By Eddie Pipkin
My wife and I have the joy of living on a small lake. It’s just large enough for a short paddle, and the lake’s edge attracts interesting birds, sometimes an otter or even occasionally a gator. It’s nice. Straight across from us on the other side of the lake is a roadside tree with a perfect rope swing. This picturesque site was long a well-kept secret for some local kids who would ride over on their bikes, but in the age of social media and the boredom of the pandemic, it has caught on as a popular afternoon party spot for kids who show up by the carload. That’s fine; fun is fun. Except they have also taken to regularly trashing the place, leaving behind plastic water bottles, fast-food bags, and blown-out flip-flops. A classic dilemma: What to do when there’s a clear and present problem that’s not really your problem?
Of course, I would be listed among the many folks who have had to learn the hard way not to get all up in other people’s business (as they say in Georgia), sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong, so let me state for the record that the path to mental health and institutional harmony is an ability to stay out of stuff that is not appropriately in our purview. If somebody has an assigned responsibility – which is decidedly not OUR designated responsibility – just because they are not taking care of business the way we would, or even if they are not getting the job done at all, we should stay in our lane. That is important.
But there are things that come up that aren’t anybody’s defined responsibility.
To quote that philosophical raconteur, Buckminster Fuller . . .
“The things to do are the things that need doing that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done.”
Things stand out to us on occasion that don’t seem to bother anybody else. Or perhaps other people are bothered by them exactly as much as we are, but those other people think of them as insurmountable problems or solvable but too difficult and time consuming to fit into their busy schedules. This is an interesting aspect of the working of the Holy Spirit for people of faith. That passion poking us in a way that can’t be ignored, like a splinter in a finger, is often a prompt from God. Left unaddressed, it festers, an irritant continually working its way into our consciousness. William Booth’s Salvation Army and Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were both movements that grew out of such holy prodding. For most of us, however, the scope of our promptings and responses will be much less epic, but we will have plenty of opportunities to see what needs doing and do it.
I really want to write in this blog about small things. We’ve featured other blog entries that celebrate the miraculous results of those who answer a holy prompt fearlessly and go on to start a new program, create a new ministry, found an event, or change a life. Bravo! We should all have those moments. I once co-founded a pre-youth group for fourth and fifth graders because I thought that age group was getting lost in transition (and happily, they are still going strong and doing good work all these years later). But there are also times when we should just quietly do what needs doing, without calling attention to it, making it overly complicated, or causing problems for others.
In the case of the jumping tree, it would be an inspirational tale to announce to you that I had started a life-changing young adult ministry based on the fellowship of urban tree jumpers and featuring in-depth Bible meditations delivered from a perch in my kayak to the mesmerized listeners on the shore. Or that I had convinced the city to acquire the jumping tree and build an official park there, supplemented with amenities, staff support, and rules of conduct. None of that happened.
I did explore some options (more on that shortly), but here’s the short version that is the main point of this story: I started going over two or three times a week and picking up the trash.
Sometimes that is the correct and humble solution: just take a few minutes to do the unglamorous labor that needs to be accomplished. This is the kind of servant leadership that Jesus exampled and taught, and it is important for all ministry leaders to serve in this way on a regular basis: quietly, without complaint, and without drawing attention to it.
Here’s a refresher from Matthew 20:25-28 (NLT):
But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Basic discipleship 101, and yet we struggle. Amongst clergy with whom I have served – the people with the most power and deference in our community – they have generally fallen into one of two camps: those who, in addition to their necessarily grander and more public service, find ways to serve quietly and humbly, contrasted with those who sweep into any room in a blaze of glory, the “talent” arriving to share their special gifts and leaderly gravitas. For anybody in ministry leadership, clergy or volunteer, this challenge of leveraging power for good looms central.
To circle back around to the illustration of the moment – the jumping tree – I did, indeed, explore some other solutions. I saw the problem (trash in the lake, trash on the side of the road), and I worked the problem. Here’s the play-by-play:
- I talked to the young folks. I rode my bike over to the tree and struck up a conversation with them on multiple occasions – sometimes I paddled over – once I even swam over – all in an attempt to sell them on the responsibility of taking care of the shared neighborhood space by cleaning up after themselves. Some of the “kids” were receptive to this idea. Some of them rolled their eyes at the “old man.” The problem was that since there was no organized activity, there was nobody in charge, and it wasn’t even the same group showing up from day to day. It only takes one unruly crew to trash the joint.
- I talked to the county. Since the kids on the bikes were never any issue, I thought maybe if we could get some “no parking” signs on that stretch, it would settle things down, so I contacted the county engineering department. That led to an engaging and informative phone conversation with an awesome young engineer (who turned out to live a few streets over, so he knew exactly where I was talking about), but the gist from his perspective was that it was highly unlikely the county would put up signs unless the tree jumpers were doing damage to the adjacent infrastructure (like tearing pieces off the guardrail to build diving platforms – which they weren’t).
