October 1, 2015

By Eddie Pipkin

Destin Sandlin is an aerospace engineer (that is, he is a real rocket scientist who works at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama).  He is also a YouTube educator, who makes entertaining videos about scientific insights, which he posts on a channel called, Smarter Every Day.  Recently, a friend sent me a link to one of Sandlin’s videos.  It was, frankly, a little head-shaking, a little mind-blowing, and definitely eye-opening, not only in illustrating the miraculous way in which God has designed human brain function, but also as an instructive take on the way ministry leadership often works.

The video in question is called, “The Backwards Brain Bicycle.”  In it, some of the welders that Sandlin works with—guys he describes as “geniuses who like to play jokes on the engineers”—have built him a bicycle with a special gearing attachment to the handlebars which makes the bike steer opposite of the normal direction—that is, when you turn the handlebars to the right, instead of turning to the right, the front wheel of the bike actually turns to the left, and vice versa.

Sandlin, who is a highly intelligent guy, not to mention a pretty decent athlete, hopped on the bike thinking ‘no big deal,’ he could master this counter-intuitive thinking with a minimum of effort.  Only, here’s the thing.  He couldn’t.  Fail after fail, he could not stay upright on the bike.  It’s pretty funny to watch (and he later bets college students $200 that they can’t successfully ride this bike across a stage—and they can’t do it either—nobody can).  But it wasn’t funny to Sandlin.  It was completely exasperating.

It turns out that the ingrained mental process—what happens in our brains when we ride a bike—is very complex.  It is an algorithm involving balance, steering, pedaling, speed control, pressure application, plus visual analysis, simultaneously and constantly micro-adjusted, and this whole operation, when we’re learning to ride a bike as a kid, becomes practically autonomic (thus the phrase we all apply to things once learned and never forgotten: they’re “like riding a bike”).  Only, it turns out, once we learn something that well, we’re stuck doing it the way we originally learned it.  It took Sandlin eight months practicing five minutes a day to unlearn riding a bike the old way (and then, hysterically, as demonstrated in the video on the streets of bike-friendly Amsterdam, he couldn’t ride a normal bike anymore).

This is a great metaphor for church leaders, particularly those of us who have been around for decades doing ministry.  We know how to do what we’re doing—we are so good at it (from worship to outreach to teaching) that many of the skills are automatic.  But that’s how we get in a rut.

Sandlin describes it like this: “Once you have a rigid way of thinking in your head, sometimes you cannot change that, even if you want to.”  It is a perfect neurological description of how we get stuck—locked in our traditions—so far set in our ways that we can’t adapt to new ways of doing things.  Actually, we often (in planning meetings and visioning gatherings) identify the need to change things and even agree to the principle, but then we flounder in the execution, just like Sandlin on that bike.  He explains: “I had the knowledge of how to operate the bike, but I did not have the understanding.”  That is, KNOWLEDGE does not equal UNDERSTANDING.  Understanding is a more complex process—it requires time and effort.  It takes patience, diligence, and a constant reminder of what the goal is.  That’s a kind of patience that is too often lacking over the long haul in ministry circles.

Sometimes we make a change and give up on it at the first sign of resistance or anything that’s not instantaneous and unqualified success.  But it takes time to get it right.  And in ministry, even when we have figured out exactly what we’re doing, we are still partners with entire congregations who also have their worship brains and ministry brains hardwired to certain habits, so we need the patience to give them time to adjust to the change.

Sandlin makes an additional case for the value of young people (whose brains have a greater neuroplasticity than us oldsters) and are thus more fluid and adaptable in their thinking.  His five-year-old son mastered the modified bike in just a few weeks.  It’s yet another great incentive to get young people involved in ministry and actually listen to their perspectives and give them hands-on leadership roles.

One additional point that Sandlin makes is that “welders are often smarter than engineers.”  That’s a good reminder to pay careful attention to people who are the ‘boots on the ground’ for implementing the ministry visions that we leaders dream up.  They are the experts at what they do week in and week out, and we are wise to listen to them carefully and value their feedback.

After all, one of the key lessons Sandlin says he learned in this experiment is, “You are looking at the world with a bias, whether you think you are or not.”  We are often so familiar with our environment that we lose sight of our own particular biases, but there plenty of tools to keep us honest in this regard:

  • Solicit feedback rigorously (formally and informally).
  • Recruit leaders whose perspective is identifiably different than our own (this is a call for diversity in all respects).
  • Read as much as we can, and not just from our favorite, self-affirming sites.
  • Mix it up.  Do things differently on occasion, if for no other reason than to demonstrate how the way we are doing it currently really is a pretty good strategy after all.
  • Invite fresh eyes to experience our ministry—someone who has no history or stake, so that they can offer a truly fresh perspective.

What are times when you have come to a conclusion that you are stuck in a rut and locked into a particular way of thinking that perhaps need to change?

What is a time when you tried to change something in your organization and just couldn’t make it happen?

Conversely, what is a time when change did come—arduous and painstaking thought he process was?

Share your answers at insights in the comments section.  We want to hear from you.