The Power of Observation

This is the second in a series of posts drawing out some of the applications and implications of permaculture principles for life, work, and mission (you can find the first post here: “Food Forests and Change Management”).

In this post, I want to look at the concept (and practice) of Observation — which happens to be the first principle of permaculture (as articulated by one of the ‘fathers’ of permaculture, David Holmgren).

It’s a simple but profound thought: you need to know the site before you start designing your garden/food forest/whatever. If you don’t adequately understand what you’re working with, you’ll no doubt run into trouble later on due to unsuitable plant selection, misplacement of structures, unhelpful drainage, and a whole host of other problems. You need to know the site before you do anything, and then start interacting with it slowly.

A good place to start is by ‘mapping’ the trajectory of the sun over the site. How much sun does the site get? What are the patterns of shade? What does this mean in regards to the temperature (and temperature variations) of the site? How does this change throughout the year with the different seasons? (Yes, this last point means that, ideally, you would observe the site for a full 12 months before starting!)

Then there’s water. What happens when it rains? Does water flow through the site, or are there existing structures (creeks, dams, or gutters) that direct the movement of the water? Does it flood? Can water be saved on site for later use? How often does it rain, how much average annual rainfall is there, and in which months does most rain fall?

There’s wind (Does the wind blow harshly through the site? What does this mean for plants?), soil (Are you starting with reasonably healthy soil, or is there lots of work to be done?), microclimates (Are there smaller niches within the broader site that create slightly different conditions?), life (Does the site currently include habitat for local animals/birds? If so, which ones? What about bugs, insects, and other creepy-crawlies?), and the list goes on.

The point is, of course, that all this information can feed into much better designs (and fewer unforeseen problems).

It also needs to be noted that observation is a practice. The best kind of observation comes by actually being present on site and seeing it at all points of the day (and night), through all the seasons and in all kinds of weather. It takes time to notice what animals are present (and when), and it takes getting down close to the ground to check out the creepy-crawlies!

If you come in with pre-made decisions, you will almost certainly get a lot of things wrong. Sure, you might be lucky with some of the plant placements or avoid flooding when it rains heavily by fluke, but overall your design (and the site itself) will suffer due to impatience and lack of site knowledge.

It seems to me that there are some good keys in this when it comes to how churches interact with their neighbourhoods and local communities.

So often, it feels like churches are fixated on one-size-fits-all approaches to engaging with those around them. We dive headlong into some ready-made program, or we head out into our communities with pre-written answers to questions they’re not asking or with well-intended ‘help’ that hasn’t been requested. And we wonder why people look at us funny!

What would it looks like for us to genuinely observe our local community before we tried any of our quick-fix approaches? What would we discover if we actually spent time in the community —physically present as we walked the streets and had real conversations with real people (where we actually listened) — before we did anything else? What might we learn if we ‘dug around’ a bit before we started doing stuff?

My guess is that we’d learn a lot.

We’d discover not just the ‘problems’ (that’s the easy part), but we’d also discover the strengths of the community. We’d learn about how the community ‘sees itself at its best’, and we’d quickly learn who are the people or groups who get stuff done (Hint: these ‘movers and shakers’ are good people to start building relationships with). We’d start to understand the local economy, figure out which groups and organisations are already present (which is really helpful if we’re not going to double-up on things that are already happening!), and we’d get to know the local natural and built environment.

We’d know our community, and this is a really great foundation from which to start interacting. Slowly. So often I see churches try to rush into genuine community engagement, and the result is either that they bite off more than they can chew, or they discover the law of unintended consequences. If you start out all gung-ho and you’re not around 12 months later because it all got too much, or if you go in so hard that you put people off-side, then you’ve probably done more damage than if you’d not started to begin with. We need to start slowly, building trust, and following through with what we say.

Simple. Profound.


