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.

The Church and Covid-19 – The Series

Over the past few weeks the podcast has featured a series of conversations around the theme of the Church and Covid-19.

Here is a list of the episodes:

The Church and Covid-19 – Gemma Brown

My guest in the final part of this mini-series on the Church and Covid-19 is Gemma Brown. Gemma is Communications Officer for Tearfund Northern Ireland.

In this episode of the podcast, she talks to me about Tearfund’s global response to Covid-19.

Here are some useful links it you’d like to follow up what you hear on the podcast:

The Church and Covid-19 – Eddie Arthur

Eddie Arthur has been involved in mission for some thirty-five years. This has included time spent as a Bible translator in Ivory Coast, and several years as the UK director for Wycliffe Bible Translators. Recently he has completed his PhD, in which he explored the extent to which the practice of mission agencies corresponds to their theology, and he currently works as a researcher.

Eddie blogs at Kouyanet, and recently he made several observations about how he sees the Church, post-lockdown. You can read his article here.

In this episode of the podcast we chat about his thoughts.

Here is a link to the eBook, Global Transmission, Global Mission that is referred to in the conversation.

The Church and Covid-19 – Ben Walker

Ben Walker is minister of Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church in South Belfast. He joins me in this episode to talk about some of the ways he and the church have been adapting their ministry during the pandemic.

There are some interesting ideas on preaching, plus, this challenging statement:

Don’t just do something, sit there!

The Church and Covid-19 – Simon Genoe

My guest on today’s episode of the podcast is Simon Genoe: Simon is rector of Magheralin and Dollingstown Parish Church, between Moira and Lurgan. Like my ancestors, he’s from County Monaghan and worked in Lisburn Cathedral before taking up his current post. As well as serving in parish ministry, Simon is one of the leaders of New Wine Ireland.

Remember that you can can catch up with previous episodes on this blog or by visiting the podcast on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify, where you can subscribe for future episodes.

The Church and Covid-19 – Stevie Walls

This week continues the series of podcasts talking about ministry in the context of the pandemic. Today’s is Stevie Walls. Stevie is deputy head in a Belfast primary school and is an elder in Castlereagh Gospel Hall, on the edge of East Belfast.

Remember that you can can catch up with previous episodes on this blog or by visiting the podcast on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify, where you can subscribe for future episodes.

The Church and Covid-19: Ken Clarke

My guest on this episode of the podcast is Ken Clarke. Ken is a well known and highly respected leader who has served the Church in various roles for several decades.

The focus of our conversation is a little different from other podcasts in this series that have focussed on what’s happening across a number of specific churches. Here, Ken talks about some of his reflections during this current season.

He reflects on the significance of the Easter story (‘finished work’), the opportunities for wider outreach (‘unfinished task’), and the challenge of ‘finishing well’ (a favourite theme for a man who prefers to talk about retirement than retirement.

God willing the podcast returns next week when my guests are Stevie Walls (Tuesday’s episode), and Simon Genoe (Thursday’s episode).

The Leadership Journey Podcast: special weekend edition with Ken Clarke

Ken Clarke

I’ve been posting a series of conversations with church leaders, talking about ministry during the pandemic. So far they have been people involved in the care and leadership of local congregations. This weekend I am planning to post a bonus episode with a somewhat different focus in which I will be chatting with one of the most respected Christian leaders in Ireland, Ken Clarke. Ken will be sharing some of his reflections on the current situation.

You can can catch up with previous episodes on this blog or by visiting the podcast on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify, where you can subscribe for future episodes.

The Church and Covid-19 – Lesley-Ann Wilson

Today my guest on the podcast is Lesley-Ann Wilson. Lesley-Ann is minister of Ballycrochan Presbyterian Church in Bangor.

As well as having the same surname, we also trace our roots back to the same great-grandfather from Glaslough, County Monaghan.

In this conversation Lesley-Ann talks about the challenges of ‘technology fatigue’ and challenges leaders to leave space to discern where God is working and where they need to join his work.

It’s humbling that we have to put away our strategies and our agendas and take a clean sheet of paper and say, ‘OK, God, it’s over to you: what is it that we need to be doing in order to reach people with the good news of Jesus?’

God willing, you can look forward to two more episodes of the podcast next week. On Tuesday my guest will be Stevie Walls, an elder in Castlereagh Gospel Hall, and on Thursday it will be Simon Genoe, rector of the Church of Ireland parish of Magheralin and Dollingstown.

