Calling

A Summer sunny afternoon needed a ‘thinking walk’, as Winnie the Pooh called them. To be honest though, it was more of a ‘ranting walk’.

As our churches emerged from the intensity of the pandemic restrictions, the criticisers and complainers had gone back to normal too. Whether lay or ordained (and we have both in our house) being a minister is not always halos and wings – indeed there are plenty who make sure one is regularly tilted or clipped.

My thoughts ranged the full spectrum from resigning as a lay minister to discerning what God might be calling me on to.

And of course, God knew what he was doing more than I did – and how often I am grateful for that. For just after returning home, in comes the weekly newsletter from the Diocese of Exeter (that part of the Church of England in which we live). ‘Voluntary Chaplain wanted for South West Ministry Training Course’. (SWMTC trains people for both lay and ordained ministry.)

Oooh… that sounds good. That sounds very good. That even sits of the edge of excitement… (I don’t do excitement).

I’d not been looking to do any kind of formal voluntary work but as a lay minister, clergy spouse, long-term listener of people and with an almost equally long-standing passion for supporting those in ministry, it seemed a good fit.

Discerning God’s call often involves letting something ‘sit’ and then, after a while, sharing it with others. I did both. Application and interview followed. My first interview for 18 years… but God was good (as were the interviewees). I felt seen for who I am which was an unexpected and welcome blessing.

Even more of an unexpected and welcome blessing was that I was offered the position!

God’s call was clear. I have not felt so sure about something in quite the same way for a while: all the same it was still a surprise!

The role involves attending a couple of residential training weekends each term together with an Lent/Easter school. To be there with two other Chaplains accompanying those in training: companions on a journey. It is not a smooth path but if by fellow travelling I can help remove a few stones, there will be much joy in the journey also.

When I trained to be a lay minister some twenty years ago, I felt that was bringing together my then previous experience of church life and faith. This new calling provides a similar ‘bringing together’ of the skills and experience God has granted me. What a honour and a privilege.

different threadsI often find it helpful to think back and see how the different threads of life are brought together. Perhaps you feel the same? What patterns do you see in your life? What skills and experiences has God given you that have developed or been used throughout it?

Maybe take some time to listen and reflect on the words of a song which, for me, represents all there is to say about our openness to God’s calling on our lives:

Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

 

 

 

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I, the Lord of sea and sky by Daniel L. Schutte (b.1947) © 1981 Daniel L. Schutte & New Dawn Music

 

A purpose under Heaven

One of the benefits of being asked to write book reviews (aside from getting a free copy, of course) is that I get to read ones I wouldn’t naturally pick up off the shelf – or, given the demise of so many Christian bookshops in recent years, off Amazon, Eden or Mccrimmons (other book suppliers are available).

Currently, I have two reviews on the go. One for BRF: an Advent book by the excellent Jo Swinney who I have quoted elsewhere and, in a quite different vein, a new IVP Tyndale Commentary on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes by the theologian Knut Martin Heim for Preach magazine.

The former comprises daily readings so it’s always a bit tricky for the reviewer having to read each ‘chapter’ straight after the other – but nonetheless rewarding and one I may well return to ‘read properly’ in December.

The latter… well, I have to admit I have never deliberately sat down and read anything from this  piece of ancient writing by someone who uses the pseudonym Qoheleth, a Hebrew word meaning preacher which translated into Greek is ekklēsiastēs. It was written as a speech and Heim argues that the speaker was a kind of 3rd-5th Century BC stand-up comedian and satirist. (So, who says you don’t learn anything from WorkRestPray blog posts… no, I didn’t know any of that either…)

Now there is, of course, a very well-known passage from this ancient writing – Chapter 3. It gave rise to Pete Seeger’s song ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ made famous in mid-1960s by The Byrds and recorded and performed by many since:

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven
*

But it was another verse from Ecclesiastes which struck me as being particularly relevant to current times.

