Where is my own mind set?

By Rick James

In my consultancy work, I talk a lot about changing mindsets – in communities, churches, organisations… But where is my own mind set? If I am being brutally honest, at the moment my own mind oscillates a bit between seeking my own comfort and worrying about what is going on in the world and with family and friends. It feels a long way from Romans 8:5 which talks about having ‘our minds set on what the Spirit desires’. My mind is not naturally ‘in step with the Spirit’.

But when I do intentionally create spaces to re-set my mind onto what the Spirit desires, then my perspective on everything changes. The burden I feel when thinking about preparing and leading groups at church shifts. Work priorities no longer feel so onerous. The global and national news does not provoke so much anxiety. My mind is a battleground. I need to try and take captive my thoughts, not be taken captive by them. The only way I can do this is by pressing the re-set button every day.

How do you re-set your mind to focus on what the Spirit desires?

Daily choices of character

By Rick James

“It is not what you achieve in life that matters, but who you become”. I was struck by this statement a few weeks ago in the wake of a friend’s death. Andy had certainly achieved a lot in terms of leading various organisations and churches, but in the end what mattered most was who he had become. He gave a short talk ‘In thin air’ after his diagnosis with a brain tumour, in which he said that in one sense a terminal illness changes nothing – after all we are all going to die one day.

He said, the choices we face today are the same as ever:
Are we going to follow Jesus today? Walking with him and looking for direction and guidance.
If so, then we choose to recognise God’s goodness every day, not give in to despair, darkness or discouragement.

Making these simple choices influenced who Andy became.

As I consider the week ahead, Andy’s example challenges me about where I put my attention:
Am I more focusing on what I achieve, the tasks ahead of me this week in my to-do list?
Or do I need to focus more on who I am becoming? How do I deliberately choose hope over fear?

A Christ-centred federation

By Rick James

Last week I facilitated a governance review for a global fellowship of 30 different leprosy missions. Such federations are notoriously difficult to manage. Large NGO families tend to be characterised by frustration, bureaucracy and division. But this one was different. The motivating glue that held them together was trusting relationships and highly impressive servant leadership. But at the heart of this network of organisations was a shared commitment to being genuinely Christ-centred.

This commitment went way beyond easy Christian jargon, but it was displayed through their behaviour and actions – particularly at times of crisis. To make it happen, they had created a diverse, global steering group of members to plan and guide implementation; wrote it explicitly into their strategy and measured it with indicators; invested considerable time and resources into a variety of prayer initiatives; ensured their sources of funding supported this and modelled forgiveness and servant leadership.

Considering that ten years ago the international board was concerned about losing their Christian identity, this is a testament to what is possible. I heard of another faith-based NGO this week, who calculated that they spent 14% of their work hours in prayer. These examples make me think:

How much time do I spend praying and listening to God in my work?
How will I model Christ in my inter-actions at work this week?

Where do I take refuge?

By Rick James

Last week has been tough. The shocking stories and pictures from the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows the evil in people’s hearts. I find it almost too overwhelming to think about. I desperately want to pretend it is not happening. Jesus’ words “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) are too painfully true. At a more personal level, an NGO I know and love is failing to deal with its organisational problems; my church is really struggling without leadership; close members of my family are sick and others are unable to find a place to live; friends not able to find work… The list of worries large and small goes on. Yet Jesus also goes on in John 16 … “But take heart for I have overcome the world”.

I don’t know what quite this means for people in Ukraine at the moment, but I do take heart from the defiant acts of hope in that country. For example, last week Jews and Christians came together in Kyiv to recite Psalm 31:
In you, Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame;  deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge,  a strong fortress to save me…
… Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

The Deputy General Secretary for the Bible Society, Anatoliy Raychnets, said: “This ancient prayer – written several thousand years ago – now we see is so alive, so living.”

I can learn from their example. It makes we think:
Where am I taking refuge?
What or who am I making my rock and fortress?

Ending well

By Rick James

Last week I had the privilege of sitting in hospital with Joan, a 93 year-old neighbour, in her last days of life. She had a remarkable story. 45 years ago she left her family (including teenage children) to move in with another artist, abandoning her faith along the way. In the last year since her partner died, she rediscovered both her faith and then her family. Despite decades of no contact and obvious hurt, her daughter decided to leave her job and come to live with and care for her mother. Though angry at first, she quickly found she could forgive her. She discovered an unexpected and overwhelming love for her. A couple of months ago at Christmas, Joan met grandchildren and great grandchildren she did not know even existed. This reconciliation has spread further out affecting other broken family relationships.

It was a beautiful example of the power of forgiveness, when conflict is the norm in the world, in our organisations and even churches. Paradoxically, the last months of this elderly lady’s life became life-giving. It showed me the importance of good endings. Endings that bring healing, reconciliation and new life. These probably often involve forgiveness.

This week let’s consider:
What are the upcoming endings in your life or your organisation’s?
What might you do to encourage good, life-affirming endings?

Walking with Jesus into 2022

By Rick James

How are you feeling as you enter this New Year?

