The Crucible: A Morning for leaders in Dublin


A morning for leaders, with leaders.

Following several previous events over the past 18 months, including one in Edenmore Golf Club, the next ‘crucible’ conference for leaders is planned for Dublin on May 8, 2018, beginning at 10.30 am and running until 1.30 pm.

The conference will be hosted by the Irish Bible Institute and will include tea/coffee on arrival, and a light lunch.

The morning will explore the question of how Christian leaders are shaped by various people, events  and experiences they encounter in the course of their leadership journey.

Dr Alan Wilson (whose doctoral research explored this subject) will interview three experienced Christian leaders:

  • Roz Stirling director of Cleopas, a ministry dedicated to helping people – not least leaders – to cultivate their relationship with God;
  • Bishop Ken (Fanta) Clarke, mission director for SAMS (UK and Ireland) and formerly Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh;
  • Dr Trevor Morrow, Minister Emeritus of Lucan Presbyterian Church and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

You can expect to be encouraged, as you listen to stories of God at work in leaders’ lives, and challenged as to your own leadership and relationship with God.

Among comments from previous attendees …

‘… incredibly moving, humbling and thought-provoking … a significant marker in my own journey’

‘good for my soul’

Please use the contact form if you would like to have more information about the event.



Turn these stones into bread

1Henri Nouwen’s little book In the Name of Jesus, takes a fascinating look at the temptations Jesus encountered in the desert. I’m not going to simply regurgitate or summarise what he says here (you will have to read it for yourself), but here are some thoughts on ways in which the incident might speak to Christian leaders.

Go it alone!

The temptation to ‘go it alone’. When Jesus turns down the opportunity to turn alleviate his hunger by turning stones into bread, he quotes from Deuteronomy 8: we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. I don’t think that verse means what we usually think it means: he is not saying that, just as we have our breakfast in the morning, so we should make sure to read a verse or two before heading into the day. The context in Deuteronomy seems to teach that this is a lesson in dependence, and that throws light on the nature of the temptation.

It was not the simple fact that they had bread to sustain them that kept the wandering Israelites from starving: it was the fact that God spoke and gave them the bread that kept them from starving. Their lesson was about learning the art of humble dependence on God.

Hence this was a temptation for Jesus to ‘go it alone’. Since he was the Son of God (that’s what God had just said), it was within his power to turn stones into bread. But his reference to Deuteronomy appears to suggest that for him to do so would be to act independently of his Father – and even to use his status as Son to this end.

How often are leaders tempted to ‘go it alone’? To take our gifts and abilities and use them independently of God?

One of the Christian leader’s most significant lessons is the lesson of dependence. At times God allows a leader to get to the end of their resources so they learn to trust him.

Be spectacular!

The second temptation was the temptation to be spectacular. Imagine an angelic rescue as Jesus fell from the pinnacle of the temple! A sure way to catch the imagination of the people!

How many leaders are lining up to be completely insignificant? How many are indifferent to whether or not they make an impact? The opportunity to look good, to be (even a little bit) spectacular probably carries at least some allure for many leaders. What’s the harm in jumping off a high building if it makes people notice us?!

In this regard, I imagine that many of us are familiar with the adage that ‘excellence honours God and inspires people’: I have no doubt that is true, but I think excellence might be one of those tricky things that forgets its subordinate function and becomes an idol! And the leader is on a quest to be spectacular.

Take a short cut!

The third temptation is the most brash: just fall down and worship and the kingdoms will be yours. Imagine – a short cut to power and glory that sidesteps the cross!

Short cuts that avoid pain and discomfort can be enticing. But leaders cannot afford to sell their souls in a compromise that seems to promise a quick route to success!

Preaching that Moves People

I’ve just finished reading a new book on preaching. It’s written by Yancey Arrington (I’m told Yancey is a good ol’ Texas name) who serves as teaching pastor in a church in Houston.

It’s not a book about the tasks of assembling the content of sermons, but focusses instead on their delivery: you will need to look elsewhere for books that cover issues of exegesis and hermeneutics. It’s not that Arrington thinks these are unimportant, it’s just that he thinks not enough attention has been paid to how we better connect with our listeners. While teaching may be content-centred and aim for comprehension, preaching should be people-centred and aim for engagement.

