Financing Missional Experiments

In the beginning it all seemed so obviously a ‘God-thing’ that it would have been faithless to doubt that all necessary material provision would follow. Commitments were made, bridges were burned, the adventure began. Now you are well into your missional experiment. There are signs of progress, small yet significant. But the fact is it’s getting hard to make ends meet.

You took the financial planning side of things seriously. You knew that any worthwhile plan has to address the issue of money:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish’.” (Luke 14:28-30)

You counted the cost but, as always, things changed. Unforeseen and uncontrollable variables. You’ve reined in expenses as far as possible – there is no ‘fat’ left anywhere. To keep the experiment alive, you simply have to look again at the income side of the ledger.

And that’s when you think, ‘How on earth did Jesus do it?’ Jesus and his band of disciples kept things pretty simple, but they still had costs that had to be covered. He drew on four key income streams. 

  • User pays – Jesus sent the disciples out without protection, luggage, food, money or change of clothes or shoes so that they had to rely on hospitality.  

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He told them: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town.” (Luke 9:1-4)

  • Key supporters – Jesus and his journeying community were substantially supported by a group of women who had significant financial resources. In addition, Jesus relied on support bases in Capernaum in the North and in Bethany (the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus) near Jerusalem in the South. 

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8:1-3)

  • Common purse – Each of the disciples came with various means at their disposal. It appears that they pooled their resources, with Judas Iscariot as the treasurer. 

Judas was keeper of the money bag. (John 12:6)

Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. (John 13:29)

  • Windfall provision – There were times when Jesus wanted to do more in ministry than he could afford to do, such as wanting to feed the five thousand. He trusted in his Father’s provision. On another occasion he was caught short financially over a much more mundane matter – tax. Even when questions could have been raised about the validity of this obligation Jesus did not shirk it. 

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes–from their own sons or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matt 17:24-27)

Considering these might spark some ideas that you could try.

  • Many of us love the idea of offering our ministry to others at no cost to them as a demonstration of God’s grace. But Jesus had no difficulty receiving hospitality from people like Zacchaeus who he was trying to reach, and he recommended his disciples to do the same when they went preaching and healing. When Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink, putting himself in the position of needing her assistance opened up an opportunity for a spiritual conversation. The people you seek to serve may be put off by your self-sufficiency and disarmed by your need of their help. 
  • You most likely already have a few people who have been prepared to back you, some of them financially. Keep them in touch with your missional experiment as Jesus did with the women; involve them in what you’re doing. In the past I have been unwilling to approach people close to me for financial help for fear of damaging our relationship. It’s wrong to badger people for money, but being open about your needs can, in fact, strengthen the relationship and possibly lead to significant personal growth. I discovered that my sense of dignity was too much tied to being self-sufficient. Becoming poorer for the sake of mission and being honest about that broke my pride, taught me how to ask for help and turned out to share the joy of mission with a wider group.
  • Just how the Twelve pooled their resources is not entirely clear. It’s hard to imagine Jesus being extortionate about it but he clearly had no trouble with members of his cohort chipping in to make the whole thing work. If you have started to build a team, don’t be afraid to ask key team members to make similar material sacrifices to the ones you have made for the sake of the missional experiment. Do this without coercion and always provide a way for people to be involved in a less intense fashion without stepping up to this level of financial commitment – Jesus had the 70 as well as the Twelve.
  • Peter was told to go about his usual work, and expect a windfall that would meet both his need and his Master’s. What we’re looking at here is the miraculous way in which God can bring along financial resources at just the right time to meet a specific need. Windfalls do happen and, when they do, be ready to recognize it as God’s provision for mission rather than an opportunity to splurge. Here is a reminder to bring our financial needs to the Lord in prayer. It might seem terribly obvious, but are you praying specifically and steadily for the material needs of your missional experiment?

At the risk of ending on a negative note, it’s important to address the scenario in which the finances don’t come in and you can no longer pay the bills. Take it on the chin, friends. Make the call to close things down promptly and with dignity. This is how it is with experiments: some work and some don’t. There are no guarantees of ‘success’, whatever that is. One thing is for sure – we must not stop engaging in bold experiments that run the risk of going broke. Huge value can come from ventures that look like financial failures but actually plant seeds of the kingdom that will bring returns in years to come. 

