The Leadership Journey Podcast Season 2, Episode 14: Russell Birney

Your Leadership Journey

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The guest in the first episode of the podcast in 2019 is Russell Birney. Russell is a retired Presbyterian minister whose ministry spanned several decades and included over 20 years as minister of High Kirk in Ballymena. He is a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

In this first part our our conversation we talk about Russell growing up in Fermanagh, about his experience of coming to faith (it was not a straightforward journey), and about the decision to pursue training for Presbyterian ministry.

Along the way we discuss mentoring and the value of having friends and people who speak into our lives.

Next week I’ll be talking to Russell about his ministry in several congregations, some of the challenges he faced, and some of the important things he was learning about ministry as well as conviction about the importance of the Church.

Here is this week’s…

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The boy grew up: reflections on turning the page on another year

The other day we celebrated our grandson’s first birthday. He and I celebrated by jumping up and down quite energetically. That’s a lot of fun when you are one and someone else is doing most of the jumping and throwing you in the air: it’s a lot tougher when you’re almost 60 and you’re doing most of the hard work!

I doubt that anyone would have let me jump up and down with him a year ago. He seemed so tiny and fragile: I’d have worried that his head might have fallen off. But he’s grown sturdy and strong. Among other things, he loves blueberries and has started to sing. That’s what happens: babies grow up.

It happened to Jesus.

I’ve often thought about Luke’s short summary of Jesus’ early years (2:52):

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man.

As my wife pointed out to me, there is a very similar statement about Samuel in the Old Testament:

Now the young man Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and also with man.

It’s what happens.

Luke’s picture is a description of healthy development that is intellectual and emotional (he grew in wisdom), physical (stature), spiritual (favour with God), and relational (favour with others). While it contains some fascinating theological conundrums, it’s also a useful framework to help us take stock of our lives as we move into a new year.

Interestingly, one or two resources I’ve seen in the past few months point out the importance of paying attention to each of these areas of our lives as part of self-care and resilience: for example, Tony Horsfall shared some thoughts based on Debbie Hawker’s SPECS concept (Spiritual, physical, emotional, cognitive, and social) in a series of articles on his Facebook page a few months ago.

So whether you are a resolution-type of person, more inclined to the practice of a rule of life, or would just like to conduct an audit or try to identify a few goals, take a moment or two to reflect on these areas of your life.

Intellectual and emotional (Jesus grew in wisdom)

I read the other day about a former colleague who had read almost 200 books in 2018: hats off to him! I hope he manages to recall most of what he has read! I suspect that’s out of the league in which most of us operate, but what steps should we be taking to grow (and continue to grow) intellectually? Maybe it’s reading, maybe it’s audiobooks or podcasts (what about a course via iTunesU). One of the problems of the information era in which we find ourselves is that there is so much information and the trivial and ephemeral can easily be the enemy of what is more substantive.

And in a world of burgeoning anxiety and depression we hardly need reminding about our emotional health. Issues such as these can be stubborn and dangerous and require specialist help. I’m not sure that the taboos have entirely gone away.

More generally, however, what place do we need to give to self-compassion (an antidote to perfectionism?), to gratitude (an antidote to cynicism and discontentment), and to laughter ?

Physical (Jesus grew in stature)

Unless we’re health fanatics or highly trained professional athletes, a lot of us have probably gained a pound or two over the past couple of weeks. Aside from the urge to get rid of these (Google searches for ‘diet’ surge by 82% on January 1), what do you need to be doing about what you consume, the amount of rest you get and an exercise regime that suits your age and current health condition? Does your lifestyle allow you to give adequate attention to each of these areas?

Spiritual (Jesus grew in favour with God)

Aside from the fascinating theological issue of Jesus’ dynamic and changing relationship with his Father, here’s a reminder of the importance of spiritual growth and formation. What part will Scripture play in your life in 2019? How will you cultivate prayer? Is there space for other spiritual practices, like silence or fasting? What part will other believers play in helping you to grow? In this regard it might be worth checking out Gordon MacDonald’s classification of five types of people who affect our spiritual passion.

