By Eddie Pipkin

I headed over to the charming berg of Dunedin, Florida for a post-Easter getaway with a couple of friends earlier this week, and I had talked these guys into bringing some bikes, because Dunedin is famous for straddling the Pinellas Trail, the locus of lots of cool little eateries and watering holes that you can pedal to, hopping from one to the next.  I brought along my fairly high-end Fuji road bike with its Presta valve stems and Shimano shifters.  The other bikes looked like they had been rescued from the dumpster: chains caked in rust and tires with no tread left.  Yet it was my seat bracket that broke within the first five minutes, and we ended up frantically wheeling across town (me standing all the way) to get to a local bike shop before it closed at 5:00.  I rolled up with thirty seconds left, sweaty and relieved, but what happened next was a refreshing reminder that there’s basic customer service, and there’s customer service that you remember forever.

I had thought that the bracket holding my bike seat was only loose and thus easily adjusted by tightening a bolt, but upon inspection, it turned out that one of the bolts holding it in place was missing altogether.  Now, back in the big city at the swankier bike shops, there was a good chance that such a repair would involve ordering a new bolt or a new bracket, take a couple of days, and cost $35, but at the old school Hands On bike shop in Clearwater (just down the trail from Dunedin), the bike tech said, “Lemme see what I can find.”  He scrounged up a bolt and jerry-rigged a solution on the spot.  A note here for those of you unfamiliar with bike shops: bike techs are normally young guys, but this tech was a colorful old codger by the name of Bullit, lean, muscled like he still rode 50 miles a day, with a smoldering cigarette hanging from one corner of his mouth and a patter of ridicule for the machines we were riding.  Before we were done, he had adjusted my friends’ seats as well, lubed the rusty chain on the dumpster refugee bike and declined to charge us for any of it, saying the bike lock we purchasing was payment enough.  Oh, and he had stayed an extra 25 minutes past closing.  Thus we departed, smiles on our faces, bikes restored, and a great story in hand.

Church leaders don’t like for us to talk about customer service – it feels too mercenary, too commodified – but the parallels are obvious.  People show up expecting something – sometimes desperate for something (like their lives have a broken seat bracket, so to speak) – and they are looking to us for help and compassion.  They need a problem solved so they can get back onto the road of life.

The parallels are instructive.  My new pal, Bullit, functioned in the moment like an ER technician – all heart and clear-headed competence.  As ministry leaders we sometimes function more like timeshare salespeople.

Here are some of the ways Bullit responded to strangers who showed up at his door as closing time loomed, and here are some of the ways he serves as a role model for ministry leadership.

  • He Recognized, Focused On, and Responded to the Immediate Need.

The bike was unrideable in its current condition, so he immediately set about making it safely rideable again.  There were a lot of approaches he might have taken to accomplish this goal, but he chose creative expediency, improvising to make it happen.

When people show up at our churches, we should do everything we can to be attentive to their needs.  This starts with listening closely – paying attention to what they want to share – we often respond by talking at people or by handing them printed material (or these days directing them to a website).  If we don’t have the time to listen attentively and engage in sincere conversation with someone, we should have a plan in place for directing them to someone who has that capacity.  We should not be dismissive of their perceived need.  We should do what we can to address it.

  • He Didn’t Let “The Rules” Get in the Way.

The bike shop’s posted closing time was two minutes away when these wandering misfits showed up, but Bullet was willing to stay a little longer to get the job done.

Christians love to share that Mark 2:23-28 passage about the Sabbath being made for man and not man for the Sabbath, but we sure do have a lot of local church rules governing how ministry should be carried out.  I’m certainly not advocating a world without rules (and neither was Jesus), but we should be sensitive to the ways they can hinder a loving response to people in need (and also the ways that church rules inevitably favor “insiders”).

  • He Was Flexible in Solving the Problem.

There wasn’t an easy fix or a specific, readily available part to be replaced, so he used his experience and willingness to try different approaches to tackle the problem.

Usually when we talk about ministry creativity, we are talking about musical choices, worship skits, and clever memes for our social media feeds, but creativity and flexibility are states of mind that apply to solving all levels of ministry challenges.  It’s about recommending relevant resources and connecting people to people.

  • He Offered Insight and Help Beyond the Immediate Problem.

He looked over our ragtag assemblage and made some quick and valuable observations about small adjustments that would seriously enhance our riding experience once we left the shop.

There is a balance between recruiting people to participate and serve in our ministries (the numbers game) and genuinely working to connect them with individuals, groups, and programs that can benefit them on their unique journey.  Jesus was never about recruiting people for the team.  He was always about meeting the needs of people (sometimes by helping them exactly with the problem they professed and sometimes by using his deep insight to help them understand a deeper nuance of their problem).

  • He Declined the Upsell.

 Bullit fixed the problem we showed up with and helped with some easy, adjacent adjustments.  He didn’t try to sell us new equipment (although there was plenty of shiny new gear in the shop) or recommend complex services we hadn’t asked for.  (This is an interesting point in terms of customer satisfaction – part of our good feeling as we left the place was the absence of tension that can result when a salesperson is trying to talk us into spending more.)

In a ministry sense, this parallel is shakier than some of the others.  It’s pretty offensive to think about the Gospel as something we are selling.  But perhaps it is useful to think of the ways we are invested in upselling our “programs.”  Our standard response to helping people solve their problems is to funnel them into those programs, most often with a well-intentioned goal of getting them more deeply into the totality of what we have to offer as a congregation.  But the constant hard sell in favor of “joining,” “singing up,” and going “all in” convinces people that we have our own priorities in mind in our interactions with them.

  • He Began by Laying the Groundwork for a Relationship.

If I were local to the Dunedin/Clearwater area, this initial bike shop interaction would have secured me as an enthusiastic customer.  I had a strong sense of the relationship that might have developed – and it’s the kind of relationship we hope for from our bike tech, our car mechanic, our handyman, our personal physician, and yes, our ministry leaders.  We want someone who will listen to us and understand our problems and suggest how we can maximize our mobility, our resources, our health, and our spiritual growth.  We want to feel like their agenda aligns with our agenda in a symbiotic connection.  Ultimately, as evidenced by Jesus himself, ministry should always be about building relationships.  Note that even though Bullit had no reasonable expectation that he would ever see this cast of characters again, he treated us with the same respect, deference, and attention that he might have shown to some big spending regular customers from the neighborhood.  (This is, of course, just how Jesus treated all people at all times – well, perhaps Jesus showed a little extra empathy for the downtrodden underdogs – Bullit gave off that vibe, too.  Wouldn’t that be something for us as a local church to have the reputation as the kind of place that catered to downtrodden underdogs?)

If your church was a bike shop, what kind of bike shop would it be?  The hole-in-the-wall kind with flexible problem solvers who are willing to stay late to help wandering souls in need?  Or the posh kind with fancy bikes in the window, high prices for basic services (performed by polished techs in classy uniforms), and strictly observed by-the-book policies?

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