Leading congregational leaders to deepening their spiritual discipline and breaking through to a new sense of mission…a story…

What happens when denominational issues impact upon the local congregation? What happens when these issues cause people to leave and de-stabilize the congregation? What happens when the Senior Minister decides to leave and takes significant leadership and a percentage of your congregation with him? What happens if you are on the ministry team and it seems like everyone is leaving? What happens if your discernment is that God wants you to stay because you believe that God is saying, “He is faithful and will finish the work that He began in us”? And what happens when this all happens?

Let me tell you a story of God that is still unfolding…

Two years ago this all happened to us…I had been out of seminary 18 months…and the Senior Minister, four other ministry staff and what you believe will be most of the congregation is going to leave over a denominational conflict…what do you do? In my own prayer life I believed that the Spirit was impressing on me to stay. I didn’t understand this as I shared the sentiments of those who were going to leave, but I couldn’t deny what I believed God was saying to me. Jeremiah became an influencing biblical figure for me. He remained obedient to a faithful God regardless of what the people around him were doing. After seeking some counsel from an older minister (who actually ended up leaving the denomination as well) it was clear that God was saying, ‘Stay and wait’, which I interpreted as meaning to stay and ‘wait upon the Lord’.

There were to be many moments of challenge, pain and grief to come, including false accusations and value clashing between myself and those that were leaving. I remember one significant point of difference in which I knew I had to make a stand…I didn’t want to, but if I didn’t I knew that I would be of no use to those who were to stay, which at that moment could have been a handful of people for all I knew. (When this all started I determined not to ask anyone about what they were deciding, both for their sake and for my integrity through this all.)

Our Church Council worked and prayed their hearts out through this time. Across the denomination, fall-out from a national council decision was hitting hard and the denominational leadership seemed to be limited in their ability to deal well with this. Our local church council held to the values of ‘grace’ and ‘blessing’, and when the state body decided to not give certain financial payouts to our ministry team who were leaving, the local church council decided to act independently and give generously to the Senior Minister and the others who were leaving…what seemed foolish to some was the grace and wisdom of God to others.

During and after this split, many people wondered who was right and who was wrong, not the least of whom was me. I really wanted to know if I was doing the ‘right’ thing. God had an answer for me, which I didn’t particularly like. I believe God impressed upon me that right or wrong was not the issue, but that God was the faithful One, to those who left and to those who stayed, and that what was important, was obedience. The beginning of many, many reminders that ministry and mission is God’s work, that God is the faith one and that God will finish the work that God has started…I/we are to simply and critically be, obedient.

I was about to embark on a journey of ‘faith’ and ‘call’ like I had never known before. I had long been a student of leadership, but this was about to be (and still is) a refining fire of leadership formation.

The remaining church council (elders and leaders who stayed) asked if I would stay on as Interim Team Leader, which I agreed to. When the dust settled, about 20% of the church left with the Senior Minister (which included 4 of the 6 staff, many involved in worship leadership and other ministry leadership) and another 5-10% went elsewhere in the fallout. The evening worshipping congregation fell apart.

During this time I believe God showed in many ways that He is the faithful one. During the transition time I was reading my Bible one night when my two year old son came up to me with his book and wanted me to read it. So we swapped books and I began to read his storybook to him while he looked through my Bible. After about two minutes, he gave the Bible back to me, opened to a page, and he wanted me to read it …it was opened at Joshua 1, and these words went deep into my spirit,

“…Long ago I promised the ancestors of Israel that I would give this land to their descendants. So be strong and brave! Be careful to do everything my servant Moses taught you. Never stop reading The Book of the Law he gave you. Day and night you must think about what it says. If you obey it completely, you and Israel will be able to take this land. I’ve commanded you to be strong and brave. Don’t ever be afraid or discouraged! I am the LORD your God, and I will be there to help you wherever you go…” [Joshua 1:6-9]

I sat there and cried as God showed His faithfulness and promises through my own son at ‘story time’. This was to begin a spiritual renewal of scripture reading, prayer, journaling, reflection and just going ‘deep’ with Jesus.

It was also at this time that I joined the EBA network (shameless plug) and after sharing some of my story through the email forum, Tom Bandy’s advice was to go deep in my relationship with Jesus and take my leaders with me. And I/we’ve been doing this ever since.

I realized that if I didn’t live Christ, then how could I expect anyone else to. If I don’t go deep spiritually, if I don’t go wide in sharing my faith, if I don’t go high in my gifts and call, then how will others trust me, follow my lead, accept my serving? So I began with myself…reading the Bible morning and evening (as my two year old son’s biblical advice had been). I soon got my Youth Pastor (who also stayed) together with another leader to read scripture and hold our spiritual lives / vocational lives and relational lives to account.

I took our leaders deep into the discernment process that Tom Bandy and Bill Easum advocate – discerning from God our Vision, Mission, Values and Bedrock Beliefs – or as Alan Hirsch calls it, God’s mDNA for our church. We prayed, retreated, communicated, consulted, listened, imagined, discussed, lived out and experienced what Jesus was doing in our lives that the world can’t do without.

