Obituary: John Nelson

07 February 2020

The Ven. Dr Malcolm Grundy writes:

ON THE bottom right-hand cover of John Nelson’s funeral booklet was a small repres­enta­tion of Nelson’s Column. This reminded those present of the surprising range of John’s literary activity. John, who died on 29 Decem­ber, aged 87, wrote for his local newspaper, internationally syndicated golf magazines, and many church publications.

With a background in management training begun at the National Coal Board, John be­­came head of the management-studies department at the then Liverpool Polytechnic, now John Moores University.

On his retire­ment, he became aware of the stresses of work life experienced by many of the clergy. With the active encouragement of Bishops David Shep­pard and Michael Hen­shall, John began pilot programmes that would develop into a system of annual review for the work of clergy. Such a system, some­times hierarchical and sometimes offered by their peers, has become standard across the Church of England. Clergy, most now retired, give credit to John Nelson for hours of listen­ing and mentoring which saved them from potential breakdown.

It was John’s writing skills that gave him a national opportunity when the Christian leadership-training agency CORAT closed, and MODEM (Managerial and Organisational Disciplines for the Enhancement of Ministry) was born. John became the editor of its journal Modem Matters. He was quick to realise that there was a pool of experience in the develop­ment of parish ministry to be shared. The response to this modest publication demon­strated that there was a ready and receptive audience.

Never one to miss a publishing opportunity, John was keen to move the shared experience of ministry on to book publication. With the active encouragement of Christine Smith at Canterbury Press, a new chapter in John’s own life began. With great self-understanding, not to say humility, John did not want to produce whole books himself. His networking led him to invite names great and unknown to contribute to a series of books beginning, in 1996, with Management and Ministry: Appre­ciating contemporary issues and ending in 2011 with 101 Great Ideas for Growing Local Churches.

Within this treasure-house of experience, John was bold enough to encourage the great names in leadership thinking to contribute. He succeeded in achieving short but telling contributions from Sir John Harvey-Jones, Charles Handy, Professor John Adair, Pro­fessor Gillian Stamp, and one of the great thinkers about the nature of senior church leadership, the Revd Dr Norman Todd.

The dialogue in “Leading, Managing, Ministering” between Stamp and Todd is one of the masterpieces of understanding of the hidden depths of rich but demanding relation­ship be­­tween people caught up in the re­­­sponsibilities of leadership. Others who had never written a published article were given an equal voice by the ever-affirming John Nelson.

It is no surprise, but typical of John, that, alongside the significant and much referenced achievement of these books, he chaired the editorial group of his magazine at St Luke’s, Formby.

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