Thursday, January 24, 2008

From Surviving to Thriving 2: Accountability

A week or so later than planned, here's part 2 of 'From Surviving to Thriving', part 1 is here.

As a Christian, and a leader, it's very easy to end up treading water. A recent Willow Creek CD focused on the fact that if a leader isn't growing, it's very likely his/her organisation isn't growing too. Some churches even have a small committee whose sole task is to make sure the leader is developing and growing. My guess is they're mostly large American ones!

How do we move from surviving to thriving? How do we stop treading water and start making waves (to use a slightly corny illustration!)? 4 things:
- Time out
- Accountability
- Spiritual disciplines
- Learning

Currently all the rage in business, youth work, etc., under the title of mentoring, Crocodile Dundee's famous observation about US society is relevant here. On hearing that lots of people went to talk to psychiatrists about their problems, he remarked 'why's that? Haven't they got any mates?' Mentoring in schools is often a substitute for the absence of a father or responsible parent.

One problem of leadership is that it's lonely. It's easy to end up with lot of acquaintances, but not many friends, especially if you're regularly moving post. Our Christmas card list is getting on for 150 now, and we divide it into sections, according to the 3-5 years we've spent in different places: Shepton Mallet, Nottingham, Yeovil, Darlington etc.

The trouble with this is that not many people know you well, there can be folk who know the public face, but don't know if this is the real you, or a persona. Here's a helpful little grid:

1. What we know & what others know = public
2. What we know & what others don't know - secrets
3. What we don't know & others do know - blind spots
4. What we don't know & others don't know - mysteries

1: there are things known to both us and to others. These are public facts. Ideally, what's in this line should be as much of us as possible.

2: we know plenty about ourselves that others don't know. These things only become public by disclosure - i.e. if we choose to make them known. It's a bad thing for a leader, a Christian, in fact anyone, to have the majority of their life hidden below the waterline. Particularly for extrovert personalities, who work out what they feel and think by talking about things, we need to stay in the habit of letting trusted friends know what's going on inside us. There are too many casualties of people who tried to handle a secret on their own - sexual, financial or power temptations - and failed. If there aren't friendships where these things can be talked about or given attention, a mentor is a good idea. I have a spiritual director - after about 12 years of being encouraged to do so - and to have a couple of hours every 3 months where the quality of my prayer life and walk with God is the sole topic of conversation forces me to be honest about what's going on, and gives the chance to hold that part of me up to the light and see it for what it is.

Writer and speaker John Powell talks about 5 levels of communication: pleasantries, facts, opinions, emotions, and 'gut level'. Level 1 (pleasantries) is the easiest and least demanding, but it's only at levels 4 and 5 where we are really challenged to be self-aware, honest and transparent. Unless we hit these levels of communication with someone, a gap opens up between who we are on the outside, and who we are on the inside. This is, literally, dis-integration. Integrity is about being the same person in private as in public, who you are when no-one is looking. If we get out of practice of disclosure about ourselves to trusted people - lovers, friends, mentors - then we create a dangerous distance within ourselves.

3. There are things about us that others can see and we can't. Blind spots. The only way we will come to see many of these things is by feedback - letting other people speak honestly to us. Not many of us are good at this: we brush off praise and take criticism personally. But it's vital to development: if I'm to become a better husband, father, preacher, or blogger, I need to know where I'm going wrong. I'll work some of that out for myself, but someone else can usually see things much more clearly than I can. So feedback is essential. Again, a mentor can point out things that they see in us which raise questions for them.

The 'huddle' system at St. Thomas's in Sheffield does this in a structured way with small group leaders - there are set questions which groups of leaders use to help each other be accountable. A good resource for this is John Mallinson's book 'Mentoring', which has some searching questions in the appendix for use either alone or with others. In a way this is not that different from Wesleys old class system - a group of Christians getting together for the main purpose of encouraging each other as disciples. From Jesus onwards, the standard mode of Christian discipleship has been community, because it's in community that other people can see who we really are, and help us to face it, and encourage us to grow.

4. There are some things that neither we nor our mates will catch on to. Only God can see them, and we rely on God to point them out by revelation. Which is where this topic links to the last topic - it's Time Out to pray, listen and be with God where these things come to light. It also links to topic 4: study - God often speaks through the stuff we're reading and wrestling with, and it's in that process that truth comes through. Study is a way of putting ourselves in the place where God can speak to us.

Some of the mentoring literature talks about a 'constellation' of mentors - people to mentor you in all the different aspects of life (a coach for skills, a teacher for knowledge, a spiritual guide for prayer and discipleship etc.). I'm not sure we need all of these if we've got friends and Christian community to do it for us, but maybe the emergence of mentors is symptomatic of the fact that geniune, well-functioning Christian community is scarce.

Where it is worth having structured relationships is in areas where we've dedicated ourselves to growth, or where we know we're out of our depth. So, to illustrate, I have:
- a spiritual director, to help me focus on prayer and my walk with God
- a mentor for the work I'm doing as a missioner, since I've never done this kind of thing before, there is so much to learn, and having someone with more experience who I can take things to every 3 months is a great safety net.
- a prayer partner (fairly recent): to regularly talk over what's going on and pray with each other.
- a group which oversees my work and meets every few months to help me sort out priorities. (I've also used a work consultant - provided free by the Diocese, yippee! - on a couple of
occasions to help work out my work priorities. I'd recommend this to any leader)
- food and coffee with fellow leaders and other people I respect, just to chew the fat. It's also a great chance to explore the legendary Somerset pub food.
- books: bluntly put, we can be mentored and inspired by dead people. Simon Peter, George Whitefield, Winston Churchill, St Antony of Egypt - anyone who's in print by their own hand or someone elses can become part of our 'great crowd of witnesses' who inspire us and keep us going.

This sounds like a lot, but in reality (apart from the prayer partner) it's roughly 1 meeting every month or so, and on top of the practical help and wisdom I get from it all, there's a deep sense of reassurance from knowing that this 'scaffolding' is in place.

Spiritual disciplines next week, just in time for Lent!

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