Food Forests & Change Management

I’ve been thinking for a while about some of the natural applications/implications of permaculture thinking (a whole-of-system approach to sustainable living) to all areas of life, and thought I’d tease out some of those ideas here. Of course, thinking through such applications/implications is actually a core part of permaculture thinking — even though it’s most often applied to gardening — so none of this is new. I think, though, that there might be some left-of-field connections that might not often be seen.

The first one concerns ‘food forests’ and possible application to change management or the strategic implementation of a vision.

In permaculture circles, the production of food forests is kind of a big deal. The thought goes something like this: Forests are the goal towards which (pretty much) all ecosystems move. In forests, we see a beautiful example of the seemingly effortless sustainability and perfect balance of a system in which many different elements play their part for the benefit of the whole. It’s a system in which everything is ‘as it should be’. So, imagine if we worked towards the creation of such systems which also produced bountiful food crops! There would be little-to-no maintenance needed, because the system has all it needs, and the potential food production from such is system is truly surprising — not to mention the habitat such systems provide for all manner of animals and very helpful creepy-crawlies and pollinators, and the visual beauty, and so on and so forth. (See here for more information.)

There are a number of different approaches to creating a food forest, but most of these approaches hold a couple of main principles in common.

Firstly, the design of the food forest is based on an understanding of ‘zones’. Zones are conceptual boundaries that help in the design process for locating individual elements, based on how often the element is used and how often it needs to be serviced. Elements that are used most frequently and need the most frequent servicing are placed closest to the home, while those elements that are used most infrequently and require less frequent servicing are located furthest away from the house. For example, a small kitchen garden might be located close to the back door of a house (because it’s used everyday and needs more intense servicing), while mature fruit and nut trees will be located further away. A chook pen or bee hives or small shrubs and larger vegetables beds might be somewhere in between.

Secondly, there needs to be careful planning around the timing of the elements (and the process of succession). Though the mature fruit and nut trees are very much the end goal, they are going to take 15-20 years to reach full maturity. Obviously, you’re going to die waiting for their crops if that’s all you have, so you will need to plant a kitchen garden to keep you fed in the meantime. Over time, there will also be other sources of food from things like small shrubs (which take longer to grow than small veggies and herbs but grow far more quickly than fruit and nut trees), or honey from bees, etc. The key is this: unless there is proper planning and forethought, the fruit and nut trees will never be planted and grow. At the same time, the planting of these long-term trees is not the end of the story; there’s lot’s more to be done!

Notwithstanding my oversimplified description of these things, I think there’s enough here to frame some helpful thoughts about the process of organisational change, or the strategic implementation of a vision — or possibly many other applications along these lines.

It seems to me that the big problems that companies/organisations/churches/groups run into in regards to implementation of strategy or change management relate to either a failure to adequately ‘map out’ how the elements work together, or the timing of the changes or implementations (or both).

In regards to the first, it’s always necessary to adequately ‘map out’ where things are heading. If people can’t see the overall design of the vision or organisational change (and how each part works together with the others), then there will always be confusion and, quite probably, a fair bit of resistance to change. If individual elements (say, departments in a larger organisation) are ‘out of place’, then they will probably not function like they should — kind of like a kitchen garden placed 100 metres away from the house which sadly falls into disuse. Now, this may relate to things like departmental structure, or communication (or other) processes and work flows, or even things like organisation seating. The physical layout of the organisation can be far more important than we realise!

All of this to say that you will save yourself some significant headaches if you take the time to plan well first. It’s quite possible that things will change and adapt along the way, both in the creation of food forests and with organisational change or vision implementation, but these changes can be much more easily incorporated when there is a strong initial plan to work from.

In regards to the second, there is obviously a pressing need to outline where everything is headed, but if it’s just left there then everyone will die waiting for it to happen. What we need are some ‘small wins’ along the way, which sustain us for the longer-term or larger elements of change. So, we must ‘plant the seeds’ for the end goal (and build any necessary structures to support it), but we must also make sure we are tending to the immediate needs, getting done what needs to be done to keep us going. Along the way, we will also need to implement and celebrate the intermediate goals which keep us moving towards the ultimate goal. ‘Strategy succession’, if you will.

