John Drane on leadership

Tuesday, 3 September, 2013

John Drane discusses leadership, two key skills for pioneers and what he believes the most important gift of the spirit for the 21st century is.

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John Drane: Pioneer leadership has always been part of the church's life, right from the very start. I mean the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament describes Jesus himself as the 'pioneer and perfecter of our faith' so the concept of pioneer is there right embedded in our beliefs about Jesus, our Christology, but then the earliest apostles were all pioneers in the sense that they went into unknown circumstances and contextualised the gospel message in those different situations.

I think one of the key passages for me, in terms of models from the New Testament for this would be the story of Philip with the Ethiopian in the desert where Philip meets this person in the context which was, he was riding home in his chariot reading the Hebrew scriptures and Philip hops up alongside him and asks the question, 'So, do you understand what you're reading?' And that question I think is absolutely central to any pioneer ministry; identifying what it is that people are reading and, of course, they might not literally be reading it off a page. They might be watching movies, they might be having other kinds of cultural experiences. Where is it you're getting your values, your key parameters for living your life from? Do you understand what's going on? Do you want to get your head round it? So, knowing how to ask those questions is typically not something that we've trained traditional clergy, or indeed lay leaders, to be able to ask. And I think pioneer training therefore and pioneer leaders who can understand that God is at work in the culture, that this is God's world therefore God must be at work in the world and asking that question, 'Where is God at work? What does it mean for me and other Christians to get alongside what God is doing?' is absolutely central to our evangelistic task at this point in time.

I think there's always a temptation, especially in the Western world as our culture has developed, to think that experts know all the answers to all the questions. Quite often, it's the case that people who've been specially trained – whether that be in industry or politics or wherever it might happen to be – can see things that other people can't see. And it's certainly true that training gives us tools which we might not otherwise have. On the other hand, sometimes, pioneers who have gone through pioneer training in many different fields of life simply see the theory and don't know how to live the practice. And indigenous leaders can be people who are coming up from the grassroots I think who understand where the culture is because they're living it and they experience it and they know the right questions to ask. So, for me, it's about bringing the experts in partnership with, in conversation with, people who are living it and seeing what happens in that creative fusion as minds come together. So, for me it would never be an 'either/or', do we parachute in experts from somewhere else or do we encourage indigenous leaders. It's about 'both/and' – and I think we both have something to learn from one another.

There's a real challenge in working out what theologically appropriate training might look like in this pioneering situation. One the one hand we've got 2,000 years of Christian history behind us, and understanding where we've come from and how that might work and what it means to be truly continuous with the tradition of those who have gone before us, is absolutely central to being a Christian leader. We need to understand the village we've come from in order to see the road that we're going to take to the next village – as an old Chinese proverb puts it.

So, understanding that history and heritage, ie traditional theological education, is clearly part of the picture. On the other hand, we can't live in the past and indeed the gospel calls us not to live in the past but to live in the present and to dream God's future. So the question then becomes one of logistics, how do you squeeze a lot of new things into a timetable for ordination training for example that's already well filled with – well, what we've been doing for at least the last 100 years anyway. We need creative discussions to work out what might change. I think what might need to change would be the kind of questions that we bring to the tradition so, for me, it wouldn't be about diluting the amount of Bible we do for example or the amount of church history we do because those who don't understand their past are consigned to repeat the mistakes of it so we need to ask what are the appropriate questions now to bring to, for example, the Bible? And increasingly I come to the conclusion that the most important questions are not necessarily the historical, exegetical, literary kinds of questions – the technical questions if you like that have dominated academic biblical studies for the last 150 years but questions about mission, questions about pioneering, questions about how people work. I can give you an example. 

