muservcieThis morning I commissioned the new President of the Mothers’ Union in the Diocese of Sheffield, Pauline Reynolds (on my left in this photo with the rest of her team). This is the sermon I preached at the service. I focussed on the second of the Mothers’ Union’s five objectives and asked every branch and every member to reflect on what I said in the coming months. The Bible readings were the story of Samuel’s call from 1 Samuel 3 and Jesus’ meeting with Mary and Martha in Luke 10.

“One of my favourite television programmes as a child was Mission Impossible. I continued to like the more recent series of films. I love especially the part at the beginning where the team are given their clear but difficult task. The message always contains the words: “Your mission if you choose to accept it”. It always ends with “This tape will self destruct in five seconds”.

It is very good to be here with you in the Cathedral today for this special service. I would offer my sincere thanks to Sheila Wood for her leadership of the Mothers’ Union in this Diocese over the last three years. I am thankful for the gifts Pauline Reynolds will bring to this role and assure her of my prayers and support as she takes up this office today. My thanks also to the outgoing team and to the new team who will be commissioned later in this service.

And my thanks and appreciation to the Mothers’ Union for all that you do across the Diocese to serve others and to fulfill your objectives.

In the light of the readings you have chosen, I want to say two things to Pauline and to all of you as you look ahead over the next three years.

The first one can be said quite briefly, but I think it’s important. Don’t worry about your membership numbers and recruitment to the Mothers’ Union.

I say that not because Pauline is particularly concerned about this but because the Mothers’ Union generally, in my experience, can be more concerned about numbers and recruitment than about fulfilling its objectives. This is understandable. But I believe it is mistaken.

A smaller, active Mothers’ Union working towards the five objectives is worth more in a parish or in a deanery or in a diocese than a large Mothers’ Union which has a lot of people at meetings but does very little. A Mothers’ Union which is outwardly focussed and working on these five objectives together will attract far more of the right kind of members than a Mothers’ Union which exists simply to hold monthly meetings. A Mothers’ Union which is outwardly focussed and working on these five objectives together may not need to hold many meetings at all. The meetings they did hold would be focussed very tightly on these aims. But they may do a power of good in all kinds of ways.

So what are your objectives? What is your reason for existing? In different language what is your mission?

Your five objectives are listed on the inside back page of the service booklet. They are clear and vitally important for Church and society and for many individuals within it. They should be the reason people join the Mothers’ Union and the reason people hold office within it. Perhaps I should have arranged for the Mission Impossible theme tune to play at this point in the sermon.

You are committing yourselves today:

• To promote and support married life
• To encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children
• To maintain a worldwide fellowship of Christians united in prayer, worship and service
• To promote conditions in society favourable to a stable family life and the protection of children and
• To help those whose family life has met with adversity.

This is your mission if you choose to accept it.

I hope these five objectives are read regularly at Branch meetings and Committee Meetings and special events. I hope they shape your work. If it would be helpful, I would gladly spend some time working through all of these objectives with you as part of my own support for what you do.

Don’t worry about how many members you have. Read the story of Gideon’s army. A small committed group will always accomplish more than a large group that does not know what it is for. Focus instead on your unique mission – as you do that I believe the right people will want to join you.

Second let me say something to you at the beginning of this triennium and to your new President about the vital importance of the second of your objectives: your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children.

There is no greater gift that we can give the children in our families, in our churches, in our schools, in our wider society than the gift of faith. The whole course of a child’s life will be affected by developing faith in childhood. What an immense gift it is to know that you are loved by God, the maker of the universe; to know that you are called to a lifelong friendship with your creator; to know that you are part of a worldwide family; to understand the great gift of prayer; to receive God’s guidance at life’s great crossroads; to develop Christian character; to become all that you are meant to be. All of these gifts and more are given through the development of faith in children. Lives are saved, deepened and enriched, families are transformed and the world is changed.

Samuel is nurtured in faith as a child through his mother Hannah who prays for him and prays with him. He is nurtured in faith as a child through Eli who instructs him in prayer and in listening to God’s voice. Samuel will go on to lead Israel and change his nation. But the foundations of his life and his friendship with God are laid in childhood.