There is so much more that could be said, but I think that might be enough for now. Let me know if it’s been helpful. I’ll write a few more thoughts soon.


I haven’t blogged on this site for a couple of years now. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll pick it up again on any sort of regular basis.

Either way, I’ve had a few thoughts bubbling around in my head and thought I’d write them down, and it felt like it needed more than a Facebook post.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘submission’ — specifically in regards to some of the arguments us Christians have about theologies of marriage relationships and how this concept of submission may or may not fit into it all.

Let me nail my colours to the mast: I am firmly of the opinion that marriage relationships are best founded on the concept of mutual submission. I think this is not just a good idea but also happens to be the best way to understand and apply the biblical material regarding these matters, and I am convinced that the structures of patriarchy are far less than God’s ideal (that is, ‘sinful’), destructive, and in need of being dismantled.

I sometimes get asked, though, as to why male headship/female submission ‘works’.

(Though there are a number of ways one could understand this statement, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt to mean something along the lines of ‘contributes to marriage relationships that allow both partners to flourish,’ or at least ‘contributes to a happy and functional marriage relationship.’)

I’d say two things in response:

  1. ‘Submission’ is not necessarily a dirty word.

    The model given to us by Jesus is one of laying down one’s own rights in order to seek the best for the other (in all kinds of relationships, including marriage), so wherever this happens we see glimpses of the Kingdom. Of course, this kind of selflessness is so often exploited and abused by selfish and broken people, and can become genuinely dangerous (and, in the light of everything we have been learning about domestic & family violence recently, is something we need to take very seriously indeed!). Nevertheless (and I truly don’t say that flippantly), in the desire of one partner to truly seek the best for the other we see something of Jesus.

    In situations where the husband is not a total jerk (and certainly in situations where the husband truly, deeply values his wife), I can see how this sort of arrangement might be considered to ‘work’. I just wonder how much fuller this Kingdom glimpse could be if both partners were committed to the same kind of selfless dedication to the flourishing of the other.

  2. At it’s very, very best, the model of ‘wives submitting to their husbands’ and ‘husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the Church’ begins to look, funnily enough, remarkably like mutual submission.

    Of course, I’d argue that this is because that’s precisely the goal to which these phrases point but, even if one is seeking to avoid the notion of ‘mutual’ submission at all costs (for whatever reason), the idea of loving another person ‘as Christ loved the Church’ can only mean the laying down of one’s rights — even one’s own life — for the sake of the other. (Thus, any notion of any Christian husband demanding wifely submission seems to have completely missed the point. It might even be called ‘anti-Christ’, if we are to to be honest with ourselves.)

    If one is to take this command for sacrificial service seriously, the result — whatever you want to call it — is, functionally, mutual submission.

    I’d ask the simple question at this point, though, as to why one would hold so tight to a doctrine that only approaches something beautiful at its very best, rather than one that takes that ‘best’ as the starting point? I’m certainly not suggesting that all couples who claim ‘mutual submission’ actually live it out; I am simply saying that the foundation of mutual submission makes this ‘best’ an explicit, core feature.

    Doesn’t seem like a difficult choice to me.

(A Short Post on) Public Faith, Cultural Privilege, & Confected Culture Wars

Mike Frost* posted the following statement on social media yesterday:

The church has grown so accustomed to cultural privilege—a privilege it should never have had in the first place—that its erosion feels like persecution, when it’s not.

As a result, instead of meaningful engagement with society, we draw battle lines in confected culture ‘wars’ featuring praying football coaches, dissenting county clerks, and recalcitrant wedding cake bakers.

To my mind, this is one of the most piercing (and succinct!) analyses of the state of public faith (and flawed understandings of ‘mission’) in places like Australia and the U.S.—and I’m sure a number of others—that I’ve seen in a long time.

I won’t add any further comment on the statement here, but would love to get a conversation going around it in the comments section.

