I entered the world of work in 1986. I started out as an Admin Officer working in a personnel department at RAF Stanmore Park (which was closed in 1997 and turned into houses for those interested).
I had NO idea what I would be doing – I was 17, just coming up 18 as I began full time. A number of disasters ensued – I was put on ‘flexi-time’, which was great! I came in at 10am had a 2 hour lunch and went home at 4pm – well, I did that for about a month. I was then called into the office and told it might be better if I came off flexi-time for a bit as I ‘owed’ 2 weeks! I then had to do another 3 weeks or so of going in at 7.30am, having a half hour lunch and going home at 6pm to sort it out!
During this fun time of getting used to the working week I was also trying to understand my job. I had an induction when it was explained very clearly to me what my responsibilities would be, what an ‘in’ tray was and an ‘out’ tray – what a file was and what was in it etc. I think I was also told what to actually DO with files when they landed in my in tray. However – I realised, after much nodding and yesing in the direction of my boss, I had no IDEA what I was supposed to do with the files. Being a teenager (and not confident in my ability to string a sentence together when talking to adults twice my age) I decided to blag it. I watched the others in our large open plan office – we all had similar jobs, I just tried to do what they did – whilst having no idea what they were doing, how they were doing it or why. This was not going to end well.
I would receive a file and I would shift in my chair and nonchalantly pick it up (whilst nodding knowingly with a ‘ahh, yes – I was expecting just such a file to be in my in tray, I know what I am doing with this’ look). I would open said file and stare at the contents (gibberish) and then close it again. I would get up and stride purposefully about the office. I would arrive back at my desk and then have another look at the file. The next stage in my pretence of knowing what i was doing was to ‘type’ on what was termed fan fold paper – as I remember there were six sheets of very fine paper, you would insert them into a typewriter – yep, a proper actual honest to goodness make your fingers bleed ink on your trousers – typewriter! I loved it – smacking away on the keys without a care in the world. I sometimes typed nonsense – as I had no idea what was to be typed – I sometimes pretended to type, hitting the keys enough to make a noise, but softly so they didn’t so much as mark the fan fold paper. I would rip out the typed up work and then separate the six different sheets (they all had a special place where they needed to be put) I had no idea where they all went so would open a file and shove them in.
Now, I knew I had an ‘out’ tray – but I did not grasp that this was purely for my own benefit – there was somewhere else for the files to go when I had finished with them. I had two problems with this:
1. Where was this mythical place that files went?
2. Even if I located this place – how could I actually get rid of files that I had not ‘actioned’ in any meaningful way?
Here is what I did. I hid them. Every file that arrived in my in box (who was sending them!!) would find its way in to my out box and then, I would sneak it into my big cupboards behind me. This worked fine, until I ran out of space in the cupboards. Six months passed. Six MONTHS of nobody noticing that I was not actioning any files and nobody had noticed that not a single file every made its way out of my corner of the office once it had arrived there. There were files on my window sill, files next to the cupboard in piles, files in my desk drawers, under my desk, in a neat ‘wall’ next to my desk – I was the King of files!
Then it happened. My boss came in looking for a file, it had gone missing – had I seen it? I have a few files awaiting action I said (ha!) I opened the cupboard and a a stack of files fell out – my boss looked at my cupboard and it was as if her EYES were opened, they then widened as she took in the scene – my desk, my cupboard, the floor, the window sill, under my desk . . .
The rest of the day was spent going through my files – many files thought to be lost forever within the bowels of some long forgotten storage facility surfaced in my corner of the office. This did not make my boss happy! The long and the short of it was this – my probation period of 6 months was up – so they kindly extended my probation and moved me to a department where they thought things might be simpler for me – and I wouldn’t be allowed to touch files for a while.
What does this have to do with ministry? Only everything!
1. We don’t know what we are doing. That is quite a shocking statement, but – there are many thousands of educated, degree infused, theologically literate, ordained and lay, well-travelled Christians in ministry in this country. The church though has MASSIVE problems with discipleship – hence the missing generations in many of our churches. The church has MASSIVE problems with evangelism – hence our over dependence on tools like Alpha rather than organic growth through relationship, powerful preaching and signs and wonders following as the Holy Spirt leads us. A key reminder to me that we don’t know what we are doing – especially with evangelism – is our persistence in evangelistic mission that is aimed at young adults upwards – when many of those who come to faith do so as children AND, if we equipped parents better – well, we might see us doing better at retaining those we already have.
2. When we don’t know what we are doing – we pretend that we do. A few years ago there was a whole series of symposiums about the problems above – and, ok, nobody is necessarily saying they have got it ‘sorted’ – however, the people at these meetings tend to be the ‘great and the good’ of Christian ministry – hang on, if they are the same as me (at least a little bit!) is the challenge at these meetings really being faced? The challenge of ourselves? It is easy to say, ‘we have identified the problem’ (the problem has become blindingly obvious to everyone now) AND what follows is, ‘these are the things we need to do’. Always an answer, always a bit of blag! I don’t know ANYONE in Christian ministry who has properly acknowledged the problems in point 1 – that isn’t also doing what they are told we should all be doing if we are to see things change . . . . Invest in the next generation, grow Church where people are, don’t just expect them to come to is, mentor the next generation, raise up leaders etc. People are trying to do that . . . . So what are the reasons we are stuck? These next three things are the tough ones – they demand no blagging, no pretence that we have the solutions, no leaning into big leaders with big churches (they must know what they are doing – look at the size of their churches and their influence in the a Christian marketplace) . . .
