Luisa and I, and our four sons, have just returned from a family holiday in Fiji. Once again my boys have had to come to terms with the fact that their father is not able to do all of the things that they would like him to do. Whilst I received some marks for effort, my skills in the swimming pool playing water volleyball left them all rather disappointed and embarrassed. As our holiday week flowed they were less and less eager to have me representing them in the father’s game in the pool. I suspect that next time we go on holiday the idea of me taking part won’t even be mentioned by them.
But there have been a few things over the years which people have asked me to do. And they have asked me to do those things because they believed that I not only had either the skills to do them or the potential to learn how to do them, but because they also thought that I would enjoy doing them as well. In fact there are some things which I have been asked to do, which as I look back now, I know that I would never have become the person that I am (a more complete version of me) if I had not done them.
I know that many of us have had that kind of experience: of being prompted by others to take on a new avenue in our careers, or to be brave enough to enter into a new relationship, or to do something which we have simply never done before. And I suspect too, that many of us have had the experience of being able to prompt others to embark on a new chapter in their lives as well.
In the life of the Church we are always involved in this task (which we call discernment), whether we realise it or not.
People have gathered from across the Diocese in Newcastle this weekend to make discern the next steps in the life of our Diocese at our Diocesan Synod. Those of you who have been part of Synods in the past will know that it is not always easy to discern what God is calling us to do, but nevertheless we believe that God’s Holy Spirit is present as we seek to work out his will for us as the Diocese of Newcastle.
Before Fr Daniel came to be our Parish Priest some members of the congregations, together with others from the wider Diocese along with our Bishop, sought to discern whether God was calling Daniel to be here as our leader.
And at our annual general meeting each year we seek to discern wise and skilled members of our congregation, to work with our priest in the making of strategic leadership decisions about the management and administration of our Church through our Parish Council. Every time a new person is appointed as a server in the sanctuary, or a worker amongst our children and families, or as someone who visits the sick and lonely on behalf of us all (every time someone takes on a new role of ministry in this parish), a process of discernment has taken place.
We may not normally call that discernment, and we may not always realise that discernment is going on because actually it often comes so naturally to us, to make those kinds of decisions, but whether we name it as discernment or not, that is what is happening. We know (for ourselves) some of those people in our congregations who have the kinds of exceptional gifts which are needed in order to be leaders in our Church.
And we know too the very many gifts which we see embodied in all of the members of our Church. Those gifts and skills and talents are not for us to keep for ourselves, as private possessions, they have been given to us by God. And God has given them to us primarily for the building up of the Church, and for the extension of God’s Kingdom.
So, there are some people who we care for and respect very much, but who we nevertheless know do not have the skills or the temperament or the insights which are required to be leaders; and we know too, whether they are leaders at the current time or not, those people who we could trust (because of their vision, and skills, and commitment to Christ) to lead us in the future.
When I am in situations where I am trying to discern leaders for ministry, I normally begin by asking, “have I seen this person do things in the past, which would indicate to me that they would be able to do the kinds of things that I need someone to do in the future?” But I also try to remind myself that not everyone who is able to do what is required, has had the opportunity to show me that they can do them. So there is often a need to step out in faith.
In this Parish, as a part of our Christian responsibility and commitment, each one of us in this Church is being invited to be part of the discernment of future leaders for our community. We have already made a commitment together to build a ministry team of leaders around our priest, which will share together in the leadership of the Parish. And over these three Sundays (of which this is the second) we are taking our part in the process of discerning leaders for this team.
So we are looking for six leaders to be part of this team, representing the six ministry areas which have been defined to reflect the priorities agreed by the Parish Council . Each one of those different ministry areas will require someone who has the skills and God-given gifts to co-ordinate, and inspire and develop that area of our life into the future. Those leaders will be building on the very strong foundations of ministry which are already in place in the parish, and these leaders will rely on all of the rest of us, in turn, to use our gifts to help our activities to grow and flourish.
As we contemplate the different proposed ministry areas we may instantly have in our minds people who for many years have been involved effectively in the activities which are associated with them. And other people may also come to mind, who we think will be able to undertake those tasks effectively, even if we have not seen them at work in leadership roles before.
