The Craft

In search of effective and authentic Christian Leadership

 ‘To yonder Oak within the field, I spoke without restraint’ (Tennyson ‘The Talking Oak)

The Churchwarden Peter and I stood outside the church. The church was petite, historical, stunningly beautiful and set within the Lincolnshire Wolds. To preside at the Eucharist in this sacred place was always a profound experience. I would stand at the altar, facing East, and instead of looking at the reredos, I looked out of a transparent glass window at the gently undulating and richly-coloured

hills of the Wolds. It was a scene that placed me in hundreds of years of history, and the history in me. I never ceased to be amazed knowing that since the beginning of this little church’s life, the celebrant will always have looked at this very same view.

As Peter and I stood talking, the topic of the churchyard was raised. I asked him whether he planned to be buried in it. He response was unforgettable. He said, ‘Aly, I am going to be cremated.’ Peter was through and through a farmer who lived, slept, breathed the village and the land in which it was set. I was shocked. Surely he would want to be buried in the Churchyard of ‘his’ village? As he continued, I started to understand.

‘Aly you see that tree over on the hill in the middle of the field?’ I followed the direction of his raised arm and pointed finger, to see a single oak tree, steadfast in the middle of a ploughed field. It stood so proudly with the loyalty of the years swirling around it. There, standing in in the heart of Tennyson country, I understood the line in his poem The Talking Oak: ‘To yonder oak within the field, I spoke without restraint’.

This tree had seen everything, including Peter, year in and year out, ploughing the field around it. Here in this place, this faithful and dutiful man wanted his ashes to inhabit this area: to be ploughed-in and ploughed-out throughout time. A part of Peter wanted to be ever-present within this rich landscape he called Home.

The birth of Jesus made present for all eternity the reality of God in our midst. Immanuel, our God, is with us and forever present. This is not for any objective and arbitrary observation, but so that in all we do, whatever our calling, we endeavour to follow him and be transformed into his likeness. We are called to be ‘present’.

In Eugene Peterson’s book ‘Under the Unpredictable Plant’, he describes the men and women of the 4th Century monastic movement as being restless striving spiritual anarchists. They wanted to make a difference and strived for perfection, which resulted in a spiritual wanderlust. They were always looking for a better place to minster and find God.

By the time Benedict came along, this restlessness had reached its peak, and he put a stop to it. He introduced the vow of stability: be present where you are. Inhabit the place where God has placed you and allow it to inhabit you.

Of course, leaders experience conflict, change, pain, joy, sorrow, laughter, success and failure. But, they should also be earthed in God and let God be earthed in them. This is not possible in our strength. Constant tension can arise from being in our world and not being fashioned by it. We should be present within our culture and communities, yet not conform our spirit to its cultural mores.

God’s help is needed. The values of Incarnational Leadership include allowing God to be wholly present in our lives, so that we may be present with those whom we lead. This is not about skills, gifts, and experience. It is an ontological presence and craft, authentically leading out of who we are. It is not who we know, what we know or why we know it, but rather who we are, as we allow the presence of God to inhabit us, and encourage others to do the same.

‘Through all the changing scenes of life’, the oak tree has stood. Earthed, present, and steadfast, it has inhabited the earth. The example of the Incarnation bids us, wherever we are placed, to follow.

To yonder Oak within the field, I spoke without restraint’.

Immanuel – our God is with us. Alleluia.




Advent-RW-686x350I wonder how you view Advent? Lent is much better known and talked about, with the strong symbols of Ash Wednesday, the donkey, and Palms on Palm Sunday and the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. But what about Advent? In the world’s terms, this season barely gets a passing glance on its way to Christmas. Advent is a bit of a season that has a ‘back to the future’ feel about it. As we look back to the time leading up to the incarnation so we look forward in anticipation of the God who will come again.

It is fair to say that the journey through the history of the Church to the present keeping of Advent has been varied and changeable. Seeming to have begun in Tours, France, in about 480 with the monks fasting three times a week from the 11th of November. It was Gregory the Great who reduced what had become a 6 Sunday Advent in Rome to four Sundays of Advent at the end of the 6th Century. It became a season in its own right with a strong emphasis on the Second Coming of Christ.

There are a number themes to Advent. A traditional Carmelite theme for the first Sunday of Advent is ‘Waiting’ (Isaiah 52:7-10).

I find waiting a bit tough, I feel I am hanging around for something else rather than seeing it as an activity in itself. We wait in lines: in order to purchase groceries; to be served at popular restaurants; to be attended to in a bank; at stop signs and traffic signals; at amusement parks; to see a play or film. We must also wait for flowers to grow and bloom; for babies to be born; for wounds to heal; for bread to rise and cheese to age; for children to mature; for friends to call; for love to deepen. Statisticians have estimated that in a lifetime of 70 years, the average person spends at least three years waiting!

A few years ago I decided to spiritually concentrate on the Advent theme of waiting. I placed myself in a world without God and waited. What would the world be like if Jesus had not been born? As the implications dawned, my appreciation of the triune God grew.

I linked this to my leadership skills and the times I have made quick decisions. I pondered on this Advent theme of ‘waiting’ and found it started to develop my craft and offering as a leader. The art of prayerful waiting not only gives a greater understanding of the decisions that may need to be made but a depth of knowledge about the long-term implications on the life of the church: waiting breeds prayerful, effective and appropriate decision making.

If this is true, why on earth do we feel quick decisions are needed? Could it be of strategic importance….?  it shows strong leadership…..? perhaps the issue would get worse if a decision wasn’t made……? maybe people are demanding one…..? There could be many reasons why we could convince ourselves a quick decision is needed when actually the best course of action would be to……………WAIT.

On a long journey, every parent will have heard the cries of their children sitting in the backseat of the car shouting ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ What age do we get to when we can actually take value ‘in’ the journey and not just the destination? When we journey together, locked in a car, looking out the same windows, involved in the same conversation, thinking and chatting through our destination we bond, build camaraderie and develop: it is a time of learning, thinking and engaging. Taking time to prayerfully wait before making a decision breeds steadfast, relational and wise decision making. The insights and joys that come from an ‘intentional wait’ is as important as the destination. The leader can set the pace and the tone. They allow the space for people to bring their concerns, irritations, and disagreements to the surface. Of course, having a sense of urgency, resolve and motivation to ‘get on with it’ is really important (it is indeed one of the many characteristics of leadership). However, care is needed with people who have contributed much in the past and are needed for new endeavours to be successful. Strong leadership is not just about action but purposefully stepping back and waiting. To slow the pace and to allow the options to come to the fore, events to unfold, critical mindsets to mellow.

The season of Advent is 4 weeks long, there is an end in sight to the wait. Then ‘boom’ the incarnation comes and Emmanuel Our God is with us! Church leaders are in the business of strategically waiting with a purpose, then when the time is right, then act. Take time, gather opinion, research information, pray fervently and then see where God is leading, once a decision is made …………hold fast!


How beautiful on the mountains
    are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
    who bring good tidings,
    who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
    “Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
    together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
   they will see it with their own eyes.

Isaiah 52 7f

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