By Eddie Pipkin
My wife got her Mother’s Day gift a couple of weeks early when her long-dreamed home modification became a reality. We now have a half-bath on the lower level of the house where all the TV watching happens. This was an improbable development. A Florida basement is rarer than a manatee, so there’s that. And while we had a perfect little closet under the stairs for conversion to this new hospitality suite, it was nowhere near any plumbing lines. Every amateur handyman who happened by for social occasions was confronted with this conundrum, and they universally opined, “Impossible without spending thousands and thousands of dollars.” But it turns out there was a way: a creative, economical way – a way to a solution that held lessons for home improvement and ministry alike.
It turns out that a practical solution for hard-to-plumb bathroom spots has been around for decades. It’s called a macerating toilet, and it’s basically an extra box that sits below the toilet tank that has a pump and a grinder blade, so it chops up anything that needs chopping and pumps the resulting slurry through a small pipe up to 15 feet vertically and 50 feet horizontally, making it much more feasible to connect with existing plumbing connections (and eliminating the need for a drain connection to be run through the slab). It’s not a well-known solution (even among plumbing hobbyists), so it took some diligent Internet research and making a connection with the right local service provider. For us it was an innovative, affordable solution, that called for a few aesthetic compromises (more on that later), but it is getting the job done with style.
It got me to thinking about those unsolvable ministry challenges that we all face: insurmountable obstacles of leadership or logistics where we just can’t seem to find an answer. Sometimes thorny problems exasperate us for years – even when we form “study groups” to suss out a solution, the ideas that result seem too expensive, too complicated, too costly (in ways other than money), or too likely to result in unwelcome waves.
I’m here to tell you: don’t give up. And if there was ever a time in which change was afoot, and innovative solutions were needed to transition us to new approaches, that time is now.
Here’s what I learned:
- Don’t take no for an answer.
The first places I asked for some advice on solving this problem, the standard answer I received was a binary of bad options: 1) Sure, you can put a half bath in that space, but it will be $15,000 (!) or 2) There’s just no way to do that affordably, so just tell folks to go upstairs (or some variation of a joke that included the backyard in the punchline). I was willing to shrug my shoulders and carry on, but my wife was obsessed with this idea, so I would occasionally circle back around to look for options, and on one of those circles, I stumbled over something I hadn’t before. That persistence led to a breakthrough.
In ministry circles, we always have people pestering us with ideas and dreams that they just won’t let go. (And many times, of course, we are ourselves pestered by the sweet whisper of the Holy Spirit, filling our heads and hearts with ideas that won’t go away.) Once we’ve hit an initial roadblock with an idea, it’s the normal course of things to shunt it to the side. Ideas that refuse to die get a reputation as nuisances at which people roll their eyes once they’ve been through a couple of rounds of roadblocks. But if we make space for persistence, if we pause to give new energy to an old idea, breakthroughs can happen. Especially when people come to us with their persistent prayer-drive visions, we should encourage them to think around the roadblocks and explore ways the vision can happen, even if not exactly as first imagined.
- Do your research.
Not being willing to take ‘no’ for an answer, the research phase began. The Internet is our friend. The first key is to dig deeper than the usual places we may be hanging out on that Internet. We are all guilty of having of our familiar, favorite spots for wisdom and insight. If we’re having trouble breaking through on a solution by consulting the same old sites we normally consult (and the same old circle of people), one of the best strategies can be to explore new territory. Maybe ask some people you respect but who are completely different from you in approach where it is that they look for ideas and inspiration.
The second key is to have excellent search terms (which means to have a very precise understanding of exactly what we’re looking for – this turned out to be the key in the great half bath quest). If you’re looking for some creative punch for your worship services, and you type in “creative worship ideas,” you’re going to get directed to the same listicle of 10 (great, but maybe or maybe not applicable) generic ideas on 10 different websites. It’s better to be much more specific, like “puppet shows that illustrate unexpected lessons of the Good Samaritan.” Specificity (particularly quirky specificity) can lead down some useful and unexpected pathways.
- Talk to an expert/professional.
Having done our research and feeling well-versed in the topic and confident in an idea about what we’ll be needing, it’s time to consult the experts in the field. Once I had discovered the magic of macerating toilets, I started looking for local plumbers, and one of the first questions I asked them was if they had done work with macerating toilets before (many had not). With knowledge, I was equipped to ask good questions and make clear exactly what we wanted.