Mary and Martha grow up in a home where they learn both to work and to pray. They are sisters. The foundations of their love for God have been laid in childhood and laid in the home. It is true that for one, Mary, prayer becomes her focus and for another, Martha, action takes priority. We know from the story that Mary has chosen the better part. But prayer and action both are needed. Our strength is born in God. Our faith is lived out through what we do.

Why do I focus on this objective today? Sadly, because your work here is urgently needed. The evidence is that Christian parents today are not developing the faith of their children.

These statistics were in research published last year . Anglican parents who say that religion is very important in their lives were asked these questions.

Is it important that children learn good manners at home?
94% said yes.

Is it important that children learn tolerance and respect at home?
83% said yes.

Is it important that children learn religious faith at home?
How many do you think said yes?

Let that sink in a little. Only one in three committed Anglicans believes that Christian parents should develop the faith of their children. As a Mothers’ Union that should disturb you as it disturbs me. I wonder what we might do about it?

Let me offer four things that you can do and can encourage yourself.

The first is to become more like Mary and Samuel. Set as a priority the developing of your own relationship with God, to listen, to be sustained, to draw apart often. A relationship with God is caught, not taught. It can only be taught from someone who is growing in that life of prayer themself. Set aside time each day to pray, discover how if you do not know how, go deeper into God. Weave that prayer into daily life, especially the saying of grace at meals.

The second is to teach the faith within your own family, to your children and to your grandchildren. Every Mothers’ Union member at least should be seeking to develop faith within their own children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, members of our extended families. We do that through our prayers, through conversation, through encouraging the parents, through providing gifts and resources, by inviting children into the family and fellowship of the church in different ways.

The third is to campaign together to ensure that every church which has a Mothers’ Union branch is friendly and accessible to children and families. I want you to be my allies here – God’s secret agents in support of parents and their children. I want to enlist your support in ensuring that every church which has a Mothers’ Union branch also has crèche facilities, a toddler group, a place where children learn on Sundays, family events at festivals, groups for young people, Messy Church, people who will befriend young families.

And the fourth is to campaign together to ensure that every church which has a Mothers’ Union branch is also teaching faith to the parents so that they can develop faith in their own children. The number one reason, I think, why parents do not pass on their faith to their children is very simple. The parents themselves don’t have the confidence to do so. They have not been taught. Will you work with me to ensure that in every church where you have a Mothers’ Union branch, there is an opportunity every year for adults to learn the faith from the very beginning .

Here are four things you can do to fulfill your second objective: to encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children.

1. Deepen your own faith
2. Develop faith within your own family
3. Ensure every church is friendly and accessible to children and young people
4. Ensure every church is teaching the faith to adults

I will provide Pauline with a copy of this sermon. I would like you to discuss it at your next branch meeting and decide what you need to do to fulfill this objective in the coming year.

The Mothers’ Union has a vital mission. Focus on what God has called you to do. May God bless you in all your service in the coming years”.

This is a key week for the future of the earth.  The Climate Change talks in Paris are seeking a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global warming above 2 degrees.  Many experts believe our target should be more ambitious still: to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees only.

The weather, rather than the climate, was making the news last weekend with the dreadful floods in North West England and South West Scotland.  Extreme weather events are just one symptom of global climate change.

Most years in this season I try and write a new hymn or song as the verse for my Christmas card.  Writing the verse helps me to begin thinking about the great themes of the Christmas season.  This year I have tried to focus on the gift of creation and the earth, our fragile common home.

The first chapter of John’s gospel is always read in Church at Christmas.  John 1 speaks of the creation of the world through God’s Word (or reason) and of God’s Word taking flesh to live among us in Jesus Christ.  John 1 echoes the beautiful words of Genesis 1 where God creates the heavens and the earth, separating sky from land and sea (“In the beginning….”).