All good preaching includes teaching … However, unless the preacher calls for a response … to those truths, what happens in the pulpit remains more lecture than sermon.

Arrington makes his point under four main headings:

  • Arrange for tension – which I think in a sense is a call for more inductive preaching where we don’t give away the point right at the start. It’s a move away from the old advise that the preacher should tell the people what he’s going to say, say it, then tell them what he has just said.
  • Build for pace. Here is where he develops the skiing analogy that is hidden in the book’s title. The sermon’s main idea is the skier’s path down the mountain. Get down too quickly and the sermon is superficial; get down too slowly (too many turns and digressions), and you may lose your listeners.
  • Chart for bandwidth – in which he explores the emotional content of a sermon and argues that the preacher needs to engage a range of highs and lows (as well as some steadiness in the middle) through the course of a sermon. Too much steadiness and it’s boring; too many highs and it’s exhausting; too may lows and it’s sad.
  • Find your voice. Preachers need to be themselves. Influencers (other voices) can help us to find our own voice, but if they become idols, they can prevent us from finding our voice.

The book is clearly written in an American context and primarily for an American audience, but you shouldn’t be put off because he talks about getting hot dogs at halftime when your football team has scored a touchdown, or because he hasn’t referred to your favourite European preacher!

It’s a refreshing read and I think it will probably be of most benefit to preachers who are familiar with more technical material by people like Bryan Chapell (who has written an endorsement) or Sidney Greidanus.

The sensitivity of the Spirit

I posted this 5 years ago and I’ve had the same Bible passages today.

Where will ‘The Dove’ settle?

JS Alan Wilson

Doves get a mention in both parts of my Bible reading today. First, in the Genesis reading, was the story of the dove that was sent out by Noah in an attempt to determine how quickly the flood waters were subsiding. Then, in Matthew, was the account of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove.

A couple of years ago I heard RT Kendall talk about the sensitivity of the Spirit. He has a book with that title. He tells the story of a couple, Sandy and Bernice, who went to be missionaries in Israel. They noticed that a dove had come to live in the eaves of their house in Jerusalem. They also noticed that the dove was disturbed by noise in the house. If a door was slammed or if voices were raised, the dove would fly off. They didn’t want to lose the dove…

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Podcast supplement: reflect on your leadership journey

One of the ways you might like to follow up with this week’s podcast on the leadership journey of Moses is to reflect on some of the things that have contributed to your own leadership journey.

Keep in mind that while Moses’ story fits neatly into three stages, your journey may have more phases. Look out for events and times that have marked turning points between phases. Use the second template (or your own variation on it) to reflect on your own story.

 Key stages

Formative years

Exile years

Leadership years

Turning points Intervening against the Egyptian Meeting God at the edge of the desert Striking the rock
Defining moments Standing up for the Hebrew slave Choosing to intercede
Important people Mother, sister, Pharaoh’s daughter Wife, father-in-law Aaron, Joshua
Crucial decisions Deciding where his allegiance lay Defying Pharaoh and leaving Egypt
Times of testing Tests faced by his people and family The loss of his vision Complaints of the people
Notable successes Courage of others Signs and wonders
Regrettable failures Rejection Striking the rock
Life lessons Sense of injustice and of identity Experiencing the mighty hand of God
Sense of calling Choosing to stand with the Hebrews Call episode in chapter 3,4
Key stages Stage 1 Stage 2
Turning points      
Defining moments      
Important people      
Crucial decisions      
Times of testing      
Notable successes      
Regrettable failures      
Life lessons      
Sense of calling      

Leadership 101: Call, character and competence (4)

keys-leadershipThe previous post started looking at leadership competence, the third factor that we can draw from the little vignette on David’s leadership in Psalm 78.

I suggested these eight leader competencies and the post reflected a little on the first four.

  • Determining the mission
  • Establishing vision
  • Maintaining values and culture
  • Strategic and operational planning
  • Managing change
  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Team building

What about the others?

Managing change

They say that some of the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies (diapers, if you are reading on the far side of the Atlantic). While that’s an exaggeration, but it’s worth looking at this:


I’d seen the first two parts of this, but just found the third element: leaders beware!

Even if it is not always welcome, change is inevitable. Some organisations are agents of change (fifteen years ago, who thought we’d be using the same device to make phone calls, read emails, listen to music and shoot time-lapse video?). Others need to learn to adapt to change.

