With Upstream winding up I was looking for something to do. I had begun my retic business, but I knew that running a business wasn’t my primary calling in life. I had been doing some preaching at Quinns to help them out while they sought out a pastor, and that is always easy. You can run thru your ‘greatest hits’ from the previous 10 years and give the appearance of being a much better communicator than you really are. You also get to go home after the service and think nothing more about the church community. Its easy and enjoyable at one level, but equally unrewarding at another level, because you only involve yourself in one small aspect of the community life.
When we agreed to join the church for a trial run we had no idea there were a couple of factions set on a collision course. I don’t think the people in the church even saw it that way, but the ideas we came with and the fairly direct approach with which we offered them certainly unearthed those issues very quickly. There was a very conservative, almost fundamentalist contingent and a more relaxed and earthy contingent. I didn’t come in gently because I wanted to leave no question as to who we were and what we were about and within a month we had stirred up a hornet’s nest.
The church had polarised and we were the catalyst for that. The next few months were painful and difficult as we worked in an increasingly untenable environment. We had people supporting us, but this rift was exactly what we were worried about when we indicated we weren’t a good fit. Things were unravelling fast and tempers frayed often.
Again this isn’t the time and the place to revisit the ugliness of that period. The short version was that we left for our lap of Oz in April with people due to vote on our appointment around July. One afternoon while walking the Strand in Townsville we got a call to say that the church vote had gone against us and we weren’t going to be re-appointed to Quinns leadership. While the support was about 50/50 there were enough voting members for us to be out the door. This event co-incided with news of a big financial hit that we hadn’t seen coming. So now we were a quarter of a million bucks down and out of work. We pondered whether to head home or keep travelling. We kept travelling and that was a good decision because it would have been another blow to have to cut our trip short.
While we travelled, the church had some further conflict that saw those who voted us out leaving, and then we had a phone call saying we could return. We really didn’t want to. We didn’t want to say that either, but we just didn’t like the tone of the whole situation and we were reluctant to re-enter a place we had been so badly treated, even if those who disliked us had gone.
But we couldn’t escape the sense that God was saying that he wanted us to do it. We also felt a sense of allegiance to those who had stuck their neck out for us. So whether it was a ‘god thing’ or a ‘duty’ thing, I don’t know for sure. But in the absence of anything else to do, we just went with it.
That was how things started and they got worse from there for a while, with more strained relationships, declining numbers and morale bottoming out.
It can only get better from there hey?…
The focus of these posts is the way in which the communities I have been part of have helping shape who I am today.
Quinns didn’t begin well and the way in which I was formed initially was into a guy with his guard up everywhere he went. I had a couple of good relationships, a whole bunch that were ambivalent and some that were still vehement and hostile. It was hard to relax. I didn’t lose confidence in who I was or what I was about, but I began to lose interest in simply being bothered. Within a year I would have happily left – even with nothing to go to, except that I would have abandoned a few others who had worked with us to try and restore health. So we stayed – that sense of duty, mixed with divine calling, but never really able to discern which was which. But I know for a period there I entered relationships cautiously – guardedly and of course that didn’t work well.
Simply enduring the struggle and absorbing the pain was in itself a formative experience. I had seen other people suffering in churches and I’d been part of churches where dumb stuff had taken place, but now I was leading one and on the receiving end of that stuff. I hadn’t been here before so I needed to learn how to process all of it.
Again hindsight is a wonderful teacher and I would have to say that my direct and at times intentionally provocative approach to leadership was a factor in my own struggle. I didn’t want to be misheard – to be seen as returning to a typical pastoral role – but in being blunt I also came across as somewhat arrogant and uncaring. In those days I don’t remember really getting to know people. I remember trying to both lead and survive at the same time and building friendships (we did have some good ones) was a bonus.
One of the reasons a good friend gave for staying at Quinns as a church was that he saw it as a ‘fixer upper’ and somewhere he could make a contribution rather than warming the pew of a larger church. He was right. We were a fixer -upper but I had never perceived myself as a renovator. I liked to start things – not fix them.
It was time to learn some more new stuff.