The new carol in turn echoes both of these Bible passages.  I’ve also used a couple of phrases taken from the recent letter of Pope Francis on climate change, Laudato Si, which is subtitled: “On care for our common home”.  The letter speaks powerfully about discipleship and care for the created world.

Finally, I’ve set the hymn to the well known tune: “The King of Love my shepherd is” – music many people link with God’s love and care for all the world.

You’re very welcome to use the words as a prayer, as a song you sing by yourself or one you use in Church.   As you pray, remember those caught up in the dreadful floods this past weekend and those working hard in Paris to prevent the warming of our world.

Creator of our common home
And maker of such wonder
You crafted fire and sky and stone
Dividing seas asunder
In love you set the earth in space
In joy ordained its pathway
Filled earth and sea and sky with grace
That we might praise you always
We turned away your gift of life
Polluted all you gave us
The land was spoiled, we favoured strife
Lives turned away from goodness
In Bethlehem you gave your Son
Creator in creation
To win us back and call us home
Revealing your salvation
The Word of God took human form
Eternity in person
Reason and love came to transform
God’s gift for our conversion
Creator of our common home
Redeemer of such mercy
Sustainer of all life on earth
To you always be glory.


The new General Synod meets for the first time next week.   A central part of our agenda over the next five years will be the ongoing Reform and Renewal process.

Here is an unofficial Noddy and Big Ears Guide to Reform and Renewal.  It’s a Noddy guide because I’ve tried to make it simple.  It’s a Big Ears guide because the whole Reform and Renewal process is about listening to what’s happening across the country and developing a response.

This is also something of a personal perspective.  I’ve been closely involved in the story so far.  To use a Star Trek analogy, let me take you on a guided tour: first to the Captain’s Log to explore the deeper story; then to the Engine Room to understand what’s being proposed; and finally to the Bridge to look ahead into the future.

Captain’s Log: looking back…..

The roots of Reform and Renewal lie in the immense change taking place in the society we serve.  The Church of England has lived through a century of change.

We lived for fifty years, from 1915 to 1965, through the end of Christendom: the idea that society is uniform and that people are Christian unless they opt out, that church going is the norm.  We have had to adjust our ways of being the Church to that new reality.  We have needed to recover, especially, the central idea that God calls us to be a church in mission to our own society, the call to make disciples and the call to set God’s mission at the heart of our common life.

We then lived for fifty years and more with a mistaken understanding of secularisation.  Secularisation began in the 18th century.  It’s the process by which science, democracy, technology and economics became separate from any particular religion (and in that sense it’s closely related to the end of Christendom).  This process has brought immense benefits.

But from the 1960’s until very recently, secularisation has been linked with another powerful idea.  The notion that the more advanced a society, the less place it has for religion of any kinds.  In the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, many people predicted and believed that the role of faith in society would shrink away to nothing as our society “advanced”.

We have adjusted our ways of being the Church to this reality as well.  For many years, many in the Church have accepted our decline as inevitable.  Many have even planned for that decline to continue as if this was God’s purpose for the Church.  The loss of confidence has been profound.  We have needed to recover the central Christian virtue of hope: the sure hope that God has a purpose for his church and for this Church of England for many generations still to come.

The sociologists now tell us what we have known for some time.  The role of faith in the modern world is not shrinking but growing and also changing.  Britain is not becoming more secular.  Religion and religious affiliation are changing all the time, but the role of faith in public life and private life is not less but more significant.

The former chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has recently published a powerful study of violence and religion, Not in God’s Name.  Lord Sacks begins with a study of secularization and the gaping hole it leaves in human understanding.

“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence.  They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization….But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every(one) should ask at some time in his or her life: “Who am I?  Why am I here?  How then should I live?”.

Rabbi Sacks puts forward the view that the coming century will be more not less religious, less not more secular.  How should we respond?

A hundred years of change.  The end of Christendom.  The beginning and end of secularization.  How are we as the Church of England to respond to God’s call in our day?  How are we to join in God’s mission and to make that response in faith and hope and love?

Reform and Renewal is part of an answer to these vital questions.

The Engine Room: what are the proposals?

