People gatherers

Feeding the 5000 by Eularia Clarke

Some people are just good at gathering people together. They call on people and the people come. This seems to be what leaders can do – or, rather, are those people who can gather us together our leaders? People gatherers have an attraction and an authority. Whether we call a meeting or throw a party, we are acting as people with authority, people able to call on others. Most people can grow that authority, usually by the attractive way that they gather people. Conversely, we have all been in gatherings which have been so carelessly organised that we have said “never again”. There’s usually a reason why “nobody came”.

Neighbours Table tells the story of a people gatherer. In an interview with Tammy Helfrich (available as podcast), Sarah Harmeyer talks about her recent life as a “people gatherer”. She adopts a word for the year. Word of the Year 2011 was “community” which brought a vision for inviting 500 people to her table during the year. At the point of the interview, she is nearing 1500 for the 3 year period on a budget of $75 per month. She started with an invitation to a “pot luck” delivered to her neighbours. Her father made a table to seat 20 – 91 came. She suggests that people are waiting to be invited, that whole neighbourhoods are waiting for such catalysts for change, for people to step forward.

Her “manners” can guide us all. “Plan ahead to be present with people”, develop a culture of mutual respect, interest and listening, introduce people to one another by saying what you love about them – all that makes for a good time gathering. So, pause for thought. Why do we call people together? Are they just instruments to our ambition, pawns in our little games? Are we prepared for them? What is our interest in their offering? Do we know them? Do we love them?

There is always a reason why “people come flocking”.

PS People gatherers are the image of God who gathers people like a shepherd, making of them a nation and a church. Eularia Clarke’s picture of the feeding of the 5000 is a celebration of God as “people-gatherer”, recalling the feeding of the multitude. The painting is part of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, © TMCP, and is used with their permission.

In the beginning you weep

In the beginning you weep. The starting point for many things is grief, at the place where endings seem so absolute. One would think it should be otherwise but the pain … Is antecedent to every new opening in our lives.

Belden Lane in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes

David Runcorn uses this quote to introduce the “unexpected starting place” of leadership in 1 and 2 Samuel in Fear and Trust. There patriarchy, represented by Hannah’s husband Elkanah and Eli, the priest at Shiloh. Patriarchal leadership had produced a very barren spiritual landscape. The unexpected starting place is a childless woman who Eli thought was a drunk.

Visions, leaders and ants – feeling my way

If army ants are wandering around and they get lost, they start to follow a simple rule: Just do what the ant in front of you does. The ants eventually end up in a circle. There’s this famous example of one that was 1,200 feet long and lasted for two days; the ants just kept marching around and around in a circle until they died.

James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds

We learn a lot from ants. “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise.”  (Proverbs 6:6). The death mill of the ants remind us of another biblical truth, that “where there is no vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18). Helen Keller remarked that “the most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision.”

The lesson we learn from the ants is that blindly following our leader is no guarantee of better times. We might just be going round in circles. The person in front of us might not have a clue where we are heading. Call him/her a leader? I don’t think so. But in bad times we will look round for the people we think can get us out of the mess. We will not always search out the same person. Someone who can get us through a forest of emotions may not be the same person to get us through deep water.

We talk about vision in leadership as if there is only one vision to be had, and as if there is only one person to have it. But we don’t have a single vision, we have visions. Some of those visions are immediately relevant, but other visions will only be useful once we have got over the hill we are currently climbing, for which we are depending on someone else who can help pace our climb and who can help us envisage cresting the hill. A community will thrive on the visions of its visionaries, not on the vision or hallucinations of its appointed leader.

Intelligent living means picking up information from the data around us. Where have you been? What have you seen? What have you found? Why do we see what we see? Why do we see it that way? These questions of curiosity shape what we see into something wiser. Vision is 360 degrees, and arises from looking all around us. My own work is supporting ministers in their parish ministries. Looking all around is so important for them if they are to be numbered among the visionaries (and leaders) of their communities. They have to look behind them to be aware of how they have arrived at their current position and to appreciate the journeys made by the people who make up their communities. They have to look round them to listen to the visions of those around them and the longings they represent. And they have to look forward with all these horizons in their mind’s eye to try to discern their foci.