Remember that you can can catch up with previous episodes on this blog or by visiting the podcast on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify, where you can subscribe for future episodes.

The Church and Covid-19 – James Petticrew

This is the fourth in a series of conversations with a number of church leaders around the subject of ministry and the current global pandemic.

In this episode I’m talking with James Petticrew, pastor of Westlake Church in Nyon, Switzerland (the church which I pastored for 17 years).

The plan is to post a couple of these conversations each week (Tuesdays and Thursdays). You can catch up with previous episodes on this blog or by subscribing to the podcast via Apple Podcasts or on Spotify.

On Thursday the guest will be Lesley-Ann Wilson from Ballycrochan Presbyterian Church in Bangor.

The Church and Covid-19: Andrew Roycroft

The guest on this week’s Thursday podcast is Andrew Roycroft. For the past 10 years Andrew has been pastor of the Baptist church in Millisle on the County Down Coast. If you would like to keep track with their regular ministry, you can follow them on Facebook. You can also follow Andrew on Twitter (@AndrewTRoycroft). You can also visit Andrew’s blog on pastoral issues.

This episode is part of a series of conversations with a selection of church leaders, exploring ways in which they have been adapting ministry in the context of the global pandemic.

The Church and Covid-19: Phil Emerson

In the second part of the series of conversations on church ministry in the context of the global pandemic, my guest is Phil Emerson: Phil is lead pastor of Emmanuel Church in Lurgan.

If you would like to hear more about Phil’s story and the story of Emmanuel Church, he was a guest on the podcast about a year and a half ago and you can access the conversation here. If you’d like to catch Phil’s morning devotionals, here is the link to the Facebook page.

The plan is to post a couple of these conversations each week (on Tuesdays and Thursdays): the guest on Thursday will be Andrew Roycroft, pastor of Millisle Baptist.

The Church and Covid-19: Jonny Pollock

Over the next few weeks the podcast will host several conversations with local church leaders that will explore some of the ways their ministry has had to adapt owing to the current pandemic. There will be contributions from a range of leaders from a number of different church backgrounds. As well as reflecting on some of what they are having to do differently, the leaders will also have the opportunity to talk a little about what might change in the new normal.

Getting the series underway is Jonny Pollock. Jonny – from Belfast – is a church planter working with Calvary Church in Loughrea, County Galway. Feel free to contact Jonny via Twitter (⁦@jonnypollock) if you would be interested in exploring some resources that help in taking church online, or find out more about Calvary Church from their website (

The plan is that the podcast episodes will go online on Tuesdays and Thursdays: future guests include Phil Emerson and Andrew Roycroft. It’s possible to subscribe to the podcasts, including via Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Leading like Jesus: relationship with the Father

Yesterday I started a series of posts in which I hope to set out a few reflections on ways that leaders might learn from Jesus. My starting reflection has to do with Jesus’ relationship with his Father, and the starting point is the Father’s voice at his baptism.

Near my desk I have a little piece of calligraphy (see the photo) that presents these words from Henri Nouwen:

Listen to the voice that calls you the beloved.

Nouwen is drawing his language from the start of Jesus’ ministry (see Mark 1:9-11) when Jesus has just been baptised by John the Baptist (a somewhat confused John the Baptist who thought Jesus should be baptising him, not vice versa) and the Father speaks words of acceptance and affirmation.

You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.

I must admit to some ambivalence to Nouwen’s application of the language. After all, there is a uniqueness to Jesus’ sonship: none of the rest of us can lay claim to God’s fatherhood in exactly the same way as Jesus. If we get that wrong, we’re into all kinds of trinitarian confusion!

On the other hand I think all of us – leaders or not – have a deep longing to hear this kind of voice. As Nouwen suggests there are all kinds of voices that speak to us with messages about our identity. There are the nagging voices that tell us we are desperate failures or hypocrites, that we will never amount to much, that we are wasting our time, or that at best God tolerates us but probably doesn’t like us and if he loves us, it’s not with any degree of affection!

With all that going on, we need to hear the voice that tells us we are loved!

One of the things that has most struck me int he past few years as I have talked with a range of Christian leaders, initially in the context of my doctoral work and more recently in my Leadership Journey series of podcasts, has been the recurring theme of God’s love. Here is an example from a leader who recalled a quite remarkable encounter with God:

The one thing that he did reassure me, more than anything else, was that he loved me, he loved me … It was just a total assurance of his love. If ever there was a life-changing thing that was it.

