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 (https://www.calvarychurchloughrea.com).

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.

Amen

‘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.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Jude Cairns

Jude Cairns, Chief Executive of Love for Life

This week the podcast returns after a gap of 4 months – largely down to the host having had a heart attack in October! The guest on this episode is Jude Cairns. Jude is the Chief executive of Love for Life, a Christian charity that aims to equip young people so they are able to make good choices about relationships and sex.

Jude has previously worked for Youth for Christ, and Habitat for Humanity. She has been in her current role for 9 years and her work involves leading a team 12 people.

In the course of our conversation she talks about her desire to ‘make things better’ – a driver of leadership, the experience of living overseas for a year and the defining moment of losing her father to illness. She also talks about the influence of the Arrow Leadership programme and shares some of the things she has learned about leadership along the way.

For your own reflection:

1 – Do you think the Church in the West needs to be more courageous in its witness?

2 – What would you say are the main things you have learned about leadership?

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Sam Balmer

Sam Balmer

Sam Balmer is chairman of Bible Educational Services (BES), an organisation committed to producing Bible resources that are used in some 40 languages in some 65 countries around the world. He is also an elder in Fermanagh Christian Fellowship, a vibrant church that meets on the edge of Enniskillen.

In the course of our conversation Sam talked about his family, about some others who influenced him, about his interest in mission and his own path into the work that he heads up.

He also talks with great vulnerability and honesty about some of the challenges he has faced with stress-related illness, and some of what he has learned through that.

And, as with most of these interviews, he shares some of the key things he has learned during the course of his leadership journey.

What Sam shares about the challenge of stress-related illness is a reminder that spiritual leaders are not exempt from its reach. If you are a leader and some of what he says about it resonates with you, find someone to talk to. If there is no one in your immediate circle that you feel you can talk to, send me an email via this website and I will endeavour to get you in contact with someone who can help.

As I was editing this episode of the podcast a friend sent me an article that discusses the well-being (or lack of it) among pastors: it highlights these five issues:

  • Lack of rest or a day off;
  • Lack of support from fellow clergy and a sense of competition;
  • Lack of personal community;
  • Marital strain;
  • Signing up for ministry but feeling more like a CEO than a pastor.
Sam Balmer’s leadership journey

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Peter Lynas

This week’s guest on the podcast is Peter Lynas, Northern Ireland director of the Evangelical Alliance. Peter is a trained barrister and has a degree from Regent College in Vancouver, where he serves on the board.

In our conversation Peter talks about the influence of his father, Norman. At the time of posting this, Norman is in rehab following a serious stroke suffered in August. The most recent news is that he has been making a remarkable recovery. He is able to walk with assistance and able to chat with people. There is still a road to travel, but progress has been encouraging.

He talks about the concept of calling (listen out for his non-traditional take on this) and traces his story through his professional academic study and his work, which has included time with the Jubilee Centre in England.

Peter includes some of other people who have influenced him along the way and our conversation also includes issues such as sabbath and technology. He also talks about the work of the Evangelical Alliance and his passion for connecting faith with the public square.

He shares his key leadership learning:

  • Understand who you are
  • Have a rich understanding of the God story
  • Be in rooms with leaders who are better than you
  • Beware of leaving a generational gap
  • Recognise the loneliness of leadership

If you would like to know more about the public leadership initiative that Peter mentions, you can read about it here.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Stephen Cave

This week’s guest on the podcast is Stephen Cave. Stephen is Senior Vice President for Translation with Biblica (The International Bible Society). He has also served as a Baptist pastor in Northern Ireland and has had leadership roles with the Evangelical Alliance where he is a member of the UK board.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone involved in the work of Biblica, one of his strong ministry passions is his desire to help people engage with the Bible: another is his heart for the wider Church.

In our conversation we talk about his early relationship with the Bible, the role of some people who were key influencers, how his faith was affected by an experience of tragic loss, and how his leadership journey has allowed him to combine his ministry passions.

Along the way he discusses some of his convictions about leadership, including the idea that a leader is someone who is prepared to have a tough conversation.



As you listen to the conversation, you might like to reflect on some of these questions:

1 – As a leader, how easy is it for you to delegate responsibility to others? What might prevent you from doing more of this?
2 – As you listen to Stephen talking about foundational ministry passions, can you identify the things that are key in your calling?
3 – How do you experience God speaking to you?
4 – How easy it it for you to have ‘tough conversations’ with people in your church or organisation?


I’m making a couple of changes to the podcast:

  • Each interview will be one episode rather than two (or occasionally three), previously.
  • Rather than a new episode every week, I’ll be aiming for two per month.