Pressures Faced by Christian Leaders

Leadership in any field of endeavour brings pressure. However, leadership in the context of Christian organisations – and in being a leader for Christ in a secular organisational context – carries with it a peculiar set of stressors especially in respect of demands, limitations, rewards, trauma, relationships and idealisation. Mentors need a detailed understanding of these aspects of context in order to help Christian leaders build effective and relevant strategies for resilience and sustainability. I have posted elsewhere about those strategies; this post is about understanding context.

Demands

Are not all positions of leadership demanding? Construction managers, school principals, politicians and bank executives may all put a great deal of effort into their work. But the tasks they perform and the outcomes expected as a result of their efforts are usually not nearly so varied as those faced by leaders of Christian communities, especially pastors. The range of skills required is, I believe, rivalled only by parenthood. Being required to rapidly switch between various task categories – from strategic planning to sermon preparation to grief counselling to performing a wedding to leading a new believer to Christ, for example – places enormous demands on Christian leaders on a daily basis.

At the same time, other people within the organisational context will have differing expectations of how the leader should allocate their time between these tasks, and differing ideas about which strategic outcomes should take priority. In secular leadership contexts, the leader is only required to meet the expectations of the person or group in authority over them. It’s more complex for the Christian leader. Not only must they satisfy the human authority over them, they have a deeper sense of accountability to Christ. The expectations of these two authorities may not always align. In addition, the Christian paradigm of servant leadership requires leaders to take seriously the expectations of those they lead, and these may be so varied and contradictory that the leader is placed in an impossible situation.

The weight and diversity of all these demands are not easily shrugged off. Few leadership roles are so intimately entwined with deeply held spiritual values, sense of identity and eternal destiny. Christian leaders care so profoundly about the work they do that the inevitable consequences of not being able to meet every demand are serious indeed. Without resilience, this stressor alone can lead to the end of effective ministry.

Limitations 

In order to deliver expected outcomes leaders must have access to the means to make things happen – authority, respect, financial and material resources, channels of communication, agreed procedures and so on. It is these very things that are so often in short supply in Christian organisations. 

Wherever volunteers make up a large proportion of the workforce the leader in a situation of relative powerlessness. This is the case in most churches, charities and mission agencies. In order to facilitate the attainment of organisation goals the leader requires cooperation from people who may not feel any obligation to play their part or keep their commitments. This is a serious limitation because volunteers feel free to change their minds at any moment with little or no negative consequences for themselves. Christian leaders are expected to endure these events with understanding, grace and leniency. One cannot freely use the usual sanctions of dismissal, demotion and exclusion which are available to leaders of employed workers or volunteers in a secular context.

Authority and respect work differently in a Christian context. The leader may have positional authority, but this is not sufficient to lead through difficult circumstances. Every Christian also has a direct line of communication through prayer to the ‘higher authority’ of God. If the leader should suggest something stretching, those they lead may appeal to the ‘higher authority’, thus limiting the leader’s ability to get things achieved quickly. This requires the Christian leader to work more slowly, building trust and respect with followers, establishing their own spiritual authority as one who may be relied upon to accurately represent the will of the ‘higher authority’. Even accepting this accountability as appropriate in the kingdom of God, it does create a leadership limitation that can be stressful.

Stress-inducing limitations also exist around shortage of resources. Passionate Christian groups with vision are constantly biting off more than they can chew. Leaders responsible for delivering on the vision get caught in the resulting pressure. In addition, churches are notoriously poor at communication across their membership and often lack clear, agreed ways and means for decisions to be put into effect. All these limitations tend to create frustration. Without resilience, these frustrations can lead to anger, depression and worse.

Rewards 

As I mentor Christian leaders I will regularly recommend they take up a hobby in which they can bring a physical project to completion in a relatively short period of time. The satisfaction they gain from getting something finished can be a rare feeling. This is because in the work of ministry results are usually long-term, delayed and may be intangible. It’s very easy to feel as if you’re getting nowhere when in fact the hidden groundwork is being laid for significant progress that will be revealed many years hence. In the meantime, it requires resilience to press on.

Few people will go into Christian leadership in order to get rich. Those who do will either be disappointed or will turn into unscrupulous wolves in sheep’s clothing, unworthy to represent Christ. Although the vast majority of Christian leaders know that they could earn more money doing something else, they carry on in their calling because they do not place material prosperity at the top of their list of values. Nevertheless, income stress is a significant factor in the adversity faced by Christian leaders. Resilience helps to keep this disadvantage within a wider frame of reference in which its all worth it.