As we, arguably, emerge from the pandemic or at least the intensity of it, we find ourselves going back to normal. Early into the pandemic many, myself included, speculated that we might learn some better, more healthier ways of coping with the stresses and strains of modern life. But, even if we didn’t have the current issues around supply problems and staff shortages, one senses that many workplace normalities still possess less than healthy traits (the same is true in churches and other places, of course).

Heim’s own translation of Ecclesiastes 4 verse 6 reads:

‘Better one hand full with rest than two full hands with hard work but chasing after the wind.’

It reminds me of the first verse of Psalm 127:

‘Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.’

So, do we find ourselves ‘working‘ (however, we wish to define that: paid, unpaid, formal, informal) and taking no time for rest? Are we, in fact, simply chasing after the wind?

Who is building the house – ourselves for personal aggrandisement or the Lord? Are we building in vain or for a purpose under heaven?

 

 

 

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*Pete Seeger/adapted from Ecclesiastes © Melody Trails Inc 1959

Pastoring the Pastors

Many years ago, I lived in a flat at the top of the Vicarage of a large church in Bristol. In those five years I saw and experienced first-hand the 24 hour a day demands, intrusions and joys of such a place.

From sharing Christmas lunch with the vicar and his family (during which their cocker spaniel ate the remains of the turkey) to making cheese sandwiches for Jack, the local, ex-merchant navy tramp who was a regular visitor day and night. From being ‘held hostage’ one Sunday afternoon by a couple and their young child demanding I found them somewhere to live to  answering the ever-ringing phone.

That experience instilled within me a lifelong concern for the clergy and an awareness of the pressures and the lack of support and understanding of their role that exists at both congregational and broader levels within the church nationally (the same will be true of other denominations, I’m sure).

It’s a concern that has stayed with me for the 35 years since. And then I actually became a clergy spouse when my wife was ordained in 2015. And not only that but our daughter is now training for the ministry!

As I found to be the case in my employment career, God often uses our experiences as part of the bigger picture of our lives.

I’ve written elsewhere about the church being behind the times and while the same is true in this case, it is good that the CofE is addressing the issue of clergy wellbeing. Work that started back in 2015 is now being discussed by local parish church councils. But this is a complex issue and in my experience it’s unlikely that such councils will know how to respond in ways that are truly informed and meaningful.

As also written about elsewhere, the Society of Mary and Martha (colloquially referred to by its location of Sheldon) has been pastoring the pastors for the same length of time since I left my Bristol home. A place of retreat, support and guaranteed anonymity, they have been ahead of the times in the provision of the online Sheldon Hub as a place of further consolation and advice.

The core issue for me, as I have observed and lived with clergy life, is that most people do realise the role of the clergy is not just about Sundays. Indeed, the reality is that that day and the preparation for it (in terms of time) is a relatively small part of the role. But I would be fairly certain in saying that the majority of people have no idea at all what fills the rest of the week. Drawing a topical, if somewhat imperfect, comparison, the working life of a footballer is not just about 90 minutes on the pitch – although there is many a penalty shoot-out…

For many clergy, particularly those working in parishes, it’s on call all day, every day, six days a week (seven if they don’t choose well…). Being anything from a social worker to a business manager, much of it without the relevant training. Being asked to look after themselves while being asked to do more (not least in this pandemic).

A fairly simple and straightforward action that any of us can undertake would be to at least increase the understanding of all that clergy are required to do. And the fact that each one has all the other ordinary (and not so ordinary) family and life commitments as well.

Like its Sheldon namesake, the story of Mary and Martha is helpful. To be like Jesus with Mary, to sit with, listen and understand; and with Martha, to encourage, affirm and support. There are those who do that, for which we can be enormously grateful, but all of us, including me, can do more.

 

A couple of days after this post was published, we received a welcome Wellbeing Pack from the Diocese of Exeter: good to know they are taking clergy wellbeing seriously.

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group.

A lasting influence

Sarah Everard is the latest of many, many people whose tragic death has uncovered deep, long-standing issues within society.

Think too of others – Sarah Payne. Suzy Lamplugh. Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Emily Davison.

You can probably think of others. People who have been more influential in death than in life.

