Archive for the “United Reformed Church” Category

This is my sermon from today, Pentecost 2013, preached at Dunfermline United Reformed Church.  The readings the sermon is based on are Acts2:1-21 and John 14:8-17.

As always, your comments and thoughts are very welcome.

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spill beans 8 coverThe new edition of Spill the Beans is out and the material starts from Trinity Sunday (26 May) and goes through to Pentecost 14 (25 August).  As usual there are great resources from a hugely talented team for children and young people and those who lead and enable worship.

You can download a free sample if you want to try before you buy.

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recovery-sign-resize

It is possible to recover.

It’s amazing how far people will go to disprove this, how powerful our negative voice can be and how programmed for fear we are. This negative perspective can overwhelm our collective planning and conversation.

We do two simple things that ensure we almost always have conversations about negative things.

The first is to focus almost exclusively on problems. Our agendas are dominated by what is wrong, broken or problematic. We spend almost no time talking about what is right, what works and what brings joy and hope. We call the gatherings we have to consider our negativity ‘meetings’ or ‘committees’. If we are being really negative we call them ‘committee meetings’.

The second is that we describe what is positive in apologetic terms, as though we are sorry that we are doing well or something is good and as though we don’t want to say anything about it in case we make other people feel bad.

This behaviour is not helpful.

Tackling our negative thoughts is not easy.

We are programmed to listen to them. They are deep and primal ways of protecting ourselves, part of the flight or fight reflex. Hiding in a cave is a valid strategy for not being eaten. I’m not so sure that’s not how we as a church feel at the moment.

Recovery is about more than positive self-talk, but that’s where it starts. Recovery is possible… but only if you believe it is.

It needs a range of supportive factors to be in place and I think it is perhaps here that we might find some of the reasons why we find the concept of ‘recovery’ and ‘growth’ difficult in church.

Research has found that important factors on the road to recovery include:

  • good relationships
  • financial security
  • satisfying work
  • personal growth
  • the right living environment
  • developing one’s own cultural or spiritual perspectives
  • developing resilience to possible adversity or stress in the future.

Getting these factors in place is the first task of recovery. It needs a plan, but more of that later. I also want to write more about this list but before I do, I wonder do how you react to the list in terms of church as an organisation?

Can our regional bodies and our General Assemblies claim that these factors are all being addressed? We seem to be preoccupied with finances.

What does ‘good relationships’ look like for a church? What about ‘satisfying work, personal growth, the right living environment, developing one’s own cultural or spiritual perspectives’? How much time and energy do we spend on addressing these issues? And is financial security not related to supporting these?

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I was invited by the good people of Angus Presbytery to come and talk about the stuff I’ve written about Missing Generations last weekend and they kindly filmed all the seminars.  So, here’s my seminar…

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recovery-sign-resizeA holistic view

In this section I want to look at the Recovery Model then begin to work through it point by point in the posts that follow.

I realise that for some people suggesting an organisation is mentally ill is a bit of a leap but I want to assure you all that I’m not suggesting that either everyone in the organisation has a mental health problem  (although there would be absolutely nothing wrong with it if they did and a high participation rate of people with mental health problems might actually be an indicator of growth, after all 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in any one year) or that I don’t realise that organisations are not people. Organisations do, however, have personality, moods and behaviours, which make, I think, a comparison with mental and physical health appropriate. More on that thought shortly.

So, what are the principles of Recovery?

The Mental Health Foundation describes the recovery process as follows:

  • provides a holistic view of mental illness that focuses on the person, not just their symptoms
  • believes recovery from severe mental illness is possible
  • is a journey rather than a destination
  • does not necessarily mean getting back to where you were before
  • happens in ‘fits and starts’ and, like life, has many ups and downs
  • calls for optimism and commitment from all concerned
  • is profoundly influenced by people’s expectations and attitudes
  • requires a well organised system of support from family, friends or professionals
  • requires services to embrace new and innovative ways of working.

This model is based on evidence. It works.  It’s biggest feature is the idea that people can help themselves get better by challenging and changing behaviours.

So, let’s look at the first principle:

The Recovery Process provides a holistic view of mental illness that focuses on the person (organisation), not just their symptoms

People have pointed out in response to my first post that organisations aren’t people and they don’t have the same characteristics. I agree, sort of. But I also think the comparison is worth making in terms of the model, so please, go with it for now and feel free to criticise.

In one forum discussing my first post some people were offended by my use of mental health as a metaphor for organisational behaviour. No offence was meant. I’m in no way belittling or trivialising mental illness and the effect it has on people.

Interestingly, people seemed much more comfortable with a comparison with physical health. I wonder why that should be the case? We are used to the metaphor of body and physical health for the church, but the body includes a head and a mind.  Jesus and Paul use the body metaphor so it has been around since the very beginning of Christianity but we rarely talk about the mind part except in a ‘knowledge related’ way.

