Church: to open or not to open?

I’ve talked and posted a bit over the past few days around questions relating to churches emerging from lockdown. Here in Northern Ireland, buildings can be open for public worship from this week, and several churches are already well prepared for resuming Sunday worship in their buildings from this Sunday.

Nonetheless, in a recent informal poll during an Evangelical Alliance (NI) Zoom meeting, more than half the participants indicated that they expect their church to wait until at least September before opening their doors on Sunday (numbers in England are a little different). Some churches are starting with prayer gatherings rather than the full Sunday worship service – no doubt these smaller gatherings will help test practical procedures before bigger meetings take place (aside from the benefit of praying!).

I know from a couple of recent exchanges with two pastors that those who are keen to get started are not sure why others are so reticent: there is even a degree of frustration with what can be perceived as a degree of negativity around reopening.

It might be helpful to map out some reasons why some leaders are keen to get going again and some reasons why folk are more hesitant.

Why you should open your church as soon as possible!

  • The Bible is clear that Christians ought not to give up on meeting together and no matter how clever your digital services have been, it’s not what Hebrews 10 had in mind.
  • Churches have not been able to gather for almost four months and people have missed that: now that the government has given the green light, why wait? Older people, some of whom may have experienced a high degree of isolation, may be longing to be in the same actual room (not Zoom breakout room) as their brothers and sisters.
  • Online services have not been everyone’s cup of tea and some people have opted out. I’ve heard of a couple of churches that feel they have lost a swathe of their people who have not gone online. Interestingly, while there are 80 year olds who have got up to speed with Zoom and the like, it is sometimes the younger generation who have opted out.
  • For younger people, some of whom may wish to prioritise connection over content, church in person allows them to connect with their peers and they will listen to the content while they are there. A Youtube service won’t allow them to connect, so they may prefer to spend Sunday chatting on WhatsApp rather than tune into church.
  • Having church online has the potential to lead to an increased consumerism. If you’re after a great set of worship songs, you might be able to do better than what’s on offer in your own church: same for the sermon – online church allows you to pick from the best!

Why you should take your time!

  • Some leaders are exhausted and may like to have some breathing space before leading the task of getting the building ready for the next stage or beginning to envisage the details of how they will navigate the government guidelines.
  • For some, restrictions around numbers permitted (social distancing), congregational singing, the ability to greet one another, or even tea and biscuits after the service will make gatherings seem less than normal, and so they might prefer to wait.
  • While (as a friend of mine says) there are some churches who have been practicing social distancing for a long time (dwindling congregations in large buildings), well attended churches are going to have to put restrictions on numbers, requiring the need for a booking system. Unless they increase the numbers of services (with whatever that entails with regard to cleaning), not everyone is going to get in.
  • This means that some kind of online service is going to have to be maintained. This will be important, not only as long as numbers are restricted, but as long as there are vulnerable people who are either advised medically not to attend, or choose not to, out of nervousness.
  • There is value in pausing to reflect on the lessons from lockdown. A rush to restart – certainly a rush to fill the calendar with activity – means there is little space (or energy) for such a reflection. As someone said to me this morning, leading a busy church is a bit like trying to keep a plane in the air!

When? What? Why? Transition questions

Further to yesterday’s post which highlighted some points from a conversation among church leaders, here are some quick reflections on questions church leaders will have to deal with in this next season.

  • ‘When?’ questions: with permission granted for churches to reopen their buildings to gather for worship, the ‘when’ questions will be clamouring for urgent attention. If not July 5, then when? Interestingly, in an informal survey at an online meeting run by EA on Thursday just over 50% of respondents reckoned their churches would wait until September or later before opening their doors for services.
  • ‘What?’ questions: it’s one thing to decide when to restart, but what activities will be part of that restart? Sunday morning worship is likely to be high on the list for most churches, but what about other services and activities?
  • ‘Why?’ questions: these are the questions that are most likely to be neglected in the next season, especially when there is a rush to get restarted as soon as possible. What if leaders took their time on the ‘when’ questions and used this next phase to revisit questions of purpose and mission? If you are a leader, how can you make time for this kind of reflection?