While you can always listen to the podcast via this blog, remember that you can also subscribe via Apple Podcasts or Castbox: just search for The Leadership Journey Podcast. Subscription costs nothing and you will get each new episode arriving automatically on your phone/tablet. New episodes will appear on Friday afternoons – hopefully in time for some weekend listening.


The guest on the next episode will be Peter Lynas from the Evangelical Alliance.

A call to worship

Ray Ortlund – Call to Worship

This weekend marks the retirement of Ray Ortlund – pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville. I’m hoping to have Ray on the podcast at some point in 2020.

Recently the church shared the call to worship that ray uses at the start of services. It exudes the grace of God and is well worth a listen. In fact, if you are a church leader I imagine Ray won’t mind if you borrow it for this Sunday morning!

To all who are weary and need rest;
To all who mourn and long for comfort;
To all who fail and desire strength;
And to all who sin and need a Savior —
This church opens wide her red doors in the name of Jesus,
The friend of sinners.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Mark Strauss

This week’s podcast is a bit different for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s international; and in terms of its content, it’s a discussion of a recent new book on leadership, rather than the exploration of one leader’s journey.

The guest is Mark Strauss from San Diego, California. Mark is Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary. Along with his colleague, Justin Irving (Professor of Ministry Leadership in Bethel Seminary), Mark has written Leadership in Christian Perspective, a book which outlines a model of ’empowering leadership.’ The book is based around research carried out by Justin, and Mark’s contribution is to bring a biblical perspective to each of the nine leadership practices that Justin has highlighted in his work.

I’ve previously reviewed the book here. I have added it to reading lists for classes I am teaching over the next few months at Belfast Bible College, and you can get your own copy here (UK).

As well as this most recent book, Mark is the author of a considerable number of books and articles. He also serves on the translation committee for the NIV. You can find out more about Mark from his website.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Gilbert Lennox

This week’s podcast was recorded with an audience (and live-streamed) at New Horizon in Coleraine.

My guest is Gilbert Lennox, who was responsible for the Bible teaching each morning at New Horizon. Gilbert’s initial career path took him into teaching, but after a number of years left school teaching and devote himself to church leadership and Bible teaching. He was involved in founding Glenabbey Church just outside Belfast, a church that celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018. Although he has retired from his staff position in Glenabbey, Gilbert is still involved in the teaching ministry of the church.

Once we get over Gilbert’s reticence to describe himself as a leader, we talk about some of the early influences on his life, growing up in Armagh: not only were his parents ‘profound believers’ but there were opportunities to encounter various people along the way – not least Professor David Gooding, who has been an influence for decades: starting a Bible study in an old henhouse became an impetus for regular study with David Gooding

Gilbert taught in school for 15 years before he sensed God calling him to move more fully into church work. As sometimes happens with new callings, his move from school to church was severely tested.

He talks about some of what has helped him to be resilient in ministry: specifically, the part played by his wife, and having a bedrock of Scripture.

Reflecting on leadership, he notes that Jesus talked about what it is not! ‘Leadership [is] a partnership with God and with others.’

His advice to his 20 year old self includes the need not to take himself too seriously and the realisation that you can’t fix everything (though you can help).

The time you spend in Scripture is never wasted.

For your own reflection:

  • Gilbert discusses a couple of significant mentor figures in his life: what people can you identify in your own life and how would you respond to the challenge of being a mentor to others?
  • Gilbert talks about the importance of *learning* to be content: are you learning this?
  • Especially if you are involved in any way in theological education (either as student or teacher) – how do you respond to what Gilbert says about the possibility of theology getting in the way of our knowledge of God through the Bible?
  • How do you respond to Gilbert’s challenge to the thinking where we are often keen to use labels in church leadership?

‘Leadership in Christian Perspective’: a review

‘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.’


Thus wrote Lew Parks in a journal article some 16 years ago. He went on to describe a vision of Christian leadership that takes seriously the Scripture, the Church’s theology, and solid interaction with the best secular leadership thinking.

I think that’s a reasonable way to introduce a very recent book on leadership that’s been written as a joint project between two American professors. Justin Irving is a professor of ministry leadership and Mark Strauss is a biblical scholar (who serves on the translation committee of the NIV). Together they have produced ‘Leadership in Christian Perspective’ (Baker), in which each contributes to an approach to leadership that they call ‘empowering leadership’. They describe this approach as being about empowerment more than control, about a process more than being an event, and about shared goals and vision more than a leader’s goals and vision.

There are three major components to their model of leadership (the first points to the leader, the second to followers, and the third to the organisation’s mission) and these correspond to the three main parts of the book:

1 – Beginning with authentic and purposeful leaders;
2 – Understanding the priority of people;
3 – Navigating toward effectiveness.

