of sin and failure. I laughed out loud when I first read this from Martin Luther, “When Satan tells me I am a sinner he comforts me immensely since Christ died for sinners.” Ha! The simple fact of the gospel disarms one of Satan’s best tactics every time.

Some of our hindrances aren’t sinful but they’re distracting or have become idols, taking the place of Jesus in our priorities. Social media may be doing that for some of us. Or ‘ministry success’. To all these hindrances, temptations and sins I’m learning to say: ‘Jesus is better.’ The temporary reward I feel indulging in these things is like dirt compared to the infinite value of Jesus and the satisfaction he alone can bring.

Let’s regularly ask God what hinders us from running the race, confess and repent. Be ruthless and get help. I’ve seen sin lead to people leaving their field of service causing hurt and lasting damage and leading to less ambassadors for Christ reaching the unreached.

Stick together. The use of athletic imagery here and in Paul’s letters isn’t supposed to imply we run solo. ‘Us’ appears several times in these few verses along with ‘we’, ‘our’ & ‘you’ (plural). Clearly it’s written to a group exhorting them to do these things together. Having the support of other believers is crucial to staying on course. The encouragement Ellie and I get being a part of a small team and a house church here is immense. Praying together, sharing struggles, helping each other move house, worshipping together. Are you connected regularly with some supportive fellow runners? People with whom you don’t feel you have to pretend? Christian community is also where we remind each other of the glorious truths of the gospel and can confess our sins and get help with the things that are entangling us.

Pace yourself. That we are to ‘run with perseverance’ (v1) tells us that it’s going to be hard. And that this is a marathon not a sprint. Knowing this we need to pace ourselves. A number of mission organizations encourage their workers to work only 2/3 of the day. If you’re working in the evening, take either the morning or the afternoon off. Also one person’s rhythm is different from another’s. Things like having young children or living with a medical condition or being older also impact on what’s a sustainable pace for different people. Plan rest days or breaks into the coming months.

Fix your eyes on Jesus (v2). Staying focused on Jesus requires us to be intentional. Regular prayer, worship and reading of scripture are key as is fellowship with others who love Him. Rest, exercise, friendships, a healthy work/life balance will all help us keep going but none are as important as our ongoing, close relationship with Jesus. During the Hebrides revival Duncan Campbell wrote:

These are days of much activity in the field of church and mission work, but no amount of activity in the King’s service will make up for neglect of the King himself. The devil is not greatly concerned about getting between us and work; his great concern is getting between us and God. Many a Christian worker has buried his spirituality in the grave of his activity.

Our attention easily moves to ourselves, our organizations, our methods, our shortcomings. We wonder if our faith is big enough or how we compare to others. Problems can seem overwhelming. Regularly, intentionally gazing at Jesus brings right perspective and we start to see what could be instead of what is right now. And if we lose our focus on Jesus we have nothing of lasting value to give to the broken world around us.

Verse 3 indicates that if we ‘consider him’ we won’t lose heart. The recipients of this letter were facing trouble. We face trouble. It can push us toward Jesus. It must if we’re to keep going. It’s challenging to keep loving & keep serving. We’re not supposed to be able to do this without God. We’re going to need to get on our knees before that difficult meeting, about that awkward relationship, about that broken person who doesn’t seem to be changing.

We need vision to keep going. Ultimately Jesus is our vision, over and above whatever particular vision God may have given us for our various different ministries. He’s our source, our sustainer and the giver of our purpose. We can keep running because of who Jesus is and what He’s done. Our sin forgiven, a message burning in our hearts, carriers of His presence, secure in our identity. I’m sure also many of us would testify that ministry vision, ideas and inspiration have come when we’ve been seeking Jesus.

Finally, keep an eternal perspective. Heaven is real. Knowing where we’re going changes how we live. Future glory outweighs present suffering for the sake of the gospel. We can face trials, hurt, discouragement, even persecution unto death because we know what’s coming. For the joy set before Him Jesus endured the cross, v2. He knew it was worth it: God would be glorified, we would be redeemed and with Him forever and that coming joy spurred Him on to endure the cross. May both the coming joy of being with Him and the desire that those we serve be there with us spur us on too.