Mental and physical health are related, indeed, dependant on each other. This is one of the problems faced in engaging fully in recovery. We know that our physical health affects how we feel and our mood. We know that eating well, sleeping well, taking exercise and tending to our physical health helps to maintain our mental health.

We also know that our state of mind affects how we feel physically. People who are bored often feel tired and lethargic. People who feel excited feel physically alert and stimulated.

Our bodies and minds are not disconnected. Neither is our mental and physical health, but we find it difficult to treat ourselves holistically.

My own example is my on-going problem with my gluteus medius muscles. I get treatment, the sports therapist sorts the problem as much as he can, and usually enough to get me back to running. He also gives me exercises and stretches to do to prevent the injury happening again. I do those for three days, I feel better, so I stop doing them. The injury reoccurs the next time I stress the muscle because I try to run fast or too far. That’s a physical problem but the solution is at least partly mental. I know I should do the exercises. I know I need to engage in my recovery. I know that I can’t just leave it up to the physio, great as he is. But I can’t be bothered.

I think the same is true in our denominations. Our decision making process is the organisational manifestation of our ‘mental health’ and the things we do are the manifestation of our ‘physical health’.

We notice the physical symptoms first. Fewer people. Those who are there can feel tired and lethargic, stressed and anxious, disheartened and dispirited.

We tend to try to treat those physical symptoms we feel we can manage best. We reorganise the rota, invest in some equipment or stop doing that activity.

What we rarely do is explore the feelings around those activities or around the organisation.

In the Recovery Model people are asked to consider biological, sociological and psychological factors which impact how they feel.  There are a range of factors which impact the life of the church.   The demography, locality, cultural and political context and the expectations from self and others all impact how we feel as a denomination.  We know that our work or living environment can cause mental ill health. The way we think, how people treat us and how we process thoughts and feelings can exacerbate mental ill health.  I think the same is true of an organisation.

Meaning and Purpose

In my Missing Generations series I talked about ‘meaning and purpose’. These are central to the Recovery Model. The fundamental questions we need to grapple with as individual members and an organisation are what gives us meaning and what gives us purpose?

One of the impacts of a loss of meaning and purpose can often be a loss of self and identity. It displays as a lack of self esteem, low levels of confidence and withdrawal.

These are also organisational traits. We talk about the economy in similar terms. A lack of confidence or a buoyant market, the big depression.

So, if we want to recover we need to consider the whole, not just individual symptoms.

We label people by their illness or abilities. In a talk at Greenbelt John Swinton talks about a deaf woman who had a vision of heaven. She told people about how great it was and how immaculate Jesus’ signing was. That somehow jars with our idea of perfection. Some of us would have expected the woman to say that in heaven she could hear, but heaven for her was the rest of us making the effort to include her fully. We often see mental ill health in the same way.

In organisation terms we talk about a declining or dying church when what we mean is that it is becoming numerically smaller. Those are not the same thing. A healthy, vibrant church might be one with fewer members. Part of the Recovery Model is seeing what is helpful and what is unhelpful. How we think about things and the way we frame our reality can be helpful or unhelpful. That isn’t about denying facts, rather, it is about choosing to focus on the things that promote recovery.

That would mean the church focusing on its strengths rather than its weaknesses whilst not denying that there are problems; looking at where growth happens at the same time as addressing financial problems; thinking about how we train and deploy ministers while at the same time supporting children and young people; thinking about new forms or church while at the same time supporting existing models, and choosing to frame all of this in a helpful way that is encouraging and enabling, life bringing and hopeful.

It would start with those things which give us meaning and purpose and build on those. Small steps.  Achievable goals.  And a relentless focus on the positive.

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What’s missing today is a high-quality discourse on rethinking the design and evolution of the entire system from scratch.

The quality of the results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which the people in the system operate.

(Otto Scharmer)

Since writing the first batch of posts on Missing Generations I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two events and several conversations which have expanded my thinking on some of the topics I raised.  I think those events and conversations have at least begun to produce a quality of awareness…

 

The Church is perfectly designed to achieve what we are currently achieving. (Alan Hirsch)

Those were the opening words of Alan Hirsch at a recent conference, The Shaping of Things To Come… in Scotland.  He and Michael Frost were talking through some of the thoughts from the book of the same name (The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church) and Hirsch was basically saying that our focus on pastor/ teacher leads to a focus on an intellectual style of engagement.  We have pretty much ignored other forms of ministry like apostle, prophet and evangelist.  That means we skew our thinking in one direction and that has led to the church we have today.

That analysis would certainly explain our present forms of worship and even our liking of austere buildings.  We could trace that back to the reformation and tie it to the Enlightenment but it also chimes with a second conversation I was part of with Brian McLaren.  The link below is Brian’s podcast at a recent conference and he was saying the same thing at the event I was at.