Each section comprises three chapters as they break down the major components of their model, and each chapter consists of a three-pronged approach. First, the chapter theme is addressed from the perspective of biblical teaching; second it is discussed from the perspective of contemporary leadership, with reference to Irving’s research; and finally the authors aim to provide an example and encourage reflection on the particular leadership skill demonstrated in practice. Chapters also include a series of practical ‘next steps’, and a short list of relevant books for further reflection.


The first section (Beginning with Authentic and Purposeful Leaders) deals with three leadership practices:

  • ‘Modelling what matters’: in which they discuss the importance of leaders modelling what they call for in their followers.
    ‘Modeling what matters is a primary tool for leaders working to lead through influence rather than control.’
  • ‘Engaging in honest self-evaluation’: in which they introduce the concept of ‘humble self-efficacy’ and discuss self-leadership.
  • ‘Fostering collaboration’: in which they reflect on Paul’s letter to Philippians and on team work.

The second section moves the focus from the leader to the followers:

  • ‘Valuing and appreciating’: which includes a character study on Barnabas, and call on leaders to lead from love not fear, and to appreciate people both for who they are and for what they contribute.
  • ‘Creating a place for individuality’: in which they explore the biblical concept of gifts as an expression of unity through diversity, and the importance of leaders nurturing their followers’ uniqueness and creativity.
  • ‘Understanding relational skills’: which includes this –
    ‘People matter. Leadership, at its heart, is about relating well with people inside and outside your organization.’

The final section then completes the model by reflecting on leadership practices that focus on the mission of the organisation:

  • ‘Communicating with clarity’: which discusses aspects of communication theory and calls for leaders to communicate a clear message.
  • ‘Providing accountability’: in which they discuss the importance of setting expectations which are not only clear, but shared (would you prefer your followers to be owners or renters?).
  • ‘Supporting and resourcing’: which reminds us of our resources as Christians, and discusses what it means to support and resource your team.

So much for the contents: what about the book’s strengths?

I think the principal strength of the book lies in its unique approach of combining the expertise of two authors from different disciplines. Given Parks’ observation referenced at the start of this review, there is value in combining the efforts of contributors who know both the world of the biblical text and the world of contemporary leadership studies. Readers who are familiar with one field more than the other have an opportunity to ‘beef up’ their awareness of the gaps. I hope it is not a form of chronological snobbery, but a book that includes references to other recently published, or recently updated work ticks some boxes for me.

Irving demonstrates his familiarity with many of the currents in secular leadership thinking: not least in the way he draws from the ideas of both servant leadership and transformational leadership. Along the way, there is also material on self-leadership and the related concept of emotional intelligence.

From the biblical perspective, Strauss covers a range of biblical themes and texts (generally from the New Testament, which is his focus of study). His contributions include a discussion of how Paul modelled leadership qualities, and a simple, but rich character study of Barnabas: some of these might serve to prime the pump for anyone wanting to develop their own biblical reflections on aspects of leadership.

At the same time, one suggestion I’d make about the book would be to advocate a wider use of the biblical canon. It’s doubtless a personal bias since much of my own reflection on leadership has tended to come from OT characters Moses and Nehemiah. But I think that here and there, the biblical content section might have benefitted from delving into the OT texts.

The empowering leader model is presented in an appealing and accessible way and I think that combining the focus of servant leadership on the welfare of followers, as well as focusing on the positive aspects of transformational leadership is important. Nonetheless, students of transformational leadership should be aware of some of the recent critique of the model from Denis Tourish.

Another positive is the fact that the book is applicable to all kinds of leadership situations, and is not limited to church or other specifically ‘ministry’ settings (at least as understood in its narrowest form). Indeed, many of the practical illustrations of the various leadership practices are drawn from the world of business leadership.


I’ll be encouraging my students in leadership classes to read the book and I’d also recommend it to current leaders in need of some help to think through a positive leadership model that is evidence-based and biblically grounded.

For those of you who are ready to get your copy right away, here is the link (UK) and here for the US!

The Leadership Journey Podcast at New Horizon

New Horizon is one of several summer conferences that serve the Church in Ireland. It’s a week of Bible teaching, seminars, worship and more besides: it all gets underway this weekend. For details about what’s happening, you can check their website.

On Friday (9th August), as part of the seminar programme, I’m going to be doing a live podcast episode when I will be talking with Gilbert Lennox: Gilbert is responsible for the morning Bible readings during the week of New Horizon.

If you’re at the event, you might like to join us on Friday at 11.45: the venue is ‘Cromore’ – just off the main pavilion.

New Horizon Seminar promo from Alan Wilson on Vimeo.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Barry Forde (part 2)

Barry Forde is back on the podcast this week. Barry is the Anglican and Methodist chaplain at Queen’s University in Belfast. If you missed the first part of the conversation with Barry, you can catch up here.