Social (Jesus grew in favour with others)

For introverts who’ve just about managed to get through the Christmas season with its parties and crowds, this might seem like an area to leave until you’ve finished hibernation. Extraverts, meantime, have been having a blast! But for all of us it’s worth taking an audit of our relationships: family, colleagues, neighbours, students, congregations and so on.

Over to you!

As I already suggested, you might like to use these headings to structure some goals for the new year. Or you might like to keep the five areas a bit more generally in mind, using them, for example to regularly review your life, ensuring that you are growing in a balanced way (if you read 200 books in 2018, you might not do quite so well in the social area!).

Feel free to post a comment if you’ve found this useful or if you’ve been able to use the idea to help you as you look ahead to 2019.

Exploring your leadership journey

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I’m working (again) with the story of Moses and ways in which it provides us with a paradigm to explore the concept of a leadership journey.

Here are ten themes you might like to explore:

Key stages

For Moses, there were three stages (formative, exile, leadership), delineated by both geography and the nature of what he was doing. Think, for example, about places you have lived, stages of education, jobs, training or changes in family.

Turning points

These are hinge points that move you from one stage of your journey to another. In Moses’ life, being found out for the killing of the Egyptian propelled him rapidly into the second (exile) stage of his life.

Defining moments

These may not be unlike the turning points, but are other moments that help define your primary identity and your sense of mission.

Important people

Each season of Moses’ life included the involvement of important people: from his mother and sister in the formative years, his wife and father-in-law in the exile years, to Joshua in the leadership years. It’s worth reflecting on the people whose influence has contributed to who and where you are today.

Crucial decisions

Leaders need to be decision-makers and some of the decisions have major significance in shaping their journey. What major life-shaping decisions have you taken? Have there been times when you have had to draw a line in the sand over some issue?

Times of testing

Christian leaders never graduated from the tests and temptations that everyone else faces, but they often have to face a new, or intensified set of tests. Much of Moses’ leadership phase was marked by tests and challenges. What are some of the seasons of testing (both personal and in terms of your leadership) that you have faced?

Notable successes

It can be tricky to talk about ’success’ in Christian leadership. However, are there times you can see that God has been working through you (Moses had the Red Sea!) and there is evidence of fruit?

Regrettable failures

Leadership is not always going to be an unbroken series of success stories. The reality is that leaders fail – both in terms of their leadership and, sadly, in their personal lives. What have been some of your failures and what have you been able to learn from them?

Life lessons

What have you been learning along the way in terms of God, yourself, the nature and challenge of leadership?

Lessons along the way

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Over the past few years I have spent some time interviewing Christian leaders: some of the interviews were part of my doctoral work on crucibles of leadership, and some are part of my ongoing podcast series. I recently wrote an article for the Evangelical Alliance in which I talked briefly about some of the leadership lessons from these interviews.

Here’s a quick summary:

1. Surround yourself with good people

In recounting their stories, many leaders look back to people who have helped inspire and encourage them. Biblical examples include Jethro and Moses, Moses and Joshua, Mordecai and Esther, Jesus and His disciples, and Paul and Timothy.

2. Team matters

Avoid being a maverick: team matters, just as it did in the work of Jesus and Paul.

3. Culture beats strategy

It’s the old adage that ​‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

4. Be reflective

The value of being reflective – perhaps something that comes with time and perspective – is that it makes it possible for other leaders to learn from good practice. The goal is not to create conformity or uniformity, but to help share good practice and to allow others to learn from a seasoned leader’s experience.

5. God loves you

As Henri Nouwen wrote: ​”You have to listen to the voice who calls you the beloved, because otherwise you will run around begging for affirmation, for praise, for success. And then you’re not free.”

And, if you want to put some meat on the bones, click here for the article.

Photo by Brett Patzke on Unsplash

A biblical picture of leadership

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The past few decades have seen a significant increase in interest in the subject of leadership, both generally and within the Church. So much so that it’s tempting to paraphrase Ecclesiastes: ‘Of the making of books (and articles) on leadership, there is no end!’