Five years ago, the General Synod of our Church agreed three core priorities.

The three goals are these: to serve the common good of our society, to grow the life of the church in the numbers and the quality of our discipleship; and to re-imagine the ministry we offer to the nation.  The first two are inextricably linked.  We see growth and life in many places but in too many the combined effects of declining and ageing congregations mean that in ten years time, we may no longer be a church in every place.  To serve the common good and the whole people of England we must pay close attention to growth in the life of the Church.

Those goals are widely and deeply owned across the Church of England.  You will find something like them in the vision statements of many dioceses and parish churches.  They have been at the heart of the work of our national Church for the last five years.

But it takes time in a Church of the size and complexity of the Church of England to listen, to reflect, to begin to shape answers to those key questions.  How should be respond to God’s mission in hope?  How do we better serve the common good, grow the life of the church and re-imagine the ministry we offer.  What can we do nationally to support dioceses and parishes?

Little by little, through a process of listening, conversation and research some answers and some initiatives began to emerge.  There are six or seven different streams of work.  They began at slightly different times and different places.  They are also in different stages of discussion or implementation.

One is looking at how we use our historic assets to support growth rather than reward decline; another is exploring ministerial education, another at simplification, another senior leadership and still another what we need to do nationally and so on.  They are all linked together in some way.  For that reason, it’s helpful to see them as one process under the single heading of Reform and Renewal: helping us to be a Church of hope, a Church engaging in God’s mission, a Church of compassion and a Church preparing for a harvest.

If you really want to spend more time with Scottie in the engine room trying to get us to warp speed, then read this summary paper for Synod.

The Bridge: scanning the horizon

That’s the big picture.  I want to zoom in now, if I may, and ask the question what difference the Reform and Renewal programme might make to the life of the Church of England over the next fifteen years, if it bears the fruit we hope it will, by the grace and power of God.  It’s not a programme designed to tackle everything.  The core ministry of the local church remains at the heart of the Church of England: worship, witness, service to the local community.

But here are some of the things which I hope will change over the next fifteen years as Reform and Renewal bears fruit in the life of the local parish church.

A culture of discipleship

First I hope and pray that every church will become better at making and sustaining and equipping disciples: that Christians will understand their faith better, share it more confidently, live it out more fully.  We need to grow again a culture of discipleship across the Church of England.

The Christian faith is not a hobby or a leisure activity.  The Christian faith is a response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ with the whole of our lives, for the whole of our lives, offering lives which have been made whole.

Every local church, every diocese needs a plan for taking forward that culture of discipleship, for growing new Christians, for sustaining established Christians.

Reform and Renewal is helping to make resources available for that task.  There are key proposals to change and increase the Church Commissioners distribution of funds to support poorer parishes and to support growth in numbers and in the depth of discipleship.  There is a major emphasis on how we teach the faith, how we encourage discipleship in every place.

Energy for mission

Second, I hope and pray that every church will focus greater energy and resources on God’s mission and worship, service and witness.  That means less time on bureaucracy, form filling, administration and the like.

A major strand in Reform and Renewal is about simplification: on how we make the task of vicars, of churchwardens, of PCC treasurers and others simpler and easier in the future.

Ministry and leadership

Third, I hope and pray that every local church will have the ministry and leadership it needs to support God’s mission.  Lay leadership and ministry is key and the next two years will see significant developments here.  The voices of lay people need to be heard more clearly in the life of our Church.  We need to invest more in training, equipping and sustaining lay ministers.

We need urgently to see more vocations to ordained ministry.  40% of our current clergy are approaching retirement.  On present projections half of our clergy who retire cannot be replaced.  We need as clergy to be better equipped as leaders in God’s mission.  We need our clergy to be more diverse as a group.  We need more younger clergy who are able to offer a lifetime to ordained ministry.  We need to ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers.

There will be a major national initiative to raise the number of vocations, significantly, by as much as 50% by 2020. That will involve every parish in prayer, in communication, in encouragement, in support.  We are looking carefully at the ways in which we train clergy before and after ordination and how we fund that training.  Dioceses are clear what is needed:  the Church needs ordained and lay ministers who are flexible, collaborative leaders in God’s mission.

