To live differently and to do life, mission and ministry in another way will require us to not only pick up new things, but to stop doing some of the things we currently do.
How can we take on a new and different way of living when our hands, hearts and heads our full of the old ways?
When I used to read many of these Church leadership type books I would always underline passages like the one above, yet I came to realise that although I agreed with the sentiment, I did not actually know how to do it in practice in either my own life or my work context.
The Bishop of Bristol used to talk about “human beings having a status quo bias” in other words we instinctively pull towards what we know, what is comfortable and familiar, and how things have always been. There is an old adage: “if you always do, what you always have, you will get what you have always got”.
“The old is better” (Lk.5.39) is what Jesus warned us people would say (and believe me they do, people look back with a nostalgia even if it is vastly inaccurate, just look at the Israelites remembering slavery and slaughter fondly in Exodus 16!).
When Jesus taught about “New Wine and New Wine Skins” that is a picture I believe of the new thing God is doing being shoehorned into our old habits, structures and practices that cannot contain it, the old wineskins burst when filled with new wine (Mk.2.22).
This was true of my own personal spiritual life as well as with my work of trying to lead others in mission and the work and life of the Kingdom. My own personal prayer and devotional life struggled at times to cope with demands that a busy parish and life as a Vicar placed on it, and used to feel like I was feeding others whilst feeling really hungry inside myself.
The question is what to stop? I was really annoyed to discover upon my return to work after my paternity leave that a weekly prayer meeting had become a monthly one, and I understood “that people are busy”, but I do wonder if we stop things, do we stop doing the right things and continue with the wrong things. We need discernment to know what to stop and what to carry on with.
The BBC nearly stopped the comedy shows “Only Fools and Horses” and “Blackadder” after their first series, but fortunately someone had the vision to realise the potential that these had. We, like the BBC commissioners, need to have vision and discernment to realise what are the things we need to invest it, sustain and develop and what –like some of the last few episodes of Doctor Who in the 80’s- needs to be stopped for at least a season or two (sometimes, like with Doctor Who, to stop something means it can return in a new form with new life, rather than limping on in decline).
As I thought about stopping both in my life and as a minister I was drawn to the passage of Jesus parable of the fig tree that did not produce fruit (L.13.6-9), and the owner of the fig tree wanted to cut it down, but a worker asked for a year to prune it, to dig around and nourish its roots, and tend its life.
We, like that fig tree, need to tend our lives, investing in our foundations, removing our fruitless branches, and pruning that which bares fruit.
The picture works for our churches too, they need similar investment to produce fruit, indeed if they carry on being fruitless “why should it waste the soil”.
To be fruitful is worth it, just like “getting into shape” is worth it as human-beings but to get there often means pushing through the pain barrier of diet and exercise, and is easy to flop back on the sofa with a pizza!
I was thinking why I find/found stopping really hard when I was a Vicar in Bristol, and came up with three main reasons why I found it such a struggle!
-> Stopping is really hard, because much of parish life is literally jumping on what feels like a treadmill going at a fair old speed, and to try and do anything different to the established pattern takes a lot of effort and energy. It was a difficult lesson to learn that you cannot do it all, nor can you do it all well, and trying to do a marathon at a sprint is not sustainable in the long term, but like a treadmill if you “hit the ground running” the pressure is to keep running.
-> Stopping is really hard because by nature I am an activist, I find it hard not to be doing something, which is probably my greatest strength and also my greatest weakness; knowing oneself and ones character, our drivers –for me guilt and needing to be needed both can press my buttons- so sometimes going against the grain of our character, and choosing to do something that is not our “default position” is a challenge.
Yet having the space –and the bravery to allow the diary to breath- space to think, time to pray, read and study scripture was something that was really hard to do, in fact I always struggled and often failed, but how can we be strategic (or perhaps obedient is a better word?) with our time and the priorities of the Kingdom of God when everything else is bombarding us.
-> Stopping is really hard because other people have certain things they want you to do, and managing other peoples expectations can be tricky. Many things are cherished –even if they have ceased to be fruitful- they become part of the weeks routine, also in Church often there are issues of power and status tied up with things that happen, they have been part of their story and the story of the Church. With the mission work I was seeking to do in Kingswood, I discovered the root of much of my foolishness came from pursuing a (mainly) unachievable goal of trying to keep everyone happy at the same time. Part of this was trying to be kind and compassionate to people, but also, if I am honest I wanted to be liked, popular and affirmed with people thinking I was doing a good job and yet actually it was detrimental to my mental health and my family life.
In Kingswood we had a small church that was doing all e worship where often I was the youngest person in the building, I was told “if it is not broke don’t fix it” I realised people do not want to at times acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Pointing out elephants, is something that will make you really unpopular, it is easier to play along with the game of the “Emperors new clothes” (the Emperor did not actually have any clothes, but no one was brave enough to tell him he was stark naked!). Yet this is not the way of Jesus, nor the prophets of God in the Old Testament, who seem to prize truth above “hurting peoples feeling”, as living in a deception is neither kind nor of the Kingdom of God.
Yet, until my resignation from Vicaring in the institution of the Church of England, this is what I had spent most of my ordained life doing, trying to not burst wineskins that were not fit for purpose.
When Jesus sends out the 72 (Lk 10) he talks of “knocking the dust from our feet”, I was talking to a friend after a prayer meeting where no one had turned up, and I said: “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” to which my friend reply “if I were you Andy I’d get a new horse” –this conversation was the ‘nudge from the Holy Spirit’ I needed to set the wheels in motion to plant another Church in the most deprived area of the Parish, which is something that brought so much encouragement and life to me –and led to seeing people giving their hearts to Christ and coming to Baptism. It was painful, and some of the existing congregation were antagonistic both myself and the new congregation –and I felt really hurt by this. Yet I could have carried on putting on prayer meetings where no-one came to pray. Jesus spoke about “knocking the dust off our feet” (Matt.10.14) to the unresponsive towns and going where people will want to accept and welcome us, and the message we bring.
Shortly after this, I had an opportunity to drastically alter my Sunday commitments, as a year earlier a new parish, Hanham which adjoined our parish- had been added to them team with two more Churches, following some internal troubles, they needed someone to go down and help run the early morning breakfast service and the parade service. It meant drastically changing my Sunday commitments and was costly, and meant I no longer did much work in two of the five Churches. Yet in prioritising these services that were seeking to reach out to new people, and engage with people who wanted to go deeper in their faith, I felt less drained and more energised.
More than that, I had at that time a fantastic intern called Sam, who was brilliant, he had come to faith from a non-Christian background and felt the call to ordination. The breakfast Church “Holy Toast” in particular really caused him to thrive, and also it was a place where they really encouraged and affirmed his gifting which I sure helped him flourish (we all do better when we feel loved and appreciated). Sometimes, in making a hard-choices that causes us to have opposition, we have become catalysts of blessing for others.
To “keep going with what we are doing” because we want an “easy life” is actually quite a selfish thing to do, where as enduring unpopularity so that others may grow in Christ is the self sacrificing call of God’s Kingdom.
Also, within this parish there was a young guy called Regan, who had returned to faith in that Church, he began to come along when he had to stop work due to some visa problems (he was from Zimbabwe) and began to attend mid-week communion more out of boredom, but began to drift and said to one of the Church members (who was in the process of becoming a Vicar) that “he didn’t feel like coming along to Church anymore” to which she replied “I don’t think Jesus felt like dying for us on the cross, but he still did it”, and from that Regan never looked back.
Sharing Ministry with Sam and Regan really was one of the highlights of my time in Kingswood, both I believe are better preachers than I am, and one thing I used to enjoy was being able to sit back and receive what God was saying through them, rather than me having to always be the one preparing a sermon for each event. Yet, to my shame, it was not easy giving up doing the things I enjoyed to allow others to do the bits I thought I was good at (especially when they were better than me). Yet I discovered in stopping doing everything, it allows other people to have the opportunity to discover their gifting too, and now having moved on from Bristol I know that they are faithfully bringing good news to the people of this city that I deeply love.
A little while before both the Church plant and the move to work more in Hanham Sam and I had started doing a monthly worship event that became known as “Praise and Proclaim” which was something a previous Vicar had done and had stopped. For a while it was really fantastic, a chance for informal worship, an opportunity to go deeper in our preaching and gave room and space for testimonies and to use spiritual gifts and explore spiritual and charismatic renewal together. Yet when we started the Church plant we had this within our parish every week, and we could no longer sustain both services and numbers began to drop from Praise and Proclaim and rise for the Church plant, so we made the choice (for a while) to stop Praise and Proclaim, which was difficult as it had been such a source of blessing and encouragement.
So, as I pondered about the lessons I learned in Bristol, and I believe that even though I have left there is still much more Bristol still has to teach me, I would say learn what you need to stop. To learn to prune what you do and invest in the right things and people.
It is not exactly a “how too guide” as everyone is different, as is there context and community, but this is a bit of my story, my journey and the lessons I have learned and am still learning, as I learn to try and be faithful in living life following Jesus, doing it his way, not my way.