By Eddie Pipkin

March 24, 2017

It turns out that sometimes the most obvious option is not the best option.  Sometimes the decision that seems most straightforward is not the one that produces the best long term outcome.  And sometimes a detour is the unlikely path to ultimate success.

You may not know this, but UPS drivers don’t ever make left turns through oncoming traffic (unless there’s no other reasonable option).  Even though those left-hand turns are often the shortest route to a destination, careful mathematical analysis revealed that eliminating them for the more than 100,000 UPS vehicles at work on a given day could improve driver safety and save substantial amounts of money. (You can check out this article, “Why UPS Drivers Don’t Turn Left and You Probably Shouldn’t Either,”at Real Clear Science for the fascinating details.)

To summarize: eliminating left turns against traffic over millions of stops prevents accidents and saves gas.  The package delivery folks figured this out through the application of high level math involving No left turn (002)vehicle routing and game theory [most of the ministry folks’ eyes just glazed over, but hang in there].  The first conclusion seems intuitive: left turns across traffic are inherently more dangerous, and the goal of saving lives and property would arguably be worthwhile on its own, even if it was a more expensive policy.   But the data is clear that over millions of trips, significant fuel savings are also achieved with the no-left-turns policy, because delivery trucks are not stuck in place idling while they wait for traffic to clear.

For ministry leaders, the question is whether we are continuing to make those (inherently more dangerous!) left-hand turns because they seem to be easier and more straightforward decisions.

Let’s consider a couple of real-world examples.

1. CHALLENGE: The Church of the Faithful Mishaps has noticed a decline in participation in the fellowship events and worship services that are regularly offered.  Panic ensues!

STRAIGHTFORWARD SOLUTION:  Obviously, we need even more events in more time slots to bring in more people!

RESULT:  Lots of poorly attended, low-energy events, accompanied by staff and leadership burnout (from adding on those additional events), and a dilution of focus and identity for the congregation.

WHAT IF INSTEAD:  Leadership reduced the frequency of events, narrowing down the focus, clarifying the way the congregation’s core identity is served, and distilling the energy and effort into fewer gatherings with stronger planning and support, and a clearly organized high energy focus?

RESULT:  People are curious, the response is strong, and cumulative participation rises!

2. CHALLENGE: The Church of the Old School Churchgoers is feeling a lack of vitality and purpose in their congregation. Everything is fine, but kind of “meh.”

STRAIGHTFORWARD SOLUTION: Let’s build a new building!  Then we can start a bunch of new programs and invite in the community to participate in them!

RESULT:  Conflict over exactly what to build; huge debt undertaken; meanwhile, the community priorities shift and new programs flop; economy takes a dive; church goes bankrupt and has to sell its property, which is converted to an SUV dealership.

WHAT IF INSTEAD:  Church leadership undertakes a ‘community connection’ initiative to establish relationships beyond the boundaries of the church property.  As needs are identified, a new vision emerges to have a vibrant presence as God’s grace within the greater community, investing time and resources in meeting needs where they are.

RESULT:  Congregation is on fire with this new mission; many new people get involved, eager to be a part of this exciting movement of the Spirit; the surrounding community is changed.

It is a deeper approach to thinking that moves beyond quick fixes and damage control and into the realm of vision casting and fidelity to clearly understood core values.  It speaks to a prayerful patience in discerning God’s will, the value of hard work over an extended period, and a focus on long-term versus short-term results.  It’s biblical!  One of the most interesting examples of this is Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem (Luke 17:11, Mark 10, Matthew 19, and John 12:1). These passages describe the intentionally strategic route that Jesus took as He made His way from Ephraim (just north of Jerusalem) through Samaria, Galilee, and Perea—it’s not the express route to Jerusalem, but a big, looping detour—a narratively dramatic detour that sets the stage for some of the most powerful interactions in the gospel.

So, we have a physical example of taking the counter-intuitive route to accomplish a greater purpose.  And we have a powerful example at the end of this journey in Bethany as Jesus is anointed by Mary with the alabaster jar of expensive perfume, an act that on its surface seemed completely illogical and wasteful (so illogical and wasteful, in fact, that it is attributed as the very act that drove Judas to betray Jesus).  And yet, Jesus explains that Mary’s improbable choice in this moment serves a greater purpose, giving glory to the Son of God shortly before the crucifixion in an act that has resonated through history.

These examples give us pause.  In what ways are we being presented with opportunities to shift our route and potentially shake things up?  Do we feel like we’re stuck waiting in traffic, idling impatiently, when we could be taking an interesting turn in an unlikely direction?  Take a few moments to apply this thinking to the challenges currently facing your own ministry.  Discuss it with your team (and by the way, note that the folks at UPS were fearlessly faithful to the available data—they did not try to reinterpret it in a way that was more intuitively comfortable for them).  We at emc3 coaching have some great resources to help you think through your ‘route management processes,’ including lots of specific ideas for alternative paths forward in discipleship and community connection.  Visit us at our website, and don’t hesitate to ask for help.  We’re always wishing you happy and blessed ministry travels!