Senior leaders

Fourth I hope and pray the senior leadership of the Church of England in 10 years time will be better equipped for their task and more representative of the church we are called to lead: male and female, black and white, from a wider range of backgrounds, well prepared and committed to ongoing learning.  Again we are investing intentionally in that process.

Communication in a digital age

Finally, I hope and pray we will be much more effective at communicating our faith in a digital age.  This is the most important investment the Church of England needs to make nationally.

We are living through the greatest time of change in the way we communicate since the invention of the printing press.  Parishes and Dioceses are moving far too slowly to keep up with those changes in the way we communicate.  We need to invest much more in our digital communications in order to keep pace and contribute to Christian engagement with the contemporary world.

So what is Reform and Renewal about?

  1. Resources for discipleship and growth
  2. Focusing energy on our core tasks
  3. Every local church having the ministry it needs
  4. Equipping senior leaders
  5. Better digital communication

These are not the whole agenda by any means.  There are other issues the Church needs to address.  The world keeps changing around us.

God has called us in our generation to be salt and light, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to have compassion on a lost and bewildered generation.  This is a time of turmoil.  But it is also a time of hope.

Pray for our Church as we move forward and most of all, as Christ commands us, pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send labourers to his harvest field.

And finally….

This post is based on a sermon preached on 15th November in St Mary’s and All Saints, Chesterfield.  I’m grateful to Father Patrick Coleman for the invitation and for the very helpful “Conversation under the Spire”.

I’m grateful to Premier Digital for an award for this blog in the category “Most Inspiring Leadership Blog”.  Like everything else I do it’s a team effort.  Warm thanks to Jane Perry and LJ Buxton for their research and ideas and to Kate Hill and Jason Smedley for managing posts and comments.

+Steven Sheffield

How are we to respond as human beings, as Christians and as a Church to the plight of refugees and migrants across Europe?

The pictures on our screens over the last few days have been heart-rending.  Many of us will have been moved to tears.  But how do we translate this outpouring of compassion into action and help others to do the same?  What should we do?

One of the deepest truths in the Bible is that God blesses people so that those people in turn can become a blessing to others.

God calls Abraham in these words: “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing”.  God calls Jacob with this promise:  “All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring”.

When God blesses us it is not for our benefit alone.  When God blesses us we are not to feel special.  We are not to hoard those blessings and keep them to ourselves.  We are blessed so that we might bless others – all the families of the earth.  Everyone.

As a country, we have not been blessed with peace and security and wealth and peace for our own benefit alone. Safety is given so that safety and a future can be shared.  We are called as a country to be open handed, open hearted, to give a home to those in greatest need, to carry relief and fresh vision to countries whose heart is ripped apart by war.  We are called to find room.

There has been an outpouring of compassion following the tragic deaths of Aylan and Ghalib Kurdi on 2nd September.  In response the Prime Minister announced yesterday plans to take in 20,000 refugees from the camps in and around Syria over the next five years.

This is a good beginning and a significant shift. It is in addition to the immense contribution Britain is already making to relief in Syria.  But it can only be a beginning to Britain’s response to this crisis.

David Cameron refers to the extraordinary compassion of the British people.  I don’t believe the Prime Minister has yet understood fully the extent to which people want Britain to play its full part in addressing the situation in Europe.

I met last night with Faith Leaders across the city of Sheffield and this morning with church leaders of different denominations.  Our communities are united in compassion for the plight of the refugees.  We are united in the belief that Britain can and should do more.  The faith communities stand ready to help in partnership with local and national government in welcoming those who find a home in our communities whatever their faith and country of origin.  Sheffield was the first City of Sanctuary in Britain and remains in the front line of welcoming strangers.

I have written to the Prime Minister today, urging him to offer leadership in two ways: to support Britain playing its full part in offering sanctuary to those now on the move in Europe as part of a European wide settlement and to encourage new international initiatives to resolve the conflict in Syria which is the root cause of this migration.