Trauma 

Pastors, in particular, are exposed to trauma far more regularly than most people. Only emergency services workers such as paramedics have a comparable experience in terms of the regularity of exposure. In the case of pastors, they are dealing with people in trauma with whom they have an ongoing relationship, so the impact of vicarious trauma is intensified. Talking and praying with someone whose life has been shattered is in itself a shattering experience. It takes both time and resilience to come through these pastoral encounters in a positive state. 

Beyond the traumatic human interactions that may leave a Christian leader depleted, opposition from hostile spiritual forces is also experienced by Christian leaders. We should not make more of this than is warranted; this is not a point upon which to become fixated or about which to be intimidated. But spiritual warfare is real and Christian leaders are prime targets of the enemy of our soul. Being attacked on a spiritual level is very unpleasant indeed. It can occur in ways that are hard to identify and leave a leader wondering what on earth could be wrong with them to be in such a poor state. With the benefit of strategies for resilience in place it is entirely possible for Christian leaders to come through such episodes stronger, wiser and more confident than ever and utterly overturn the intent of the enemy.

Relationships 

As a direct result of their calling, Christian leaders may undergo the distress of loneliness and social isolation. Numerous factors contribute to this outcome. For example, busyness of work at times when potential friends are socialising, entrenched ideas of clergy/laity distinction, role conflicts within Christian community, geographical mobility, and the experience of working cross-culturally and away from one’s native environment. 

One of the more difficult factors to overcome is being stereotyped according to one’s leadership role in a particular organisation. In ordinary social conversations with strangers, Christian leaders become quite creative in answering the question, “So, what do you do for a living?” This is because a straight, clear answer is likely to cause a negative reaction from people who are antagonistic to institutional Christianity – and there are a growing number of those people out there. It can be quite wearing when you are regularly not taken for who you are but are categorised according to your role. It requires resilience to keep approaching social situations with openness and good humour.

Idealisation 

On the other side of the coin, within Christian community, being stereotyped according to one’s role can take a different tone. Those who follow a Christian leader may have unrealistic, idealised expectations of sainthood, or of the leader being their best friend, or of the leader having all the answers. To be placed on a pedestal in this way amounts to being set up to be a disappointment. No leader can live up to these lofty ideals, but one may be reticent to ‘pop the bubble’ of naivety for fear of suffering a backlash.

Appointed to a position of leadership, a person then represents their organisation in relevant circles. In secular settings, a leader usually knows when they are ‘on duty’ and when they may simply be a private citizen. Christian leaders are never off duty. They represent their organisation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In this respect they undergo the same level of scrutiny as politicians. Though that scrutiny may not be as widely covered in the media as that of politicians it is nevertheless equally as judgemental and eager to catch out the leader in the slightest deviation from ideal expectations.

With all these pressures, and others not listed here, it’s no surprise that people in Christian ministry do, from time to time, come to a point of depletion. At those times, they need to draw on their resilience, and develop it further to maintain a faithful response to God’s call to his service. Although the specific challenges may have varied across centuries and between cultural contexts, God’s servants have always required resilience to come through adversity in a positive condition.

Alternatives to Resilience

In the face of adversity, alternatives to resilience do exist. One may surrender to adversity, seek to avoid it, or attempt to crush it. Let’s consider each of these alternatives in turn.

Surrendering to adversity is a sadly common response. It represents a naïve belief that, since suffering is an intrinsic element of faithful ministry in Jesus’ name (which is true, by the way), this means that all Christ’s servants will, in this life at least, be crushed, in some way ‘crucified’ as he was (which, I contend, is not true). Christ does not call us into his service with the intention that we should be ground into the dust. As Paul says in 2 Cor 4:8-9 we may expect to be “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” For those who surrender to adversity, resilience is seen as an unrealistic goal.

