So when are you for turning? (Part 1)
As I look at the Church of Scotland today I can see a denomination in crisis. Many who at one time associated themselves with their local church no longer attend. The diet of worship on a Sunday for a majority no longer satisfies their thirst. We live in a culture that is hungry and thirsty for life. We are living in the age of ‘extreme everything!’ And when it comes to church, well there’s not a great deal of extreme anything!
I wonder how many of our church leaders are at their wits’ end? I know there are substantial numbers of leaders who have become ill because of the responsibility of carrying heavy burdens.
It would be interesting to know how many parish churches are struggling to sustain what is unsustainable. Like Moses they feel they are leading a community that has lost its way and people are looking for scapegoats and ministers and elders often become the easy targets.
I once made a radical suggestion at a presbytery meeting. I asked those present how many of them if they were given the chance would redefine their job descriptions to suit their gifts. What would happen if we had fewer church buildings, but the ones we retrained contained vibrant gifted ministry teams? What would happen if we followed the advice of the Apostle Paul when he speaks in Ephesians of the gifts of God’s people for the upbuilding of the body of Christ?
Leading God’s people is not an easy task. Some people think leaders are born. I have come to the conclusion that leaders are formed and reformed by their experiences of life and by the call of God stirring within them to step up in the midst of all their vulnerability to answer the call to serve in their area of gifting. For me, leadership is more about service to others than an individual fulfilling their potential. We are called to allow the community of God to fulfil its potential by acts of service to each other.
I saw this demonstrated to me as a young teenager by the first minister who really began to talk to me about God’s calling on my life. I must have been about 14 at the time. I came into the church hall and kneeling down in front of the old coal fire was the minister, the Reverend Charles Reed. He was cleaning out the ashes from the night before. I can see him now sleeves rolled up wearing his clerical collar, putting the ashes into the pail while talking to the church cleaner, whose job it should have been. What I didn’t know at that time was that the church cleaner was unable to stoop too far, so the minister cleaned out the fire to help him keep his job. I learned that day that there is no task beneath the one who would lead the people of God. We are called to serve.
The fact is that no one can lead on their own anyway. Leadership is a communal exercise that only works when those who are leading have been given the permission and the authority to lead by the many. The permission to lead doesn’t really come until the leader has been around for a few years and has earned the right to lead. Sometimes living with a sense of humility and even failure but with a willingness to listen to others and change course if necessary. For me it is the mark of a great leader, to live through failure, yet have the capacity to change direction.
In our readings this month Moses stands out as a leader who knew the value of turning points.
If we are people who want to be part of a movement going on a journey, then we will from time to time encounter turning points, roundabouts, potholes, and dead ends. However it is not the state of the terrain that determines our success but it is the power and drive within us that enables us to make the correct turnings. This power is the presence and confidence of the Spirit of God at work in every believer. Learning to know the sound of the voice of God saying, turn aside, take this path, is essential for all of us .
There are 5 stories this month in our Sanctuary First readings, which help us reflect and perhaps find answers to the twists and turns of Christian leadership in today’s world. In this post I’m going to concentrate on the first.
In Exodus 17, Moses finds himself at his wits’ end. He literally tells God that he wishes he had never got involved with the whole freedom project. Leading a mob of unruly slaves was getting the better of him. He was facing open rebellion. The project was unravelling. He was in a desperate place.
He needed a turning point. Moses discovers prayer as his turning point. He brings his big issues to God in prayer. God in turn reminds Moses that he is not alone. He tells him to go ahead of the people. In other words, to step out beyond the present situation and visualise how it could be changed over the next 5 years. It is actually true that often the darkest moment is just before the dawn. Leadership is about hanging in, but being open to change.
Leadership is often about helping key people discover the solution for themselves. Often that involves a leader moving ahead of the others to think about the situation from a different perspective. I think in many circumstances leadership involves scouting the road ahead, and returning like Joshua of old, with both good and bad news. Yes there are giants in the land, but they can be defeated.
In our passage God invites Moses to take some elders, to take his rod, the symbol of his past experience and to go in search of water. He shows Moses which rock to strike. “Hey presto”, the water flows!
The searching and seeking is also part of the growth of leadership. Remember Jesus spoke about the significance of seeking and finding and of knocking in order for new ways to be opened.
I think there is a good lesson here for us all. If you look at the complaints of the people they were legitimate. They needed water. The problem was Moses couldn’t see where the water was, because he was listening to the complaints rather than solving the problem.
He needed a turning point. In the stories this month, prayer is at the heart of the turning points.
Prayer is so essential in the life of the leader. Prayer opens up new avenues, creates turning spaces, and shows us where the water can be found.
It’s interesting that the next turning point is found in Exodus 20 when Moses encounters the presence of the living God. Here he actually brings the people to the place of worship. He spends time preparing them. To expect to encounter God.
One of our struggles as leaders in the Church of Scotland is the falling attendances at Sunday worship. Many have put forward theories as to why people no longer attend church. Perhaps the answer is that God is missing. And it is his apparent absence that is making our longing all the more heartbreaking.
In my next post I’m going to ask the question, how do we encounter God through an act of public worship?
Very Rev Albert Bogle
Read Part 2 of Albert's series about leadership in the Church.