you shouldn’t walk alone

iStock_000008457626MediumToday I head off for three days with a large number of Baptist Ministers.

You might think I must have done something very bad to have to suffer that. But you’d be wrong. Not necessarily about me being bad (see recent bloggage about pastors and pedestals), but about it being a punishment. It’s the Eastern Baptist Association Ministers’ Conference, which is an annual gathering for inspiration, encouragement, challenge and increased beverage intake (of the tea and coffee variety of course).

I look forward to this conference every year. It’s not because of who the speakers are (although I am looking forward to this year’s speakers in case they read this), or because of the singing but it’s first and foremost an opportunity to meet friends and make friends with people who understand some of my context because they also live in the goldfish bowl we call Baptist Ministry. Everything else is a wonderful bonus on top of the conversations before, between and after the sessions and over meals.

One of my favourite passages in the Bible is in Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica. In Chapter 5 verse 11 we read “Encourage one another and build each other up…” That’s a really important aspect of church life. You can get it in church on Sundays, in small groups, in prayer triplets, in conversations with one other person. But you can’t get it on your own. For me this Conference is another place where I receive that. Where’s yours?

(By way of warning: I may post bloggages reflecting on the conference over the next couple of days, or I may be so absorbed that I forget).

Be blessed, be a blessing.

I have a challenge for you: I will post the joke with which I opened Sunday morning’s sermon and (if you weren’t there and haven’t listened online) you have to try to work out why I told it:

Three men were scheduled to be executed. Their captors told them that they had the right to have a final meal before the execution and asked them what their favourite meal was.

The first man loved French food. “Give me some good French wine and French bread with French cheese,” he requested.

So they gave it to him, he ate it, and then they led him away.

The next person was a fan of Italian food. “Give me an enormous pizza,” he said, “followed by a big bowl of Italian ice cream.

So they brought it to him, he ate it, and then they led him away.

Now it was the third man’s turn. “I want a big bowl of strawberries,” he said.

“Strawberries? They aren’t in season for months!”

The man smiled: “I’ll wait…”



istock_000011793147large4.jpgLast week I mentioned that I was going to a conference for larger Ministers (see here)… Here are some reflections on that conference that are written as a sort of review:

I have often wondered what the collective noun should be for Baptist Ministers. If there isn’t one I would like to suggest ‘plunge’. Last week I was privileged to be at a plunge of Baptist Ministers of larger churches organised by the Faith and Society Team. While there are many joys, blessings, issues and difficulties that are common to all Ministers, there are also some that are different because of the size of our churches. Not better or worse, just different.

The plunge with fellow Ministers of Larger Churches (must resist the temptation to call us ‘Larger Ministers’) was for 48 hours at High Leigh. It was characterised by honesty and vulnerability from both the leaders and participants. It was a safe place in which God’s Spirit was able to bless, encourage and inspire.

The whole time was a blessing as we explored how larger churches can be navigated through a confusing world covering some deep and difficult topics, but I want to pick out a few highlights:

In three wonderful Bible Studies Steve Holmes led us deep into God’s Word, exploring John 1 in a creative and engaging way that revealed even more of the profound significance of that chapter. I was blessed and encouraged, and I think all of us came away with new illustrations for our sermons too!

There was plenty of praying. It was open, honest, genuine praying for one another, for our churches and for those who are not yet part of God’s family. If I am honest sometimes at Christian conferences the prayer times can feel as if they are interruptions to the conference but here they were the fuel for the conference.

It was brilliant to share some of the conference time with our General Secretary, Lynn Green. As well as one inspiring session in which she shared a vision for our Baptist Union and helped us all to feel even more engaged with it, I know that she blessed and encouraged lots of us in the conversations that happened over meals and in the times when nothing was scheduled.

And that brings me to the final highlight. The informal time was as significant as the sessions. Conversations sometimes led to ‘can I pray for you?’ moments. There were humble ‘what do you think we could do about …?’ conversations. Friendships were established and enhanced.

I came home from the conference to an incredibly busy week. In fact from a diary-management point of view I could have done without it. But I know that from my personal and ministry point of view it was time with Jesus and fellow-followers that was extremely well-spent. It was a prodigious plunge!