Seeking to avoid adversity is an understandable response from some who have observed other Christian leaders being demoralised and damaged by their ministry. They say, “That is not going to happen to me.” This mindset places inordinate emphasis on having rigid boundaries to protect one’s self and family. Such leaders will invest time and effort into ministry, but only up to the point where things become painful or distressing. This leads to a timid approach to leadership, a self-protective ‘safe mode’ which, at its worst, finds the leader saying ‘no’ to the Lord, refusing to pay the price of leadership in the moments of greatest demand and winding up with a crisis of integrity. For those who seek to avoid adversity, resilience is not necessary because they believe depletion can be dodged.

Attempting to crush adversity is the aggressive approach, using either raw power or wily manipulation – or both – to batter down any force that comes against the leader. There are both typical male and typical female versions of this posture. I have mentored leaders in difficult circumstances who have been told by others that they simply need to toughen up and push back at what is assailing them. However, by hiding all weakness, turning every kind of adversity into a contest and attempting to win every battle through ferocious domination, a leader can come to represent a kind of leadership that is far from the model Jesus adopted. For those who seek to crush adversity, resilience is for losers and they plan to win.

Becoming resilient is a far better option in the face of adversity than becoming crushed, timid or aggressive. It is a way that accepts adversity as part of the story, but not the whole and not the part that characterises one’s life. It is a way that is hopeful and courageous and can afford to take risks and pay the cost of leadership because of confidence in the Lord’s power to restore us. It is a way that is ‘gentle and humble in heart’ as Jesus was, and approaches leadership as an exercise in grace and truth rather than one of power and domination.

Meditation on Mission: Luke 10

This exercise is written for activists in mission who have a hard time retreating and being still, yet nevertheless genuinely affirm the value of stopping to reflect on Scripture and listen for the voice of the Spirit. It is a version of lectio divina. The idea is to give one short passage sustained attention, drawing deeply on the riches it has to offer. You will read Luke 10:1-12 five times slowly. Yes, that’s right – FIVE times! Don’t rush this. If you carefully think about how this text intersects with your current missional context you could easily spend a whole day working through this exercise. At the very least, allow 15 minutes for each phase; 90 minutes in total.

First Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

Front line mission is often a lonely business, but that’s not the way Jesus intends it to be. He appointed and sent disciples into mission not alone but with a companion. How encouraging it is to have someone working alongside us who has a sense of being appointed and sent by Jesus that is every bit as strong as our own. You can’t get that simply through clever recruitment. Companions in mission are given by the Lord himself. Our part is to pray to the Lord of the harvest, then keep our eyes and ears open for the answer to our prayer. Such a companion will be more than a follower who signs up to your vision; they will have their own vision derived directly from Jesus that is complementary to yours. Teamwork must have been very important to Jesus. Even though there was much work to do and insufficient workers to cover all that needed to be done, he did not compromise his teamwork strategy by sending people out singly just to cover more area. How is your mission enterprise reflecting that value?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Second Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

Given the choice between being weak or strong, empty-handed or well-resourced, dependent or in control, most of us would naturally prefer strength, resources and taking charge. Jesus presents us with the radical challenge to engage in mission from a position of little power, having few material resources and needing to rely on the kindness and generosity of other people. This runs directly counter to the conventional wisdom of our culture about how to get things done effectively and efficiently. If we are to be representatives of the kingdom of God that is now at hand, we must be prepared to operate by its values. In this new order, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, his power is made perfect in our weakness, and the meek inherit the earth. If your mission effort seems under-resourced and lacking in profile and influence, what do you think the Lord would say to you about that?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Third Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

When Jesus sent out the seventy-two he was in Samaritan territory. This was a highly complex and difficult missional context for his Jewish disciples. It is well known that relations between Jews and Samaritans were strained to the point of hostility at that time, with faults on both sides. Middle-eastern hospitality is legendary; in this culture sharing food with visitors has been elevated to an art form of a quality encountered nowhere else on earth. But Jews tended to look down on Samaritan hospitality as ‘unclean’, and Samaritans tended to despise the superior attitude of Jews. In our passage from Luke 10, Jesus twice urged the seventy-two to eat whatever was put before them. They were not to ask questions of the food so they could judge whether or not it was ‘clean’. Jesus was restructuring their ethical framework, setting the importance and urgency of mission as a higher moral priority than scruples about dietary laws. How does Jesus’ missional imperative challenge your ethical framework?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Fourth Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