Quite a few years now ago I started reading the gospels with this question in mind, not the questions typically asked of 'OK so how do the three synoptic gospels hang together? Who copied whom?' All that sort of thing which I find, personally, very fascinating – as a historical exercise – but I started reading the gospels asking a different question, 'OK, so what's going on here when Jesus meets people? What's the dynamic of his personal relationships? How did people relate to Jesus? What kind of person was he?' And I think, for me, that was both an eye-opener but also an inspiration as I've thought through 'What does pioneering mission actually look like?' And I think some of our best models of how to use the New Testament, just to give that example, occur when we ask new questions that actually wouldn't have occurred to people of a previous generation.

Two key skills for pioneers are, first of all, the willingness and ability to listen to the culture because actually the questions are all out there but quite often they're not expressed in terminology or ways that we imagine would be the right way to ask questions about God or about purpose or identity and life. So we need to listen to the culture first of all and spend serious time listening and by that I don't mean just reading philosophical books about the culture. Everybody and his dog claims to know what post-modernity is, in the church at least. But actually thinking you know you understand what post-modernity is doesn't tell you a great deal about what makes people tick in today's world. We need to listen to our context. This isn't rocket science. If we want to communicate with people who are around us we need to listen to what they're saying; we need to learn their language to understand what the issues are. But once having done that we need also to have a sense of discernment I think.

If I was to identify what I think is the most important gift of the Spirit for the 21st century there's no question about it, that discernment would be at the top of my list. Discerning where God is at work in the culture, discerning what is the appropriate way to connect with the culture, discerning who this person is or persons with whom I'm engaged at this point in time and it might sound sort of pietistic and over-spiritualised but in the end of the day, I think our missional communication and our effectiveness as Christians is a reflection on our own personal spirituality; that if we've lost touch with our own faith and our own spiritual disciplines; our own connectivity with Christ then we face a big question which is something like, 'Well, what do we have to share with other people?' Why should other people take us seriously if we are unable to – well Jesus talks about the good teacher bringing forth things old and new out of the treasure house and, having things in the treasure house, is at least as important as having the skills to bring them out at the right time and place. So, listening and discernment I think for me would be the two skills that we need to have and I do believe both of them can be learned – and therefore taught.

I think one of the challenges of leadership is that you can end up somewhat isolated from the people whom you're leading and I think that happens at a variety of levels – denominational leaders can become so embedded and bogged down, and so on, by systems and just needing to keep the show on the road that we forget the nitty gritty of what it actually looks like out there in the field.  And I think using terminology like shadowing other people, spending time with them – not just on special visits which are very easy to do and create artificial kind of environments but spending a day to see what a typical day is actually like in the life of a pioneer would be very, very useful.

I think pioneers themselves of course need to be apprenticed and mentored in situations which are going to enhance their pioneering spirit and the reality is that this is one of the big challenges in theological education for pioneering today because if we send pioneers in training to what are effectively dysfunctional churches for their experience of church life or indeed of missional life then we're going to end up with a lot of frustrated people. There are not that many pioneering situations that we can actually send people to to be mentored and apprenticed today but we really need to give our attention to that. And then also in order to enhance the learning experience, there's something about helping people to unpack the experience and reflect on it and where they're going and how they might do things differently.

Notice that I said how they might do things differently, not doing them better because doing them better depends on a whole set of circumstances and different environments and contextualised learning experiences. So, what might be better in one situation might be wholly inappropriate in another but learning from each other and having the different bits of the church connected in such a way that we actually truly understand what other people are going through, the struggles they have, the opportunities they have and to share their excitements and joys because this isn't all uphill struggle and hard work. Well, maybe it is hard work but it's not necessarily uphill struggle is really something that we should be celebrating together. One of the biggest challenges as I see within the next few years is people who have traditional ministries understanding what pioneer ministers are about and pioneers understanding, for their part, how traditional ministries are actually reaching in many cases traditional people. This is the story of the mixed economy effectively. How can we learn from each other without suggesting that tradition is a bad thing or pioneering is on the wrong tracks when actually we need all the resources of God's people that we can muster in order to begin to touch many different aspects of our culture and society.


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