Many Christians and local churches have already begun to do more.  I’ve listed below some of the local charities and national agencies which are channelling help to refugees.

Please translate this outpouring of compassion into action through gifts and support for some of these initiatives.  There is no need to wait until a new wave of refugees arrive.  Charities in the region are already hard at work helping people in need here and across Europe and the Middle East.  Please encourage local and national government that, as a country, we support a bigger, more generous response still to one of the great crises of our age.

On Thursday of this week, I will be taking part in two profound symbolic actions in the Cathedral which have humility at their very heart.

The first is the Royal Maundy.  Her Majesty the Queen will distribute gifts to eighty-nine men and eighty-nine women, honoured for their service to church and community.  The tradition goes back hundreds of years and looks back to the moment at the last supper when Jesus knelt and washed the feet of his disciples.

It was at that moment when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: love one another. We take the name Maundy from the Latin for new commandment (novum mandatum).  The gift of money is a symbolic and practical expression of love for others and, especially, love for the poor.

The recipients gathered in the Cathedral a couple of weeks ago for the Maundy Lecture. The Lord High Almoner told us that the Maundy is the only honour in our national life where the Queen comes to the recipient: she not only travels to Sheffield but also moves within the service to each person to make her gift – a moment we will never forget.

Later that same day, after the royal party have left the city and the crowds have gone, the Cathedral community will gather, like many others all across the Diocese to remember the events of the Last Supper.  In that service, I will take a towel and a basin of water, as Jesus did, and wash the feet of twelve of the congregation.  The service is a powerful reminder to follow the example of Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.

The theme of humility runs through Holy Week.  Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a donkey.  He is arrested whilst praying in a quiet garden.  He is silent for much of his trial.  He responds to mockery, to violence, to danger with gentleness.  In his own agony and passion, he tenderly cares for his friends.

I offer two reflections on these two actions.  The first is that humility remains an essential part of all leadership: in the family, in the church, in the wider community.  The Christian tradition of reflection on leadership in communities goes back over three thousand years: it is the oldest and richest seam of reflection on leadership the world has ever known.  At its very heart, all the way through, however you slice it, is this profound and wonderful quality of humility as essential for wise and good leadership in communities.

Our nation will be thinking a great deal about leadership over the coming weeks in the General Election campaign.  Humility is essential as part of that debate in the qualities of the candidates, in the promises which are made, in their vision for this city and region and for the life of our nation.

But, second, humility is not just for leaders.  The foot washing can be misunderstood.  The lesson Jesus draws is very clear.  He does not say: “So if I have washed your feet so your leaders should wash the feet of those they serve”.  Jesus goes much, much further: “You ought also to wash one another’s feet”.

Each of us is called to humility.  Each of us is called to love and to serve.  This calling is rooted in Christ’s love for us, Christ’s offering of himself for us.  Humility is to be at the heart of all we are.

+Steven Sheffield

leading-gods-people-book-coverIt’s not often I read a book and then go straight back to the beginning and start again. I have a small number of contemporary books on leadership which (I think) should be on every minister’s shelf.  Leading God’s People has gone straight into my top ten.

Leading God’s People explores wisdom for pastoral leadership from the early church fathers and mothers.  It’s a short, accessible guide to the main themes and draws out the importance of good pastoral leadership, its essential shape and the lessons for leadership today.

The book is ideal Lent reading for clergy, readers, ordinands and anyone who wants to understand more of the distinctly Christian tradition of leadership.  It’s a book which speaks across traditions and denominations.  The author, Christopher A. Beeley, is Professor of Anglican Studies and Patristics at Yale.  The book was published in 2012.   I came across it until a few weeks ago whilst preparing for our new leadership course, Leading Well.

  • St Gregory Nazianzus (329-390):
    On the Priesthood
  • St. Ambrose (339-397):
    The Duties of Leaders
  • St. Augustine (354-430):
    Christian Teaching
  • St. John Chrysostom (347-407):
    On the Priesthood
  • The Rule of Benedict
  • St. Gregory the Great (540-604):
    Pastoral Rule

The early Church reflected deeply on leadership and that reflection is captured in a series of key texts (see box).  All of these texts are (in turn) reflections on what the Bible says about leadership in communities.