David Runcorn underlines the importance of looking backwards in a sermon he preached at Lee Abbey. He comments that the best pastoral counsellors have learned to be “careful historians”.  We all live in and from our history and none of us can leave our past behind. He said: “The need for understanding and healing of memories; to be reconciled to people, events and hurts there, remains one of the most commonly expressed needs. It is also vividly illustrated through the experience of asylum seekers and victims of abuse or torture in our time. Before they can embrace any kind of new life they must find a way of recovering their past from the horrors they have endured. What is not remembered cannot be healed.”

There are many histories, longings and visions in a community. Vision needs to be celebrated as a complex process. It should not be reduced to a leadership task but should be allowed to develop as the height of intelligence.

What we learn from the ants is the importance of independence. According to Surowiecki “independent individuals are more likely to have new information rather than the same old data everyone is familiar with. The smartest groups are made up of people with diverse perspectives who are able to stay independent of each other. Independence doesn’t imply rationality or impartiality, though. You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you’re independent, you don’t make the group any dumber.”

Oppressed communities have leaders and views imposed on them, but when we are free we are able to choose the leaders who will help us. Those choices aren’t based on position and status. Instead we turn to those who have deep knowledge and understanding of where we are. They are our wise guides. In their hands we feel safe. They will help us find our way.

Secrets hidden in plain sight: accounts to treasure in the heart


If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.  Marc Chagall, who created the stained glass window at the Chagall Museum in Nice.

There’s counting and there is counting. There’s bean counting, and there is what counts as “ourstory”.

In an interview with UC Observer, on his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer has this to say:

I once worked with a group of Episcopal churches in Texas. They were mostly small, rural churches, and collectively they felt like they were dying. Their budgets and membership had fallen off. I listened for a while, and then I said, “You know, it’s interesting to me that the only books you’re keeping have to do with dollars and numbers and members. Can you imagine another kind of book that has to do with the resourcefulness of the people in your congregations, the gifts they have to offer, the needs of the communities they serve in, and how those gifts and those needs might intersect?” I said, “You could actually do an inventory of that.”

There are accounts of measurable items, and there are accounts of wonder. The former are required reading for our “managers” and are lodged in safe places. Jobs, futures and political gain are staked by these measures which are often massaged into a healthy glow. Where is that other kind of book kept, as spoken of by Parker Palmer?

They are kept in the hearts of people. Luke rounds the story of the Annunciation with the beautiful expression, “and Mary treasured these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Things treasured in hearts are full of wonder, love and heart-felt story. Such stores are never emptying and never exhausted. They sustain communities and help them to thrive.

The accounts we are asked to keep of pounds, numbers and members are heartless and don’t change a thing. That is book-keeping for managers and survival. There is a different book-keeping and accountancy which takes account of gifts and needs, memories and longings. These are the accounts that are worth having. These are the accounts which give fresh heart to communities and churches. Our leaders need to treasure them in their hearts. They are “secrets hidden in plain sight”.

A word in edgeways


I was blogging, then I wasn’t. Then Euan Semple reminded me of the importance of sharing thoughts and opinions in his book Organisations don’t tweet, people do. He asks: “how does the world ever change except by people sharing their opinions?”

I was preoccupied with business, forgetting that my business is sharing ideas.  My responsibility is to support the (professional) development of ministers, and my mind had flitted from one frame of mind to another – from the frame of mind in which there is organic development through community sharing to the less productive frame of mind governed by the metaphor of the machine. It’s working our way out of one skin into another.

I belong to an organisation that, rightly, takes itself seriously. It cares about risk and dangers – among them the risks involved in social media. Organisations don’t tweet, people do is a powerful argument for overcoming the fear of engagement with social media. One of those reasons is to make the virtual space of the web inhabitable for our children. “If we leave it to the gunslingers and the pornographers it will stay uninhabitable” writes Euan Semple. He continues, “If we want to make it habitable we have to make it so by being in there behaving in productive and positive ways and showing that it can be a tool for good.”

And so it is. I wasn’t blogging, but now I am.

The strapline to the Prologue to John’s Gospel could be “a Word in Edgeways” as John describes Jesus as God’s word “that became flesh and dwelt among us”. It’s important that we get our word in edgeways in as many ways and spaces as possible. None of this is new. Getting our word in edgeways has been a responsibility since we began to use language. Responsible citizens have been using it ever since to name names, to make sense, to work things out, to share opinions and to make peace (and their opposites). There is now a new space for exploration which is the virtual space of the worldwide web. How can we live well there?

