Finishing Well

It’s a bit awkward being asked to write about finishing well—because we aren’t yet horizontal-in-a-box and are likely to mess up a few times in future.

Of course, the editors could have asked Billy Graham or John Stott—but they aren’t likely to provide an article anytime soon! We have, however, just finished 24 years involvement with the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) in Bangalore, India, and for the last ten Ian has been the Principal. We’ve just handed over the Principalship to Dr Prabhu Singh in April. The transition seems to be going well—though not all transitions at SAIACS have done so. What was it like? What lessons did we learn? 

First, some background. SAIACS is one of the premier evangelical theological educational institutions in South Asia, awarding masters and doctoral degrees to some pretty awesome Christian leaders. We went there in 1994 for Ian to study at masters’ level. With our three daughters, Judith and I stayed for another four years on the faculty team. After completing some more research in heology, Ian was Principal of Pathways College for five years—then handing the baton to Craig Barrow. All that time he kept on visiting SAIACS annually to teach for a month. It’s revolutionised our perspective on what God is doing around the world and on how ordinary Kiwis like us can play a part. 

That brings up the most important thing: finishing well begins by beginning well! For us, it meant respecting our colleagues. It was scary to arrive without all the answers, but that was better appreciated than arriving with them! 

It also meant leading by forming consensus. In a land known for unchallengeable rajas and gurus, pursuing leadership through consensus is pretty counter-cultural. Just after we arrived, the whole team brainstormed for several days on what our vision and goals were. Not all the good ideas came from us! Management by Objectives worked, for the collective objective-setting built the team’s confidence. Respect for colleagues meant taking delegation seriously. We were not micro-managing every task. Giving responsibility is a huge encouragement to team members. 

Finishing well depends on keeping relationships sweet—as far as it depends on us. We had to consciously decide that keeping friendships was more important than achieving targets. When the Press Manager reported a profit for the first time, his achievement was praised; when the academic office omitted to consult a Head of Department before arranging something, the failing belonged to us all and ultimately to the Principal. An early apology avoided deeper holes being dug! We found that socialising with our co-workers was important, just as much as praying with them. A monthly prayer friendship with a local Indian leader helped Ian keep perspective. It’s true, some people aim to criticise, even attack. We learned that God is well able to vindicate and that defensive maneuvers are best left to others.

Finishing well begins by foreseeing our replacement. It was important for us to say that we were privileged to be leaders among them, but that our long-term goal was to replace ourselves with Indian leaders. Stepping in during an emergency, Judith became our Chief Administrative Officer. Ten months later, she handed the role to a new recruit, Jonathan, who is awesome. Judith was also responsible for managing hospitality, especially for the 40 or so international visitors we had each year. Eighteen months before we left, she identified Sheela as having the potential to take over. Firstly, Sheela worked with her and then Judith worked alongside Sheela. By the time we left, Sheela was confident being the Campus Hostess.

Finishing well depends on recognising who owns the ministry. It is Jesus who owns the harvest, not us. Our identity did not come from our ministry; we are known to God and his smile on what we’re doing is more important than doing it. When he led us to consider stepping down from SAIACS, it would have been seriously difficult if by doing that Ian felt he would lose his identity. Leaving the task is easier when we know it is ultimately in God’s hands.

Finishing well involved consulting widely. Our visa was due to expire in May 2018. About two years before that, we began asking if God wanted us to continue beyond May 2018 or not. We were enjoying what we were doing, but circumstances were changing. The news that grandchildren (twins!) were arriving pulled our heartstrings. More soberingly, a religious nationalist party came to power in India and this was beginning to stress the Indian church.

It was increasingly provocative to have a foreigner in charge of a place like SAIACS. (In fact, in November last year, Ian was investigated by the internal affairs department and deportation was a real possibility.) We spent six months praying about the decision. Seeking to obey God’s voice involved also consulting with our family and our (three) supporting churches. 

Ian was accountable to the SAIACS Trust. It was helpful to give advance notice. In September 2016, he signaled to the Trustees we were looking to conclude. Their first response was to request he stay on for another five years. In April 2017, we communicated a definite decision to step down. That let the Trust set up a search committee and appoint a Principal designate, Dr Prabhu Singh. There was enough time to make that decision and for Ian to work six months with the new person before he formally took up the role. 

Finishing well involves leaving room for other decision-makers. It was tempting o nominate a successor, but Ian did not. Rather Ian suggested to the Trustees that three colleagues were very capable and suitable for the role. They eventually picked one of those three—a decision we felt content with (and said so)—but leaving space for others minimised all sorts of power games. Being open-handed was important to finishing well. All three colleagues were open-handed too, none clamouring for the role and being ready to work with whomever was chosen. The smooth transition at SAIACS has been rather in contrast to the public turmoil at another Indian seminary in recent years when leadership changed. Prabhu Singh too felt the lack of competing rivals was important and only confirmed his availability when that became clear. 

Finishing well involves decreasing while others increase. John the Baptist had it right! Prabhu’s appointment as Principal Designate was announced in September 2017. As Ian worked with Prabhu, increasingly Prabhu took the major decisions. Ian had to reckon with increasing powerlessness, as Prabhu shaped policy affecting the future. In such a situation, it’s easy to be misunderstood (‘Why is he pushing this idea through before he leaves?’), but important to be content with what God allows. 

Finishing well means giving space for farewells. Indian culture values formal welcomes and farewells. Kiwi aversion for ‘tall poppies’ makes them uncomfortable! After ten years, our departure signaled big changes and we had farewell conversations with many friends. They were generous—Ian ended up being given a bespoke suit! Though not always needed, such expressions of love are culturally impossible to refuse. A formal occasion of Thanksgiving was a splendid campus occasion, though for us rather hard to endure!

Finishing well means being ready to be no one. Being significant in mission changes on return to the home country. New Zealand is a world away, and Christians here don’t appreciate mission priorities in quite the same depth—and that’s not necessarily criticism, but a statement of fact. Of course, being unconcerned about your reputation is an important quality of Christian leadership. Peter advises, ‘Humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up.’ Finishing well means looking forward the Lord’s ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount.’ 

Finishing well means waiting for another call. I heard recently of a Christian policeman, who had served with International Justice Mission in India, returning with a passion for seeing New Zealand promoting justice-system development. He already has a sense of the next door opening for him. Perhaps we too will be given another task. Jesus continues, ‘…so now I will give you many more responsibilities’ (Mtt 25:21). 

Are you keen to hear God’s ‘Well done’? Are you keen to take up the next task? That is finishing well.

Ian and Judith Payne
Bio: Ian and Judith are resettling in Auckland. Ian is Director of Theologians Without Borders.