Throughout history there have been many such seminal moments. Times when as a society and as individuals we are forced to face up to that which has been left unaddressed, avoided or denied.

The Pankhursts. Mother Teresa. Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King.

Once again, you can probably think of others – why not make a note of them here.

We might think of other occasions which have challenged the status quo and influenced change. In the 1980s, the Faith in the City report uncovered that which had been hidden in our inner cities. In the work I used to do, changes in equality legislation enabled significant improvements; and the work of Dame Carol Black in the mid-2000s brought workplace mental health to the fore. In the intervening decades, the change has been noticeable but is still ongoing.

Will the legacy of Sarah Everard, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith make a difference? It will probably be many years before we know the full impact.

People can have a lasting influence on each one of us – I know they have for me. I can think of several individuals I’ve known who through the things they said or did have helped shape the person I am. Perhaps you can recall some too.

I wonder what societal reaction Christ’s death would have if it took place today. An innocent 33 year-old. Killed in a barbaric way. There would be swathes of flowers and social media videos. Maybe protests too. (The resurrection branded as ‘fake news’…)

Would we remember his life, his teaching and the miracles?

As we move on through Lent and gradually approach Easter, maybe it’s a time to reflect on Christ’s lasting influence on society and on each one of us…

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others. If you’d like to follow the Easter journey there are some short films you may like to use.

Making up our mind

The last couple of decades has seen many changes in the way we live and work.

The 2010s saw a significant increase in the number of people working from home. Now, there have always been people who could do elements of their job where they lived (teachers, for example) but the last decade saw the home becoming the location of choice – either their own or their employer’s – rather than going in to office or traditional workplace base. Technological advances have been integral to this development, of course, as has the growth in ‘agile working’ (where people don’t have ‘their own desk’ but use whatever space is available). Not always easy but it has been a part of this shift in how we work.

The last 20 years have also seen a welcome change in society’s attitudes towards mental illness. Whether royalty or celebrity, work colleague or family member, it’s become much more OK to talk about mental health (although mental ill health is generally what is meant by that term – the ‘mental health world’ has always had a problem with what language to use…). While the continued misuse of phrases such as ‘a little bit OCD’ or self-diagnosing PTSD just days after a difficult occasion show distinct lack of awareness, the fact many of us are able to be much more open about our experiences of depression, anxiety and other such conditions is a significant shift in the culture of how we live.

Combining those two aspects have, inadvertently perhaps, helped to enable our society to be more prepared for the effects of current pandemic. During these strange times, initially in the March-June lockdown and now again in some areas where there are restrictions, people were asked to work at home if possible – even though that brought its own many and varied difficulties. The impact on people’s mental wellbeing has also been acknowledged and the increase in the number of people now experiencing psychological distress for the first time or a worsening of existing conditions is of course concerning.

World Mental Health Day has been marked on 10 October every year since 1992 (I wrote about it last year too). It’s one of a number of occasions when we can focus on some of the pertinent issues (others being Time to Talk Day and Mental Health Awareness Week, for example).

But of course, as with any other specific ‘issue’ or ‘campaign’, one day a year doesn’t change the lives of those who suffer and support on the remaining 360-odd. Within the welcome changes of the last 20 years, there has been a degree of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ but there are many, many individuals and organisations who work to ensure that we don’t lose sight of the reality of life for the many hundreds of thousands of people who experience the most distressing and difficult thoughts and feelings.

Although God can and does enable miraculous healing there is often no quick fix. Medication may help but isn’t always necessary. However, it will take time and effort – which is in itself part of the reason why so many people end up struggling for so long: simply because it takes so much time and so much effort. It’s hard work to make up one’s mind to be and to remain well.

Recovery from a period of mental ill health may not mean the complete absence of symptoms but it will see the return to a more comfortable level of day to day functioning. To once again live and work well.

Click here for some links that may be helpful in making up your own mind…

 

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All in a Day’s Work

‘Behind the scenes’ documentaries have been part of TV viewing for decades and, with the growth in streaming alongside hundreds of channels, there are a multitude of different settings for the cameras to spy on.