To put it somewhat technically, change is needed when there is a discrepancy between the current state of things and how we want them to be. What makes it difficult is that it means something has to be left behind. Business writers Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky suggest that ‘people do not resist change, per se. People resist loss.

Which, of course, threatens to put he brakes on any proposed change. That’s until the potential gain of the change outweighs the perceived loss; or until anxiety about what will happen if we change is outweighed by anxiety about what will happen if we fail to change. For example, it may only be when the fear of having to close their doors weighs more heavily on the members of a congregation than the fear of what it might mean to make changes to the format of their services, that that congregation will be willing to change – though I suspect it would be possible to find examples of churches whose commitment to perceived ‘faithfulness’ meant closing the doors rather than changing anything.

James Lawrence uses railway analogy in describing four groups of people who respond differently to change. Radicals are the track layers, out in front, impatient for change. Progressives are the engine drivers who take a positive view of change, but realise that it needs to be worked through carefully. Conservatives are the fare-paying passengers who are wary of change but may be persuaded. Traditionalists are the brake van: they fear change.

Leaders will have to work with each of these four groups, not least in churches. For some of the radicals, change may never come quickly enough, or in big enough doses. At the other end of the spectrum, for some traditionalists, any change is a bridge too far. It’s the groups in the middle that can be reasoned with. Sometimes some of the radicals may need to be allowed to leave. The traditionalists, at least the older ones, are unlikely to leave and the leader will have to assure them that they will be cared for and valued even if they don’t like the direction the church is going.



Good communication is the competency that undergirds all of the other elements of effective leadership. Poor communication makes assumptions, lacks clarity, or fails to make the case for the vision, the mission or the change that the leader wants to implement.

I think one of the most basic failures of leadership (of which I have been guilty, and I have seen it happen) is the failure to communicate with the people who are most likely to be affected by any proposed change. It simply alienates people and diminishes the leader’s credibility with the followers.

Communication can be quite a complex science given the number of ‘moving parts’. It involves a communicator, a message, and an audience. The process of communication can go awry at any of these points. There can be an unclear message – say a muddied sense of mission, a clumsy communicator – say who understands neither the message nor the audience, or a distracted audience whose attention is being pulled in a hundred directions and who are only too ready to put their own interpretations on what is being said and fill in the gaps where things are unsaid.

The leader needs to be aware of these challenges and ensure that the message if both accurately sent and accurately received.

Problem solving

Leadership is unlikely to take place in the absence of problems. Businesses feel the impact of the global economic climate. Sports teams feel the impact of loss of form or of injuries to key players. Churches are not exempt from the winds of cultural change or from the internal factionalism that would be better not there, but too often is. Organisations feel the pressure of a downturn in income or the turnover of key staff.

Problems need to be clearly identified and properly understood. The more complex the problem, the more important that the leader understands its multiple dimensions. Perhaps when Mr Jones walked out in protest to the ditching of the church organ in favour of a guitar, there was more to it than met the eye; a quiet word might have revealed that he doesn’t mind guitars, but it was his great uncle who paid for the pipe organ to be renovated fifty years ago!

A range of solutions need to be drawn up and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses. Leaders need to be smart enough to anticipate possible pitfalls with their preferred solutions.

The best solution should be identified, agreed on, especially by those who are most likely to feel the impact, clearly communicated, and implemented.

Team building

Not every leader may possess all of these skills in equal measure. A visionary leader may lack the patience to work out the careful steps needed to implement the vision. He or she may be impatient with the speed of change and the resistance of the traditionalists. There is a fairly obvious case to be made for leadership teams where team members complement each other as they bring their participant strengths and leadership styles to the table.

And of course team means another dynamic in the leadership process. A team needs to be led. Its members need to be managed. It needs to have healthy systems of communication.

And what is a team, anyway? Is it different from a task group or from a committee?

(To be continued).



Leadership 101: Call, character and competence (3)


Over the past few weeks, the blog has been reflecting on a leader’s call and character. A third important factor in good leadership is competence. While calling gives a leader a sense of conviction about his or her leadership, character helps provide integrity and build trust. But leadership also calls for some skills.