Be blessed, be a blessing

intermittent praying

I am sorry to say that this week’s bloggages have been somewhat intermittent. I have been very busy this week, including fitting in an extra day off today (Thursday) to coincide with Sally taking a day’s leave in order to use up her annual allocation. She’s out at housegroup now so it’s okay for me to release some sneaky bloggerel into cyberspace.

Intermittent sometimes describes my prayer life too, if I am being brutally honest. And it is often busy-ness that causes the intermittance (and perhaps a new word too…). I meet on a monthly basis with three local Baptist Ministers and we have just agreed to try to be honest with each other and help each other by being mutually accountable about how we are doing in our relationship with God. That’s both scary and fantastic at the same time.

Being a Minister can be incredibly rewarding and carries immense privileges, but it can also be quite lonely and there is always the temptation to be a professional Christian. I can use my sermon preparation time as my ‘Bible study’ time. I can use praying for others as a substitute for my own personal prayer life. And I have found that if I do I get spiritually dry. I’m not in that place right now, but it would be easy to do so.

So being honest with my friends will help me. It’s not the fear that they may catch me out, but knowing that they understand, are praying for me and that we can encourage each other that makes this such a brilliant friendship. It would be perfectly possible for me to share superficial success with these colleagues and show them a veneer that suggests everything is always fine. But that won’t bless me or help us to help one another. So I have resolved to be honest.

And, if I am honest with you, dear bloggite, I need to stop right now (without a joke today!!) in order to go and pray a bit more to try to minimise the intermittance. You could too…

change is inevitable except from a vending machine

I can understand why a lot of people in this country are getting exercised about what is happening to their pensions. It must be exasperating if you have been putting money away over a period of years with the expectation that you will get a certain return on them at the end of your working life and then discover that the rules have changed and you will get less. I think I can understand why people want to protest or even strike about it. The Baptist Ministers’ Pension Scheme has recently undergone a massive transformation in order to try to cope with a multi-million pound hole in the fund. While I believe that the staff involved in overseeing this process have done the best they possibly can for us in the circumstances, and I have no criticism of them (only admiration for their technical competence and diligence), it does mean that the pension I receive when I retire is likely to be less than it would have been under the previous regime.

The problem in these circumstances is that it is impossible for us to do nothing. Doing nothing is worse than the ostrich sticking its head in the sand when it senses danger*. I don’t imagine that many of the people who have been protesting in striking are expecting that nothing should change. I’m sure that they realise that in the new economic circumstances in which we live, and particularly in the light of the increased life expectancy in this country, pension arrangements are experiencing a new paradigm and we need to adapt to it. I suspect that much of the frustration is to do with perceived injustice about the way that pension changes are being introduced or perhaps even imposed.

I think there are lessons here for us all. When we introduce change, or when change is necessary, people react in different ways. Some embrace it. Some are fearful of it. Many would rather it didn’t have to happen. A few can’t cope with it. It is important for those of us in leadership to realise that people respond to change in different ways to us and if our preference is to embrace change we need to recognise that others will not want to or will find it difficult to do so and if we want to bring them with us we need to move at their pace rather than at our own.

I think this is particularly an issue where there is a small team in leadership of a larger organisation. They may spend considerable time considering the new circumstances and the need for change before coming to their conclusions about what is necessary. If they do not enable the rest of the organisation to make a similar journey they may well find that their proposals are rejected, resented, or ridiculed.

There are probably thousands of “how many… does it take to change a lightbulb?” jokes of differing levels of quality and taste. I can’t remember how long ago I heard the ones about Baptist churches:

How many Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb? Change?

How many Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb? Six Church Meetings, a subcommittee and a report on the effectiveness of the old lightbulb.

How many Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb? None. It’s not a good idea to mix water and electricity.

Or there’s the joke about the seven last words of the church when Jesus returns: “We’ve never done it that way before!”

Sometimes there is more truth in these jokes than we’d like to admit.

How do you cope with change? Do you enjoy it, embrace it, accept it, resent it or resist it? How about if God wants to change you – how do you respond to that?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*I know that ostriches don’t actually put their heads in the sand, but it’s still a compelling image.