For me the end of 2021 felt pretty rubbish with family Christmas visits and celebrations largely cancelled and the sudden death of the 5-year old son of a close friend. I feel very tempted to enter 2022 in fear and frustration. Life is not quite as smooth and comfortable as I imagined.

But what if life is not meant to be easy? Maybe my expectation of life – like a warm summer’s day – is all wrong. What if our time on earth is more like living at night-time, yearning for dawn? There’s certainly a lot of darkness around us, but also glimpses of joy and hope, like stars. There’s sometimes even a full-moon that powerfully reflects the sun.

It reminds me of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24 13 – 33), who went away from Jerusalem downcast in their profound grief and painful destruction of their dreams. But walking with and talking with Jesus, while the circumstances remained the same, their understanding of them was transformed. Joy and hope bubbled up as ‘their hearts burned within them’.

So as we start 2022, think about:
Where do you see God already at work? What is going well?
What is Jesus saying to you as you talk with him through the disappointments of 2021?

‘Learning while working’ through the COVID-fog

By Rick James

The profound uncertainty from the ramifications of COVID-19 is like leading in a fog. A leader’s competence will be judged by their ability to create sustainable new worlds for their organisations. Judgement and vision are key. Yet how can one prove oneself to be an able leader when you cannot show them a simple end goal? This will require leaders to engage in ‘learning while working’ according to David Nabarro from the World Health Organization. When navigating the unknown, leaders will need to learn to constantly take in new information and work with diverse sources of intelligence and expertise. We really have to look to learn from those closest to the reality on the ground.

NGOs have spoken for years about actively listening to the people we exist to serve. Sadly this has largely remained as easy rhetoric. We have rarely let it have a genuine impact on our programming and decision-making. Yet in the face of COVID, even the business sector is acknowledging that “addressing social inequalities by understanding the world from the perspective of those who are excluded will also be a distinguishing attribute for future leaders” (Hope-Hailey 2021).

  • How does your organisation really listen to those you exist to serve?
  • What one thing could you do differently to make it more active and meaningful?

Hazards to trust

By Rick James

The other week we looked at how trusted leaders responded in the first stage of COVID. But many places have now moved into a second stage, where the medical crisis is giving way to an economic crisis. What does this mean for leaders today?

This second stage places particular moral hazards for leaders to maintain trust from being seen as ‘benevolent’ (‘on my side’). Technology has enabled more contact between different levels of staff. On the whole, this has made leaders appear more accessible, humane and empathetic. But having broken down the barriers of formality, how then do both parties deal with uncomfortable conversations about redundancies? How will that exposure to the fragility of home lives play out when making difficult decisions? Will the ‘mutuality of sacrifice’ be sustained into this next stage? 

In addition, health issues may not end soon. There may be a backlog of trauma and stress from the last 18 months, particularly for any NGOs and churches working on the frontline. Many staff may be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted (and leaders too). To be seen as benevolent and therefore trusted, you may need to become champions of physical and mental health for your hybrid workforces. This was probably not on the list of core leadership competencies when you started your job!

How do you think your co-workers would assess whether you are not ‘on their side’?
What one thing could you do differently this week to show that you genuinely care?

Trust in the face of COVID

By Rick James

I’m a big fan of the work of Veronica Hope Hailey. In the last few months she’s published some ground-breaking research on trust in the face of COVID-19, which we will look at in the next couple of weeks. She found that in the first stage of COVID last year, even in midst the midst of restructuring, divestment and redundancy programs, high trust leaders still lived out the four key ingredients of trust:

Ability: They empowered employees and local managers.
Benevolence: They demonstrated care and support for employees both emotionally and practically.
Integrity: They communicated how they would navigate the crisis in a timely, open and respectful manner. They sought to demonstrate the sense of fairness that underpinned their difficult decisions.
Predictability: They built a bridge to the future in the minds of the workforces by showing employees that in the midst of disruption there was a continuity of values or purpose, sometimes calling upon their historical roots to show how they informed the future vision.

Take a moment to look back on the last year, how have you got on in these four areas?
As you look to the week ahead, what specific actions could you take to live out these four ingredients of trust?

Holding together

By Rick James

The couple of months since the last weekly thought have still been very strange. Perhaps we need to get used to things being ‘never normal’, rather than a new normal.

Here in the UK we felt very self-satisfied with our vaccination programme and related reduction in social distancing. But in most of the rest of the world this is not the case. We see distance and division increase, with red-listing countries; vaccination inequity and rising inequalities. We witness harrowing disasters across the world, whether natural or man-made in Ethiopia and Afghanistan. Listening to the news, I’m often reminded of the book title by Chinua Achebe ‘Things fall apart’.

Yet the Bible has a different narrative. It says that Jesus ‘is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Col 1:17). At times like this I have to shift my gaze. It helps me to meditate on this and apply this to my life today.

What does ‘in him all things hold together’ really mean in our fractured world?
What does it mean for the families, communities and organisations that I am a part of?