For your reflection:

1 – What do you make of the idea that a leader is ‘someone with a magnet in their heart and a compass in their head’? How important is it for a leader to be ‘personable’, as Barry describes it?

2 – ‘Hold the present responsibly and the future lightly’: how do you respond to Barry’s idea of being alive to opportunities in the present rather than attempting to anticipate 5 years hence?

  • The series of talks on leadership by Eugene Peterson can be purchased here, and
  • Here is more information about the book on Irish preaching to which Barry has contributed a chapter.

The podcast will be taking a few weeks off, but we plan to be back in August.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Barry Forde

Barry Forde is the Church of Ireland and Methodist Chaplain at Queen’s University, Belfast, and he is the guest on the next two episodes of the podcast.

Prior to taking up the role as chaplain at Queen’s, Barry was a curate in St Patrick’s Church, Coleraine, and before that had a career as a barrister. For six years (three as chair) Barry served on the board of New Horizon, a large Bible conference held annually on the North Coast of Ireland.

In the first part of our conversation, Barry talks about the unique nature of chaplaincy in Belfast. As well as being one of the chaplains to the university, Barry is the minister of The Church of the Resurrection, an Anglican congregation attached to the chaplaincy, but whose membership is not limited to the student world. He also talks about the range of ecclesial influences that were part of his formation on the road to seeking ordination within the Church of Ireland.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Sladjan Milenkovic (part two)

This week Sladjan Milenkovic is back to continue his story (you can listen to part one of the interview here). Sladjan is the director of HUB, a Christian centre not far from Belgrade, in Serbia. One of the main features of HUB is its Bible school, but its work includes other ministries. Some 360 students from across the Balkans have been through the Bible school, with around 60% of former students involved in active Christian ministry.

In this part of the story Sladjan talks about becoming the director of the Bible School at 26. The school’s mission is to serve the Church. In 2004 the school was able to buy a former motel: not only does this house the school but it is also used for conferences and seminars – seminars that cover subjects like worship or church planting.

HUB also runs ‘Camp Hope’, camps for families whose children with disabilities or cancer. Most of the people who attend these camps are unbelievers and the camps give them the opportunity to be loved and to hear about God.

Sladjan talks about the way cancer affected his own family, when his oldest daughter became ill with a brain tumour. It’s been a difficult journey that has taught Sladjan about vulnerability and suffering: he comments that ‘even in the midst of suffering, God can bring something good.’

He talks about leadership challenges, not least the overwhelming nature of the need, but also the challenge of being hurt by someone you have trusted. While he has had times of questioning his call, he returns to the conviction that God does not make mistakes. He also talks about resilience and staying true to his call: it’s important for him to remember who God is. In the middle of the stress and tiredness of leadership, God he trusts God for what he needs.

Listen to Sladjan’s interview here:

For your reflection:

  • How have some of the challenges of leadership helped to shape your character?
  • Would you commit to pray for Sladjan and the work of HUB?

Remember that you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Castbox (‘The Leadership Journey Podcast’): and perhaps you could leave a review.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Sladjan Milenkovic

Sladjan Milenkovic

For the next two weeks the podcast goes international as I talk with Sladjan Milenkovic. Sladjan is director of HUB (Christian Trust Belgrade), in Serbia, which includes a small Bible school that I have had the opportunity to visit on a few occasions over the past few years.

The evangelical community in Serbia is small. To be Serbian is practically the same thing as to be Serbian Orthodox. In a nation of 7 million, it’s reckoned that there are may be 10000 who are part of the evangelical mainstream: for more on the situation of evangelicals in Serbia, the European Evangelical Alliance published this interview with the director of the Serbian Evangelical Alliance about four years ago. 

In this first episode, Sladjan talks about the spiritual situation of the country and goes on to tell his own remarkable story of coming to faith in Christ: at eighteen a colleague gave him a New Testament, and as he read, he realised the reality of Jesus. As he puts it, his first steps in faith were with Christ alone and the Bible. Eventually a small group came together, reading and praying together regularly – like a little pocket of revival: remarkably all this was happening at the height of NATO bombs in Serbia (not all the news makes the headlines!).

After spending a year in the army, Sladjan married and he then went to the Bible School that now leads (it had started 5 years previously and his wife had already studied there). At the end of his year of study, the founder of the school (Andy Mayo) invited him and his wife to stay and work alongside him: eventually he would take over the leadership (at twenty-six)..

For reflection:

  • Were you surprised to learn about the spiritual situation in Serbia?
  • As you listen to the story of Andy Mayo’s investment in Sladjan (his eventual successor), what stands out about his decision to invest in a young man? What do you look for in future leaders? What do you think young leaders might be looking for in you?
LJP: Sladjan Milenkovic, part one