Another called about a time when he ‘felt soaked in the mercy of God … [It was] a really, really important engagement with God in my life. I think my ministry changed … it was as though the Lord reenergised my ministry at that particular point.’

Lest some of you accuse me of sliding into uncontrolled subjectivity at this point (!), let me offer Paul’s second major prayer in Ephesians in which he prays that the Ephesian believers (not just their leaders) would be able ‘to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge’.

In their excellent book on resilience in Christian ministry, Bob Burns and his colleagues make this observation:

Pastors often slip into the trap of building their identities around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Pastors need to pursue growth in their understanding of and feelings concerning God’s acceptance.

There is something odd about the fact that many grew up singing ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’, yet it can take a while for a deep assurance of that love to sink into our subjective experience. I have often recounted the story that Philip Yancey tells about someone who challenged him with these words:

“Philip, do you ever just let God love you?” she said, “It’s pretty important, I think.”

I think it’s a great challenge for any leader. The challenges of leadership and the complexities of ministry in the current crisis could drive all of us to distraction. Add those negative voices that tells us that we will never amount to much (so we’d better try even harder) or that our work is a waste of time (again, try harder to prove the voice wrong, or just give up), and the still, small voice of the Father is drowned out.

Leaders: you need to lead from a place that is quiet enough to hear the Father’s voice.

Learning to lead like Jesus

It’s not difficult to find books and articles that set out to describe what authors believe to be the key elements of the leadership of Jesus. To write such material is certainly praiseworthy, given the towering significance of Jesus – even for people who do not personally follow him.

The sceptical side of me (sorry!) imagines one or two pitfalls of this kind of writing. For one thing, the accounts of the life of Jesus (like the rest of the Bible) are not given primarily as a leadership manual and to read them with this (or any) particular lens leaves us open to missing their actual purpose. I also wonder if it is too easy for any of us simply to ‘discover’ traits that we already think are important in leaders and make it seem that we’ve simply been learning from Jesus!

Having acknowledged this, I’m nonetheless going to venture to run against my own cautions and offer a few observations on Jesus the leader. They’re not exhaustive, so please feel free to add a comment or two, nor is this intended as a piece of academic writing: read it more as a thought starter.

To begin, I’ll give a quick rundown of the half-dozen aspects of Jesus, the leader, that I want to highlight. Then, over the next few days, I will try to develop each of them in turn, suggesting ways you might want to apply them to your leadership.

  • Jesus lived in relationship with his Father – the start of his ministry was marked with the affirmation of his Father (see Mark 1) and his subsequent ministry was carried out in dependence on and obedience to his Father.
  • Jesus invested in his followers – early on (again, see Mark 1) Jesus began calling people to follow him. While some aspects of his ministry were for the benefit of large crowds, he had specific groups of disciples, notably the 12 in whom he invested.
  • Jesus spent time in solitude – John Mark Comer has recently highlighted how Jesus spent time in desert or isolated places: as an example from the gospels, note how he got up ‘very early in the morning’ and went off to a ‘solitary place’ (Mark 1) where he prayed (see also Luke 5:16).
  • Jesus knew his priorities – for example, early in his ministry (Mark 1, again!) Jesus hears that crowds of people are looking for him – doubtless a follow on from the healings that had happened the previous evening. However he turns down the ministry opportunity on his doorstep because he needs to preach in other places: ‘That is why I have come.’
  • Jesus made the most of interruptions – while he had his priorities, Jesus also seems to have had time for any who approached him. At times (see Mark 6 and the feeding of 5000) he even allowed ministry to interrupt his plans.
  • Jesus had time for the least – leaders enjoy spending time with other leaders: Jesus had time for those, like the sick or children, who probably featured on few people’s list of priorities.

A prayer in the current crisis

Heavenly Father,

We come to you in in humble acknowledgment of our weakness and limitations.
Forgive us for those times when we have made ourselves the centre of our universe, when we have behaved selfishly, even when we have assumed that our power and our progress are unstoppable. Forgive us for the ways in which we have – even unwittingly – discounted you or attempted to push you from your rightful place.

We thank you for gifts of knowledge and for medical and scientific skill, and we pray for all those who are working against time and exhaustion to deal with this crisis: would you inspire them and help them. Yet even as we thank you for these gifts, we want to look to you as the source of our deliverance: help us to put our hope in you.