The council worker was about to renew the road sign. On the post was an old sign with faded, illegible writing. In his hand, ready to be applied to the old sign, was clear, hi-viz lettering. Neither the signpost nor the lettering alone was of much use. Only when put together did they fulfil their purpose. For Jesus, the good news of the Kingdom is both practical and propositional. He expects his disciples to both demonstrate it and declare it. The sick are to be healed and the message is to be explained in words. Missional enterprises that emphasise one element to the detriment of the other tend not to make a lasting impact and even run the risk of distorting the gospel. Words accompanying deeds enhance clarity. Deeds accompanying words enhance credibility. Of course this even-handedness is not perfectly balanced in every circumstance. Choices must be made about where to start and when one aspect or the other needs to be employed. There is no standard answer to the questions posed by such a wide range of missional contexts, but it is generally true that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Are you communicating both your knowledge and your care?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Fifth Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

When the people to whom we are sent are responsive to the message, mission is so exhilarating, so much fun. But it doesn’t always turn out that way. This is the understanding Jesus gives the seventy-two right at the beginning. Setbacks should come as no surprise to us; they are to be expected, even if we do our part faithfully and well. This passage from Luke 10 relates to a specific, short-term missional project and cannot be taken as a template for the administration of every missional enterprise. However, in this instance Jesus instructs the seventy-two to concentrate their efforts on responsive situations and to move on from those who are hostile, neither returning hostility nor compromising the message. In other circumstances it may be appropriate to persevere in a hostile situation as long as one can do so graciously and with integrity. Jesus leaves us with a final thought about our experiences of both welcome and hostility in the context of mission. The reactions we get are not about us, they are about Jesus. How might that make a difference to the way you deal with the emotional impact of acceptance and rejection of your missional efforts?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Sixth Phase

Summarise the insights you’ve gained from this exercise and the action you will now take in response.

Learning Contentment

In Philippians 4 Paul says he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances”. He says that what he has learned is a secret and hints that is has to do with “him who gives me strength”. Don’t you wish you could ask Paul to expand a bit? Exactly how did he learn to be content? 

A few of my recent mentoring conversations have probed this question. As a result, I’m inclined to believe that the pathway to learning contentment may well be slightly different for every person with a few themes in common. I decided to itemise the things that I think I personally need to practice to learn contentment. I offer them here simply as a thought-starter. If you want to work on your own list it will probably end up looking a bit different to mine.

  1. I need to clearly acknowledge that God is both big and good, and do this especially in the midst of bad circumstances. God is far and away the biggest factor in the universe. If he is also good, then my posture towards the world does not need to be one of caution, fear and suspicion. Peaceful satisfaction comes from relying that our good God has things under his control.
  2. I need to receive love from others with gratitude. Discontent can make me turn in on myself, and that is self-defeating. The affection of loved ones is a great source of contentment. Even if all others fail to love me well, my heavenly Father certainly does.
  3. I need to direct my focus away from lack and towards blessing. 
  4. I need to distinguish between needs and wants and choose not to fixate on unfulfilled wants.
  5. I need to practice taking delight in beautiful things that are free. Ugliness eventually wears away at my soul; beauty restores it. I don’t need to own a beautiful thing to benefit from it. Many beautiful things are not commodities – sunsets, the laughter of small children, music, a jacaranda in full bloom, the smell of the forest after rain.
  6. I need to neutralize any sense of entitlement I might have with humility.
  7. I need to develop a sober estimate of myself, both my capacities and my limitations.
  8. I need to resist comparing myself to anyone else.
  9. I need to promptly forgive offences, both actual offences against me and things I merely perceive as offences.
  10. I need to exercise patience, taking the long view even as far as into eternity. Too much of my discontent comes from having a limited, short-term perspective.
  11. I need to practice sabbath and silence. That is, I need to stop doing and stop talking with some kind of regular frequency.
  12. I need to find my identity in Christ – the one who strengthens me.

Reflections on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: Pt 2

For the first 24 days of the Camino I read slowly through the gospel of Luke, one chapter per day. I expected that my different context would cause me to come to the text from a different angle. But I was not prepared for the degree to which this was the case. It was as if I had never read this gospel before; there were new insights and perspectives popping out at me every day. The most impactful and enduring of these was a fresh appreciation of how direct Jesus was in his dealings with people. There was no beating about the bush. He was, as we sometimes say, “in people’s faces”, with challenge, confrontation, even provocation. To my middle class, western sensitivities he seemed a bit rude at times – lacking in tact. Yet I felt drawn (and disturbed!) to consider how I might emulate this aspect of Jesus character. That was not a comfortable thought at all.