In the ministry sphere, the most successful approach for cracking a tough nut of a problem is to find somebody else who has solved a version of the same problem. Stuck without sufficient space to house Sunday morning spiritual development groups, you could call your buddy in the next town or scour the web for helpful articles, but the most helpful thing would be to talk to someone who has found a creative approach to exactly the same challenge. Their context may be different than yours, but they will have a firm grasp on the practical complications that popped up as they moved from theoretical to actual. Sometimes, it can be very helpful to consult professionals who specialize in an area (from tech to leadership development). Consulting these professionals may require a modest upfront investment, but these people spend all day thinking about specific issues that you’ve only been able to consider in passing.
- Be willing to accept less than perfect.
While our bathroom solution with the funky toilet/grinder/pump could make the space work, it required some unavoidable aesthetic compromises. The pipes had to exit under the staircase and then straight out through the exterior wall of our lower screened porch area, up that wall, then across the underdeck of the upper porch. If you think that sounds as visually unwieldy as that last sentence was worded, you’d be right. (Reminds a person of the Pompidou Center.) Yet, the exposed pipes were necessary to the project.
For ministry, as I have noted many times, we too often let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We are so fixated on a perfect outcome that we are unwilling to accept a functional but less than impeccable solution. Part of our process should be clarity on what the end goal of our problem solving truly is. If we find an innovative or unusual way to get to that end goal, we should seize upon it, even if it’s not aesthetically perfectible. In fact, sometimes going into a publicly proclaimed experiment, we should proudly communicate clearly that we are adapting as we go. This is not a failure – it’s really evidence of a culture of flexibility and forward-thinking risk taking.
- Be prepared to make creative adaptations.
Since those exposed pipes were going to be visible no matter what we did, we decided to incorporate them into a quirky design that had fun with their presence. We didn’t try to pretend they weren’t there, although we did incorporate them into some architectural touches that hid them for stretches, and where that wasn’t possible, we added some funky, fun touches. It works in our space and for our personalities. From a ministry perspective, if an idea is going to be unavoidably clunky in execution, don’t try to pretend it isn’t. Communicate clearly with all the parties involved that things will be awkward at the start. If an event has unusual logistics, lean into it (COVID adaptations have been an excellent example of this). Call it what it is and have fun with it.
Also, our new half bath space was tiny, so instead of trying to pretend that it isn’t, we had fun decorating it in ways that playfully acknowledge the diminutive yet highly functional space. Practical ministry solutions might not be as grand as we had hoped, but we should acknowledge that that’s okay. Sometimes small is better. Sometimes an obsession with professional presentation keeps us from a hand-crafted authenticity that would serve people just fine. It might even send us to places where we wouldn’t have travelled given our preferences – but for which we ultimately become grateful.
- Don’t sit on your checkbook.
Even our whimsical half bath required a few checks to be written. It was much more affordable than we initially imagined, but it wasn’t free. We ranked it among potential home improvement projects and decided that, for the cost, it was time to pull the trigger.
Even if you’re clever, adaptive, and flexible, implementing new ministry ideas will inevitably have a cost – if it’s not money, it’s going to be other limited resources, like focus, personnel-hours, or jettisoning another project or program to make the new thing happen. Don’t let the cost of things keep you from your dreams/visions. Once you have a clear plan and a clear path forward, if you communicate that plan and path to people, they are reliably generous to help make it happen.
- Take a deep breath and go for it.
Unless we are going to coast along on the same trajectory forever, we have to take that proverbial leap of faith. The lifeblood of ministry enthusiasm is new projects and new possibilities. We grow new leaders by helping them chase the enthusiasm of their own Spirit-inspired visions for their communities. We learn new things about each other and about God’s grace by doing the hard work of finding and implementing solutions. Church leaders who are afraid or overly conservative when it comes to taking risks eventually preside over moribund congregations that are stuck in an endless routine. Sometimes it’s the pursuit of a really unlikely idea that gets everybody out of the rut and on a new path to revelation.
What seemingly unsolvable problem is facing you and your ministry? What do you have a dream / vision for that can’t get out of first gear because it seems like there’s an issue that can’t be overcome? What are your celebration stories for a time when you faced such a moment, and not taking ‘no’ for an answer resulted in something wonderful? Share those tales of triumph and blessing!