One series I’ve enjoyed recently has been Channel 4’s The Yorkshire Jobcentre. Given my own career of nearly 40 years helping people to find or remain in employment that may not be a surprise.

Up until 2003, I worked in a variety of settings of what is now the Dept for Work & Pensions including in Jobcentres. The programmes have portrayed both job seeker (often maligned as scroungers) and job advisor (often portrayed as unhelpful bureaucrats) fairly and respectfully, observing difficulties and progress, frustration and commitment for both alike.

I certainly recognised the spectrum of customers from the harder to help long-term unemployed through to the harder to help professional and well-educated, and from the unrealistically ambitious to the desperately lacking in confidence. Similarly, I was fortunate to work alongside very committed colleagues, rejoicing together when someone got a job – but yes, there were a few who stuck to rules as if they’d written them.

The series certainly echoed my experience of it being an honour and a privilege to have played a small part in the lives of so many. Watching people make progress is a wonderful thing.

This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Like many of Jesus’ stories, it’s based on events happening in his time. An employer recruits labourers to work in his vineyard but to our 21st century ears, this parable would raise the hackles of any business person or union representative.

Taken literally, the concept of people who worked one hour and people who worked a full day being paid exactly the same would not go down well – as indeed it didn’t with some of the labourers in the vineyard.

But that’s missing the point of the parable. And the point is not a literal interpretation of the story being told – beyond the fact that for those labourers, among the poorest in 1st Century Palestine, working in the vineyard was a gift, a welcome source of employment.

One common interpretation of the parable is that the owner is God and the labourers are us; the vineyard is God’s kingdom and the wage that is agreed is not only the provision of our daily bread but also our salvation.

Rather than being unfair or unjust, God’s generosity transcends our human ideas of fairness. God is not answerable to the people and can do as he pleases with his gifts.

God’s gift is that everyone – rich and poor, powerful and powerless – receives the same.

In God’s economy, all of us are equally deserving so the reward is equal as well. The reward is not based on each person’s merit or quality or quantity of work but rather from the grace of the one who hires, the grace of God.

As God’s people we are to be those who work in the vineyard because it is a good thing to do rather than because we hope to earn merit or greater rewards or greater recognition by others.

That said, the work itself doesn’t have to be something highly visible or deemed to be more important than others – remember this parable features the poorest of society.

Whatever we do if we do it for the Lord and not for our own personal reward, we will bear witness to God’s kingdom and we will see God’s vineyard bearing fruit.

 

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Will we remember them?

On 8th May 1945, with the end of war in Europe, the country celebrated (or at least this country did – others did not).

The previous years had seen horrendous loss of professional and civilian lives. Medical services overwhelmed. Businesses disrupted and closed. The economy shattered. Public movement limited. Many were unemployed, homeless, injured and seeking limited food supplies. Politicians were ridiculed and praised. There were heroes and villains. Many gave their lives for the common good. The country, the world, was never the same again.

‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’

On 8th May 2020, 75 years on, we are called to commemorate (sadly, some say celebrate). While all around us… well, just read the second paragraph again.

75 years on from now, I doubt any will remember those who gave their lives for the common good in these current times. Indeed, apart from family, friends and colleagues, will any remember them in 25, 10, 5 or even 2 years time…?

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, will we remember them?

The last post reflected on a renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways. Public applause on Thursday evenings acknowledges the work of NHS and care staff together with others who are designated as key workers. As a society, we are, finally, recognising the essential role of refuse collectors, postal workers, telecom engineers, road repairers, supermarket assistants, domiciliary carers and care home staff, bus drivers and all whose work is often disregarded. Blessed are the meek.

Over 100 of those have died due to their work and many others have been attacked undertaking it. They probably knew the risks and took precautions but they didn’t set out to give so much.

Even in wartime, when many set out knowing they may not return, they and all around hoped they would. ‘My father had been killed in an air raid so for us the end of the war didn’t mean he’d be coming home,’ wrote one person recalling VE Day. ‘For many of us, the end of the war didn’t mean life would go back to what it was before 1939.’ (Radio Times 2-8 May 2020)

And so it is for many today, life will never be the same again.