Our Gospel reading this morning makes clear that each one of us is called to both receive the good news of the Kingdom for ourselves, and to live it out in out in our lives. That is what is means for us to be followers of Jesus. We are not planning to confine the ministries of this Parish to a small elite who will do everything on our behalf. Our discipleship, as the exchanges between the rich young ruler and Jesus in our Gospel reading makes clear, will be costly for all of us.
But we do recognise that if we are to intentionally concentrate our efforts on the six areas of ministry which have been defined as priorities by our Parish Council, and endorsed by us all, then we will need particular people to work with Fr Daniel, to ensure that each of those areas are championed amongst us. So we are seeking to discern six lay leaders, who will not go off to be ordained, or have a different kind of Christian status amongst us, or who will take ministry away from the rest of us, but who will facilitate all of us in the ministries that we are already engaged in, and in the new ministries which will be born in the future.
We might be tempted to assume that those people who have already completed the Bishop’s Certificate or other programmes of Christian study will automatically be members of the new Ministry Team. We need to be consciously careful to remember that whilst some of those who have completed other studies in the past may have the gifts necessary to lead us, this is not necessarily the case. There will be an opportunity for whoever is discerned through this process to receive the training and support that they will need to be effective leaders amongst us.
So over these three weeks we have the opportunity and the responsibility to play our part in the discernment of lay leaders for ministry here in this parish. Our prayerful task is to complete the discernment forms which have been distributed, indicating the names of those who we believe to have appropriate gifts for leadership; and to bring them back next Sunday to hand them in, and offer them to God. If you are not going to be here next Sunday then you will need to get your form to Fr Daniel before that day, and some of you may have come prepared to do that this morning. The two forms ask us to identify gifts in others, and to identify gifts in ourselves. We are not voting in this process, people will not be appointed on the basis of having their names written down the most number of times. A small group led by Fr Daniel will work prayerfully and carefully through your recommendations in the coming weeks. It is not an election, but it is our opportunity to be involved.
In the Bible there are many ways of calling and discerning leaders. After Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension, the disciples needed to replace Judas the one who had betrayed Jesus. And they decided to do this in a way which would seem very strange to us today, although it was very common in their own time. They chose two men, and they cast lots to decide which of them would become an apostle.
Now casting lots is like playing a game of chance. A series of eaves of corn were held out, with one shorter than the rest, and the one who chose, by chance, the short piece of corn was the one who was appointed to replace Judas – that’s where we get the idea of “drawing the short straw” from.
It seems an incredibly basic way of choosing leaders.
Imagine if we had had six candidates to be the parish priest here before Fr Daniel arrived, and we had simply asked each of them to choose a piece of corn, and then appointed the one who had chosen the short piece. It is incredible, but that’s how Matthias, the replacement for Judas was made.
But something extraordinary happens in the life of the first followers of Jesus. After Matthias has been chosen the day of Pentecost comes, and the promise that the Holy Spirit of Jesus would be with those who followed him forever, becomes a reality. The presence of the Holy Spirit is so great that these first followers of Christ are transformed. The next occasion after Pentecost when the Early Church needed to discern leaders comes some chapters later in the story when the first Deacons, of (whom Stephen is the most famous) were appointed for leadership.
Now that the Holy Spirit dwelt in the Church the casting of lots (that making of decisions almost by chance) was discarded, the Church knew that this was no longer an adequate way for decisions to be made. Instead the members of the Early Church discerned the first deacons on the basis of their gifts and skills, their holiness, and the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives.
That same Holy Spirit continues to dwell in the Church, in us who are the Body of Christ. We believe that that Holy Spirit is present at our Diocesan Synod this weekend, although that truth may not always seem clear. We believe that the Holy Spirit is present with us as we engage in this discernment process together.
So we can have confidence that we follow this week, in the footsteps of the first followers of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as we seek to discern leaders for this parish at this time. The process that we are engaged in over these three Sundays has been designed to help us in this work of discerning leaders, and in being involved in it, we connect ourselves consciously with Christians down the ages who have been involved in this task in their communities as well.
We will not leave this important work to chance, we will not leave it to everyone else. It is our responsibility, with the help of the Holy Spirit of God, to play our part in the discernment of leaders for the Church of God here in the Parish of Belmont.