The range of resources available means that Christians face a challenge in knowing how to navigate the subject. On the one hand, we can become so infatuated with the most recent trend in management or entrepreneurship that we end up unwittingly relegating the Bible to the sidelines, while on the other hand, we might bury our heads in the sand with regard to the challenges of 21st century leadership or the wisdom that might be gleaned from some of the best leadership thinkers. In fact, we might prefer to ignore the subject altogether, perhaps even dismiss it as unspiritual!

It’s the first of those temptations – ignoring the voice of Scripture – that I hope to address in this article, suggesting three biblical themes that might provide a framework for fruitful reflection on leadership.

1 – The Bible and leaders

The importance of human leaders is implied by the array of leaders that God uses across the pages of both Old and New Testaments. Considerable space is given to many of their stories: from Joseph, in ‘secular’ leadership in Egypt, through Moses and the Exodus, Joshua in the Promised Land, judges, like Deborah or Gideon, kings like David or Solomon, governors like Nehemiah, all the way through to the Lord Jesus himself and those who followed him.

Despite the shortcomings of many of these leaders, many of them were agents of significant work among God’s people. How would the Hebrews have left Egypt and negotiated the wilderness without the leadership of Moses? How would post-exile Jerusalem have been rebuilt without the leadership of Nehemiah (even though he could not have achieved it by himself)?

While we need to be careful not to treat some parts of Scripture as little more than leadership handbooks from which we can glean ‘leadership principles’, many of the stories have a great deal to teach us about the challenges and responsibilities of spiritual leadership. We also need to recognise that few of the biblical leaders left legacies of unmitigated success. Moses failed to make it to the Promised Land. Samson’s story was a confusing mix of faith and recklessness. Many of the kings ‘did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord’.

Scripture’s portrayal of these leaders is so honest about their flaws that, even if it’s too much to say that human leadership is a necessary evil, we might be tempted to think of it as a dangerous necessity!

2 – The call to character

Scripture cautions about the traps of leadership. In the Old Testament Deuteronomy 17 warns the king against accumulating horses (a sign of military power), accumulating wives (perhaps as a way of cementing political alliances, but a potential gateway to idolatry), and accumulating silver and gold (material wealth). By any other reckoning, these three things would probably have been markers of success in the ancient world: who wouldn’t admire a leader with great military power, international influence, and personal wealth?

In fact, Israel had one such leader: Solomon. Solomon’s wealth set him at the top of the ‘Rich List’; he had 12000 horsemen (along with horses from Egypt); in his household were 700 wives and 300 concubines. But the trappings of apparent success carried the seeds of the destruction of Solomon’s leadership. He ended his life an idolater and the kingdom was subsequently torn from his family. How many Christian leaders have crashed their leadership on the rocks of money, sex, and power?

It’s no surprise that the New Testament sets so much store on the kind of people who were to lead local congregations. The instructions for appointing elders/overseers in the Pastoral Epistles prioritise personal character over spectacular gifting (though gifting is part of the picture). Similarly Peter (1 Peter 5) challenges the heart motivations of elders, warning them that spiritual leadership is not intended as a path to wealth or personal power.

3 – Biblical pictures

Derek Tidball, in his book Builders and Fools, encourages Christian leaders to think about their role less in terms of the latest leadership trend and more in terms of some of the pictures the Bible itself gives to describe ministerial leadership. When we do this, there is plenty of material!

Among the pictures from which we might draw, there are kings and warriors, prophets and sages, builders and pilots, and there are shepherds and servants.

‘Shepherd’ is perhaps the dominant metaphor for leadership in both Old and New Testaments. In the OT, God (already the Shepherd of his people) delegates the task of shepherding to kings and other leaders. Sadly, they often prove to be unfaithful and are denounced by the prophets who promise that God himself will step in. Messianic prophecy looks ahead to a coming King who will emerge from Bethlehem and shepherd his people. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the welfare of his sheep, and in turn he delegates the task of shepherding his flock to his followers. Elders are told to ‘shepherd’ the flock.

If 21st century Church leadership is to be biblical, it needs to take proper account of the implications of the shepherding motif, with its call for leaders who are marked by both compassion and courage.