In contrast, another contributor recalled the unexpected: ‘Before VE Day I had never been out after dark. The lights were on in all the windows, and, magically, I could see people inside… it was the beginning of something much more exciting – lights.’

And now candles burn in our windows from 7pm on Sunday. A light for those who work, who suffer, who grieve. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5)

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we may or we may not remember them but the light of Christ shines on all for eternity.

 

 

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Saying the right thing

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Those words, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, demonstrate that whether speaking, writing, texting, messaging or emailing, we may know what…

  • we said
  • we tried or wanted to say
  • we said without actually saying it
  • we didn’t mean to say.

And yet Shaw’s words also perceive that the one with whom we have communicated may…

  • understand, not understand or not want to understand
  • hear only what they think is being said
  • interpret it to mean something else
  • have decided their response before we’ve said it…

Or, in other words… ‘A man hears what he wants to hear. And disregards the rest’, as Paul Simon put it (and, for clarity in this piece of communication, that’s the songwriter not the playwright).

Then there’s those occasions when we ‘read between the lines’ but it turns out we hadn’t read the lines in the first place. Or when we assume and it makes an ‘ass out of u and me’.

And take this e-mail from a long-standing friend: ‘Many thanks Richard…very much enjoying your book most mornings!’ Now, is it that they are reading my book most mornings and enjoying it? Or only enjoying it on some mornings and not on the others? Hopefully it’s the former – but it may not be…

I expect all of us (at least I hope it’s all of us…) have fallen foul of a miscommunication. I know I have – many times (and just last week, as it happens) – often unintentionally. Those times when I said or wrote ‘the wrong thing’ or the person I communicated with received it as the wrong thing. Times when perhaps I should have remained silent. It’s true of me as a listener and receiver too.

Workplaces are notorious for unclear communication. You know the type of thing, I expect. Rumour becomes reality before the facts are stated – and when the facts are stated they’re not believed… because of the rumour. Cynicism also plays an influential role: ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard that before…’ and is in itself representative of disillusionment with efforts to communicate.

And it’s not just in workplaces, of course: churches, social clubs, families, any gathering of people experience issues with communication and miscommunication.

Language and communication are complex things.

Indeed, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say through this blog post. And, in any case, who am I to try and say it…

But I do like what St Benedict said as one of the twelve steps of humility: ‘We speak gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising our voices, as it is written: ‘The wise are known by few words.’

‘Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent,’ writes Barbara Brown Taylor. ‘Some of the most effective language in the world leads you up to the brink of silence and leaves you there, with the soft surf of the unsayable lapping at your feet… When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.’

 

The next post will be on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. That will be the last full post until after Easter: so during Lent, Holy Week and Easter why not take a look at a series of short films, called Out of the Wilderness.

‘Summertime…

… and the living in easy,’ so goes the classic jazz standard. But if you work for Tesco Metro, Harland & Woolf, Thames Valley Police or any other employer going through difficult times then it may not be. For others, especially those running their own business, it can be a case of the Summertime Blues – ‘About a-workin’ all summer just to try to earn a dollar,’ as Eddie Cochran put it.

Rather like Christmas, birthdays, weddings and other such occasions, the summer holidays are portrayed with mythical perfection. ‘You can stretch right up and touch the sky’ (Mungo Jerry). Sun, sea, sand etc and yes, holidays do provide time to perhaps visit some beautiful places and enjoy the company of others.

But for many, holidays can be a difficult time. The change from the routines of working life. The financial and other costs of long school holidays. The absence of friends and usual spare time activities.

Beginning a period of annual leave can be rather like being in a badly landing plane. No sooner as one landed and got through the ‘baggage hall’ of switching off and trying to have a good rest, then it’s almost time to go back to work, where everyone asks if you had a good break… ‘Yes, it was lovely,’ we reply, somewhat unconvincingly. The expectation of a ‘great holiday’ can often dampen the reality of it even more than rain spoils sunshine.

