Posts Tagged “United Reformed Church”

We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. (Simon Sinek)

In his TED talk Simon Sinek tells why the ‘why’ is important. Much more important than the ‘what’ or the ‘how’.

I work for a Church. I think my job is about the ‘why’ but very often it has little to do with ‘why’ and much more to do with ‘how’ and ‘what’.

Over the past 20 years the church in the West has declined. It’s a long and sad story that has been told often. In response to that story people have come up with plans, strategies and programmes. You’ve probably heard them all.

‘If we do this people will come’.

Sounds like ‘Field of Dreams’ doesn’t it? Except it doesn’t. Not quite. In the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ Ray builds a baseball diamond in his back yard against everyone’s advice. He goes on his journey to Fenway because he believes that he will find something significant there. He builds the baseball diamond so he can share what he believes. He doesn’t tell anyone what they should see, or how they can see it. Just that a bunch of dead baseball players seem to show up and play in his back yard baseball pitch.

Sinek thinks that ‘why’ is the golden question. I think he’s right.

People didn’t turn up to hear Dr King for him. They went for themselves. He didn’t talk to them about his plan, he talked about his dream.

Obama did the same. Remember the signs? HOPE.

The SNP did the same. ‘We believe in Scotland’. Relentlessly positive about what could be.

So what is the Church’s ‘why’?

People don’t follow Jesus because it will make their minister feel better. They don’t come to church to make the person who sits beside them feel better.

They follow because they believe. They follow because they believe that God’s grace and forgiveness will change their lives.

That’s not the story we tell. Our story is all about ‘how’ and ‘why’.

If you love God this is how you should behave.

You should love God because if you don’t you’ll go to hell.

That’s the story we tell.

We tell a story of joining a programme or a class or a group, not a story of lives and a world transformed. We tell a story where we apologise for being small or poor or not very good at this not of amazing things done by ordinary people helped by God.

We tell the story of Jesus like this:

“God sent Jesus to die on the cross because we are so terrible. Our sins are forgiven, but we need to earn that forgiveness over and over again because we are all still miserable sinners. Don’t do that. Don’t wear that. Don’t listen to that or love that person. Don’t have sex. Don’t have fun.”

Let’s contrast that with how Jesus asked people to follow Him…

“Follow me and your lives will be transformed.”

Nothing about Jesus invitation is about Him. It isn’t a command and it’s not even about Him. It’s about them.

I will make YOU different… Come with me and YOUR life will never be the same again.

OK.

Now, what is it you want me to do?

That’s not our story. That’s not the one we tell.

It should be.

But it’s not.

We explain the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. We call it theology or a sermon. We don’t tell people the ‘why’. Our ‘why’ is simple and strange and compelling and transforming.

God loves you.

Yes you.

Yes, even you.

Not just good people or straight people or white people or rich people or clever people or left footed people or any other label.

God loves YOU. He loves you so much that he sent his only son to die so that we don’t have to worry or be scared and so that we can live life free of guilt and shame and doubt and worry.

The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are interesting. But the WHY… now that’s a story we should tell.

Update: Here’s the new Apple ad… If  you don’t believe what Sinek is saying.  Watch and see if they mention the ‘how’ or the ‘what’…

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zr1s_B0zqX0 if you’re using one of Apple’s flash free devices)

Not once… but you want a macbook, ipad, ipad mini, ipod or iphone, even though they never mention any of them by name, tell you how much they are or even where you can buy them.

That’s the power of ‘why’.

 

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recovery-sign-resizeI’ve been thinking a bit more about the Recovery Model as a helpful tool for churches. In this post I will consider three of the elements, that recovery:

  • 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

Journey

Journey is a metaphor that is widely used in faith. I know that there are some people who don’t find it a helpful one, but for an organisation ‘journey’ seems appropriate.

Why? Well because organisations evolve and change. People travel through those changes together, often exploring side roads and dead ends. People also travel in different ways and at different paces with different concerns and priorities at different times.

For organisations, everyone being at one place at the same time is problematic. That’s why making decisions that please everyone is almost impossible.

