We caught up with Tim Black, the new General Director of Scripture Union South Africa.
Tim, let’s begin with a game changer for most. Are you a cats or dogs person?
Wow, I am probably alienating half of the people reading this right out of the blocks! Although my family has usually had both dogs and cats, I would probably say I am a dog person. No matter how hard the day has been, your dog greets you at the door and goes wild. Cats can’t be bothered…
Does your wife Leslie, share the same sentiments?
She probably does, although Leslie is a veterinarian and probably prefers horses over either dogs or cats.
We’re pretty sure Leslie knows you best after 33 years of marriage. What are some of the words she would use to describe you?
I had to ask her for help here! She said wise, generous, loving, strategic, adventurous, risk-taker and God-fearing. She also said stubborn and then changed it to determined! I probably need to take her out for a nice dinner now!
You are father to James (25) and William (22). What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in parenting and how did you overcome them?
I have found that, even as a youth pastor, parenting is incredibly challenging. The goal of parenting for Leslie and me has always been to raise our sons so that they would be equipped to handle life on the globe in any context, hopefully as Christ followers. We have prayed toward that end.
So for us this meant that they had the freedom to make good and bad choices as they got older so that we could walk the journey with them and help to make ‘course corrections’ as needed. We had seen too many young people that had a tightly controlled home environment but had then gone off the rails in Varsity. But this was still quite difficult! I knew there were times that I wasn’t getting the full story. I had to trust that they would make the right decisions in the moment.
I usually found out later what had been going on—or maybe not! But regardless, they had to be equipped to make these decisions eventually without us being with them.
I also found it challenging to realise that even though your children are part of your DNA and grow up in your house, they may be very different from you. That has to be ok. I was always very involved in sport as a kid, hardly ever being without a basketball or running shoes. Neither of our sons cares much about sport, which was actually quite difficult for me. I had to realise that they needed to be free to do their own thing regardless of how much I wanted them to take part in activities that I liked.
People often joke that parenting is always a full-time job (even when your kids are older). What do you gravitate to when you have some time to yourself?
Leslie and I both enjoy reading and getting out for a walk on Table Mountain somewhere, so we do our best to make those two things happen as often as possible.
You came to South Africa 15 years ago from America. What led to the move and what has the journey looked like so far?
We ended up in South Africa as a result of God moving through circumstances, opportunity and timing to stretch us and help us lean more on Him.
In 2002 we brought a mission team of high schoolers to Harrismith and realised almost immediately that God was using that visit to reorient our lives. In less than a year we had sold or given away most of our possessions—except for our clothes and books—and had relocated to a game farm in the Free State where we began learning Sesotho, Afrikaans and taught basic leadership lessons to young people in Qwa Qwa. We loved it! However, we realised quite soon after our arrival that the ministry we were working with had insurmountable challenges that meant we would need to move on. This was quite a challenging time for us as a family. We knew that God had called us to South Africa but we were now without a home, a ministry or a Visa.
But God used this time to reaffirm His calling on our lives and opened up a door for us to serve in youth ministry at Pinelands Methodist in Cape Town and lead the church-based NGO called Phambili ngeThemba (moving forward with hope) where we worked at Mokone Primary in Langa and served unemployed people through a gospel-focused initiative called Zanokhanyo (bringing light). These were exciting times! I was stretched as we grappled with unemployment and the role of the church.
In 2012 I moved out of formal youth ministry to lead the NGO full-time. In 2015, the Zanokhanyo project merged into Common Good, a ministry of Common Ground Church, to become The Zanokhanyo Network and went from training Job Readiness to 200 or so unemployed people per year to training nearly 1200 people per year. Many of the trainees are connected to jobs or continue on in further skills development with many of them finding Christ during the journey. It has been miraculous to see how God has moved through this training and I have felt quite privileged to be part of the TZN/Common Good team.
At the end of 2017 I felt God moving me to leave something that I loved and pick up a new challenge, so I informed my colleagues on the management team that I would be leaving in 6 months at the end of June 2018. In a way that only God could orchestrate, I finished my role with Common Good on 30 June and began my new role with SU in 1 July 2018.
You were most recently involved with The Zanokhanyo Network and job readiness training. Unemployment stands at 27.2% in South Africa, that’s 6.08 million people who don’t have a job. How do you think Christians should be responding to this crisis?