Holidays can, however, provide space and time to consider where one is with work, rest and prayer. Where we are with our whole life balance. Time to think about:

  • Work: What aspects have been rewarding and which have been difficult?
  • Rest: Do we feel rested or restless, energised or exhausted?
  • Pray: Where are we with God – close or distant?

Holidays can be a good period to reflect on the preceding weeks and months and maybe make some decisions about what to do to help that whole life balance. Whether it’s making sure we take a lunch break, spending that ‘spare time’ in ways that fill our soul, or setting aside time for prayer and giving intentional attention to God.

So, if you’re on holiday at the moment, why not take a bit of time to reflect on how work, rest and prayer are placed at the moment – and even if you’re not, how about making some space to do so?

Here’s some links to other posts in this blog that may be helpful:

Holidays can provide a ‘safe harbour’ from some of the storms of life. But we also need to be realistic – the wind still blows and the tide still goes in and out even in the most sheltered port. But it’s also true that Jesus stays in the boat with us and what better mooring is that.

Humble Leadership

When Manchester City beat Watford in the recent FA Cup Final, I probably wasn’t the only one to  notice the reaction of Pep Guardiola, the City manager, as the fifth and then sixth goals went in. His head was in his hands. Was it embarrassment… or was he humbled by what his team had done for him?

And then, amidst the champagne, streamers and fireworks, as the victorious players held the trophy aloft and then ‘dancing’ in the way only professional footballers can, he simply stood back, watching. A time to let his team have the glory and the honour. ‘Hey, look at them, not me,’ he seemed to say. A sign of leading from within. A sign of humble leadership.

While we might long to see more humility in our political leaders, let’s consider another example of this exceptional gift.

A recent study of seven successful CEOs found they all identified a common theme: vulnerability. ‘Vulnerable leadership is humble leadership,’ wrote Catherine Llewelyn-Evans. ‘Able to acknowledge its own temptations, frailties, and limitations, it will not set itself above others, nor stand on its own importance (for example, when Jesus lays aside his robes to wash the disciples’ feet [John 13])… It is a kind of leadership which — released from its need to posture or impress — gives others permission to be vulnerable, and releases them from fear or guilt.’

Or as John Baldoni put it, ‘Humility is an approach to life that says, “I don’t have all the answers and I want your contribution.” Humility is… the acceptance of individual limitations.’

Humility is grateful for those contributions and expresses that gratitude. It also embeds the ability not just to say ‘I got that wrong’ but also to climb that sometimes elusive next step of ‘You were right.’

In the well-established daily pattern of readings from the Rule of St Benedict (reflections on which are in the book Life with St Benedict) on the day this post is published, 26 May, there begins a series of readings on Chapter 7 – a chapter which is all about humility.

In this longest chapter of the Rule, and using the imagery of a ladder, St Benedict helps us take steps towards what he calls ‘the highest summit of humility’.

Using paraphrases of what he wrote, let’s climb the ladder together, shall we…

  1. Revere God at all times
  2. Align our lives with God’s will not our own.
  3. Listen to our leaders.
  4. Do what God wants and listen to God when life is tough.
  5. Admit when we get it wrong and receive the forgiveness that comes from doing so.
  6. When we feel badly treated, insignificant, and no better than anyone or anything else, know we are always with God. And God is always with us.
  7. Humbling ourselves and being humbled by circumstances helps us know we are precious to God.
  8. Remember that the words and actions of others influence how we act and behave.
  9. Be careful about what we say to others and how we listen to them.
  10. Laugh – being respectful to others when we do so.
  11. ‘Speak gently, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably’.
  12. Be humble in our actions and not just in how we think and feel.

Joan Chittister writes that this chapter on humility ‘does not say, “Be perfect.” It says, “Be honest about what you are and you will come to know God.”’

Humility in leadership – or any other aspect of life, for that matter – is an approach, a gift, which enables us to shout, ‘Hey, look at you!’ not ‘Hey, look at me’.