At the same time I was reflecting on the conversations I was having with people along the road and being convicted by the Holy Spirit about my tendency to be judgemental of others. Later I shared this with one of my friends in the UK and she said, “Rick, that can’t be right. I’ve never known you to be judgemental.” Well, that just shows how cleverly I hide my inner thoughts. But there’s no pulling the wool over God’s eyes. He sees it all very clearly. Anyway, being challenged about being less judgemental and more direct at the same time put me in a bit of a tangle. I realised that my way of being more direct with people usually involved a dose of being judgemental along with it. And I could work on being less judgemental, but that would usually result in me being less direct as well. I can see that Jesus was both non-judgemental and direct at the same time, but I don’t see that in me. Plenty of room for growth then! Then I realised this is simply a restatement of John 1:14, that Jesus came full of grace (of which non-judgement is a part) and truth (of which directness is a part). This has been a personal paradigm for ministry practice and character development for me for well over ten years. Here I am STILL working on it! Lord, help me to make some progress.

I was able to have spiritual conversations with others doing the Camino every single day, and several times each day. This is not my normal experience in day-to-day life. I would think I’m doing well if I have a spiritual conversation with a stranger once per week. Why was it such a rich time of deep conversation? There are several factors. Firstly, the Camino de Santiago is consistently presented as a spiritual pilgrimage, both by those who offer support services for pilgrims and also in the literature. Over a thousand years of history lies behind this walk, and those who follow the route can’t help but be affected by that history of religious devotion. Secondly, physical pilgrimage – taking a long walk – is a very apt metaphor for the inner journey of spiritual seeking that is common to all human beings at some point in their lives. These first two factors, taken together, explain why pilgrims will routinely ask one another, “Why are you walking?” The question makes perfect sense and drives immediately to the inner journey for which the outer journey is a symbol.

And I think there were other conditions, not general ones like the two I’ve mentioned but particular ones relating to my experience, which helped me to have so many spiritual conversations. I was practising being non-judgemental. I’m sure that opened some doors. I was not seeking to ‘sell’ my point of view. I was having genuine, mutual interactions with people whose stories and perspectives were of real interest to me. At the same time I was prepared to ask fairly blunt questions of others. You could call it being nosey, but my conversation partners were up for it. It was as if they had been longing for someone to open up these lines of discussion. Further, I was trying to be as honest and vulnerable as I could about my own uncertainties and frailties. I was not saying, “I’m a Christian and have it all together and wouldn’t you like to be like me?” Finally, I was trying out some different language. If I had said, “You know, God really loves you”, that would have been dismissed as religious claptrap. Instead I tried saying things like, “The universe is a friendly place, don’t you think?” I found this engaged people far more readily and we would be away into an interesting chat within seconds.

The people who were so open to have spiritual conversations with me on the Camino, had only days before been in another setting and undoubtedly were not nearly so open to have those conversations. On the Camino the right conditions were created that put people in the sort of headspace (heartspace?) in which they were ready to talk. Now I’m asking myself if those conditions can be replicated away from the Camino. The first two factors above – the environment that reflects a history of devotion and participation in the powerful metaphor of walking – cannot be readily reproduced in daily life. However, I do think that if I am non-judgemental, have a respectful, listening stance, take the chance to ask probing questions, am willing to be vulnerable and carefully choose my language to use interesting turns of phrase that avoid religious jargon – if I do these things, then perhaps I might have more Camino-type conversations in my daily life.

Arriving into Santiago 30 days after setting out, my feelings were mixed. My heart was yearning to be with my family and friends once again, and yet I had come to love the road. There was a sense of accomplishment, but that was swallowed up by the prospect of a new beginning in which I wanted to weave the best of my pilgrimage experience into my everyday way of life. I went to the midday Mass they hold for pilgrims at the Cathedral. I was touched by the hospitality shown to me and all the other non-Catholics there. Technically, I don’t think they are supposed to offer communion to us, but they don’t ask questions and all are invited. I didn’t participate. Not because of any problem between the Lord and me or because of any negativity toward Catholicism on my part. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was not yet finished.