Church leaders talking about lessons in lockdown

This morning I facilitated a Zoom conversation that drew around 20 church leaders of various stripes to talk about some of the questions around moving out of lockdown and into the ‘new normal’. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Some felt that it is too soon to attempt to answer some of the big questions – folk have simply been too busy. My fear is that a precipitous return to ’normal’ will simply compound this and the questions will never be answered (or even asked!).
  • Church leaders have been ‘catapulted’ into the situation that has pertained over the past few months and are now in danger of being catapulted into the next set of circumstances: there is a need to prepare.
  • Following on from that, the next transition (out of lockdown) may be harder to negotiate that what happened in March.
  • Zoom is a mixed blessing – there is a degree of Zoom fatigue, but at the same time there is a recognition that it has actually helped increase involvement in things like prayer meetings and small groups.
  • People have missed face to face contact and the physicality of things like communion and singing.
  • There is a need to manage folks’ expectations with regard to returning. Here in NI I think there has been surprise at how quickly churches are allowed to reopen their buildings for worship services and there is likely to be pressure on leaders to get things up and running because the government has given the green light. However, just because it is possible to restart, does not mean that it is right to restart right away.
  • Part of the dilemma of restarting is that it is sometimes the most vulnerable church members who are most anxious to get back. Older people who live alone, for example, may have missed gathering more intensely than others.
  • Pastorally, there would be value in giving church members space and time to tell their stories from the past few months.

Emerging from lockdown

A few days ago a friend posted a question on Twitter:

It’s a great question, and I imagine it would be possible to make a decent case for more than one of those.

As you can see, I’ve been reading a book on leadership and the wilderness: the reference to transition comes from that book. For the ancient Israelites, the wilderness was a place of testing. Their repeated angst over food and drink served to demonstrate what was in their hearts and to teach them daily dependence on God. Moses was well aware that once they tasted the prosperity of their new surroundings they might quickly forget what God had done and attribute their prosperity to their own hand.

As the Church emerges from lockdown (church buildings can once again open for public worship in around 10 days), there are several types of questions that leaders probably need to be asking.

Some of the questions have to do with logistics – the practicalities of (at least some of the church) being able to meet again. Some have to do with resilience – how will leaders sustain this next phase with its various questions and challenges, never mind moving into September with an expectation on the part of some that as much of the old normal needs to be put back in place? And some have to do with discernment and strategy.

Here is where part of the wilderness analogy might come into play. As lessons from the wilderness experience were meant to be carried forward into the new reality of the Promised Land, what have the Church and its leaders been learning about the nature of church and the nature of ministry that needs to be carried forward into the ‘new normal’? Are there ministries or strategies that have been picked up out of necessity during lockdown that might be good to carry on in the future? Conversely, are there activities that have not been possible during lockdown that can safely been left in the past?

These kinds of questions are well summed up in the following grid (which may have originated with CPAS): I think will be helpful for church leaders in their reflections moving forward.

I realise that there will be (already is) pressure on church leaders to get things up and running as soon as possible. I wonder if there is a danger of trying to do too much too soon and thereby missing an opportunity for prayer and reflection (see Acts 13).

Feel free to add your comments!

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Understanding Christian Leadership, with Ian Parkinson

Ian Parkinson

‘For reasons both ancient and new, the church today has an insatiable appetite for the study of church leadership. A vast avalanche of books, seminars, videos, and web sites has swept over the landscape in response to that appetite. Some of it is good and helpful, but overall much of it is very weak or even misleading in ways that should trouble the church leaders consuming it.’

Lew Parks

I read this statement some time back and I am pleased to say that the contribution of today’s guest to this vast array of resources is excellent.

Ian Parkinson works with CPAS and helps train leaders in a number of Anglican training institutions. He has previously been a guest on the podcast, and you can listen to his story here and here.

Earlier this year he published a new book, Understanding Christian Leadership and he joins me on this episode of the podcast for a conversation around the book. I have reviewed the book in a previous post.