This raises lots of questions for me.

Should there be a variety of congregations that make up a local church?

How can we minister to ‘what is’ and ‘what might be’ with ever decreasing allocations of minister’s time to pastorates?

How do we go about training ministers and give permission to others to be pioneers and entrepreneurs, creating new ways of being church?

Back to Where You Were

Many denominations seem to have a collective wish to return to the golden age, mostly an imagined period when everyone went to church twice on Sundays, everyone believed in God and everyone respected the views of the church. Sunday schools had a million kids and there was no crime…

Some of that is of course true. Sunday schools were bigger. But were they full of children who wanted to be there? And if all was so good why didn’t those children keep coming to church?

Recovery isn’t about returning to a previous point.

Recovery is about moving forward having lived through and changed by an experience.

Recovery is a learning experience.

We can learn from our very difficult experiences. The problems almost always come when we don’t learn from them. We repeat the same behaviours over and over again expecting different results.

In recovery from mental health this learning includes being aware of the things that might contribute to you becoming unwell and those things that promote well-being. Those things are not always the same for every person so there is no formula, but focusing on the positive while dealing with things which are problematic is always key ingredient.

I wonder how we can do this as communities?

It would almost certainly involve us being open and honest in our communication. Perhaps that’s a good place to start?

Fits and Starts

When we are well we have a line, kind of like a plimsoll, the red line round a ship, which marks the point at above which the water level becomes a problem. We are aware of things lapping over the side like a big wave. When that happens we make allowances, put in place things to deal with the problem. On a ship they have bilge pumps to remove the water that gets in. When they stop working the ship is in trouble.

I wonder what our equivalent is in church? Do we use membership numbers as our plimsoll line? Is that a healthy measurement? And what about our bilge pumps? What are the things, probably people, that work hard to keep us afloat?

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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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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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In my series on Missing Generations I wrote about some of the organisation difficulties the church is experiencing, some of which are caused by the ways different generations think about the church, abut change and about development.  We tinker around the edges of change because we have an underlying lack of confidence in who we are and what the church is for.

This is a long-term problem and I’m becoming more and more convinced about what the underlying issue really is.

I think the church is suffering from collective anxiety and depression.

The Mental Health Foundation says that the signs and symptoms of depression are:

  • Tiredness and loss of energy.
  • Sadness that doesn’t go away.
  • Loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Not being able to enjoy things that are usually pleasurable or interesting.
  • Feeling anxious all the time.
  • Avoiding other people, sometimes even your close friends.
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
  • Sleeping problems – difficulties in getting off to sleep or waking up much earlier than usual.
  • Very strong feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
  • Finding it hard to function at work/college/school.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Loss of sex drive and/or sexual problems.
  • Physical aches and pains.
  • Thinking about suicide and death.
  • Self-harm

Those signs and symptoms obviously relate to individuals but they can also relate to organisations.

So, how does the church exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression?

The church engages is almost entirely in doom and gloom when it talks about itself.  The word ‘decline’ dominates every conversation.  We wallow in our misery.  We are obsessed with how bad things are and how much things have changed for the worse.

We talk about plans to get better but we never really commit to any of them so we make more and more plans and feel worse and worse when none of them work.  We have programmes and ideas and spend huge amounts of energy and money on these initiatives then spend huge amounts of energy and time telling each other why these initiatives and programmes won’t work.  This is what mental health practitioners call ‘negative self talk’ and it is hugely destructive.

We feel helpless and hopeless.  There’s nothing that can be done, nothing that will change how things are.

I’d venture to suggest that the URC is even thinking suicidal thoughts.  We call that ‘union with other denominations’ but the terms of most unions being considered would in reality be the death of the URC as it is consumed by a larger denomination.  We have started to give our stuff away and withdraw for areas of work which actually support growth (apparently someone to support and develop work with children and young people isn’t vital in some Synods).

Our feelings of a lack of self-worth and the crippling nature of our perceived financial position leads us to the kind of paralysis that those suffering from depression recognise all to well.