Be with all those who are suffering from the effects of the virus – the sick, the bereaved, the isolated, and the fearful: please bring healing and comfort.

‘May your unfailing love be with us, even as we put our hope in you.’

Lord, in your mercy we ask you to turn the tide and bring an end to this virus.

We pray these things humbly, yet in the knowledge that you invite us to cast our cares on you, in the name of your Son, the Lord Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us.


‘And I will heal their land’: what can you do when there is not much you can do?

I’ve tended to be very cautious when I see Christians who are quick to appropriate 2 Chronicles 7:14:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

As ever, we need to pay attention to context. Who are ‘my people’ and what is ‘their land’? Clearly the promise was given to a specific people (Israel at the time of Solomon) and in a specific place. As far as I know, Ireland (north or south) is not the Promised Land, nor are its people ‘the Lord’s people’. The same is true for the England, or America, or any nation that might like to think of itself as Christian – or at least that acknowledges its Christian influences. The Lord’s people are scattered across the face of the earth awaiting the time of a new heaven and new earth.

And yet.

This current crisis makes me wonder if I might be too quick to dismiss what lies within this promise.

As Solomon competed the dedication of his temple the Lord appeared to him to confirm his acceptance of the temple as a chosen place. He would listen to the prayers that were prayed from the temple: his eyes and heart would be upon it: wonderful promises!

Yet there was also a note of caution. What about those times (presumably times of judgment for unfaithfulness on the part of his people) when God would shut the heavens so there would be no rain, when locusts would devour the land, or when he sent pestilence among his people?

This was climate disaster, nature out of control, dreadful disease on the rampage. There were no climate scientists and no labs to come up with a vaccine to stop the plague. What do people do when there is nothing they can do?

That’s a tough question for us to answer in some ways because such is our ingenuity, and such has been our technological progress, that we can often think of something. With Covid-19 it has not been that obvious. There are rumours of possible treatments, stories of developing vaccines (even if they are long months away from the market) and we should be incredibly grateful for scientists who are probably working day and night to get us through this. Meantime we self-isolate and try to wash our hands and some of us maybe wonder if life will ever be the same again.

What do people do when there is nothing they can do?

God’s answer to Solomon was that if only his people would humble themselves, pray, seek his face, and repent, he would hear and would heal their land. Rain would fall to water the barren earth. Locusts would be banished and the plague would be gone.

Should we expect all our political leaders to don sackcloth and lead our nations in seasons of prayer? Is this not rather a time for the Church – God’s scattered people in nations across the face of the planet – to take the lead and to stand in the gap?

Like you, I’ve read about calls for prayer and I’ve seen some suggested prayers ( I even suggested one myself the other day), from prayers for healing to prayers that want to dismiss the virus in the name of Jesus. I’ve even seen a church that’s been running corporate prayer via Zoom!

I would love God to answer and for there to be a sudden change in the direction of the storm. I dare say most of us would begin to breathe a sigh of relief if the numbers suddenly started to go the other way and the dreaded peak appeared less severe: maybe things would be back to normal sooner than we feared!

But, leaving aside what ‘normal’ might look like, what would we have learned from it all? Would we retain the lessons of kindness that we’re hearing about along the way? Would we decide that a bit less travel might reduce pollution? Would we reevaluate the importance of family and friends? Would we decide that medical professionals should be better paid than football players?

I wonder how much of our learning would be horizontal (love your neighbour) and how much would have to do with our love for and dependence on God.

Among all that’s being said I can’t help thinking that in the midst of everything that we need right now, the most profound and lasting change would come in our learning to humble ourselves in 2 Chronicles style and acknowledge our dependence on God. What if God has allowed our world and entire civilisation to be shaken in ways that are unprecedented in any of our memories, so that at least some of us would remember that he is God and we are not?

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Some thoughts on Psalm 33 and Covid-19

In the church I grew up in the man who made the announcements always concluded them by reminding us that they had been made ‘subject to the will of the Lord’. I think people were a lot more aware of what ‘DV’ meant (Latin for ‘God willing’). While I realise it can become a bit formulaic, there is biblical wisdom behind it.

In his short NT letter James has strong words for uber-confident business people who had lots of plans for how their business would expand and prosper. James reminds them that they don’t even know what would happen the next day: their lives were as transitory as vapour.