* Mike is a leading voice in the missional church movement, Vice Principal of Morling College (in Sydney, Australia), author, speaker, and a bunch of other things (including, some might say, provocateur).

Campaigning and (Enlightened) Self Interest

I’ve been thinking for a while about the morality of using ‘enlightened self interest’ in the service of campaigning (on issues like climate change, global poverty, asylum seekers/refugees, etc.).

Is it strategically more beneficial to consciously frame a campaign around enlightened self interest (rather than, say, a more ‘pure’ altruism)? Is it ethically/morally acceptable to do so? In a context (especially for Western nations) of unadulterated self interest, is a move to ‘enlightened’ self interest a step in the right direction?

It’s been helpful, then, to stumble across this interview with the excellent Rev. Dr Joel Edwards, where he discusses ‘legitimate self interest’ (in the context of the campaign around the aid budget in Britain).

I’m going to think a little more on these things. I’d welcome your input!

Nick Jensen, Same-Sex Marriage, and Public Faith

I wasn’t going to say anything about the recent furore surrounding Canberra couple Nick and Sarah Jensen’s plans to divorce if same-sex marriage is introduced in Australia, but I think it’s worth noting a few points. (If you haven’t read the article yet, I encourage you to do so before reading on.)

I’ve written a number of times (on this blog and on social media) about how Christians might approach the issue of same-sex marriage (you can find a couple of my posts here and here), and I won’t bother rehashing those arguments here.

What I would note are the following two points:

Firstly, I think Nick and Sarah do actually identity a crucial issue. For Christians, the meaning of marriage is not (or should not be) so much to do with legal recognition of the union. Rather, for Christians (and people of numerous other faiths), the significance of ‘marriage’ is the recognition of the union ‘in the sight of God’. This is something that the secular State cannot—and should not be asked to—oversee. The State’s recognition of unions has to do with the legal framework around it; it has nothing at all to do with the religious significance of that union.

Secondly, I think the Jensen’s make a serious blunder both in regards to their interpretation of how same-sex marriage would impact the current arrangement, and in regards to how they are going about engaging in issues of public faith.

In regards to the former, Nick notes the following in his article:

When we signed that official-looking marriage certificate 10 years ago at Tuggeranong Baptist Church, we understood that the state was endorsing marriage, as currently defined, as the fundamental social institution – with all that this implied.
But if this is no longer the case, then we no longer wish to be associated with this new definition. Marriage is sacred and what is truly “marriage” will only ever be what it has always been.


The truth is, “marriage” is simply too important. It is a sacred institution, ordained by God. It has always been understood to be that exclusive relationship where one man and one woman become “one flesh”. Any attempt to change the definition of marriage by law is not something in which we are able to partake.

It seems that the Jensen’s were under the impression, when they had their marriage solemnised by a representative of Tuggeranong Baptist Church on behalf of the State, that what the State was thus endorsing was a/the ‘biblical’ view of marriage. It was not. The secular State, as noted above, simply cannot do that. Rather, Nick and Sarah had what may well have been a lovely ceremony that had, to be sure, religious elements attached to what is essentially a legal agreement, for which the State can and should provide the framework.

In this regard, absolutely nothing has changed, and absolutely nothing would change if same-sex marriage was legislated.

When Nick and Sarah were married, they were sharing the legal definition of ‘marriage’ with people who have no faith inclination, people who may be on their second/third/fourth/whatever ‘marriage’ (for whatever reason), people who have ‘open’ marriages, and numerous others who don’t view the institution in the same way as the Jensens.

Apparently, none of this was a barrier for Nick and Sarah. Same-sex couples being able to be ‘married’ in the sight of the State, however, indicates to the Jensens, it seems, that the ‘sacred institution’ of marriage has finally been lost.

This is absurd. The fact that the Jensens have chosen this point as ‘the end of marriage as we know it’ makes them look either extraordinarily naive or somewhat vindictive.

And this brings us to the next point.