Finally, leaders are servants. The term ‘servant leadership’ has become familiar in general discussions of leadership, but it was Jesus who challenged his disciples to look less at the powerful models of contemporary leadership on display in the Roman Empire, and learn the lessons of servanthood. In contrast to the domineering styles of the culture around them, Jesus’ disciples had to understand that the radically different values of the kingdom of God included a radically different vision of what it meant to be number one: whoever would be first would have to be the slave of all.

Christian leadership follows in the footsteps of Jesus. In fact, we do well to remember that the call to follow precedes the call to lead: our leadership is validated when it flows from our followership. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, biblical leadership exists, not for its own advancement, but for the good of those in its care, for the glory of God, and the advancement of his kingdom.

(This is a slightly edited version of an article written for Insight – the magazine of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland – part of a special section the magazine is running on leadership.)

Christian leaders and their devotional life

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I was recently asked to speak to a church staff on the importance of a leader’s devotional life. With Bono’s disclaimer that ‘you preach what you need to hear’, here is the drift of what I said.

A key verse (albeit with a spiritualised interpretation) is Song of Solomon 1:6 –

My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!

So here are four reasons why leaders might find it challenging to maintain their devotional life and four reasons why it matters:

  • There is a lot to do! Which means that various things jostle for attention and priority. It can be tempting to be drawn to what can be measured (how many hours we worked, how many people we counselled); but what if the things that matter cannot actually be measured? The story of Mary and Martha is a reminder that there are times when we can get so weighed down by the list of what needs done (or what we think needs done) that we serve from resentment rather than from the overflow of devoted hearts.
  • We get distracted! Richard Foster said that ‘distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day’. Aside from our preoccupation with the mountain of tasks that are calling for our attention, there are our own inner thoughts – our preoccupations, fears, confusion and questions. And there can be the ubiquitous distractions of our social media feeds on-demand news cycles.
  • Ministry becomes a substitute for devotion and we become professional Christians. At times it takes the form of thinking that once we’re ‘in ministry’, we have somehow graduated beyond the need for the normal routines of the Christian life. Or the fact that we read the Bible for our sermons and talks somehow exempts us from reading it for ourselves.
  • The problem of routine. ‘Discipline’ sounds harsh and some of us see routine as the enemy of spontaneity, or even a pathway to ‘legalism’. It’s true that routines can become ruts, but without structure we’re at the mercy of our moods and circumstances, and routines help us not to forget.

The trouble is, as soon as you sit and become quiet, you think, Oh, I forgot this. I should call my friend. Later on I’m going to see him. Your inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down (Henri Nouwen).

And why is any of this important?

  • We are followers before we are leaders. Or, as a good friend of mine puts it, God has called us to be shepherds, but some of us have forgotten we are still sheep.

Jesus had different priorities than teaching us to lead. ‘Follow’, however, comes up explicitly over thirty times in the Gospels. Whether or not all of us or anyone are called to leadership is not at stake; we are all called to be followers. Discipleship is first and foremost about following. Disciple indicates one who follows Jesus, ‘a relationship that involves both commitment and cost (Arthur Boers).

  • Our best leadership flows from who we are. Leadership is not merely a set of functions carried out by a leader: the next leadership is the leader expressing who they are. The best Christian leadership is an overflow of who the leader is being shaped to be in God.
  • We need to find strength in God. Leadership is challenging and there are times when leaders are overwhelmed and their own resources are insufficient. A seasoned leader once told me that ‘probably one of the greatest things you need to learn on leadership … is the ability to strengthen yourself in God’.
  • Leaders need to know that God loves them. This has been a theme in some of the leaders’ stories that have been shared with me, both in my research and in my Leadership Journey podcasts. In the middle of all the remarkable events and challenges of his leadership, what must it have meant to Moses to hear God say, ‘You have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name’?

Pastors often slip into the trap of building their identities around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Pastors need to pursue growth in their understanding of and feelings concerning God’s acceptance (from Resilient Ministry).


Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

(From the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind)