By Eddie Pipkin

Who knew that a filmmaker’s lessons from working with eight Australian magpies could be so useful for insights into leading ministry?  When I was reading about director Glendyn Ivin’s work on the film Penguin Bloom and how dependent it was on wrangling and training these highly intelligent (but definitely wild) bird actors, I burst out laughing.  Oh my, how the challenges (and strategies to overcome them) delightfully paralleled working with ministry leaders, volunteers, and participants.  And just like in the movie, when it all comes together, it’s a beautiful and inspiring thing to see.

The movie itself is a family drama that tells the true story of Sam Bloom (played by Naomi Watts), an athletic and active wife and mom who is injured in a freak accident and paralyzed from the chest down.  She and her family find new hope and purpose when they rescue and rehabilitate an injured magpie (which they name Penguin, Penguin Bloom).  [You can stream the movie on Netflix, and while it didn’t get great star ratings, it is recommended by Common Sense Media in their review as an uplifting story of triumph over trauma that can lead to some good family discussions about overcoming adversity.  And by the way, if you are unfamiliar with Common Sense Media, you should know about them.  They do a fantastic job of reviewing media from a parental perspective, with age-based recommendations and specific notations of content such as violence, sexual references, language, etc.]

But enough with the movie reviews!  What caught my attention was an article about the making of the movie, which focused on the real birds they used in most of the scenes – eight different birds with eight different sets of charms and challenges, and in the words of the project’s designated animal trainer, Paul Mander, “Every single scene with the bird was difficult.”

From a ministry perspective, it is a given that every congregation has its charms and challenges (and every individual who is part of every congregation have their individual charms and challenges and context as well – and let’s be honest here – so does every leader at every level).  Therefore, if there are lessons in guiding a vision from chaos to completed concept, let us “soar high on wings like eagles” as we are inspired by them (apologies to Isaiah 40:31)!  Here are Mander’s keys to bird-actor-management success:

  1. Work with what you’ve got.

Context, context, context.  In the case of bird actors, Australian magpies are wild birds, so they are not raised in captivity or available from the pet store.  The animal trainers had to work with what was available, and that meant taking advantage of the unique personalities of the individual birds: Mander says, “I liked having to adapt to what our main character was doing, just as I would any actor.  They’ve got their own energy and their own experiences.”

I love that phrase, “They’ve got their own energy and their own experiences.”  It is mind-blowing to think of the ways that local ministry might be different if we leaned into that understanding of the “wild birds” who have flown into our carefully organized nests.  We spend so much time trying to conform our flocks to our needs, our interests, and our perspectives.  What if we made space for deferring to the unique passions, insights, and experiences of the people with whom we have been blessed?

  1. Anticipate diva-like behavior.

Hahahahaha!  This was the one line from the article that had me laughing so hard I almost fell out of my chair.  In the case of the birds, Mander tells tales of irritated birds taking days to get over a perceived slight.  Certainly, no one reading this who has spent more than a day-and-a-half in ministry leadership is missing a “diva-like behavior” story to share (and in the ‘let’s be honest’ category, we must admit that sometimes we are that diva).  When there are people with talent and passion, it’s a byproduct of their enthusiasm and commitment.

What’s instructive about Mander’s experience is the foundational work he focuses on to prepare for the inevitable outbursts: “To get a good performance out of the bird, we have to bond with them first and build a relationship, so that it trusts us.”  That’s wonderful leadership advice.  The more relationship building we do that builds bonds of trust and understanding, the more we are primed for success (or at least more meaningful failure).

  1. Have patience through bad takes.

Patience, patience, patience.  If we are attempting anything at all, if we are trusting anyone at all to take on responsibilities that lead to growth, there will be gaffes.  Mander tells of training birds for very specific actions (like taking a tea bag from a teacup): “But whenever we went to shoot it, it would not do it.  It would do it in the lead-up to the shot, but when you started to roll, it just would not do it.  It was so frustrating.”  As ministry leaders, we have all been in that place where we think we have covered everything that can be covered in the planning meetings and the lead-up emails, but then everything falls apart in the moment of execution!

First of all, we and those we lead would be in a better state of mental health (and spiritual health) just to acknowledge that these breakdowns are inevitably going to happen.  They are part of life and ministry, and being mad when they do happen is not helpful.  Nor is driving everyone insane with preparation that is obsessed with perfectionism.  Mander’s techniques do offer a couple of useful insights.  First, he breaks critical sequences down into manageable components.  It’s better to master smaller sequences of discrete skills – this allows space to celebrate what is being done well, while freeing time to focus on the problem areas.  Secondly, always be prepared for the reality that not only will things have to be done more than once to get the “perfect take,” but that circumstances and scripts can sometimes be adjusted to match the reality of the actor’s capabilities.  Sometimes it is beneficial to slightly adjust the program to the person rather than continuing to try to shoehorn the person into the program.

By the way, you can imagine how unhelpful it is to yell at birds when they mess up or lecture birds on what a disappointment they are.  It’s similarly unhelpful to yell at people and frequently less than productive to give them long lectures on the ways in which they have managed to disappoint us.  More patience, more encouragement, and more and better training and rewards can lead to better outcomes.

  1. Control your surroundings.

You can’t control everything (note the first three items on the list for prime examples).  But you can control what you can control.  In the case of birds, Mander relates the difficulty of filming outside when the birds they had been assiduously training had to interact with wild birds, who are by definition untrained and by nature highly territorial.  There was, in fact, a scene in the script where Penguin Bloom was to be attacked by wild birds: “It was something [the film’s production staff] asked us about when they approached us, but we can’t control those kinds of situations, so we would never put a trained bird in a situation in which it could possibly be severely injured.  So all of that scene was computer-generated.”

Contrast that with the times when, for reasons of expedience, politics, or mixed motives, we consciously put a member of our flock into harm’s way – not physical harm, certainly, but sometimes a risk of emotional or spiritual harm, because we thrust them into a situation for which they are not prepared, task them for an impossible goal, align them with someone who is not going to be good for them, turn them loose with no clearly defined expectations, or otherwise set them up for failure.  There is no doubt that many long-time congregation members can be very territorial.  We need to be setting people up for success, not “hoping for the best” as we launch them into projects.

  1. Have a sense of humor!

Was there ever a more underrated leadership skill?  A leader’s useful sense of humor starts with the ability to not take one’s self too seriously.  Self-deprecation goes a long ways towards creating a comfort level on the teams we lead and the flocks we tend.  Also, the ability to laugh in the face of disruptions and detours is good medicine.  It reduces stress, releases tension, and generates good vibes.  Unexpected chaos is inevitable.  Learn to laugh at it.  As I always love to say, “Obviously God has a sense of humor . . . after all, he created Middle Schoolers.”

How’s it going with your flock?  Do you feel like you are setting them up for success?  Preparing them for their close-up in ministry?  Do you use some of the principles described by bird trainer, Paul Mander, or would you add some of your own based on your own “directorial” experience?  Share!