On June 8th 1783 Surrey Hall began its life under the leadership of Roland Hill, a close friend of George Whitfield and well-known figure in London life. Over the coming years, the Church was to become the birthplace of the Bible Society, Shaftesbury Society, Ragged School Movement and several other significant Christian initiatives. William Wilberforce and friends made Surrey Hall their central London base and many of the anti-slavery meetings took place there. Its new building, known as Christ Church, was opened in July 1876. By 1900 Christ Church had a regular congregation of over 2000 people.On June 8th 2003 Christ Church & Upton Chapel (now with a congregation of some 20 people), asked Oasis to join them in developing a new, united church with Steve Chalke as its minister. On September 7th 2003 that new chapter began - and it's exhausting!
Today we had a church meeting! They say that when you arrive at a church as a new minister you get a 'honeymoon period' - the calm before the storm. Well my honeymoon period is, I'm sorry to say, well and truly over. In fact, if I'm honest it was over almost before it began. It turned out to be no longer than my actual honeymoon. Two weeks. Literally!
In today's meeting, one member stood up to point out that I show no signs of being a leader and then ask whether I had any kind of certificate to prove my credentials. If, as my wife occasionally suggests to me, I am actually married to Christ Church & Upton Chapel (CCUC), we are now into the domestic equivalent of trying to cope with toddler tantrums and frequent food slinging bouts. Looking back I really should have seen it coming. At my induction/commissioning service I was handed the keys to the door of the church building - it was a symbolic and ceremonious act, but it also turned out to be prophetic. The very next day, when I went to use them for the first time, I promptly gashed my finger on a piece of jagged metal sticking out from the door. It's now one and a half years later and I've still got that scar. That's deep!
Our church (being an amalgamation of two congregations) is affiliated to both the Baptist and United Reformed denominations. As part of this arrangement we have inherited what they call the 'rich tradition of the church meeting.' Under this time-honoured system the leaders of any church are regularly given the opportunity to present the ideas, plans and strategies that they have thought about, prayed through, agonised over, costed and debated to the rest of the church community only to have them dashed. Unfortunately, in my experience, many of the normally lovely people in all of the churches that I have worked in over the last 25 years undergo some sort of werewolf like change in nature as they enter these church meetings.
Though in real life they are wonderful, generous and responsible, here they are transformed - they instantly become hypercritical, argumentative, obstinate and often illogical as they proceed to metaphorically 'beat their ploughshares into swords' and then wave them furiously at one another. I have to confess that I find church meetings to be some of the darkest hours of my life - and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. But then I remember the words of Churchill: 'democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others!'
I've re-read what I wrote yesterday and I don't think it's very balanced. The corrective is simply to say this - the last year has been a fantastic time for us a church. We are a good team, we have fun, we've grown by a factor of five and have started to get some genuinely innovative community projects off the ground. But that said, it has also been a time of stress, worry and anxiety - I've felt under massive pressure and I know that other people have suffered as a result. My comments and observations at church meetings haven't always exhibited the patience and understanding that people need and deserve. Change is essential but it often hurts. What is more, my conversation and attitude (not to mention diary) after meetings has sometimes been grumpy, jumpy and occasionally down right rude. And I know that there have been occasions when I've been so worried that people were going to have another go at me that I've ended up reacting badly and going for the 'pre-emptive strike' instead of listening to what they had to say with an open mind.
Earlier today I sat reading a book about management styles that suggested 'ego strength' is a key to building healthy relationships. It's a strange term (and I'm not sure I like it), but I haven't been able to get the thought out of my head all day. It takes a great deal of personal strength to listen to other people (often misunderstanding or misrepresenting you and your ideas) without constantly trying to jump in and defend yourself. I remember one of my mentors years ago teaching me to 'let others go first' - to have the strength of character to listen to them and reflect, knowing that my moment to speak will come and I don't have to force it. Having the confidence to wait, rather than jumping into the fray with all guns blazing, and then to speak graciously is a hallmark of great maturity. Ambrose Bierce summed it up when he wrote 'speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.' I've made a few of them!
So from now on I am determined to do all that I can to respond rather than react - which probably means sitting through one or two rather long church meetings.