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Recovery

Can the church recover?  Part of recovering from anxiety and depression is first recognising that we have a problem and seeking help.

Recovery is an interesting concept.

Living with a mental health nurse leads to all kinds of interesting conversations.  The topic which seems to weave through almost every conversation we have is ‘recovery’.

We tend to think of recovery as ‘getting back to where you were before’ and I tend to think in the church that’s really what we mean when we talk about our recovery.  We would like to go back to how things were in our perceived ‘golden age’ when everyone believed in God, everyone went to church and money and buildings were never a problem.

Our plans and discussions tend, however unconsciously, toward this kind of recovery.  This kind of recovery is impossible, unrealistic and actually undesirable.

We will never get back to how things were because we have lived through this experience and it changes us.  Things have changed so it is simply unrealistic to expect them to return to what was.  Going back to some earlier time is undesirable because recovery brings resilience, a resilience that we didn’t have previously.

If getting back to how things were isn’t an option that leaves us with some questions:

How do we ‘recover’?

Who can help us recover?

What would that recovery look like?

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I’ve been one for 20 years.

It began around 1989 when I completed the Boys’ Brigade’s King George IV officer cadet training and became a BB officer.

I’ve worked with young people and the adults who work with them for all of my adult life.  Most of this work has been in a church context and for most of that time I have been employed to work for a denomination.

I am a trained community worker with knowledge and skills in community building, group work, informal learning, social research and reflective practice.

I lead worship almost every Sunday in a variety of churches.

I teach ministers in training and in service and I lecture on a Youth And Community Work with Applied Theology degree.

No one has ever called me one.

In fact just the opposite.  People often ask me when I will become a proper one.  A minister.

They mean a Minister of Word and Sacrament.  A dog collar wearing, robed up preacher who is allowed to preside at Communion, conduct weddings and baptise people.

I don’t blame people for this.  That’s the only kind of ‘minister’ they know.  And that’s the problem.

That view of ministry creates a hierarchy of ministry with the Ministers of Word and Sacrament at the top and it doesn’t leave any space for the ministries that others perform.  That means that we don’t value those ministries.  In fact we don’t even talk about them in terms of ministry.

When was the last time you heard a Sunday school teacher talk about their ministry?  Or someone serving soup in a lunch club talk about their ministry?

Our understanding of ‘Ministry’ is killing the church.

Ministers (the word & sacrament kind) aren’t killing the church.  They are as much the victim of this as anyone else.

As soon as you elevate one position above others you create a hierarchy.  We ‘set ministers apart’.  Set apart from what?  Life?  Responsibility?  Other people?  Sadly, it’s the later.  We tell ministers that they are special, different, called to something by God, and then we complain when they act like it.

I think the job of ‘minister’ is important.  I think that it is good for communities to have someone who is enabled to spend their time working to build and sustain the community, to inspire and lead, to equip and enable.

But that’s not what we train ministers to do.

We train them to do our theology for us.  That’s dangerous.  Not because they aren’t good at it but because it means we, the mere mortals in the pews, don’t have to bother.

I’ve worked as a youth worker.  People employ youth workers partly for their skills but also partly so they don’t have to do youth work.  Someone else will do it on their behalf.  I heard a phone in on the radio the other day about litter.  The resounding opinion of the callers was ‘I’m not picking up someone else’s litter.  That’s someone else’s job.’  And that’s how it is with ministry.

Often Ministers fall into the trap and play along.  And complain that people leave everything to them.  Congregations fall into the trap and play along.  They leave everything to the minister and complain that they don’t get to do anything.

We have a system that de-skills people, including Ministers.  For example, training in practical theology doesn’t make you a marriage or bereavement counsellor and yet we expect ministers to do these jobs, and with no professional supervision.  The good ones know their limitations and pass people on to those who can deal with these issues but too many think their theological training means they can deal with difficult situations.

At the same time we may have people in our congregations with these skills who feel unable to offer them because pastoral care is the Minister’s job.