- I talked to the law enforcement authorities. It was against every impulse as a former youth director to nark on a bunch of tree-jumping young people, even at their rowdiest, so I approached an officer in a local parking lot one day when I saw him and asked his advice. He shrugged. If I saw them doing something inappropriate or illegal, he said, dial 911 and report it. Not my style. That felt like a descent into “get off my lawn” curmudgery.
- I contemplated revenge. Like the kind of Revenge of the Nerds revenge in all those over-the-top 80s movies: climbing up the branches and cutting through three-quarters of the rope so the next swinger would belly flop with spectacular embarrassment or smearing the tree trunk in axle grease, so it was comically unclimbable. No way I was actually doing any of those things either, but dreaming up wacky scenarios was strangely therapeutic.
- I picked up the trash. I decided to do an experiment in which I walked over early in the morning three days a week with a trash bag and a trash picker (which is a really fun device if you haven’t spent any time with one). I bagged the litter and hauled it off. It felt good. The place was pristine for a few hours (until the afternoon jumping session!). I got inspired and took over a big Rubbermaid trash can and visited the young folk again, proposing a deal in which if they just got the litter into the can, I would come and empty it a couple of times a week. It’s not a perfect scenario. Not everybody is fastidious in honoring the spirit of the agreement. But it’s a vast improvement. Plus, I made a few new acquaintances along the way.
- I worked on / am working on turning that voluntary task into a ‘Brother Lawrence’ Ah, Brother Lawrence, patron saint of those who would turn odious chores into moments of spiritual discipline, opportunities for gratitude and reflection. Of course, it is natural to begrudge repeatedly picking up the litter of other people as a use of your precious time. It can, however, become space for a reflective walk, for prayer on behalf of all parties involved, for an expression of gratitude and the development of a sense of participatory citizenship in your little corner of the world. No medals shall be awarded – no jewels secured in heavenly crowns. But there is a sense of satisfaction, especially since it is a solution of positive healing, as opposed to negative conflict.
- I reserved further action for another day. We’ll see what the future holds. There may come a time when a more formal solution becomes a necessity. On the other hand, there may come a time when trash collection is mute, once the movie theaters open back up or this batch of tree jumpers heads off to college or an inspired young environmentalist takes over my duties. Through a quieter, non-combative approach, there’s time for all that.
Perhaps you are reading this and rolling your eyes at the extent of bandwidth this issue is consuming for me as I look out my window across the lake to the scene of the crime. But it’s meant as a metaphor for contemplating the many, many times we find ourselves in similar scenarios as we participate in team-led ministry together. There is a prayerful, unselfish process to work through as we seek solutions (or at least a healthy reframing) of the things that grab our attention and drive us a little crazy. We can work that process with respect for the system, and we can pitch in to help where we can (rather than just complaining).
It reminds me of chairs.
When first I worked with Dr. Phil Maynard, the founder of Excellence in Ministry Coaching, he was the lead pastor at a local church, and I was his assistant. He displayed an attitude that impressed me in those days, and I have tried to emulate it since. We worshipped in a multi-purpose space with movable chairs, which were, of course, constantly out of alignment. Phil would come in very early on Sunday mornings to rehearse his sermon, and after that he would walk every row in the sanctuary, straightening each row, chair by chair, and praying for the people who would be sitting in those chairs. It wasn’t something he publicized; I just happened to also get there early enough to see it on occasion.
Years later, after Phil had moved on, I remembered that when a huge drama broke out about chairs during Sunday School. We had different groups using the same space for different purposes over the course of the morning, and everyone was arguing about whose job it was to set up and rearrange the chairs for each group. Nobody wanted responsibility for this. Everybody else complained about the other groups’ lack of responsibility. It was petty drama the way only a local church can do petty drama. It certainly wasn’t my job to deal with. But after a few weeks of turmoil, I decided the best solution would be for me to arrive a little earlier and stay a little later to set up and break down the chairs. It became a time of prayerful preparation for the morning, and I even had fun with it, setting up a special teacher’s table with a fancy tablecloth and some faux flowers every week for the Seniors class.
Sometimes a little selfless service can be the thing that bridges the gap from a spirit of perturbation to a spirit of peace.
I love this quote from Shawnte Salabert in Adventure Journal from the article, “Why I Pick Up Other People’s Litter – And Why You Should Too”:
Sure, picking up a few pieces of litter might seem nearly inconsequential when you think about the big picture. But here’s the thing—it feels tangible. Immediate. It’s something I can do every day, and something that can inspire others to perhaps view their immediate environment a little differently. To give back. To care. And ultimately, to feel just a little less overwhelmed.
Inspiring others. Giving back. Feeling a little less overwhelmed. Sounds like a great strategy (and one that Jesus practiced to perfection).
How do you manage those seemingly unmanageable moments when somebody else’s problem leaks over into your ministry space? Do you have your own set of suggestions for working out solutions in ways that allow you to serve selflessly? Share what you know!