What about a leader’s competence? Here’s a list of eight things that need to function well for leadership to be effective.

  1. Determining the mission
  2. Establishing vision
  3. Maintaining values and culture
  4. Strategic and operational planning
  5. Managing change
  6. Communication
  7. Problem solving
  8. Team building

There is a lot that could be said about each of these eight skill areas. I’m going to take four this week and leave the others till next week.

Determining the mission

If you’re a leader, you need to know why your organisation, your church, or your team exists. Church leaders are hopefully going to see the mission of their particular church as one part of the biblical mission of Christ’s Church, even though they need to figure out the specifics of being a particular church, in a particular place, at a particular time. One way to sharpen your thinking is to ask what would happen if your church went out of business!

In their book on ‘mission drift’ Greer and Horst underline the importance of clarity and intentionality in defining mission. Their concern is primarily for Christian organisations that drift from the moorings of their original intention: a clear understanding of mission allows an organisation to stay focussed and helps guard against drift.

As Walter Wright suggests, a mission statement clarifies ‘who we are’ and provides a goal by which the organisation’s effectiveness can be measured.

Establishing vision

Closely connected with mission is vision: in fact, it’s easy to get the two ideas mixed up. Perhaps we can think of mission as what we do while vision is where we hope to arrive: it’s a picture of a desired future.

While we’re talking about it, can I share one of my pet nitpicks about vision?

How many times have you heard someone quote Proverbs 29:18 – ‘where there is no vision the people perish’ – in an attempt to persuade you of the biblical case for having a mission statement? Sorry, but I don’t think the verse is using the word in the way it gets bandied about by leader- types: the point is that when there is no prophetic vision (no one is hearing from God), there will be problems.

None of that should say that a sense of vision is not important. Some leaders are blessed with an ability to picture a better future for a church or an organisation, and that picture helps move the organisation along in its mission.

Bill Hybels is an example of a strong visionary leader. He’s about to hand over the reigns at Willow Creek Church, but not having overseen the church’s birth and its growth – not least in its influence around the world. For Hybels it started when a Bible College professor painted a picture of the early church in Acts.

Hybels describes vision as ‘the leader’s most potent weapon’. The leader’s task is to see the vision, to personify it and to communicate it.

For all that may be said about the value of an inspiring vision, it’s’ worth noting Derek Tidball’s caution in his new book on Joshua the leader: ‘Passion and visions may well be God-given, but they may equally … be misguided.’

Maintaining values and culture

Perhaps you’ve come across the saying that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. I may not have put it like that, but I think it’s a valid claim. We’ll get to strategy in a moment, but we need to recognise that strategy is going to be hamstrung if our organisation or our church lacks the right kind of culture.

Culture is the amalgam of beliefs and assumptions, ‘the way we do things here’ that shape how things are. It’s linked with values, but here’s where it gets tricky. You can have plaques on the wall listing the most wonderful-sounding values, but if those values are not really owned by the members of the organisation, that remain no more than noble aspirations.

Walter Wright suggests that ‘every organization has a hidden culture that has developed over the years that controls what is actually done regardless of the values we espouse’. How many churches say that prayer is one of their key values, but struggle to get people to turn up at a prayer gathering? Might there be a disconnect there?

This all means that the leader’s task is to reinforce the desired values of the organisation, thereby shaping the culture and thereby enabling the strategy to take shape.

Strategic and operational planning

It’s not enough to have a vision or even a clear sense of mission if you don’t have a clue about how to get from A to B. Mission without implementation is fairly futile.

Walter Wright (yes, him again – check out his book Relational Leadership) outlines a 10 step process towards implementing a vision. Each step consists in exploring a question. The first four relate to strategic planning, the next four to operational planning, and the other two are the review process.

  1. Who are we?
  2. What is important to us?
  3. Where in the world are we?
  4. Where do we want to be?
  5. How should we do it?
  6. How should we do it?
  7. When will we do it?
  8. Who will do it?
  9. How are we doing?
  10. Was God pleased?

(By the way, how many committee/team meetings would be a lot more efficient if each agenda item included questions 4-8?)

That’s enough for now – we’ll leave the other four competencies for next week. Though meantime it’s worth pondering whether every leader will necessarily have each of these abilities, whether they have them in equal measure, or whether one implication of this is a recognition of the importance of team.