Postcards from the UK: St Mellitus College and the London Anglicans

Having completed the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community (which you can read about in my earlier postcards), I’ve moved to London for a few days meeting with interesting church leaders in a variety of settings.  The emphasis has shifted a little away from FX to other areas of interest for the Synod of Queensland.

Checking in at St Mellitus College

I swung by St Mellitus College today, and joined the student body for their regular Monday morning worship before sitting down with Russell Winfield, the International Development Officer for the college.

Now 10 years old, St Mellitus is a theological college launched from the well known Holy Trinity Brompton church. While it now operates largely independently of HTB now, it does still retain close links.  The story of St Mellitus has been one of rapid growth, from its initial year with just a handful of students, to now over 650 students spread across four campuses around England.  I’m led to believe it’s comfortably the largest of the Church of England’s theological colleges, and draws students from 35 (of the 41) dioceses in the country.

Those are the numbers.  Beyond that, the range of courses offered (both post-grad and undergrad, along with non-accredited “lay” training) are typical, including a pioneering stream common to many UK colleges these days.

The mood in the room, at least on the day I visited, was buzzing. Something like 2-300 students gathered (as they do each Monday) to start the college’s teaching day with worship (part of St Mellitus model is that all teaching happens on the same day – leaving students to do private study other days, and to be in field placements for 3 days per week). The worship is student led, so it various in style and format from week to week, and on the day of my visit it had a solidly contemporary/evangelical flavour.  There was a buzz in the room, of anticipation, of chatting and catching up, of preparation for the day in what looked a relatively young student cohort.  It was an altogether lovely and encouraging way to start the week.

One story told during worship stuck with me. The leader was sharing an experience in which she with a group of friends had rented a house to live in an economically depressed area, with the intention of investing in the community there. They came to be known as “the church house”, with neighbours welcome anytime, the community supported, and people knowing it was a place they could always turn for help.  Even “non-church” people in the community appreciated their presence and pitched in to help from time to time. It struck me that perhaps this is the core purpose of church, and that just about every neighbourhood could do with “a church house” like this one. No, it’s not rocket science, but I appreciated the reminder.

St Mellitus College is located in an old cathedral style church called St Judes.  The church building was turned over to the college in a pretty poor state, and with very little use from a pretty small congregation.  The venue itself has been remarkably transformed – with the heritage of the building honoured (to my eyes at least), but an unapologetically contemporary flavour with smart, well planned additions to the building to enable it to serve both its original purpose, and its new place in the world.  It strikes me that this is something of a metaphor for what St Mellitus are attempting to do – to honour their heritage while building a new church entirely.  In a country expecting a huge number of clergy to retire in the next 10 years, and in which the church is in decline, St Mellitus is one way the church of England is addressing that challenge.

The college’s philosophy includes study that is grounded in prayer and worship, and that is intricately entwined with the real world – where students are at the college building only one day a week (plus occasional residential intensives), but out in real-world field placements the rest of the time.

Time will tell, of course, how successful St Mellitus will be. They seem to have their feet firmly grounded, and when I asked about evidence and outcomes, Russell was pretty clear that at only ten years of age, it’s hard to be sure.  His view was that I should ask the question again in 40 years’ time to see if the initial growth, and early anecdotal evidence is supported by long term value for the church.  I was glad to visit St Mellitus, and encouraged by what they’re up to.

 

London Anglicans Planting 100 New Churches?

After St Mellitus I headed over to visit the HQ of London Anglican Diocese church planting team.

Formed as part of the Diocese’ vision for it’s future agreed to in 2013 (under the banner Capital Vision 2020), the team is at the centre of an intent to plant or significantly renew 100 churches within the diocese by 2020.  Even in a Diocese the numeric size of London (500+ churches) this is a seriously ambitious goal, and a fair chunk of the time I had to visit was spent exploring how they’re going about the task.

I would start by observing that they’re well organised, and they’re clear and unashamed about the target.  There are a bunch of other elements to the Vision (to do with leadership development, faith sharing, doubling the number of young people engaged and so on) and all seem equally ambitious.  Have a quick look here at the elements of their vision.

Part of the strategy is to create and recognise what they describe as City Centre Resource Churches – the kind of larger churches that will be actively planting new churches (coincidentally a very similar description to one we’ve been starting to use in conversation at Queensland Synod this year).  Other elements include fresh expressions (as an aside, this wasn’t the first or last time I heard fresh expressions talked of as part of a wider church planting strategy while I’ve been here…sometimes I think we separate the two…), training church planting teams, work on local government estates, revitalising struggling churches, partnering with area Bishops and one fascinating story about a purpose built boat that will be moored on the river adjacent to an urban renewal project that doesn’t have room for a church building, and from which the church will operate.

4 years into the project, and there have been just under 50 new or significantly revitalised churches launched. With 3 years to go, there is a sense of confidence that they’re on track.  Interesting when the conversation turned to ‘failure’ rates, the statement came back that there had been a close to zero failure rates (I think it was actually zero, but my notes and memory have let me down on this…so I’ll say “close to zero” to be safe), and that this was a minor cause for concern…because it might mean that the church hasn’t taken enough risks.  I found that a pretty refreshing attitude for an organisation as structured and generally careful as I assume the Church of England to be.

Development for church planting teams included bespoke training, coaching, financial support (at one of three established ‘levels’) and assistance with matters such as strategy, financials, personal leadership, structures, buildings and so on.

Additionally, the team have been operating what I heard described as a “Church Growth Learning Community” – a community of leaders from congregations who are committed to growing, and who meet together regularly over two years to explore strategies to do so.

It’s not all sweetness and light of course, and when learning from an experience like this we have to take seriously the differences in both context (the UK is still quite different from Australia in terms of the place of the Church…particularly so for the Church of England…in broader society) and the capacity to deploy significant resources (people and otherwise) in support of agreed strategies.

Still, I saw a church willing to set very clear goals, a church quite committed to learning again how to proclaim the gospel in a way suited to their context, and a church willing to make decisions and bring its people and resources to bear on the challenges of our day.

I walked out with a little smile on my face, pleased for the Diocese of London that they’re on the path they’re on.

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on leadership…again

If you’ve hung around here for a while you might recall that this is far from the first time I’ve posted about leadership. This time though, I’m not writing, but talking. And sadly for you all, it’s on video! 😉

Recently I sat down with Ben Rogers, editor of Journey magazine to record a chat about leadership – and specifically about Christian leadership.  Below is the video of our chat, and here’s the article that precipitated the conversation.  And, if you’re a glutton for punishment, here’s some more of my potentially baseless musings on leadership.

Your comments are welcome.

workshop description: the art gallery

I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with ministers and leaders of Uniting Churches in a Queensland city in recent months as they work together to try and figure out what the future looks like.

It’s been enjoyable to be a small part of what is a gentle process of sharing stories, getting to know one another, and slowly activating an imagination about a shared future.

Last night was the next step in the process, and a fun way of encouraging imagination, creativity and building something together.  We had about 35 present for an evening event we dubbed “The Art Gallery”. Read on for a description of what was a fun, creative and imaginative night of resourcing leadership. Continue reading

the pothole

The pothole (the geological kind, not the road traffic kind) is, I think, an interesting phenomenon.

A little pebble gets caught in a crack or depression, swirls around and gradually, bit-by-bit, grinds away the underlying rock. It digs deeper and deeper, over hundreds, thousands, even millions of years.

I quite like potholes because they remind me that with persistence and time, even a little gravel can make big changes.

But the metaphor works the other way too…that over such a long period, a little pebble can do a lot of damage.

I’m starting to wonder more and more if there’s a sad, disturbing kind of pothole forming in in our (western, mainstream, Australian) culture. Here’s a couple of symptoms:

The vast majority of climate scientists are very clear about anthropogenic climate change. We are heating up our planet with our insatiable desire for burning fossil fuels, and we will pay a heavy price. More frequent, more intense weather events, rising sea levels, loss of habitat and flora/fauna, people dying. Those that are best placed to know, appear relatively certain that this is all true.  Almost every counter-argument has been demonstrated to be false.  And yet we stand on our right to hold our own opinion, be held hostage by big business and declare “climate change is crap” because “I know a guy who said….”

Immunisation rates are falling, with the result that herd immunity against long-ago contained diseases is now at risk in parts of Australia.  Medical experts (those that are best placed to know) are clear about the value of immunisation, and the tiny risks involved in it. And yet we stand on our right to hold our own opinion, to deny our own children (and other children) this safety net.

Politicians are almost universally disliked and regarded as untrustworthy.  For non-believers the same is true for religious leaders. And probably a long list of others.  We who sit at home and google conspiracy theories feel quite justified in declaring that we know better than those best placed to know…about nearly any topic we care to name.

I personally am the “World’s Expert” (TM) on medicine, climate science, national leadership, international relations, economics, search and rescue for lost aircraft,  Formula 1 Team Management, Australian Cricket team selection, NRL refereeing standards…and plenty more.

And so I make  up my own mind, irrespective of the views of those who are best placed to know.

I’m not (really) interested in debating the pros and cons of climate science, religion or immunisation, but I am wondering whether these things are symptoms (rather than causes) of a bigger issue:

The erosion of trust.

As a society I can’t help but wonder if we are becoming a place in which trust is an ever decreasing commodity.  With the rise of the individual and of self-determination, comes a first subtle, but now accelerating erosion of trust.

I don’t trust politicians, I don’t trust the media, I don’t trust scientists, I don’t trust religious leaders…on and on it goes. I don’t trust my neighbours enough to let my kids walk to school alone.

And sure, let’s be fair and honest, some of those whom we no longer trust bring it on themselves (I’m looking at you Australian politics), but just as often it’s because I get an idea in my head that I know better.

I know better than the climate scientist, the immunologist, the referee, the footy selector.

And so the next time we disagree, I’ll trust them a little less.  And a little less. And a little less.

Until there’s just not a whole lot of trust left.

Mis-trust might just be the pebble that is digging away at the bedrock, forming a deeper and deeper pothole.

And trust, it seems to me, is one of those things that is self-fulfilling.  If I exhibit trust, then those I trust are more likely to act in a a trustworthy way, and so I’ll trust them more (and so on).  Could the reverse, I wonder, also be true?

If my pondering has any merit (and lets be frank, as I’ve already announced, I’m the World’s Expert (TM), so it must) the question must be, what to do about it? How to remove the pebble of mistrust and start to repair the damage?

Is the answer to try harder to trust the people around me? The people who are best placed to know? To explicitly put my trust in them and demand trustworthy action?

Perhaps.

But just as important, it seems to me, the answer is for me to act in a trustworthy manner myself – to build the pool of communal trust that is going around, by ensuring that my family, my friends, my colleagues, those I support in my daily work, my neighbours (those I encounter as I live my life)…they can trust me.

To trust, and be trusted.

Sounds like community.

(p.s. just so we’re really clear…the “World’s Expert” (TM) claim is an attempt at humour…)

 

leadership #3: following the leader

Over the last couple of weeks in our leadership class, we’ve been mainly focused on two questions of leadership:

  • What is leadership?
  • Who leads?

Those conversations took us in some interesting directions, but today we found an entirely different tangent to pursue.

Today we talked about followers.

Today we wondered if leadership is actually something that is offered by erstwhile leaders at all, or rather whether it’s something that is sought, recognised, and even bestowed by a group of followers.

We talked about the little known notion of ‘followership’.

When all the attention in our talk about the future is on seeking a higher quality of leadership, finding new leadership theories, developing the leaders within our community, or bringing in wildly brilliant leaders from outside….the theory of followership suggests that we perhaps ought to be focusing our attention elsewhere.

The success of any enterprise, or organisation is largely attributable to the quality of the followers, the community of people who identify as “we” and who collectively seek after common goals. The leader might help to organise and equip, and even to recognise the vision and purpose that is hidden within the group of followers….but it’s the followers that matter most.

Or so my understanding of the theory goes.

And to be truthful, it kind of rings true. It’s hard to be a great leader on your own. In fact there’s no leadership in action at all if its not recognised as such by a group of followers.

Somehow in our world, we’ve managed to bestow negative connotations on the word follower. Say it out loud. Let it roll off your tongue. Follower. It’s hard to say without thinking of sheep, of uncritical, unthinking flock. Followers bad. Leaders good.

The truth could hardly be more different. And as a Christian, I should know that. Jesus didn’t ask us to be unthinking, uncritical, automatons. Sheep-like followers.

Jesus did call us to follow, but in a sense to follow with the best of who we are. To bring all our giftedness, all our talent, all our capacity to reason, to think, to analyse, to critique and to act. To join with God’s purposes for the world with all that we are.

In that light the famous question “what would Jesus do?” is the wrong question. It could be construed as the question of a sheep-like follower. Perhaps the better question (though a little less sexy and not quite as neat) is to say “as one called to bring all I have to follow Jesus, what should I do?”

I’m patenting that and having bracelets made up. “AOCTBAIHTFJWSID”. They’re going to be big sellers.

The question of course, for those thinking about what leadership means, is what to do with this notion of followership. I think there are a few clues, a few places to start:

1. Recognise that within the group or community there is an astonishing capacity, a broad range of gifts and skills, and the potential to transform the world (or at least that part of it to which we have access).

2. Recognise that within the group or community there is (either overtly or tucked away) a vision – a sense of who we want to be, what we want to achieve, how we want our (collective) life to feel and look.

3. The task of the leader is to recognise what’s there and help give expression to it, to sharpen it, to identify as one with the community, to want and work for the community at its very, very best – and to find ways of organising, resourcing and encouraging to release that best within it.

4. The task of the leader is to love followers. Love them.

Maybe it’s time to reclaim the word followers. Followers rock. Followers are the future. Followers (and I’m not even joking a little bit) will save the world.