We’re currently facing a global crisis on a scale that none of us has ever experienced. The arrival and dramatic surge of Covid-19 has thrown all kinds of plans into turmoil and experts are doing all they can to try and predict what might happen tomorrow. For all our technological progress we’ve suddenly run into the buffers.

Over the past couple of days I have been struck by the pertinence of several parts of Psalm 33 and I think it speaks in a number of ways to the attitude we need to cultivate in this time of crisis.

1 – The Lord foils the plans of the nations (verse 10)

Scripture’s picture of God is that he is sovereign over the course of human history. For all their power, the Pharaohs and Nebuchadnezzars of powerful nations had to bow before him.

I will leave it to others to debate questions of agency at a time like this, but suffice to say that God has allowed our world (including the Church) to find itself at a time when the limitations and vulnerability of humanity is there for all to see.

He foils the plans of the nations.

Governments find themselves in crisis mode.

Businesses, large and small, wonder if they will still be in business in a few weeks time.

Things which we take for granted (at least in some parts of the world) – uninterrupted technological progress, increasing wealth, the facility to travel, access to consumer goods as and when we want them – are not so easily granted after all.

Sport – the great pursuit and enjoyment of so many of us – is reduced to chaos.

I think there are various ways believers need to pray in this crisis (and you won’t be short of samples via their proliferation on social media), but one that I sense may be neglected is a prayer of humbling where we repent of what someone has called ‘the degodding of God’ – and any thought that we are fit to take his place!

2 – Our resourcefulness is not the point (verse 17)

If you were an ancient king heading to war, you’d want to make sure your army was strong and well equipped. Lots of horses, and strong ones at that! But the psalm says that that is not where the secret lies. There is something more than our material resources that counts.

At a time like this we want strong and confident leaders who will assure us that they are committing the full resources of the nation to defeating the virus. And I think we need to be tremendously grateful for researchers and for medical professionals who are devoting their energy and their considerable expertise to tackling this situation. Many of us (myself included) probably owe our lives to the skill and resources of medical science.

We need to pray for everyone who is involved in this. Pray that scientists will discover a treatment, that they will be able to develop a vaccine. Pray for policy-makers to make wise decisions and for strength for the medical staff of all levels who are caring for the sick.

But at the same time, is there something we need to learn, or relearn, about depending on the Lord? Let’s by all means celebrate and be glad for the resources and gifts we enjoy, but let’s avoid the subtle temptation to allow our resourcefulness to blind us to our need of God.

3 – Our hope needs to be in the Lord (verse 22)

The psalm is a psalm of hope and confidence. It encourages his to hope in God’s love, to trust in his name, to put our hope in him.

Frankly, that’s what we need.

Yes, many of us may need to humble ourselves and repent of our self-sufficiency, but there comes a time to allow God to lift us out of the dust and – incredible as it may seem – rejoice in him.

None of us knows how the story of Covid-19 will end, or when it will end. We don’t know when we will be able to make plans again. There may be lots of ways that we will need to change our lifestyles, our assumptions, how we relate to others, and even how we live as church (the absence of Sunday gatherings may force us to rethink their whole purpose). Maybe we will emerge somewhat humbled, realizing, as never before that our lives are in God’s hands.

‘May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.’

The Leadership Journey Podcast: David and Shona Murray

David and Shona Murray

In this episode I am joined by my wife, Pauline, for a conversation with David and Shona Murray, authors of the books Reset and Refresh. David is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Shona is a medical doctor.

During our conversation they talk about the experiences of burnout that led to them writing the books. They emphasise the importance of living with a greater understanding of grace, and a sense of our own limitations as we live for God. We discuss the relationship between the physical and spiritual sides of our lives and the concept of self care. We also talk about the difference between the well planned life and the summoned life and the relevance of life stages.

Here are a few links you might like to follow up:

  1. David’s website, which includes a link to his blog
  2. A link to details of other books David has written (including one on Christians and depression)
  3. Reset – available on Amazon
  4. Refresh – available on Amazon
  5. A link to study guides for the two books
  6. Tony Schwartz’s Energy Project website (as mentioned in the podcast)

For your own reflection:

  • David says that you cannot separate the physical from the spiritual: what are the implications of this for your current pace of life and work?
  • How do you strike a balance between self-care and self-indulgence?
  • If you are a pastor, what steps do you take to ensure that you get appropriate time for preparation and study?
  • What steps do you take to tame your inner voices?

