Saturday, 12 January 2019

Book review - Sustaining Leadership

This is a wildly and hopelessly overdue blog! I read this wonderful book ages ago, and promised to review it here, but never got round to it. And be assured that the irony of not being able to find time to review a book about developing and maintaining healthy patterns of life and work is in no way lost on me...

The book is written by Paul Swann, and its subtitle is 'You are more important than your ministry.' A reasonable enough statement, you'd think, except that so many of us seem to forget this at one time or another, as we fall into the trap of believing ourselves to be indispensable, and allow our diaries, our ministries and our pressures define us.

Paul Swann speaks from very personal, and very difficult, experience. In 2005 he experienced a period of illness and fatigue which resulted in 4 years of trying to manage his health and ministry, before he decided completely to step back from his full time role. Out of that experience, and the ways in which he has since sought to rebuild and rebalance his life, he shares much insight and wisdom which every one of us in any sort of 'ministry' role would do well to heed.

This book is really superb, and an absolute must read. It's easy to read in the sense of being clear and well written, with short chapters, but certainly not in the sense of being without substance. I sense that it's a book I will return to time and time again throughout the course of my ministry, when I need to be reminded of the nuggets it contains.

On the first page of the Introduction comes a quote that I know I need to keep front and centre of my mind (from Parker Palmer): "Self-care is never a selfish act - it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others."

I know I have found a book enormously helpful when I highlight something on almost every page - and my copy of Sustaining Leadership is already well thumbed and with many yellow highlights!

In Part 1, entitled 'Disintegration' Paul outlines his own story "Arriving on Planet Fragile." I read it knowing it could easily have been me or any one of us. He is honest about his own personal and painful experiences, and the devastating impact they had upon him.

In Part 2, 'Reintegration' Paul describes how he began to recover, and gives a wealth of invaluable advice about self care, what healthy and unhealthy patterns of ministry might look like, and how we can find the right balance of all the competing demands and priorities within our lives.

I often say that the thing I find most frustrating about my job as a vicar

(which I love almost all of, almost all of the time), is that it is simply never finished. There is always something more which could or should be done. Paul speaks to this when he writes "From where will you get your permission to stop? It will not come from completing a job that has no ending, from receiving affirmation that seldom comes or from a hierarchical permission that rarely exists. Instead, it will have to come from the self-love and self-care of which we have spoken, augmented by obedience to the fourth commandment, which is our permission to rest." I'm seriously considering getting that tattooed on my person, or at the very least stuck on the door of my study!

Part 3 is called 'Holding on to Hope.' This reminds us of why we ultimately do what we do, and in whose strength we do it.

I really enjoyed the way this book is written. It is very practical, and actively encourages the reader to engage with the content rather than just to read the words. Throughout the book there are grey boxes where questions are asked which invite us to pause and reflect.

This book is immensely real and honest, with just the right level of challenge - having gone through such a difficult period in his own life, Paul very much wants to make sure that others don't have to go through the same thing.

This book is wonderful and important - a definite must read for anyone involved in any kind of leadership or ministry. The future you will be glad you read this book now!

As Paul says in the Introduction: "Sustaining Leadership is not a book about what to do as a leader. It is a book about how to be as a leader."

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