With a few days up my sleeve, I took the bus out to the coastal village Finisterre, a place name which means, ‘the end of the earth’. In medieval days pilgrims would burn their clothes at Finisterre in a cleansing ritual. Those threads were probably so dirty, worn out and flea-ridden that’s all they were good for! These days many pilgrims still burn something they have worn on the Camino, or leave it behind under a rock when the weather is so cold, windy and wet that they can’t get a fire started (which is often). The most common items burned or left behind are shoes/boots. That might be less about cleansing and more about exacting revenge for the pain that footwear has inflicted. Glorious weather prevailed the day I was there and as I sat on a rock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, I experienced a sense of being initiated into the next season of my ministry. The transition of two years was complete, and I stood up released from the past and ready for the future.

Arriving back into Santiago on a Sunday morning, I had a few hours left before my flight back to the UK. I had just enough time to attend a service at the Baptist Church near the bus terminal. What a delight to gather with this small but lively bunch of disciples! It was their first service in their brand new facility and the place was full of joy. On my way inside I saw their sign, which reads, ‘Iglesia Bautista: Jesus Es El Camino’(Baptist Church: Jesus Is The Way). I was hugged and kissed and fussed over and had multiple invitations for lunch even before the meeting began. Six adults who had been baptized the day before were welcomed into membership. I had just enough Spanish to get the gist of the preaching – a message about living hospitably. When it came time for communion I was eager to celebrate the end of my Camino with these folks with whom I share the same passion for living on The Way.

Not everyone can go on physical pilgrimage. But if you can possibly manage it, I encourage you to give it consideration. Of course, the heart of Christian pilgrimage is not essentially a matter of geography but a matter of walking with Jesus. Yet I have found that getting out on the road has opened up a fresh imagination for that journey of divine companionship.

Reflections on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: Pt 1

I committed to walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela on an impulse. A friend casually asked if I would be interested in walking it with him one day. Immediately, without thinking it through, I was hooked and determined to make it happen. This is not normal behaviour for me. Although I still can’t fully explain it, I think there was something of a tug from the Holy Spirit involved. Yes, there was an appeal to my sense of adventure, but the Camino is not just any old walking trail. This is a bona fide pilgrimage– one of the big three that date back to medieval times: Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. So perhaps I was also motivated by my love of history and connecting with ancient practices of discipleship. And yet I knew in some visceral way that my urge to go on pilgrimage was far more than an educational history excursion. It was to do with working out how I would follow Jesus right here, right now.

Getting ready to go took me two years. I’m sure others could manage to get themselves organised more quickly but that’s how it was for me. Those two years form the boundary between my ministry in the past and my ministry in the future. It’s been two years of realigning myself to a new call, and the Camino was to be a pivotal moment in that transition. When getting ready for a major pilgrimage, there are four major areas of preparation to be attended to. I’ll go through them one by one because each of these areas has direct relevance to disciplines and practices that may sustain and develop a missional life in our communities. I won’t tediously spell out specific applications of implied principles but I encourage you to make the connections that relate to your particular context.

Firstly, you have to prepare your schedule. That means clearing the necessary time in your diary. In my case that was five weeks – not an easy task! And it involves researching and planning your route. There are several Camino pathways. They all end in Santiago de Compostela but you can start in many different places. I ended up choosing to walk the 800-kilometre Camino Frances route, which starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. John Brierley’s Pilgrim’s Guidewas very helpful in planning daily stages. Preparing your schedule builds anticipation and resolve. As your imagination gets fired up you start enjoying the journey before you have even taken one step.

Secondly, you have to prepare your kit. I was not at all experienced in outdoor pursuits and had very little of the necessary gear. On pilgrimage, when you’re carrying everything on your back, you don’t want to be lugging stuff you don’t really need. And you want whatever you do take to be efficient, light, strong, durable, multi-purpose and easy to use/wear. Some obvious life lessons to be drawn from that. My biggest surprise in this area was to realise the usefulness of walking poles. In my vanity, I thought they looked a bit silly and a bit unnecessary for an able-bodied man, so I almost didn’t buy a pair. That would have been a serious mistake.

