When to pull the plug.
This morning I shall be nervously standing by the phone. You may laugh, but it seems that my lifetime ambition to be the player-manager for Everton FC may still be realised. You may have read this morning that finally, after the 5-2 humiliation at the expense of our Stanley Park neighbours, manager Marco Silva has been sacked. Now we are seeking to appoint our fourth permanent manager since Roberto Martinez was sacked in May 2016. It can’t be easy being a manager of a Premier league football club, I realise that. Silva won only 24 of his 60 games. Maybe his greatest hour was when we beat the Austrian side ATV Irdning in a pre-season match. I’ll settle for 22-0 anytime. For the sad fact facing all Premier league managers that at any one time despite the huge sums spent on new players some 50% of teams will be in the bottom half of the table. Tragic. As Leeds' Howard Wilkinson mused: “There’s only two types of manager. Those who’ve been sacked and those who will be sacked in the future.” He should know – he’s currently the chairman of the League Managers Association. However, the huge dilemma for any football club chairman is when to persevere with a manager and when to send him his P45. One of the most successful managers has to be Alex Ferguson who oversaw Manchester United from 1986 to 2013. His first game in charge was against Oxford United: his team lost 2-0. His next match was a draw. According to my son-in-law, a United supporter, there was a time when Ferguson’s place at the club was touch and go. Sometimes you just have to persevere and take the flak. There again, we have the Google approach to life – to fail quickly, to realise when we are simply throwing good money after bad. We have this same dilemma, of course, in Christian ministry, when to persevere and when to pull the plug. Except as Christians we have a very different understanding of failure - for you can’t fail any more than the crucified Jesus, betrayed, humiliated, abandoned and alone. His resurrection totally vindicates his upside-down teaching. Now the last is in fact first – and if I may paraphrase, the bottom is, in reality, the top. For this reason we need a totally new way of thinking. For what may appear a failure may turn out in God’s economy to be an overwhelming triumph. Here Jesus quotes Psalm 118: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes’ (Matthew 21:42)
And the converse, of course. The service may have been packed out, the music brilliant, the preaching impressive – but to no effect. For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit was not at work. In other words, we need a different way of thinking, what the apostle Paul calls the renewal of the mind, to see through God's eyes and to decide to keep in step with the Holy Spirit, to do things his way despite what the world may think. In practice, this makes discernment difficult. While we may reject the bums on seats approach, it doesn’t then follow that low numbers is a sure indication of spiritual advance. I became a Christian through the 6.30 Gospel service at Oxford Hall assembly, one which should have been cancelled through thick fog. Looking back over the years, I thank God that the preacher showed herculean persistence in travelling from the Across the Water by public transport. No doubt he was hugely disappointed to discover that the congregation was just a few old ladies and a young lad. However, the church persisted with this service as the mainstay of its evangelism, even as the world changed around it. No visible fruit at all. Right to the bitter end, when the church itself expired in the 1990’s. The leadership could not reimagine any other way of sharing the Gospel. Sometimes perseverance can be a cop out. If this is the case with ministries, even more when we are called to persevere with people. Just think Jesus and Peter. Certainly the apostle Paul stayed with Timothy. Reading between the lines, it seems that his pupil was in danger of floundering. “And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanour, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching.” (1 Timothy 4: 11f, Message translation). The default is that we persevere with people, even giving a second and third chance. But there again, Paul pulled the plug on Hymenaeus and Alexander through their “relaxing their grip and thinking anything goes have made a thorough mess of their faith.” (1 Timothy 1:19f) That the crux – we succeed not through our ability but through our faith in the crucified Christ. What counts is faith in the faithfulness of God, even when it is merely the size of a mustard seed. In all this we need both wisdom and courage. The good news is that God promises both to all those who sign up for him on a lifelong contract.