After a rocky start we prayed hard and some new faces joined our community – healthy, positive energetic people who came to build up and help us ‘renovate’. In time the culture began to change, I began to drop my guard and warmth began to spread rather than caution.
As much as I had been in the team leader role at Lesmurdie for a period and also at Upstream, this was a different situation. I didn’t have a ‘Garth’ who’d been around a while to help me figure out the situation and this wasn’t a bunch of long term friends like Upstream. It was a new environment and one that had begun badly.
As I write this tonight I can’t imagine any church I would rather be part of now other than QBC. I love who we are and I can’t think of where I’d fit if I ever left. I’m sure it wouldn’t be that hard, but I could actually see myself staying here until I hang up the paid ministry boots. I guess the question is how did it get to this from where it was?
Initially when we came back to QBC it was with the hope of moving the church in a very focused and creative, missional direction. In the midst of conflict and tension the ideas that accompanied that began to sound unnecessarily disruptive and misunderstood so we ended up shelving big dreams and instead sought to just survive.
That was disappointing, but I’d run out of energy and couldn’t be bothered any more. That’s not a good place to be, but I gave myself permission to just coast for a bit.
Slowly we gathered good friends and began to see a community form. It was a new community within an old one, but it was feeling healthy. We began to invest our energy here and it was rewarding.
One thing that happened in this time – and how QBC shaped me – was that I became better at being a ‘pastor’ – an actual pastoral kind of person. That was what was needed in that time and I began to pastor more and lead less. (Yes I do see them as different skills and gifts).
As things began to get healthy again I moved back into leading and giving direction, but from a place of seeking communal discernment rather than the ‘visionary leader’ approach. In the last few years one of my most valuable learnings has been around the importance of the community in the kingdom of God and the way we have individualised faith so much in the western world. In QBC I gave myself to intentionally trying to figure out what a more substantial communal expression of church looks like. That doesn’t come naturally to any of us, but I sense we have made progress.
Being a part timer hasn’t always been intentional, but at QBC it has always been my preferred mode of operation. In the past it may have been a concession to a lack of funds, but this time it was a way of keeping myself earthed in everyday life, of allowing us freedom to employ a diverse staff and also a way of making sure that as a church we are never backed into a corner by rich people and their $$. The part time experience has been one of the most valuable learnings of the last 7 years and I reckon many more pastors should give it a go. It not only frees your church to have a range of staff rather than one paid guy, but it also gives you another string to your bow if all goes belly up. I know too many people who have no other options and that is a horrible place to be when church life is up the creek.
Having to work within the part time constraints also forces you to focus on the main tasks – the core things you need to do that no one else can do. I lead, teach, meet with blokes and do some admin. That’s pretty much it, but all those things are things I can do well and that add to who we are.
Then there’s what I call the ‘dad’ factor. Around the church I feel a bit like ‘dad’… and maybe its a reflection of how I have led for the most part. Dads care for their families, make decisions based on what’s best for them and they miss them when they have to go away. A family also notices when dad isn’t around… Beds don’t get made, dishes don’t get done quite as well… everyone is a little less at ease until dad comes home. I’ve noticed that when we have travelled people have always expressed that it feels ‘safer’ when we are around and I guess that’s a part of the dad factor. I wouldn’t want to overstate that, but I sense it as a very real thing.
In all of that is a very settled sense of personal identity that allows me just to be myself these days and without the need to impress or wow. It means that if I have 8 hrs for a sermon and it isn’t ‘polished’ then I go with the raw version and hope it does the job. I know people love us and they would rather hear from our hearts than have slick, carefully crafted stories that have taken days to create.
How has QBC formed me? In a nutshell I feel like its given me a very diverse range of experiences, from the ugly and abhorrent to the rich and inspiring that have allowed me to learn to lead in a range of situations. If the time comes one day to move churches again then I know I will go with a sense of confidence in who God has made me to be and a settled knowledge of what I have to offer.
Perhaps this will be the last stop on the way to ‘retirement’ (whatever that word means) and we will enjoy the next 13 years with these people. Then again, I never predict the future any more because I am infamously bad at it.
I’m going to wrap this up later in the week with some final broader reflections on this idea of how communities form us and why they matter.