NB: This is the third in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College

“who wants to be awesome?”

IMAG1540 smallI was reminded recently of a great story about my son.

We had a bunch of family friends over at our house one afternoon, and the kids were all playing up a storm – inside where the toys are. Mitchell was about 4 years old at the time, and desperate to get his friends to go outside to play.

The way I remember it, he tried everything:

“Who wants to go play on the trampoline?”

“Who wants to go on the swings?”

“Who wants to play cricket?”

“Who wants to play footy?”

And nothing worked. I don’t remember what game the kids were playing, but it must have been good because they weren’t budging.

Mitch went away a little sad, but determined to figure out how to get his mates to play outside. A few minutes later he burst into the room, all excited in the way only a four year old can be and called out over the din:

“Who wants to be AWESOME?”

Naturally all the four-year old hands shot up and the kids vanished outside in the blink of an eye, following Mitch into a state of awesomeness (and thankfully leaving behind blissful silence!).

It’s a priceless family story, and one I look forward to telling at his 21st (yep, I’m that kind of dad, gathering ammunition ideas already), but what it’s got me to be thinking about this week is whether in life we ask the right questions.

Try as he might, those initial questions just didn’t have the desired effect, but as soon as he stumbled on the right question, the response was instantaneous:

“Who wants to be AWESOME?”

It’s a little like the oft-quoted phrase of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who is said to have written:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

In so much of our world today, I think we make the mistake of organising wood gathering, ship building plans, work orders, inviting people to jump on the trampoline or play soccer.  It’s there in our political environment, our media, and even our churches when we go all missional and try to invite people to contemplate the place of God in their lives.  I think maybe we ask the wrong questions.

Leadership has to be about asking the right question, building the right yearning, the right atmosphere and vision.

It has to be about teaching people to yearn for the sea.

In the language of a four year old, it has to be about asking “who wants to be awesome?”

just around the corner

I parked yesterday in a suburban street in West Launceston.

It could have been anywhere. Houses, footpaths, cars. Kids playing. People walking. A school at the top of the hill, a shop down the road.

It was so very normal. Suburbia.

And then I walked.

After two minutes I was in ‘First Basin’ where the South Esk River comes spilling out of the upper sections of Cataract Gorge, into a large open pool, before continuing down the Gorge to the waiting arms of the Tamar estuary. The water is surrounded by cliffs and hills, parkland and bushland, a 300m chairlift carrying excited school kids overhead. Peacocks fussing and preening.

It’s anything but suburbia.

And I walked again, following a trail upstream toward the delightfully named Duck Reach.

Not 10 minutes from setting out on foot from my car parked in the heartland of the suburbs I was a world away.  The remnant of last week’s floodwaters tumbled down the rocky riverbed. The steep sides of the gorge deep with forest, the atmosphere still and heavy – the river and an occasional bird’s call the only sounds beyond my own footsteps.

It is a beautiful place, and all the more remarkable for being so close to the heart of the city.

At one moment I was in the normalcy of suburbia, and minutes later deep in tbe beauty of the gorge.  It never ceases to amaze me that such a remarkable spot can be so close to ordinary life, literally just around the corner.

As I walked I thought a lot about that fact. I wondered how often we who are caught up in the ordinariness of daily life miss the spectacular, the remarkable, the astonishing that is just around the corner.

And I wondered about the church that I work among, so obsessed with worrying about our daily bread that we miss all the opportunities that lie just out of sight.

It seems an obvious connection. Lift our eyes from suburbia to find the remarkable that is literally on our doorstep.

But as I trod the riverside path on my way back home, something started to stir for me.  I had parked my car in the middle of everything that I know, and gone off to find something better.

And how often, I wondered, is that the case?  How often do we give up on all that is normal and around us to go searching for the something remarkable?  How often do we leave suburbia to go hunting for Cataract Gorge?

The closer I got to my car the more I realised that suburbia is anything but ordinary.  This is where I live. There are friends and family, there are stresses and tension, there is laughter of kids playing in the front yard, heartache as an amublance races to the scene of a domestic tragedy.

This, suburbia, is life. It’s not ordinary, it’s incredible.  When I go looking for the amazing that I’m convinced is just around the corner I think perhaps I miss the remarkable that surrounds me right where I am.

The grass is always greener, or so we say.  The salvation of my church, the restoration of my soul, the reclaiming of my world as a better place….these things are perpetually just around the corner.

Except they are not. They are right before my very eyes. They are my neighbours, my family, the shop at the end of my street.  The best stuff isn’t around the corner, its right here.

Perhaps I’d best start just here.