We have a system that means we value 1 hour a week more than the other 167.  The sad think is we actually expect very little of people in that 1 hour.  Their role is to sing, shut their eyes, listen and put money in the plate.

This just won’t do.

In an organisation like this Builders will try to maintain what is.  Boomers will hijack any power that’s going (look around a kirk session, elder’s meeting or parish council and tell me that’s not true!).

Xers and Yers on the other hand will just go off and find places that their contribution is sought and valued, where their opinion is expected and their thoughts encouraged and developed.

Church needs to start to value the spiritual gifts of everyone equally.  The Sunday school teacher’s ministry is just as, if not more important than the Minister’s.  The person who makes the soup for the lunch club’s ministry is just as, if not more important than the Minister’s.  Growing faith and feeding people.  When did they become something less?

If we are going to persist with Ministers of Word and Sacrament their role needs to be much more about being the teaching elder they are meant to be.  Their role has to be about enabling, encouraging and assisting than entertaining and imparting knowledge using big words.

Their job is about making sure people feel that their spiritual insights are valued, helping people to discover and maintain spiritual practices (more on those later) that will sustain them and give them deeper insight and they must be about growing and developing community.

That means having different set of skills in addition to some theological training.

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What if over the past 50 years an organisation had lost the majority of its members?

What should it do?  What should it change?

The decline in membership of the church in the UK has been well documented and plenty of words have been used on diagnosing the problem but I wonder how much time the major denominations have spent actually thinking about how they need to adapt and change to meet the challenge of being the church in a new way for a different kind of world?

There are two areas in which the church spends the vast majority of its ever dwindling resources: buildings and ministers.

It seems less than controversial to suggest that ancient church buildings are at best a mixed blessing and at worst a millstone around the necks of congregations.  They are expensive to maintain and inflexible.

It would also seem less than controversial to suggest that as the world has changed that the job of minister has also evolved.  It would seem strange perhaps that there is a continued emphasis on theological training, almost to the exclusion of anything else, when the role of minister requires so much more.

The Church of England has gone some way towards addressing the new world with its new category of ‘pioneer minister’ which frees people from the bureaucracy of the parish and allows them to build communities in new places and in new forms.

That was a bold step, and it seems to be working.

Something else has been quietly happening… some churches are growing.  I know, surprising isn’t it.

We’ve known for a while that charismatic and pentecostal churches have been growing but it also seems that churches which have positioned themselves as ‘open and afirming’ are adding members.  It would be great to see what it is that these churches are doing that is attractive but I’d hazard a guess that engaging with the wider community and providing spaces for people to build community and actually get to know each other beyond formal times of worship would be common to most of them.

My concern is that this kind of development is hugely dependant on the minister’s personality and interests.  Sometimes it is strategic, but not often.

That’s not good enough.

When will denominations recognise that more of the same will lead to more of the same?

As funds become scarce we retreat into sustaining what is and what has been.  We merge, link and unite so that we can continue to provide ‘ministry’.  No-one seems to be asking if that kind of ministry is what is needed.

Some denominations have community workers.  These people have training in both theology and community work.  These are recognised ministries and the people who perform them have the primary task of engaging with communities, organising projects and enabling people to meet the needs of their communities.

There are a growing number of youth workers and children and family workers who study both theology and community work.  These are not recognised ministries but they engage with people outside traditional church structures and work to enable people to meet the needs of their communities.

These community ministries are often viewed as extra, peripheral, something to be done if there is time and money to spare.  You could add chaplaincy into the same category.

Which brings me back to my initial question… what if?

What if we flipped our view of essential ministry?

What if rather than spending almost all of our money on crumbling buildings and ministry of word and sacrament we spent 90% of our funding on community workers with some theological training who had a strategic mission to engage with communities, build capacity and resource worship in those communities?

What if, rather than investing everything in maintaining a building for people to come and sit for an hour once a week we sold the buildings and we invested that money in places for homeless people to sleep, for hungry people to eat, for lonely people to meet others, and people’s homes became places where people gathered to worship, to plan and scheme random acts of kindness and deliberate acts of grace?

What would that kind of church look like?

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