Here are the three things then:
1. Prayer. Yeah, I know. Prayer. If you like – this is the equivalent of my ‘file’ problem when I began work. Prayer is about total dependence on Jesus. The ‘I only do what I see the father doing’ kind of prayer; the ‘it isn’t about what I bring to the party’ prayer; the ‘flipping heck this is tough’ prayer; the ‘ok, God – I lay it all on the line’ kind of prayer. We have developed movements of prayer that are praying on our behalf . . . . Or that mean we can do a week of intensive prayer and that will do us for a bit. There are a few places of almost constant prayer in this country – and they are amazing, maybe because of such places we are NOT in a worse state that we are – but hey, it’s pretty bad. I want to make 2014 a year when I pray more, when I admit to God that I don’t know what I am doing – that I am weak and that without him, I am pretty much stuffed. His strength is made perfect in our weakness – when we acknowledge that weakness! I also want to avoid blagging with Jesus . . He knows me. Nothing is hidden. Blagging for Jesus could be an Olympic sport in Christian ministry – but, I would love to live a year free of blagging – are you up for joining me? Are you up for challenging me if you think I am blagging it (whoa, did I mean to write that – I take it back!) – no, go on – please, keep me on my toes.
2. Obedience. This follows on from the prayerful lack of blagging. Jesus said to his disciples, ‘if you love me . . . You will do what I command’. (John 14 verses 15, 21 and 23). Love. It comes first. A sacrificial, self giving love – this isn’t a petulant request – ‘if you love me, you will do what I want’. This is all about Jesus being glorified in his followers. Love comes first, and this means obedience is not a duty or a chore or simply a requirement – but, a delight. For Jesus that was, ‘to do the will of the one who sent me’ (John 4 verse 34), get this though – Jesus says it is his ‘food’. It’s what sustains Him, gives Him strength and energy, it’s what gives Jesus LIFE – to be obedient to the Father. There is no greater love than the love Jesus has for those who he would call ‘friends’ (John 15:15) – wow, you and I – called friends of God. I’ve got to get better at this obeying stuff. Living in the presence of Jesus, with a prayerful open heart – I want to be ready to do and say what Jesus tells me to do and say in 2014. Not ‘expedient’ obedience or ‘what do people think’ obedience. But, you know – to just do what He says – through what has already been said through scripture AND by being obedient to the whisper of the Spirit. I don’t want to do what I did in the office – nod along to Jesus and the do my own thing (no one will notice!) I want 2014 to be a year of paying attention, ears pricked up and doing what God says! Come on me, get with it!!
3. Unity. This is the big one. I was pretty chuffed to see a book a few years ago about unity – until I realised it was about evangelical unity. It’s good, in different streams of the church to seek to be at ‘one’, but that still leaves us with a load of ‘ones’ – in some of our towns and cities there are more than one ‘Churches Together’ kind of groups. How is that possible, oneness over here (with people we agree with) and oneness over there (with people THEY agree with)? There is the church with its denominations, groupings, networks, branded churches (are you a ‘New Wine network open evangelical Baptist’?) which is the church we see – and then, there is the church that Jesus sees. We do not know what we are doing . . . I love what the Archbishop of Canterbury has said when asked about his ‘Churchmanship’ – he has called himself a ‘spiritual magpie’; if something is going to draw Him closer to Jesus the he is in! What a great attitude – I want that kind of attitude! Jesus modelled unity with 12 disciples (12 tribes of Israel) and if you look at them, a bunch that you would not have stuck together – zealots, tax collector, fishermen – a ragtag bunch, no agreements between this lot if left to their own devices! But, in Christ – one. We need to re-discover this kind of unity where only Christ matters; not how I worship or what denomination you come from, not whether you (or I) are cool, or the right age to hang about with – even in the church we can be ageist – about the young, about the old, about the missing generations. Let’s sort this out! I want to not NOTICE what Church you are from, I will only half here you this year if you are a liberal Anglo catholic evangelical with a bit of charismatic thrown in – we are one, we are co-heirs with Christ to an incredible inheritance (Romans 8:17) no mention here in this passage of the churchmanship involved! Together we can be so much more, and here is the clincher – by this shall all men know that you are my disciples – that you love one another. This kind of unity with the bond of peace between all believers, wrought by the Spirit is a witness issue – and this is the point of all of this. If we knew what we were doing, we would be one. One church, one Faith, one baptism, one Lord (Ephesians 4). Yes, of course different flavours – just like ice cream – but still, can’t we focus on the fact that we ARE all ‘ice cream’ rather than ‘I prefer a cone’ and ‘I only eat it from a bowl’, or, it has to be ‘Ben and Jerry’s’ . . .
Last thought, gosh this is long . . .
The grace of probation. I should have got the sack over the filing thing, I didn’t have a clue – I was just messing about and making loads of mistakes. Grace was given, with due regard for keeping me away from files! This grace thing is why there is hope for all of us. Knowing we are in need of daily grace, forgiveness and Gods loving mercy. After 28 years in Christian ministry – I am still on probation, still with the learner plates. Yet, I want to dig deep and ask God that in 2014 He might help me be more prayerful with less pretence and blagging; more obedient with less mindless nodding (and not really paying attention) and increase my desire for unity in the Church – Lord, starting with me.