Brian McLaren at children,youth and a new kind of Christianity  http://www.woodlakebooks.com/files/CYNKC-Brian%20McLaren-Christian%20Faith%20and%20the%20Next%20Generation.mp3

His assertion is that we are telling the wrong story, or at least telling the story in the wrong way.  That stems from even further back than the reformation and Brian blames those pesky Greco-Romans and their philosophy.  He says that the story we tell is transposed onto Plato’s ‘Cave’.

greek philosophy diagram

So our version is:

christianity diagram

McLaren’s assertion is that our story is something very different.  Our story begins with the Exile.  That cycle of exile, rediscovering a relationship with God, returning and forgetting again.  Genesis is the prequel and the sequel is Isaiah and his vision of the kingdom which leads us to Jesus and the incarnation.

One of Hirsch and Frost’s thoughts is that we focus too much on one particular end of the story of Jesus.  We focus on the cross, resurrection and the return.  We forget the incarnation.  We forget an amazing and hugely significant part of the story, the life of Jesus, here on Earth.

Michael Frost talked about ‘excarnation’, the opposite of ‘incarnation’.  Excarnation means stripping away flesh.  I wonder if that’s what we have done in the way that we tell the story of Jesus, or in how we behave as Christians?  It would seem that rather than being an incarnational community, a community in the flesh, we have become in many ways an excarnational community, a community of thought.

If that is true then it has some serious implications for us.  We are, again, telling the wrong story.

And that leads to us doing the wrong things.  We focus on learning rather than sharing, study rather than community and maintaining an institution rather than participating in a movement.

Hirsch asked the question: Did you get into this to run a club or build a kingdom?  Why do we spend all our energy doing the former and not the latter?

I’ve come across this video in a couple of places now.  I think part of the trap of the club is that we are stuck in a cycle of property ownership and wages.  What if money was no object?  What would you do?

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Is the Church, all wretch and no vomit?

A final thought for now:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Einstein

 

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How people learn has changed.

I talked about learning preferences in part 1.  This video shows just how much teaching and learning has moved on since I was at school.

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I wonder how much church has recognised and embraced these changes?  Or, if the church has actually been at the forefront of them?

I see live streaming of services, websites, video in worship and even some mobile phone apps but these changes in learning are not just about embracing the technology.  For the most part churches are using tech to produce a new shiny version of what they have always done.  It’s just about better visuals.  And that’s good.  Production value is important.  But…

The ‘flipped’ learning model in the video gives an illusion of control to the learner.  They can learn whenever they want, in a way they want… but the teacher still sets the agenda.  There are things that have to be learned… and tested.  All that has happened is that the instructional part of the class is delivered on video so replaces the homework bit.

That in itself is interesting.  What if church had stuff to watch, read or listen to before you showed up?  What if the sermon or teaching was delivered via video so you could watch when you want, read up a bit, think it over so that on Sunday you came with your questions?  Instead of 5 hymns, 3 prayers, a children’s talk and a sermon we could actually talk about what the passage means to us, what we think about it and how it might impact how we live.  Would that work?

Perhaps the real revolution needed in church learning isn’t shown in the film above.  The real learning revolution is something deeper.  And the church should be at the very heart of it.  After all, we started it.

Jesus came to set us free.  But how?  From what?

We could say that it is freedom from sin.  OK.  That would be good because I think that freedom is as much about freedom from the political structures and expectations of the world, the exercising of power over another, the need for wealth and status and the exploitation of others it is about anything else.

The Brazilian educationalist and theologian Paulo Freire talks about “the practice of freedom”.  Why?  Because education and freedom are so closely linked that it’s hard to imagine one without the other.  But education is politically loaded.

Knowledge is power.

I often wonder how much the church’s insistence on a professionalised, theologically trained (look up the meaning of that word) ministry has led to the liberation of people through education, or if it has led to a dependency on ‘the educated’?

Institutions maintain culture.  It’s what they are for.

We use all kinds of things to maintain power.  We dream up systems of governance that require large majorities or complex procedures to make change.  We load decision making bodies with experts because they know best.

What a church looks like where the minister, the teaching elder, was tasked with enabling the discovery of knowledge, not by telling people what things mean but by pointing people in the right direction, assisting in their search, asking good questions, building confidence and empowering people… and the people wanted to learn?

That requires a certain level of self-confidence, to lay down your position, your status and your power.  But then I’m fairly sure that’s what Jesus did.

How many questions did Jesus answer with a straight answer?  How many questions did he answer with another question?  Or with a story?

I think our role is to help people discover what they already know.  To share the God they bring with them, not to tell them that their God should be the same as the one we brought.

But, here’s the problem… people don’t like this.  It’s too hard.  It takes lots of time and commitment.  People also buy into the systems that control and dominate them.

This kind of learning community will challenge everything about who we are, what we do and why.

But it works.

And it’s worth it.

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