Earlier generations of ministers read and studied these texts as a normal part of their preparation for ministry.  But now they are not as well known or understood.

Beeley’s short book has five sections.  In the first he explores the leadership of the Church.  Good pastoral leadership is vital for the Church and the wider community.  It is grounded in service with authority.  It is grounded in Christ.  It is immensely difficult but immensely fulfilling.

Chapter Two explores the spirituality of leadership.  Beeley writes: “The most powerful and practical resource that church leaders have at their disposal, week in and week out, is their own knowledge and experience of God”.  Worth pondering.

Chapter Three explores the Cure of Souls, Chapter Four is on Scripture and Theology and Chapter Five is about The Ministry of the Word.

These are not the normal headings you find in contemporary books on leadership but they are faithful to Scripture and the great tradition and deeply refreshing .  Pastoral leadership in Church and community is different from every other kind of leadership.

If you haven’t yet decided on your own spiritual reading for this Lent (or even if you have) I encourage you to invest in a copy of Leading God’s People.  Read it slowiy and carefully over the coming weeks – and be refreshed and inspired in the leadership you offer.

Leading God’s People, wisdom from the early church fathers by Christopher A. Beeley is published by Eerdmans in 2012.

Today was the Legal Service for South Yorkshire in Doncaster Minster.  The Legal Service here marks the end of the year of office for the High Sheriff (Julie Kenny this year).  The Service is a gathering of judges, lawyers and others from the legal profession together with representatives from the universities and civic life.

I was invited to preach today and this is the text of the sermon with the theme of leadership in difficult times.

Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees

A sermon for the Legal Service at Doncaster Minster 17th March, 2013 Isaiah 35.1-10; John 12.1-8

I begin this sermon with a text from Scripture and with a question.

The text contains striking words of encouragement from the Book of Isaiah. They are words of encouragement for difficult times:

“Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear”.

And the question for all of us is this:  “How do you exercise leadership in difficult times?”

No-one can pretend that life is easy or straightforward in South Yorkshire at the present moment.  The legal profession, the police service, local government and the voluntary sector and many other parts of society face real challenge.

We are all too familiar with the causes and the effects.  The economic winter continues.  We long for green shoots of recovery.  All of us are being challenged to do more with less.  Change keeps coming and it cuts into the lives of our communities and our professions in deep ways: the bedroom tax, the welfare reform bill, the legal aid reforms.  Some might argue that the burden of these cuts falls unevenly across the country and unevenly across society.  You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment (at least not in this context).

We all have different views on the economy, on the changes and on what should be done. But I think we would all agree that, taken together, these are difficult times to offer leadership and service in our communities.

The magistrate with a full court; the police officer on the long night shift; the manager of the advice centre with a growing list of clients but a reducing budget; the local councilor making difficult choices; the church minister setting up another food bank; the debt counselor seeing payday loans increasing; the child protection officer called to another demanding case; the judge in the family courts watching over the welfare of children as family pressures grow; the solicitor navigating the changes in the legal system.

How do we exercise leadership in difficult times?  How should we encourage one another in the demanding roles we have been given in public service?  What do we do when hands grow weak and knees become feeble and hearts are afraid? Where do we turn?  Where do we find the inner strength to go on loving and caring and building for the future in public service?

Let me offer you three places where strength is found within the Christian tradition.  These are three things to nurture when hands grow weak and knees grow feeble.  These are three deep wells to find refreshment in the desert.  Three places to turn when times are hard.

When you are leading in hard times, build vision, build respect and build community. Build vision, build respect and build community.

First build vision.  This is Isaiah’s ministry.  He was called to preach in a time of great change and turmoil and a bridge between the ages and between civilizations.  A long season of prosperity and peace was coming to an end.  The crisis was global not local.  Isaiah has to prepare God’s people for a new world order.