The image is from John Sutton’s photostream
Euan Semple’s blog

Leaving childhood: Holy Innocents Day

Massacre of the Innocents by Fra Angelico

Today is Holy Innocents Day, when we are called to remember childhood how children have been slaughtered. The focus is on the baby boys Herod slaughtered in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus, but also embraces the children slaughtered throughout history.

Jesus teaches that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18) This prompts the question about what childhood is. Is it something about vulnerability, dependence, naively and learning. Jesus added the word “humility”. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

And then we grow out of childhood, spending a lot of our time bigging ourselves up, taking ourselves out of reach of that kingdom Jesus spoke about.

I am reading organisations don’t tweet, people do by Euan Semple? He seems to suggest that the qualities that make for childhood are the qualities that are needed for leaders and organisations to be successful as he talks about vulnerability and humility in these terms:

“Being open about your failings isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and wouldn’t be acceptable in every workplace, but just a little more openness about your failings in front of your staff might be just be the best way to improve your working relationships. Being seen not to know, and being willing to ask for help, can be the best way to make other people feel valued. It also signals to them that it is OK not to know everything all the time. This creates the sort of culture where people are willing to open up and share what they know to everyone’s mutual benefit.”

Christ the King – some sermon notes

Here are some notes for a sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, for the people of Christ the King, Birkenhead, for Sunday 24th November 2013

Christ the King

Today is the Festival of Christ the King.

The feast of Christ the King was announced by Pope Pius XI in 1925 at the time when fascism was growing across Europe, including here in England. It was thought that there should be special emphasis and celebration that Christ is King. It was a political choice. It was intended as a political opposition and challenge to those who were imposing themselves and their grand designs – the Mussolinis and Hitlers.

The Festival of Christ the King comes on the last Sunday of the liturgical year – and next Sunday is the start of a new one.

The Christian year culminates in this assertion that Christ is King, as if  through our worship, our reflections, our prayers and our readings we have come to the realization afresh that Jesus Christ is, for us, the King, and as if we want to be subject to his just and gentle rule, and that we prefer to be part of his kingdom than any other Kingdom, “United” or not.

Of course, this day has a particular significance for you. Your church has the lovely dedication of “Christ the King”. You are the church of Christ the King. You stand, sit and kneel realizing that Christ is King, subverting the tyranny of tyrants and representing the hope of those who are their victims – that they will be delivered – that there is another horizon of freedom as opposed to their awful and fearful horizons.

The introduction of the festival of Christ the King was a political act to oppose the growing power of the fascists in Europe. As the Church of Christ the King we are all called to be a political act. The church is political – we must never overlook that, and you, whose focus is on Christ the King, have a particular vocation to live that.

We have a king who rides a donkey. Have you ever sung that?

Our king, who rides into town on a donkey, contrasts and contradicts the power of the Roman emperor who arrives in town with all the cavalry and military trimmings. The Roman Emperor arrives in power to impress his power and to keep people down. Our king comes into town dishevelled and on a donkey. It’s a joke and a mockery of the superpowers who parade their strengths in their great squares. For Jesus, power is not for parading. Jesus has no need to impress, he is not like the leaders who ask “do I look big in this?”. The donkey was political act and political choice. He could have, as the story of the temptations show us, exercised his power very differently.

When it comes to horsepower God chooses the donkey. His intent was not to keep people down, but to bring them together as a kingdom of heaven, as a kingdom of God.

God and his people have always challenged the unjust rulers. That opposition goes back as far as to the times of Pharoah, from whose unjust rule God liberated his people through Moses. The opposition includes opposition to fascist tyranny and reaching to today, to the warlords, the drug barons, the local tyrant and the playground bully.

In the Old Testament we hear the voice of the prophets opposing the kings when they mislead Israel, and when their rule becomes unjust and corrupt.  For example, Amos denounces those who have built “stone houses” off the backs of the poor. He says “there are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts”.

Similarly, in our reading from Jeremiah (23:1-6), the prophet condemns the misleading leaders of his day, the shepherds who lead the people astray, who have scattered the flock and driven them apart, who have not attended to their needs and have only looked after Number One. He reports “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.”