The challenges before us as a Nation are significant, with unemployment being one of many social giants that threaten to cripple us. Research has established the church as being the one institution, above government, that is trusted by communities and expected to play a role to bring about social change. Jesus calls us, as Christ followers, to step into pockets of pain and bring about the transformation that only comes through the power of the gospel. This transformation is not restricted to the spiritual realm, but is expected to flow into society as manifestations of God’s kingdom coming to dwell among us.
In Matthew 22, a lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment. Jesus responds with the Shema: You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind . . . and . . . (y)ou shall love your neighbour as yourself (vs.37-39).
It is easy to comprehend that we should love God fully—that is pretty clear. But when we are told we must love our neighbour…as we love ourselves…that is really challenging. The modifier ‘as we love ourselves’ intensifies what it means to love our neighbour. It means that as I want a good education for my children, I should want that for my neighbour—with the same intensity that I desire this for my children.
As I want to be able to provide for my family with a job, I should desire the same for my neighbour—with the same intensity that I desire this for myself. Jesus doesn’t give us an easy way out of our responsibility here. When we ‘sign up’ as followers of Jesus we sign up to spend ourselves on behalf of others. Unemployment is just one of many ways that Christ followers must engage.
Scripture Union South Africa has a significant history with past generations. As the new General Director, how will SUSA continue to respond to the many new challenges facing South Africa’s youth and children?
I have been visiting SU regions around the country and have heard countless stories of how God has moved to transform lives through the ministry of SU— I am sure it amounts to many thousands of lives. It is an incredible testimony of His faithfulness that continues to this day. But the context of past generations is different from the context today so that, while remaining true to the gospel, we must engage in a way that is relevant to young people right now. Our tools must remain ‘cutting edge’ while our message remains the same: Jesus is the only way—has always been the only way—to make sense of life and provide hope and healing to our broken world.
Our challenge as SU remains the same now as always—how do we communicate the gospel to a new generation of young people who so desperately need Jesus? 1 Chronicles 12:32 talks about the men of Issachar, ‘men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do….’
My prayer is that SU would be these ‘men of Issachar’ to lead a new generation of young people. This is really exciting to me! I feel incredibly privileged to work with a group people—the SU staff and volunteers and previous generations—who have made and are making Jesus famous in their context. My prayer is that God will show His kindness to SU in giving us the creativity and strategy that somehow captures young people with the beauty of Jesus and enables a whole new generation of young people to become sold-out followers of Him. Truly exciting times!
What are some of the key tenants of leadership, gleaned over the years, that you will be emphasizing as you begin your term?
This is an interesting question. We have wonderful values that define us as an organisation. Key in my mind is whether we are living these values—values like ‘faith-filled and ‘integrity filled.’ So we have been spending time in the office working through our values and are finding it quite energising—at least I find it that way. Our values impact our decision-making, our planning, the way we engage with those around us—everything!
I also believe it is important that we serve each other. Jesus modelled this for us so well! As his disciples were jockeying over who would be greatest in Mark 10, Jesus said leadership was different in His kingdom. ‘But whoever would be great among you must be your servant….’ As we serve the people we work with on our teams, the children who show up for Holiday clubs and School Groups, and the many others in our spheres of influence, we lead like Jesus and will hopefully draw people to him. If we get this right, we will see God move in incredible ways in us and through us.
Sharing our personal story of coming to faith in Jesus Christ remains a powerful form of evangelism with youth. Can you share some of the key highlights from your faith journey?
I put my faith in Christ at a young age (7) and was fortunate to have parents who were following Jesus and keeping me connected to a church as I was growing up. After Varsity, I went off to study Law and then started my own business, which became a huge distraction for my faith as my focus became absorbed by being successful and making money. But God, in His kindness, used the birth of our eldest son to refocus my attention and energies on what was most important—my faith and my family. He also gave me a passion for Himself, mainly through things I was reading and listening to at the time—books like ‘Desiring God’ and ‘Pleasures of God’ by Piper. I also got involved in youth ministry and was continually challenged through short-term missions that really stretched me. I still have so much to learn and I fail more often than I should, but God has always been incredibly faithful to me.
Tim, a last few quick-fire questions.
A book you recommend everyone should read.
Besides the Bible? I am a big fan of John Piper and would particularly recommend ‘Don’t Waste Your Life.’ But I am also a huge fan of epic adventures and love the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy by Tolkien and the Harry Potter series by J K Rowling.
One of your favourite movies.
Gladiator—typical male response!
A favourite or significant Scripture.
In John 3:30 John the Baptizer says, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ If I can get this right, I will be ok.