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Risky Business?

‘Risk’ is a word on the lips of many of our Methodist leaders at the minute. They call us to take more risks which usually means releasing more of the money locked away at local church level. However, what they rarely address is why we have become so risk-averse. Church leaders cannot expect local members and ministers to take risks, if everything else that is said or done creates a culture of hostility to risk-takers. At best, there are mixed messages emerging from those who want change but cannot see how to bring it about.

Risk is also big in management and business circles. From the success of Apple and Google, to the Credit & Banking Crisis of 2008, risk is big news. Part of the work I am currently doing in Mission Discernment leads me to reflect on what prevents informed risk at the church and Circuit level. So I have compiled a list of frequently asked questions being asked in risk-averse congregations:

FAQs in a church that is NOT faithful to its calling in taking gospel-risks

Is this allowed?’ - this is a question often asked by local members who do not feel empowered or knowledgeable about the Church of which they are part. It implies that the rules are made elsewhere and imposed on them, but that knowing the rules is not an essential part of their discipleship. Rather than create an atmosphere where risks are normal, it often leads to over-caution, for fear of falling foul of the leadership.

A key part of creating a culture of faith-filled risk-taking is a clear message from leadership that risk-taking is allowed and encouraged. A model of leadership that rewards effort as well as outcome will go some way to releasing the energy at local level to innovate and responding creatively to the challenges they face.

‘Who gave you permission/authority …?’ - in an organisational culture where risk-taking is encouraged, hierarchies are diminished and contributions are welcomed from all parts of the body. In a world of increasing complexity, organisations that grasp the need to create ‘extreme teams’ embodying a diverse range of talent, expertise, experience and perspective, are more likely to thrive. Leadership in these environments is characterised by its willingness to curate and empower, rather than dominate or control. A question that demands credentials in this way seeks to limit creativity and innovation to the few.

‘Didn’t we try that before?’ - When initiatives are discussed in church circles, there is normally at least one person who remembers when something similar was suggested in the past and how it did not work. The experience of failure therefore closes down future risk-taking for fear of getting it wrong again.

Experience from organisations that flourish through informed risk-taking shows that embracing failure as such as success is key. Instead of seeing failure as negative, these organisations embrace them (and those who make them) as creative learning opportunities.

Is that Methodist?’ - a picture of Methodism that is about the sum total of what has already been done, with no consideration of how Methodism evolves. A church that is sure of its identity understands that the Church must use its resources - theological, pastoral, liturgical, financial, and human - to reflect continually on its mission in the present and for the future. That will mean doing things that have not been done before in order to respond to new contexts.

‘How can we be sure?’ - a risk, by definition, leaves the future uncertain. If you know the outcome, then it’s not a risk. All risks, therefore, carry a potential cost in terms of time, energy and resources.

This is where faith comes in, for it is a risk-filled enterprise. To believe in things unseen, to hope for a better world is the epitome of faith and therefore uncertain. It is said, indeed that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. So creating a culture of informed risk-taking involves drawing from the deep wells of our faith.

How often should I forgive? (Mt 18:21) - Management textbooks talk about creating a culture of ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace in order to increase well-being, teamwork and creativity. I want to suggest that, in Christian terms, this is about forgiveness. A church that embraces the need to practice forgiveness on a daily basis is one ready to take risks. Knowing that others are wanting you to succeed, not waiting for you to fail, gives confidence to the individual. But knowing also, that failing is about learning, not blame, is also key.

There is much work to do, at all levels of the Methodist Church, is we are to become faith-filled risk-takers for the Gospel. None of it is easy or quick. To do it well, we must be prepared for:

persistent openness;

relentless hope;

and sheer hard work!

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