Our conversation covers a number of themes related to the book, including Ian’s definition of Christian leadership, his understanding of leaders as ‘catalysts’, and the balance that leaders need to strike between tradition and the future.

Here is how he defines Christian leadership:

A relational process of social influence through which people are inspired, enabled and mobilized to act in positive, new ways, towards the achievement of God’s purposes.

He also talks about what it means to lead as a Christian outside of the sphere of the Church.

If we want to be effective leaders we need to be effective disciples.

Here is a link to where you can buy your copy of the book, and here is the podcast.

Book review: Understanding Christian Leadership (Ian Parkinson)

It seems almost to have become a commonplace that anyone writing a new book on Christian Leadership should begin with some form of justification for their work. Since it seems as though ‘of the making of leadership books there is no end’ (to borrow from Ecclesiastes) writers seem to think they need to defend the fact that they have chosen to add to the pile! So it is that Ian Parkinson begins by acknowledging the rich array of available resources and asking why add ‘yet another one’.

The excellence of his book answers the question!

If you are a student of Christian leadership I’d advise you to clear some apace on your shelves for what is a masterful piece of work that combines a breadth of academic knowledge with a genuine spirituality, seasoned with the lessons of practical experience. If you are a teacher of the subject (as I am) this needs to be on your reading list before classes resume in the autumn!

The book falls into two main sections (each consisting of five chapters): one is more theoretical and the other more practical. Homileticians will appreciate the alliteration of three of the five chapters in part one in which explore the themes of desiring, defining, and distrusting leadership. The other two chapters in the section provide theological meat, as they examine the theme of leadership in the Old and New Testaments.

Chapter one (‘Desiring Leadership: why leadership matters) sets out the case for leadership by discussing what happens when it is missing, and setting out what the author describes as ‘the goods of leadership’. These he defines as sense-making, animation, alignment, problem-solving, and hope. There is also a brief – but important – excursus on leadership and ministry, terms the author believes need to be distinguished.

Chapter two (‘Defining Leadership’) acknowledges the complexity of leadership (‘a multifaceted phenomenon’), given the differences in context and perspective, along with a temptation towards oversimplification. The author then proceeds to survey a range of theories, breaking them into three broad classifications: leader-centred theories, relationship-centred theories, and an approach that sees leadership as a social process.

Chapters three and four then move to a biblical discussion of the theme, first exploring how leadership is presented in the Old Testament and then how it is presented in the New. The chapters are not always watertight as some of the themes that are discussed under the rubric of the Old Testament (such as shepherd, or servant) are not exclusive to the OT, but are also found in the NT, not least in the ministry of Jesus. The NT chapter includes a series of studies on various words that are used to describe early Christian leaders (and, interestingly, some that are not), and these are grouped under three functions: exercising oversight, which includes the work of the elder and of the bishop (there is an interesting discussion on the nature of the overlap between these terms), representing Christ, and animating the body. Chapter four also includes a valuable reflection on a series of core theological themes (creation, incarnation, trinity, pneumatology, and eschatology) suggesting how each of these ought to inform Christian leadership.

By the end of chapter four, the author is ready to present his definition of Christian Leadership:

A relational process of social influence through which people are inspired, enabled and mobilized to act in positive, new ways, towards the achievement of God’s purposes.

Chapter five, the final chapter in the book’s first section acknowledges that for all that might be said about the desirability of good leadership, it is, as Justin Lewis-Anthony has claimed, ‘at best, a contested concept and at worst a dangerous, violent and totalitarian heresy’! The chapter discusses a couple of philosophical and moral reservations before setting out three theological reservations, including the claim that secular theory emerges from a context whose purposes are at odds with the purposes of the Christian Church.

It’s a minor point, but it would have been interesting to see some interaction with the work of Arthur Boers in this chapter: Boers has recently wondered whether Christians are guilty of a ‘faddish fascination’ with leadership.

In part two, the author turns to focus on more practical matters (not that there is no practical outworking of what he has presented in part one, or that part two is suddenly light on theory or in its interaction with academic sources). Five topics are grouped under the heading ‘the work of leadership’.