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Paul Bowman

Paul Bowman

Surviving and thriving in Christian leadership. What are the self-care practices and support strategies that leaders serving in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have found helpful for sustaining health, wholeness and leadership in the context of the stresses of ministry?

This week’s guest on the podcast is Paul Bowman. Paul has been involved in youth ministry for over 25 years and currently works in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast. Paul has recently completed his MA with the Irish Bible Institute and I had the privilege of supervising his work on a very important dissertation in which Paul explored some factors that contribute to thriving in Christian ministry. The podcast interview explores some of what Paul discovered and wrote about in his work.

By way of follow up, feel free to get in touch with Paul, either via Fitzroy or via my blog, if you would like to hear more or would like to invite him to speak to your group.

Meantime here is a list of the recommendations Paul makes at the conclusion of his dissertation:

  • Christian leaders together with their church should create clear and reasonable expectations for leadership and ministry.
  • Congregations should be better educated about the stresses associated with leadership and the importance of supporting the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of their leaders.
  • Greater emphasis, training and resourcing should be made available for team ministry as a means of combating isolation, and role overload.
  • Christian leaders need accountability and support to ensure they are availing of adequate rest and maintaining their spiritual self-care. The use of a maintenance contract as suggested by Brain (2001) which incorporates a plan to work, rest, study and be a spouse and parent could be a useful means of accountability that clearly communicates self-care needs.
  • Christian leaders should pursue their calling daily and set specific goals for their spiritual, physical, emotional, social and intellectual development.
  • Christian leaders should take a twenty-four hour period off each week and prioritise activities that recharge emotional energy.
  • Christian leaders should intentionally set aside a day each week to observe the Sabbath.
  • More resources should be made available to enable leaders to make use of retreats, and spiritual directors.
  • Sabbaticals should be financed and made available to all leaders including additional pastoral personnel every five to seven years.
  • Every minister and youth worker should be assigned an experienced mentor throughout the first five years of his or her ministry.
  • It is encouraging to note that PCI is placing greater emphasis on how it supports ministers and their families. Lockhart (2019) refers to the reimagining of presbytery as a fellowship. This is a welcome development though it needs further work in terms of the practicalities of pastoral care. It is beyond the scope of this study to explore this aspect of denominational support, but two recommendations seem appropriate: The promotion of ministerial fellowships or Pastors in covenant groups. And, further study is necessary to consider how supervision could be a means of support and development at a presbytery level.
  • Additional research is needed to look specifically at the role of training and how it equips leaders with the knowledge and skills of self-care.

Book recommendation: Reset, by David Murray

As some of you know, I had a heart attack in October. During my recovery period my wife flagged a book that she thought I might find valuable to read. She was right – she usually is! The book was David Murray’s ‘Reset’. I think I’d been aware of it, but I’d not paid adequate attention to it.

Interestingly, ‘reset’ was a word that had occurred to us as a theme in my recovery. Another point of resonance was the fact that David Murray had written the book in the aftermath of some severe health crises of his own. Health crises have a way of binging us to a standstill – like an unforced sabbatical – and give us an opportunity to evaluate – and reset.

In ‘Reset’ David Murray uses the image of a car that’s gone into the garage for what we call an MOT in our part of the world (currently in Northern Ireland, it just happens that the MOTs really need an MOT!). The book is an opportunity to review how we are doing – physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally and relationally – and we are taken systematically through a series of ‘bays’ in which various aspects of our lives can be challenged with a view to reset.

David writes in a way that is theologically solid, soundly practical, and pastorally insightful.

There are ten chapters (all conveniently fitted with words beginning with R!).

1- Reality Check
2- Review
3- Rest (on sleep)
4- Re-Create (on the body)
5- Relax (on the mind)
6- Rethink (on identity)
7- Reduce (on purpose)
8- Refuel (on health + energy)
9- Relate (to God and others)
10- Resurrection (on newness)

If you are a Christian in any kind of leadership, or simply trying to keep up with the fast pace of 21st century life, you need to read this book! While your circumstances may not allow you to implement everything the book might suggest (it’s all very well for Roger Federer to sleep 11/12 hours per day), at the very least the book encourages you to review how you are living.

I should add that David has written the book mainly with men in mind. His wife, Shona, has written a very similar book where the applications relate more to women: it is Called ‘Refresh.’

I should also add that Pauline and I will be chatting to David and Shona about their books for an episode of the podcast: watch out for it in early March.