December 7, 2018

Christian Leader: Surround Yourself With “No Men”


This is Ollie.  Ollie is one of my “No Men”.

Ollie has been one of my longest term friends.  A man of Christian character over a long period of time.

I took this photo of him in 1999 overlooking the Dorset coastline near Ollie’s family’s holiday cottage.  Ollie and his wife, Phil, had just gotten married, were on an extended honeymoon/working holiday in England, and my wife, Jill, and I were visiting them over one glorious – and rare – warm summer.

There’s a contented look in his face isn’t there?  And late 90’s Brit-pop sideburns to die for.

I first met Ollie when I’d moved to the UK myself several years before.  I’d ended up in an old Baptist church in Buckinghamshire, knowing no one and sidling into a pew of an evening.  Everything and everyone going on around me. Awkies or what!

Then this bloke – younger than I – sat next to me, smiled, introduced himself and asked who I was, what I was doing etc.   And he’s been one of my closest friends since.  I ended up sharing a house with him and a couple of other blokes that year in the UK.  And despite some personal struggles that had seen me move to England in the first place, it was a memorable year.

There’s not much Ollie can’t turn his hand to.  The house we lived in, an old cottage at the back of that Baptist church, was in dire need of renovating.  And Ollie was a dab hand.  I’ve renovated my own old cottage since that time, but it was Ollie who showed me how to paint walls and skirtings properly.  Ollie who had the nous and the knack to fix things and make them stay fixed.  Ollie who could park his red mini in carpark spaces that one had no right to park a bicycle, never mind a car.

And he was a Christian brother like no other.  Always been involved in church, helping where help is needed.  Taking the hard decisions and going slightly against the flow and ahead of the curve.  And in the meantime he and his wife have raised four children.  A lot has happened in the intervening 19 years since I took that photo above.  Laughter, tears, frustrations, grief (our fathers died within weeks of each other).  But our friendship has endured.

Ollie is a gifted artist. And he headed up the Christian Union at his local university where he was studying architecture and design.  And, boy, could he draw!  I was amazed at his nascent skill, which has only gotten better as he matured and as his eye for detail matured.  Realism is his thing.  Here’s something he did recently:

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So he’s gifted.  But, arguably (and he may be the one to argue it), Ollie’s greatest gift to me, especially in my role as a Christian leader, but also as husband and father among other roles, is that he is one of my – indeed my primary – “No Man”.

In other words, Ollie is one of those blokes who is able to look past my hubris, or pride, or self-focus, or starry-eyed zealotry and say “No” to plans or schemes or pathways that he can see pitfalls in.  And that I can’t – or, due to my breezy optimism – won’t see pitfalls in.

And don’t our Christian leaders in churches need more “No Men”?  And a whole lot less “Yes Men.”  Too many of God’s people have been burned by toxic leaders whose general aim is to surround themselves with “Yes Men” in order to create a feedback loop that allows them to do what they want to do.  And maybe this sounds like a gender distinction, and perhaps women in church leadership need “No Women”, but the sad fact is the narcissistic thing inhabits men at a greater rate. Hence we are in greater need of “No Men”.

The marks of a good “No Man” are many, but here are just three of those marks that Ollie has displayed in the 27 years I have known him.

1.Fierce Friendship. That’s different to fierce loyalty.  Many a toxic leader is surrounded by ‘Yes Men” who demonstrate simpering loyalty.  And that allows them to remain toxic.  Every perpetrator needs an enabler (or five) to be able to thrive, and if they can surround himself with enough of them they can keep going – and keep doing damage – for a very long time; a very long time indeed.

I remember an excruciating conversation with one such leader who I had opposed on something, and who had surrounded himself with “Yes Men” who were beginning to waver and point out the problem with the way he has leading.  He soon put a stop to such nonsense and they pulled their heads in again.  He told me this, and I’ll never forget it, because it is so at odds with his stated theological convictions: “I value loyalty above anything.”

I was gobsmacked by that.  First because loyalty is for lapdogs and henchmen.  Mafia leaders value loyalty.  Loyalty, in and of itself, is a crock when it comes to good leadership.  It has no moral framework in and of itself.

But secondly, it’s not biblical.  At all.  I checked the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians and it ain’t there.  Unless there’s something I’m missing from the Greek.

Loyalty is not the mark of a “No Man”.  Fierce friendship is.  Fierce friendship that is fierce enough and values the friendship enough – and will put it on the line if need be –  to say, “Wrong way, turn back!”  Or, Don’t you think you want this thing just a little too much?”

Yet so many of the toxic train crashes in churches that have gained media exposure these past years (along with many that have not) have this in common:  A toxic, or ungodly, leader who is propped up by “Yes Men” who guard the leader from anyone who may love them enough to speak into their lives honestly.

For that’s the problem.  “Yes Men” just don’t love people enough. They heap praise because they desperately hope it’s a feedback loop.  Something was – or still is – missing from their lives so much so that they love the praise of man – especially that man – too much.