How does he do it?  He speaks the truth about the situation.  It is difficult and painful. But he also nurtures vision of what can be in the future and that is why his message is preserved.  He constantly paints a picture of a better world.  Isaiah dreams dreams and he puts those dreams into words. He tells of a better world still to come.

“Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then shall the lame leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert…..And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads”.

The language is the language of poetry and song.  But it is song which gives strength and hope and which lifts our eyes to a better future and a bigger horizon.

We need those songs today.  Those who lead in difficult times can so easily grow weary.  Ideals can slip.  Cynicism and despair sap our strength.  Our knees grow feeble and our hands grow weak.

Those are the moments when we need to connect ever more deeply with the vision which shapes us and drives us.  For me, that is the Christian vision of the world: a world which God created and which God sustains; a world which is not yet perfect or complete but a world which one day will be set right; a world in which every person is loved, every person has dignity and value, a world saved and redeemed by Jesus Christ.

That vision leads in turn to a vision of a society which is fair and just and free and safe for all and where everyone can prosper.

We need to nurture vision and find strength and pass that vision on to others.

Second build respect.  Hard times too easily breed suspicion of others and ready criticism which saps our strength.  Leading in hard times means building a culture of respect in others.

We find an example of deep respect in our gospel story.  Jesus is dining with his disciples.  Mary, one of the hosts at the dinner, in an act of great courage, offers to Jesus the most costly treasure she has, a pound of expensive perfume and an act of love, anointing him for burial.  She makes her offering in public, before the gaze of others, a costly, vulnerable act of service.

There is an argument about money and budgets.  The arguments are nearly always about money and budgets are they not. “Why was this perfume not sold for a year’s wages and given to the poor”?  The situation is highly charged.  They look to Jesus for judgement.

And what does Jesus do?  In the midst of the argument he sets his priority on building a culture of respect, of honouring what Mary has done, of protecting her love and devotion and causing it to be remembered for two thousand years and more.  Praise is a more powerful tool in difficult times that criticism.

As we lead through difficult times in our own day, in the courts and the law firms, in the council chambers, we need consciously to build together and deepen a culture of respect for one another, respect for people of different views, respect for those who have nothing, respect for one another as those who engage in public service together.

It is all too easy in difficult times to abandon respect and create a culture of criticism and blame.  But a culture of criticism and blame will only serve to weaken the bonds of our society and our communities. The more our society is characterized by true respect and worth, the more people will offer their gifts in service to their community. We especially need to foster respect and value our public services and our institutions, our legal services, our police force and our police officers, to pay tribute to their courage and dedication and to express our appreciation for all that they do well.

We draw our strength from vision and we draw our strength from creating a culture of confidence and respect.  The third place I would encourage you to look as we lead through difficult times is the call to create community.

Difficult circumstances often divide people.  Again we see that in our gospel story.  The pressure is increasing for Jesus and for the disciples.  Mary’s generous action leads to division.  Jesus respects Mary’s love but he also seeks to build and deepen this small community, to hold them together as the pressure increases, to prepare them for all that is to come.

In all our experience, I am sure, quarrels and divisions abound in difficult times. It is true in marriage, it is true in offices, it is true in teams, it is true in towns and cities.

Leadership in difficult times must always be about resisting those divisions, about healing the quarrels, about resolving the conflicts, about reconciling the differences, about making peace and building community so that all may work together and all may flourish.

We are passing through difficult times and all of us here are called to offer leadership in the different parts of our community: within the professions or the legal system, within local government, within the family.  We should make no mistake that clear, united leadership is called for in our society at this time from every different sector.

What kind of leadership will we offer as hands grow weak and knees grow feeble and fears increase?  Where will we find the strength we need?

We will find that strength not in despair but in vision, as we dream our dreams of the future together.  We will find that strength not in blame and criticism but in respect and appreciation of those in public service.  We will find that strength not in isolation but by constantly building community and shared values.

May God give to each of us this day to each of us renewed strength to build that vision, to offer that respect and to grow that community in the places where we serve.