In regards to how the Jensens are going about engaging in issues of public faith, I think they have fallen precisely into the trap of presenting a tone or posture that reeks of “We’re taking our bat and ball and going home”. This, to my mind, is a petulant form of Christianity that exhibits all the traits of ‘losing badly’.

My suggestion, for quite some time now, is that we as Christians take note of what the Jensens have rightly recognised concerning the nature of the legal recognition of unions as being distinct from their religious significance, and voluntarily (and graciously) ‘hand back’ our ability to solemnise ‘marriages’ on behalf of the State. The State can do that for itself, and the Church can offer (non-legally recognised) ‘covenant ceremonies’, which speak of the significance of the union ‘in the sight of God’ (and people can decide for themselves if they participate in either or both of these ceremonies).

Such a voluntary ‘handing back’, done in the right spirit, would, I think, act as a kind of circuit breaker in the current debates. If we, as the Church, were to acknowledge that we had no real right to be acting on behalf of the State in regards to solemnising legally recognised unions, I think—if it was done with the right tone/posture—it could be taken as an act of good faith, allowing us the requisite space to dialogue about how churches (and other religious institutions) could identify (non-legally recognised) unions ‘in the sight of God’, and be allowed the freedom to do so.

As it stands, I fear that (with the inevitable introduction of same-sex marriage) many Christians will adopt the sulky posture of the Jensens (though perhaps not going to—or threatening to go to—the same lengths), and that it will confirm for many what they’ve always suspected: that Christians want to force their views on everyone else and, when they don’t get their way, they act like entitled idiots.

I don’t think it has to be this way.

The Energy Continues

A little while ago, I wrote about The ‘Energy’ of Violence, in which I suggested that violence can never be fully and truly defeated by violence; it takes something much more powerful.

In response to this, my friend labalienne reminded us that the sort of argument I advanced in my original post must take into consideration the violence against women that, scandalously, so often gets brushed aside.

In response to labalienne’s excellent response, I’d like to offer three points:

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge that I was wrong.

My first instinct, when confronted with this point, was a kind of self-defence, arguing that this wasn’t what I was talking about and that I would never advocate a kind of ‘passive-ism’ that accepts but does not confront and expose such violence.

Such for my ‘mansplaining’.

My first response *should* have been unconditional listening.

The point that labalienne makes is all too real, and all too often ignored. Us men so often respond with #notallmen (or #notmyblogpost, it seems), without necessarily allowing the gravity of the point to sink in. This is real, and it’s disgusting, and we—I—need to listen to the voices of women far more attentively.

Secondly, I feel it’s necessary to post the links to the series of articles written by Julia Baird in the Sydney Morning Herald, on the topic of the theology of ‘submission’ and ‘headship’ in Christian marriage and domestic violence (labalienne linked to the first of these in her post, but the second two were not yet written):

  1. “Submission is a fraught mixed message for the church”
  2. “Doctrine of headship a distortion of the gospel message of mutual love and respect”
  3. “Church cannot afford to walk past domestic abuse”

Thirdly, and finally, I want to make a point that I should have in the original post.

I’m white. I’m very, very white.

Violence in our world disproportionately affects people of colour (and especially women of colour), and is all too often inflicted by white men—by people like me.

What we don’t need is for people like me to stand up and talk like we’ve figured out all the ‘solutions’. In my post, the examples I was thinking of as I wrote included a poor Jewish rabbi (Jesus of Nazareth), masses of Indians standing up to the might of the British Empire (Gandhi and his followers), the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and the nonviolence outlined by (post-prison) Nelson Mandela.*

My job is not to suggest (or appear to suggest) that I have the answers to these things, but to point to those who have experienced such violence and who have overcome not through responding with violence of their own, but with something more powerful. I also need to acknowledge the very real bodily pain and suffering that they experienced, and those who lost their lives in the process (and I thank labalienne, again, for reminding me of this point).

I’d like to keep this conversation going, and I hope the points above are helpful.


* Yes, I am aware (and somewhat disappointed) that all the main examples that were in my mind (Jesus, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela) were male.