Perhaps they can mouth all the theological terminology around justification, but since they don’t feel fully justified by how Jesus feels about them, they have trouble saying “No” to someone who could withdraw their pleasure from them.  That’s a recipe for disaster in a church.

Ollie has been a “No Man” to me too many times that I care to remember, pointing out the hazardous or plain silly ideas I might be carrying.   And for that I’m grateful to him.  I could very easily, become one of those leaders, surrounded by “Yes Men” if not careful.

2. Firm Faith. Ollie has known me for 26 years.  And he’s been a Christian striving to please God before that and up until this day.  And that’s what I need.  That’s what we all need.

He’s stayed close to Jesus while single, while married, while working four or five jobs, with kids, with four or five churches and across several countries.  And he’s always called on me to do the same, and to check that he does too.

In this drifting culture, in which even Christians flit from one thing to the next, or lose their energy and zeal for the gospel over time, a longterm Christian friend like that is gold.

We’re so rootless in our culture that even in church we tend to fast-track the depth of Christian relationships because we have so few that are long-term.  We put a lot of weight on people we have not known for a long time.  Needless to say, if something goes pear-shaped, it can pretty quickly end a friendship that had no longterm depth.  Rinse, launder, repeat!

 We hardly stay in churches long enough these days to find out, or be found out by other people.  Yet that is going to be one of the things we most need in these increasingly difficult cultural times.

The world skims the surface looking for lots of friends. We must, by contrast, sink down deep and find four or five friends (or eight or ten if you’re not an introvert such as I), who can demonstrate Christian perseverance.  The definition of perseverance is basically godliness over time.  And Ollie has been that to me. When you find such a friend, stick with them, because they will inevitably teach you more about yourself than any book on ministry can.

Of course my lovely wife, Jill, is my closest companion.  There is a completely different emotional engagement with our spouses. But part of a good marriage is not putting ALL of your emotional weight on your spouse by isolating yourself from deep, honest friendship that builds and ages in its faith alongside you.  Honour your spouse by having strong friendships who call you to account, even, and especially, in terms of how you treat that spouse of yours!

3.Final Focus. I was 24 when I met Ollie.  He was 20, and I well remember helping him celebrate his 21st birthday in that small cottage, crammed with uni students, and English cider.

I am 51 now.  More than half a lifetime ago.  Where has it gone?  And why did it go so quickly?

But more to the point, where is it going?

Here’s the sign of a good “No Man”.  A good “No Man” will keep you focussed on the final goal.  When you reach the middle years it’s very easy to drift. It is, ironically, easier to take your eyes off the final prize, the closer you get to it.  Ollie never lets me do that. Always calls me to keep on keeping on.

Men my age experience the opposite of Jordan Peterson’s much vaunted “chaos”, in which you’re supposed to tidy your room before you do anything else.

Well, what if you’re not 21, but 51? What if your room is already tidied?  What if it’s not only tidied, but you’ve renovated a house or two (with Ollie’s help)? What if your kids are growing up and about to be off your hands?  What if you and your wife are just dog-tired after twenty years of mixing jobs and parenting?

Well your danger is not chaos, but inertia.  Your temptation is not rushing hither and thither in a frenzy.  Your danger is untended – and therefore unintended –  drift. You could find yourself in a place that ten years ago would not only have surprised you, but have shocked you.  A place you were warning others about just a decade ago. The Bible is less concerned about a gigantic instant leap away from Jesus, as it is a sanguine, seemingly benign, drift.

Yet what do we see in our middle years?  Men – and especially men – who drift. Who drift away from Jesus. Who drift away from God’s people.  Who drift away from holiness. Who drift away from zeal.  Who drift away from their wife.  And, in light of that, always drift towards other things: self-satisfaction, ungodliness habits, other women.

At the very point that you’re reaching the last third of your life, when your hopes more than ever should be fixed on the age to come, it’s all too easy to settle for a bowl of stew in this age, primarily because you’ve been hanging around the stew bowl once too often.

A good “No Man”, who has been with you through those years can see the signs and can point out the things that can still head you off at the pass if you are not careful!

What things?  All the things that derail men, especially men, and increasing Christian leaders who are surrounded by “Yes Men”: sex, power, greed,  pride, lack of self control coupled with a desire to control others.  The usual suspects.

A “No Man” will see the hints of these things in your life and point them out, encourage you to weed them out, so that they don’t take hold.  A “No Man’s” greatest desire for you is that you stand before Christ on the last day and hear, “Well done good and faithful servant.” 

Even if it costs your relationship, or puts it in danger, a “No Man” will do what it takes for that to happen.  He values what Jesus will say about you there and then, more than what he values YOU say about him here and now.

So, here’s to our “No Men”.  Here’s to your versions of Ollie.  If you know who they are, thank them.  If you don’t have any, find some.  And if you don’t want any, and would prefer to surround yourself with “Yes Men”, then you are deliberating endangering your faith and the faith of those you lead.

Oh, and for a man who keeps his eye on me, here’s a last picture of Ollie’s, just to finish with:

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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