The witnesses in verse 1 are the heroes of chapter 11, and maybe 1000s of others since, who have finished their race. It’s like they cheer us on: “Keep going, keep getting up; it’s worth it! Nothing done in Jesus’ name will ever, ever be in vain!” The sacrifices may be great but the reward will be greater.

KEEP ON KEEPING ON!

Alex

Alex Hawke

What van Gaal is getting wrong

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.

The long-drawn out death rattle of Louis van Gaal underperforming season at Manchester United prompts us to revisit this old maxim.  While Syzygy does not have much of a track record as football pundits we came across an interesting statistic in a newspaper recently: despite Man U having a whole string of terrible statistics this season, there is one in which they are top.  They have the highest percentage of possession in the Premiership.  A solid achievement, which means absolutely nothing without the ability to convert possession into goals.

Which prompts us to ask our readers, what do we possess that we are not converting?  We can suggest three things that, we may need to put to better use for the kingdom as we reflect on our lives and values during the current season of Lent.

The Gospel.  We have mentioned before the prevailing western philosophy of Moral Therapeutic Deism, in which our Christian belief is merely there to meet our needs, help us be nice people and feel good about ourselves.  But the Gospel shouldn’t stop with us.  It is meant to be shared.  What kind of selfish people keep good news to themselves?  St Paul wrote “Woe is me if I don’t preach the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16).  OK, perhaps he was a bit too driven for us to feel entirely comfortable with him, but at least he was motivated.  When are we going to go and tell somebody the Good News, whether we go to the other side of the world or the other side of the street?

Our relationship with God.  We have unprecedented, open access to the throne room of the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, and we use it to ask God to bless people, which God is probably going to do anyway, because that’s what God enjoys doing.  We have the power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead at work in us and we use it to pray for a parking space.  When are we going to realise that through prayer we can change nations?  Can we get a little bit more ambitious with our prayer?  How about praying for a resolution of conflict in the middle east, freedom and peace for the oppressed church, or global revival.  Let’s get a little more ambitious with our prayer.

Significant wealth.  Yes, significant.  Since the finanical crisis of 2008, many of us in the west think we’re poor, yet in comparison to nearly half the world living on less than $2.50 a day [1], we’re filthy rich.  And even if we aren’t sure how we’re going to pay the bills or put food on the table, as William Carey pointed out “even the poor can give.”  Jesus commended not the rich putting their gold into the temple coffers, but the poor widow putting in two small copper coins (Mark 12:43).  When are we going to pour our wealth into something more precious than house extensions, foreign holidays and new cars?

So this Lent, do please consider going (or at least helping someone else to),  make a commitment to pray for mission, and put some serious funding into mission.  Syzygy would be glad to help you!

[1] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

Brazil – what happens when it all goes wrong?

BrazilBeing defeated 7-1 in a football match is an unmitigated disaster, particularly when it’s at home in the semi-final of a world cup.  Recently Andy Murray crashed out of Wimbledon after apparently being upset in the locker room just before the start of the match.  Mark Cavendish crashed on the finishing straight of the first stage of the Tour de France.  And we won’t even mention the Ashes.

All of these defeats have a profound impact on those involved.  As well as having to cope with the huge personal disappointment, they have to relive the event as they comment on it over and again in television interviews.  Some of them will lose their jobs as a result, and possibly even their livelihoods.  All of this is worked out in the shame and humiliation of the public eye.

But what happens when mission workers have to face a disaster of their own causing?  Perhaps they thought that because they’re working for God they were exempt from complying with local regulations and a hefty fine threatens to close down their ministry.    Maybe they trusted people and didn’t put in place adequate checks on their integrity, resulting in malpractice in their church.  Or through pride, arrogance or stubbornness they fell out with their own colleagues and split the team in two.  Perhaps they have failed to maintain their car properly, resulting in a fatal accident.  Maybe they’ve failed to look after their own health, or their marriage.  Sadly such occurrences are far more common than you might think, and often the mission workers have nowhere to turn to for help.

