By Eddie Pipkin

When I head home to Georgia, I usually spend Sunday morning at the little country church where I got married 32 years ago.  Like most of us who worship anywhere on a regular basis, even if only occasionally, I have a familiar place where I sit: third row from the back, left side pew, on the aisle in this case.  But this past weekend, I was late – very late – so I decided to hang out unobtrusively in the vestibule until communion time.  You’d think that would be a quiet spot where not much happened – but revelations ensued.  It was a reminder that it’s a great practice to exchange our familiar ministry vantage points with less obvious angles – what is revealed can be surprising.

The fact that we tend to sit in the same spot anyplace we have an attendance routine is an interesting enough phenomenon on its own: it is part of our human wiring to create order and the comfort of familiarity.  Most of us sit in the same spot (if we can) at dinner, on the couch when watching Netflix, at worship, in conference rooms, in classroom settings, and even at the movies.  This habit of geographical placement is a handy metaphor for the way we experience ministry (how we think about ministry, talk about ministry, approach problems in ministry, etc.).  We have a familiar, comfortable vantage point that makes sense of the ministry which we lead, and over time it becomes difficult to see that ministry from any other vantage.  Sometimes it becomes difficult to imagine that there even are other vantages.  But for any ministry that involves more than one person (which is pretty much all of them) there are.

We serve ourselves and our institutions well to understand that basic truth and to build habits that help us move beyond the understanding that different vantages exist to having a stronger empathy for what they are.

A vestibule, you will recall, is an entryway, lobby, or antechamber to a larger space.  Thinking about such a room can serve as an excellent metaphor for exploring the experiences of people waiting in the vestibules of your ministries (that entryway space just outside the ministry).  Who is in that space and what are they experiencing as they are waiting to enter?  Think about, for instance, the parents in the vestibule of your children’s ministry – what hopes and fears are they experiencing in anticipation of entering the ministry?  What can they see when they peer into the doorway to the ministry space (literally or figuratively – perhaps the vestibule view for parents in this scenario is what they can see when the peek into your ministry from the vantage of your website or social media feed)?

For me in the literal vestibule of a small church last weekend, I had multiple unanticipated conversations.  I was able to make observations that would have gone unobserved: otherwise

  • From a hospitality perspective, it was interesting to note the concern of other people (congregation members) who encountered me in the vestibule. One was passing through and encouraged me to come on into the main worship space and have a seat (indicating I should have no worries about entering late).  One, a person minding the audio gear over in the corner, seeing that I was going to persist in hanging out there – the doors were open; we could hear the sermon just fine – offered me the folding chair she was sitting in.  Props to the hospitality vibe!
  • On a technical note, I had no idea they were using amplified sound. Seeing the tech volunteer managing this gear prompted a brainstorm about all the ways they could be leveraging that audio feed by recording and distributing it.
  • A bunch of kids came in from children’s church so they could take up a collection for Souper Bowl Sunday as folks were exiting worship. I struck up a conversation with one delightful young lady, including the question, “What are you collecting money for?”  “Souper Bowl Sunday!” she replied enthusiastically.  “Yeah,” I said, “But what is the money for?”  “I don’t know,” she replied with a giant smile.  I laughed and gave her some money, noting a great topic for a future blog: how good are we about communicating the vision behind why we’re doing the ministry we’re doing.
  • There was a teenager hanging out in one corner who ostensibly had some responsibility out there – I could never figure out what – and disappeared for 15 minutes of the sermon, standard teenager stuff. This is a common enough observation in hallways of churches of all sizes and leads to great conversations (hopefully with the teenagers involved, as well as their parents and leaders) about engagement, disengagement, and expectations.

None of this would have happened without my deviation from my usual pew position, and while I wouldn’t want to spend every visit doing that, it was an eye-opener.  We should all seek out ways to have our eyes opened on a regular basis.  There is a presumption that people with different perspectives will seek us out and present their insights and viewpoints, but this is not necessarily true.  We assume it’s true because we don’ have any problem getting people to complain to us – such complaining requires no active encouragement – but complaints are not synonymous with different vantage points:

  • People may think that their vantage point doesn’t matter because surely you know more than they do since you’re a leader. Therefore, they may be afraid to speak up and share.
  • People may think their vantage doesn’t matter because it has already been considered and discounted because they are not part of the “in” group.
  • People may think their vantage doesn’t matter because they have tried sharing it before and it was discounted or disregarded, perhaps not even believed – this is a condition that can result when leaders don’t make an attempt to do direct observation.
  • People may not realize their vantage point is unique. People tend to assume other people see what they see, particularly if those observations seem obvious.

For leaders, expanding our perspective can be complicated by various factors:

  • People tend to tell us what they think we want to hear (especially if they report to us on a flowchart).
  • Because we have goals in mind, we tend to interpret what we see and hear as supporting those goals. We tend to exaggerate supporting observations and downplay those that disagree with our preconceived notions.
  • People tend to adjust their behavior when they see that we are actively observing it. That’s why regularly making observations is a far more effective strategy than sweeping in for a visit from on high once a year.

In addition to establishing regular opportunities to encourage feedback from everybody involved at all levels of ministry, leaders should build routines in which they experience alternate vantage points:

  • Job Swapping. Leaders can routinely swap responsibilities for a morning or a day with other ministry leaders within their institution.  They can also take on the responsibilities of one of the other people on their ministry team (as a teacher or tech volunteer or part of the set-up crew, etc.).
  • Experiencing Ministry as a Client. Leaders can experience a class as a participant, attend worship in another setting as a normal person, or receive ministry rather than leading it to gain valuable perspective.  While it’s hard to be treated as a “regular person” by people who work with you on a regular basis and know exactly who you are and what your level of influence is, you can still gain valuable insights – also, you are communicating clearly that a view from ground level is important.  It is also useful to visit similar ministries in which you are not known and can experience what they have to offer anonymously.  Bring these insights back to share with your home team.
  • Making Visits. Let your understudy take over your responsibilities for a morning or day (which is also an important leadership initiative on its own) and visit places where ministry is happening.  Spend time with people.  Don’t just helicopter in and out; stay for a while; have conversations.  Get the full experience.
  • Observe from Unfamiliar Locations. What does Sunday morning at your church look like from the parking lot?  From the tech booth?  From a laptop in a remote location?  Experience these options and see what is revealed.
  • Ask Questions. Routinely ask people you lead and encounter in ministry where you should go to get a new perspective.  See what they think would be an interesting vantage point and then honor their answers.

The key is to have a plan for your unique context that opens you up to seeing things in new ways.  Sometimes these observations will reinforce the perceptions that are driving your decisions, and sometimes they will reveal opportunities and challenges that you did not even know existed.  Either way, you will benefit from the information and make connections that might not have been made otherwise.

Jesus certainly practiced a peripatetic ministry, and that’s an inspiration to us not to get hidebound and anchored in our leadership.  Share with us the ways you’ve found to keep your perspective fresh and the lessons you’ve learned by being committed to that practice.