There are leaders and kings in the Old Testament who were more interested in themselves than their subjects. The prophets rail against them. That is politics. And it is compassion for those who are neglected by the rulers.

This is what we stand and kneel for. We stand to welcome Christ as our king, to assent to the rule of heaven. We kneel to pray for the coming of the kingdom, on earth as in heaven. This is a political act.


I don’t know how well people of Birkenhead know this building, and that it is named “Christ the King”.  That dedication is relatively recent, isn’t it? Until 1990 the church was dedicated to St Anne. Why choose “Christ the King” for the dedication? It is a choice with political connotations. The naming was a political act that favours the poor and challenges the tyrannies of the community.

Christ the King as a building isn’t obvious. There is no spire dominating the landscape. You have been saddled with a spire, but as spires go it is quite unassuming. You have to look to find it. It’s not on the main drag. It is tucked into its community.

That seems quite appropriate to me. You don’t have to look big and impressive. You are a people tucked into your communities to share in the just and gentle rule of Christ, to exercise the responsibility we all share as the subjects of the kingdom of God – the responsibility to bring people together on the side of justice – to be trusted not to put people down, or let people down.

Christ as King isn’t obvious either, is he? He doesn’t force himself on us. He doesn’t stamp his authority everywhere. Our gospel reading reminds us of his rejection by crucifixion. He is the love that was promised by Jeremiah and longed for by so many. He is tucked into community, as the good shepherd, for bringing scattered and opposed people together, not for putting people down or letting people down as self-serving leaders do.

Other references include the painting Cast our Crowns by Jim Janknegt, the book God and Empire by John Dominic Crossan and Matthew 20:25

Thinking Leadership with Dee Hock and Meg Wheatley

“True leaders are those who epitomise the general sense of the community – who symbolise, legitimise and strengthen behaviour in accordance with the sense of the community – who enable its conscious, shared values and beliefs to emerge, expand and be transmitted from generation to generation.”

Dee Hock in Birth of the Chaordic Age

Meg Wheatley, from a perspective of “new science” (quantum rather than Newtonian) sums up what leaders are for:

“People need a lot from their leaders. They need information, access, resources, trust and follow-through. Leaders are necessary to foster experimentation, to help create connections across the organisation, to feed the system with rich information from multiple sources.”

Getting good reception

Reception area at Premier Inn, Heathley Park, Leicester
Reception area at Premier Inn, Heathley Park, Leicester

It was a good day because we had a good reception.

It was a day in which we went from one organisation to another and were well received. Starting with the Premier Inn with staging posts at solicitors, Waitrose, funeral directors (Adkinsons), the local church (Oadby), The Curry House and Tesco Express (above Conduit Street, Leicester) we got the sort of reception that we wanted and which helped to turn what could have been a difficult day into an occasion of thanksgiving.

The person who meets our enquiry is crucial to reception. This is the person who meets us at the door. I suggest that each organisation considers the strategic importance of the person “on the door” and the “welcome on the mat” and that there is an underlying question for them to bear in mind. That question is “what sort of reception am I giving?”

Many organisations are able to set aside a dedicated physical space for Reception. But the question of what sort of reception am I giving makes me realise that my own personal organisation (ie ME) needs to give some thought to the development of space in which others may find good reception.

I suggest five rules of engagement:

  1. Provide a cheerful reception – that makes us pleased to move into the space
  2. Avoid confusion – we are often confused when we move into a space that is not ours. Whether it is by email, phone or in person I need to know where I am and who I am dealing with. A good receptionist will put my mind at rest. When I make a phone call, I will be greeted (cheerfully), reassured I have rung the right place and told who I am speaking to. It can be done (and should be done) economically and efficiently.  For example, a typically good reception would be “Good morning. This is [name of organisation]. My name is David. How can I help you?”
  3. Acknowledge and appreciate – whether I am engaging for quick enquiry or whether I am spending longer, for example, a meal, for that moment I am expecting to be acknowledged and appreciated. We normally call this “service” but it really is about reception and respect. I need acknowledging whether I present myself via email, phone call or physically
  4. Offer to help – it is such a relief to be unburdened whether the burden is a deep sadness or a basket of shopping.
  5. Never ever ever EVER give the impression of being too busy to help – that speaks for itself.

Have you got other suggestions borne from experience of getting good reception (or bad)?