Nobody like accepting responsibility for failure.  We try to blame someone else, and if there’s no obvious human, Satan is always a useful scapegoat.  Mission workers fear that if they own up to their own faults, their agencies and churches might stop supporting them, and they may lose their funding.

In mission, we don’t tend to handle defeat and failure well.  We often don’t face up to it, or we try to sweep it under the carpet.  But, unlike banks, mission workers are not too big to fail.  In fact, a timely admission of error can be appropriate and healthy.

Agencies and churches should work to create a supportive and honest environment in which failure can be admitted, repentance made, and lessons learned.

Syzygy provides confidential debriefing and pastoral support for mission workers, particularly those who feel they have nobody else to talk to.  For more information email info@syzygy.org.uk.

Luis Suárez

SuarezThere can be little doubt that Luis Suárez is an excellent footballer.  With a career tally of 40 international goals for Uruguay he is their all-time top scorer,  and he has 220 more in club football.  He has scored six hat-tricks for Liverpool, holding the Premier League record.  In April 2014 he won the PFA players’ player of the year award.  He spectacularly scored both Uruguay’s goals against England in the 2014 world cup, virtually eliminating them.

So it is  disappointing that his skills did not feature at all in Uruguay’s first match of the knockout stage, which they lost 2-0 and exited the competition.  He was already suspended for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, the third time he has been punished for biting an opponent.  All of which goes to demonstrate that character is more important than ability.  You can’t score for your country while you’re in the sin bin.

jawsIn the Bible, we don’t find the 11 disciples selecting candidates to replace Judas Iscariot on the basis of their leadership ability, organisational gifiting or mentoring skills.  They looked for men who had been with Jesus (Acts 1:21).  When Paul tells Timothy what the qualities necessary in church officials are, not one of them is a gifting.  They are all character qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-10).  If Jesus had picked his disciples on merit, he probably would not have accepted any of the twelve, except perhaps Judas Iscariot, who appears to have had some potential.

Which causes us to consider how we select our mission partners.  Are we often so dazzled by the ability of applicants that we are blinded to their character flaws?  Do we focus on the skills we need in the field rather than the character of the person wielding them?  And in the process, are we sending the wrong people, or putting them in the wrong team, and inadvertently damaging the work of the kingdom and causing mission partners to return prematurely because of the excessive stress caused by having the wrong players on the team?  And are latent character flaws in each of us threatening to bring the whole thing crashing down about us as we are accustomed to seeing when a prominent televangelist or famous church leader falls into sin and loses their ministry in the fallout?  As Gerald Coates once said:

What a man builds with his gifting, he can destroy with his character.

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.

Olympic champions?

The recent Olympic and Paralympic Games in London have certainly inspired the British, who greatly enjoyed hosting and participating in the games.  After much typically British cynicism and low expectations, we ended up surprising ourselves by not only organising the games well, but by becoming enthusiastic and cheerful participants, whether as competitors, spectators, volunteers or observers.  It was the only time in my life I have been able to smile at a stranger on the London Underground and not be regarded with utmost suspicion.

We thrilled at the drama of the games, recognising the courage and endurance it takes not only for the few moments of competition but in all the early mornings, long hours of training, struggling for funding and overcoming personal challenges needed to rise to the top of any sport, and particularly Paralympics.  We appreciated the genuine humility of the competitors, in contrast to many overpaid prima donnas who enjoy soccer celebrity.  We marvelled at their achievements: hundreds of world records fell during these games, demonstrating the extreme achievement of the athletes.  In several finals, every participant achieved at the very least a personal best, with world, Olympic and regional records being broken as well.

When everyone gets a Personal Best!

This has caused me to reflect on the Biblical references to games such as these.  St Paul, unusually for a Jewish person of his time, seems to have enjoyed sport, and referenced it in his letters, often as an example of personal discipline or endurance.  Running, boxing and chariot racing are mentioned or implied in his letters.  The writer to the Hebrews does the same, and in one famous passage draws inspiration from the stadium which would have been familiar to many of his readers.  In the opening two verses of chapter 12 we find references to the spectators, training weights, baggy and inconvenient togas (ancient athletes had to compete naked because they hadn’t invented lycra), running, endurance, contest and of course, the finishing line.