The first of these discusses leadership and organisational culture. Be ready for a discussion that goes a bit beyond the homely definition of culture as ‘the way we do things around here’. The author points us to the work of Schein who identified three levels of culture: what we see in an organisation’s artefacts, the level of espoused beliefs, and the group’s underlying assumptions. While leaders do not necessarily stand outside of culture in order to change it, they have the possibility of shaping their organisation’s culture through modelling, explaining, exposing dysfunction, inviting participation, and reinforcing.

The next aspect of the leader’s work is the task of ‘animating the body’ (a concept already introduced in chapter four). I had been struck quite early on in the book how fond the author is on the idea of the leader as a catalyst, and that idea is developed in chapter seven, with both theological and practical considerations presented, as well as an honest acknowledgment of reasons why the empowering of leaders does not happen. Three priorities are suggested for leaders: they need to establish a ‘development culture’, cultivate a vision for ‘whole-life discipleship’, and devise a strategy for leader development.

Chapter eight deals with the task of ‘fostering collaboration‘ and includes detailed discussion of the concept of teams, and thoughts on the place of conflict, noting the differences between affective, procedural, and substantive conflict (the third is valuable, the first is not!).

The final task is that of discerning direction in which the author discusses vision and direction. I posted on Twitter (probably only slightly tongue in cheek) that a mark of a good book on Christian Leadership is that it manages to discuss the concept of vision without misapplying Proverbs 29:18! It’s something that irks me, possibly more than it should, but thankfully this book manages to avoid the trap (the author is careful in his use of Scripture throughout). There is a useful discussion of the life-cycles of organisation and the steps that need to be taken to avoid terminal decline – something that easily follows on from a period of stability, and the section on identity, purpose, and vision is concise and very helpfully presented. Borrowing from Kotter, the author suggests that a church’s vision needs to be imaginable, desirable, feasible, focused, flexible, and communicable. Another helpful aspect of this chapter is the discussion of the correlation between levels of involvement in shaping vision and levels of commitment to the organisation.

The final chapter is a short discussion of ‘the spirituality of Christian leadership‘: what is it that makes leadership Christian? For while much of the application in the book relates primarily to leaders in a church context, the book recognises that Christian leadership is not limited to such. In fact several of the case studies that come at the end of each chapter are drawn from the world of secular and organisational leadership. The reflections in the chapter are based around the message of Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 6.

Perhaps what most distinguishes Christian leadership from any other form of leadership is the understanding that it is received from God as a gift.


One of the great strengths of the book is its thoroughness. The author demonstrates a considerable grasp of a wide range of relevant contemporary scholarship on the subject of leadership. Clearly he has thought long and often about the range of questions that the discipline throws up.

Not that the book is a simple regurgitation of secular theory seasoned with an isolated text from Scripture here and there in order to justify the title! There is frequent engagement with Scripture in both Old and New Testaments, ranging from theological reflection to the use of biblical narratives to illustrate a point begin made.

While the book is far from being a collection of thoughts on ‘what I have learned about Christian Leadership by being a Christian leader for 30-odd years’, the author makes careful use of his own experience in a way that demonstrates that leadership has been far from a merely theoretical subject for him. The practical side of the book is also served by the list of case studies that are included in each of the main chapters: these range from a vicar revitalising an inner city church in the Everton district of Liverpool (no mention of the football team), to a consultant psychiatrist developing the work of a Mental Health Trust.

It’s hard to quibble with much in the book, but if I was pushed I’d perhaps mention that much of the application is worked out in an Anglican context. This is quite understandable, given the author’s primary sphere of work with CPAS and the Church of England training colleges. This is a small point, but I wonder if the book’s appeal might be extended in a future edition that aims to draw on some more non-Anglican examples. My free-church friends need not be put off – they may even enjoy the discussion of elders and bishops!

I think the best compliment I could pay this book is to say I wish I had the capacity to write it! I’d have to agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury whose foreward describes it as a ‘tour de force’.


Ian Parkinson is a leadership specialist with CPAS and a visiting lecturer at several Anglican training institutions. He has previously appeared on the podcast and you can catch up with his story here and here. You can order your copy of the book here.