And through all of this I have been pushed and pulled into leadership that I had never thought or seen before. I have sought advice and experience from across all sectors of life – church, business, community sector, family, and have drawn much…and now that I am getting to the end of what I can do, I am now just beginning to see and learn what God alone can do…which is nothing to do with me…and all to do with God. I am nearly spent and the best is yet to come.

I cannot over-emphasize the need to be spiritual, to live out spiritual leadership, and to grow people spiritually. We have re-imagined spiritual disciplines in the life of our church. We have discipleship-accountability groups called “Triple G’s” – which stands for our discerned mission [Going, Growing and Getting Together with Jesus, one another, and our community – local and global]. We have a communal spiritual practice called “20-20-20” which is 20 minutes of scripture reading, 20 minutes of journaling  and 20 minutes of conversation – all of which engage the question, “Holy Spirit, what are you saying to me today?” We have regular strategic prayer gatherings focusing on the life of the church. Supervision, Mentoring and Spiritual Direction are becoming core practices, particularly for our leadership – existing and emerging.

We are seeking to do mDNA alignment – constant – rigorous – persistent – begins in me – going-growing-getting together through telling the stories of people’s experiences in “Going, Growing and Getting Together with Jesus, one another, and our community – local and global” in worship, on-line, through print media.

I continue to do shifts, from leading worship to leading people to leading leaders, each requiring different foci and strategies. I am learning about levels of leadership and seeking to act accordingly.

Continuing to clarify and focus our mDNA and what this means in our culture and context is critical – it has to be live-able and in God’s strength, do-able. Words like, ‘Cutting to the chase’, ‘It begins with me’, ‘Just do it’, ‘Tell the story’ ‘God is the faithful one’, ‘God will finish what He has begun’ echo continuously in my mind as I grow in what it means to be a leader in God’s mission.

This journey continues to get sharper and foggier all at the same time. I liken it to climbing a mountain, the higher you get, the more cloudy it becomes, but for those times when the wind gently blows and the clouds clear, the greater and more wonderful is the view. What I am finding is a gradual congruency of God’s call on me and God’s call on our church. And what I am also being amazed by is that God’s call is essentially remaining the same from before the split. It really is true that God is finishing the work that He began – it is now being expressed differently and we are utilizing different ways/strategies, but essentially the unique call on our church remains.

Two weeks ago we had our fist Leadership Community weekend in over four years – it was more than I could have imagined. Driving there I prayerfully thought about what I hoped the outcomes of the weekend would be, and the words that came to me (which I shared with all) were, “For all of us to go deeper in our relationship with God, deeper into our call as leaders and deeper into God’s call on us as a church.” It was mind-blowing to see how this really was God’s plan for us.

During the Saturday afternoon session, God’s call had begun to hit deep and we went into some great questioning and challenging about ‘were we really serious about having Jesus’ mission at the heart beat of our church’…’were we really prepared to go and share our faith with others’…’would we do whatever it takes to see our community living with Jesus’.

A 50 something year old guy (who is heading off to Asia as a missionary next year) stood up and really challenged us…with a real passion in his voice and heart. What followed was something that I have never seen in the churches I’ve been part of…leaders began to share deeply and vulnerably their hearts and minds and souls…I believe that we had real ‘words from the Lord’…tears began to come as both thankfulness and commitment to God’s call began to be shared…the challenge came from one of the team who came to lead some sessions about how serious were we (as leadership) in supporting me (Team Leader) to the hilt in seeing God’s purposes come about – and there came overwhelming support and tears and commitment. We finished – all in prayer gathering around myself and the ministry leadership team and church council – with an amazing sense of: this is what God wants and God will be the faithful one to see it happen. We declared that we belong to God, this is God’s church, and God’s vision is the most important vision of all.

Later, one of our ‘new to faith’ guys (who is beginning the leadership path) said, “This is a new way of being (U)niting” He said he had never seen unity in such a spiritual way. (Just now, while typing this email my wife Fiona told me how hard a weekend it had been for her and the kids while I was away – this is spiritual battle stuff.) There is no way our church, me or my family can keep going unless our/my leadership is deeply spiritual – totally dependent on God’s Spirit – fully alive to Jesus Christ. I share this because in the last two years I believe my leadership has become spiritual and I now recognize how shallow and dry my leadership was – sure, I was skilled and had good understandings but it was never going to be enough to lead a church deep into the call of God, living out the mission of Christ, dependent on the breath of God for our life and the life of our community. And this is just the beginning…

I am now expecting heightened testing and challenge that will be both external and internal, where we will need to be both proactive and responsive. Key will be the development of spiritual leadership competencies and processes, with increasing courage and faith in God’s provision and transformation in rigorous alignment to God’s mission to share faith (going), mature faith (growing) and celebrate faith (getting together).

Even now we are wrestling with our leadership needs and structure as we experience growth in our church, through ‘storming’ between the old ways and the new, between control and freedom, between courage and fear…and I remember, ‘God is the faithful one’ and ‘God will finish what He has begun’…so, not my will Lord, but Yours be done…this is a story in progress!