These sporting references are often overlooked because they are not instantly obvious to modern readers.  But the implication is clear: the Christian life is a race which demands of us everything demanded of Olympic champions: discipline, focus, dedication, commitment and endurance.  Such characteristics are available to all of us, athletic or not, by God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  They are choices we make and attitudes we adopt.  We are not in competition with each other, but with ourselves, in our efforts to achieve a personal best.  Paul reminds us that the winning athletes only got a perishable laurel wreath to wear, whereas we get an everlasting one.  ‘So run in order to win’, he exhorts us (1 Corinthians 9:24).  If they put themselves through all that sacrifice just to get a bunch of leaves, he implies,  what will we do to earn an eternal crown of righteousness?

I wonder how many Christians bear more resemblance to chubby spectators sitting in front of the television than they do to the world’s greatest athletes.

Chelsea – what can they teach us about teamwork?

Soccer fans the world over will know that Chelsea recently won the prestigious European Champions League, albeit after a penalty shootout against Bayern Munich.  At last an English team finally beat some Germans on penalties! But then again, for a long time we’ve all known that Chelsea aren’t really an English team. They just play in England.

They have a Russian owner, an Italian manager, and a multi-national team. The starting line up for the match against Bayern featured players from seven different countries in three continents. Like most top-flight English clubs, they care more about the quality of their players than their nationality. So how can Chelsea create an effective multi-cultural team when many mission agencies can’t?

If we can overlook the fact that unlike us Chelsea have billions of pounds available to attract and motivate some of the world’s best players, what can we learn from them so that we can up our game and be effective in global mission?

First, an effective team needs a team vision. Vision supersedes individual cultural preferences, personality types, and preferred working styles. We might think that a salary of £50,000 a week is enough to motivate anybody, but the fact is that it is not. Research shows that for nearly everybody the money they receive is not a motivating factor in their work. Professional footballers are driven by the need to win, to get medals, trophies and cups.  Yet even the most egocentric prima donnas can’t win on their own.  They all have to put the needs of their team above their own glory. You might think that the top goal scorers get there by being selfish – hogging the ball so that they can score the most goals. Yet some of the world’s most notable scorers – Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard and Cristiano Ronaldo (yes, that Ronaldo) are also among those who make the greatest number of assists: passing the ball to another striker who then scores.

Which begs two questions: how much do we want our team to win, and how much effort do we put into helping our colleagues succeed? Every ministry has its visions, mission statements and values, and some of us are able even to quote them, but do we really buy into the team’s success?  Are we really team players, or are we more concerned about our own ministry?  Yes, we are all under pressure to perform personally, and are accountable to our churches and supporters for what we are doing, but how many of us are prepared to answer the call of our agency and put our own ministries on the back burner if we are asked to? Sadly I am more likely to hear statements such as ‘that’s not  what I came here to do’ or ‘it’s not my calling’ than ‘if that’s what the team needs, we’ll do it’.

And how good are we at being team players? Are we aware of where other players are being marked, and do we run in to relieve them? Do we stay in position or are we the ones who are off side? Do we notice when a colleague is flagging, and change our play to help take up the workload? One of the things that impressed me most about David Beckham on the field was not so much his skill at set pieces but his workrate. He popped up on the wing, in the centre, forward and back, helping others out, covering gaps. He covered weaknesses in defence and created opportunities for attack. It takes fitness to do that.

And are we really match-fit? What does that mean in our hectic world of stress, conflicting demands and running from crisis to crisis? Professional footballers spend more time training than they do competing. They understand that their on-field performance depends on their off-field performance. They exercise, practise set pieces together and even have dieticians and physios to make sure they’re in peak physical condition. What are the equivalents for us? Bible study, meditation and Ignatian prayer?  Team away days for teambuilding, scenario planning and role play? It will vary for each of us and our respective teams, but if we are going to be champions, we need to have the mental attitude of champions towards both our professional skills development and our continuing spiritual development.

When God is handing out the trophies after the ultimate final, are you going to be on the winning team? And what has it taken to get your team there?