Thirdly, you have to prepare your body. I had only a basic level of fitness when I decided to walk the Camino, so my body needed some serious training. My schedule for the Camino required me to walk an average of 27 kilometres each day. The first time I tried walking that distance in one go in training I really hurt myself. There was so much to learn about hydration, stretching, massage, blister prevention and so on. I began walking 5 kilometres daily in the boots I intended to wear on the Camino. I built this up to 10 kilometres per day over the course of a year, with the occasional longer walk. By the time I headed to Spain I was confident I had done the necessary preparation. I was wrong. Three days into the Camino I was in a lot of pain with dreadful blisters. If not for the help of the Spanish woman who ran one of the albergues I don’t know what I’d have done.

Fourthly, you have to prepare your soul. Well, maybe you don’t haveto. But if you want to approach the Camino as a pilgrimage and not just a long walk, some soul work is crucial. My processes for preparation were reading, praying and conversations. I devoured several books to get in touch with the issues. Martin Robinson’s Sacred Places, Pilgrim Paths is full of fabulous quotes arranged around some thoughtfully crafted themes. In terms of soul preparation I was especially grateful for Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey. I can’t recommend that book highly enough. I also read through Exodus and spent many hours meditating on Psalm 84. My prayers centred on the question of what God wanted to do in me over the month I was away. Early on I was keen to be prepared to witness to others on the Camino but I became convinced this was not the first matter on God’s agenda. My soul work in prayer was to get to a place of receptivity. Conversations with a few people who had walked pilgrimages were useful, mostly for dispelling romantic expectations of Damascus Road experiences! 

Exactly what makes walking the Camino de Santiago so impactful is hard to express. Part of it has to do with being away from the myriad of annoying little details that complicate normal daily existence. A decision has to be made about how ‘in touch’ one wants to be on pilgrimage. It’s a very personal matter, with no right or wrong. Apart from a phone call to my wife every few days, I chose to switch off all my devices – no phone, iPod or computer, no Facebook, Twitter or email – and I was very glad of that choice. Life became very simple on the Camino. It gave space to think, space to talk with others without the pressure of time or agenda, space to simply be. Another source of the deep impact is the earthiness of the experience. Walking is an effective way to get connected to a landscape and the people and culture embedded within that landscape. It’s a very different experience than travelling in a car or bus or train. And, of course, when walking significant distances you become very aware of your body – both the pain and the strength – which is an experience that gets pretty earthy. Engaging in pilgrimage as a deeply spiritual exercise is a powerful antidote to Gnosticism.

Walking through Spain on this pilgrim path creates wonderful memories, but the deeper value of it is in the personal transformation that takes place. No doubt this is slightly different for everyone who does the Camino, with, perhaps, some common threads here and there. What was the personal transformation that happened in me? I need to be a bit careful here because it’s too early to tell whether, in fact, I have undergone personal change or have simply become aware of areas of my life that are in need of transformation. I hope that at least a start has been made in certain aspects of my character. So, at the risk of setting myself up, I’ll have a shot at naming them. Something in me is shifting in terms of patience, perseverance, tolerance and acceptance of others, gratitude for simple things and resisting drivenness so I can manage my energy levels wisely. I cannot transform myself in these areas through the effort of will, but God’s Spirit can change me. The Camino has focussed my attention so that I am now tuned in to cooperate with his power at work on those things. It’s the process Paul was talking about in Colossians 1:29.

Super-stressed? Try a reset

When super-stressed at work, try a 5-minute ‘reset’. Five stages, one minute each:

1. Stop – listen to your breathing or, if you prefer to walk, feel the rhythm of your footsteps.

2. Imagine yourself coming into God’s presence. You must put down all the things you are carrying and empty your pockets of everything. In your imagination (or literally!) take off your footwear.

3. Hear Him say your name and see Him look straight into your eyes.

4. Hear Him say, ‘I am with you.’ Take the full minute to really hear this.

5. Hear Him say, ‘I am giving you…’ Listen for what it is that He is giving you.

Five minutes is up, you are reset, time to return to work in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Context for Understanding Christian Mentoring

Where does the word ‘mentoring’ come from? What is the history of this discipline? Is it a Biblical thing? People seem to mean different things when they talk about mentoring. Is there more than one kind of Christian mentoring?

Keith Farmer recently invited me to present a session at his ‘Passing the Baton’ seminars providing some background and context for understanding Christian mentoring in terms of history, Biblical basis and varieties of approach. Click on the link below to find a PDF of that Powerpoint presentation.

Context for Understanding Mentoring