By Eddie Pipkin
Last week, I was is in the small, remote Colorado mountain town of Ouray. As I wandered the hilly streets one morning just after dawn, I came across a grassy hillside with a boulder at the bottom with a bonze plaque affixed to it. I had stumbled upon “Lee’s Ski Hill,” a tow-rope ski run where the children of Ouray (population 1,000) have been burning off after-school energy for half a century. It is one of only two free tow-rope ski hills in the United States, and the reason for the plaque is that one ordinary citizen, Dema Mary Lee, acquired the lots on the hill and donated them to the town back in 1946. Ms. Lee was neither a powerful politico nor a rich business leader, but she had been worried that the town’s children had nothing to do, so she decided to take action.
Whole generations of Ouray youth have grown up with memories of frolicking on the easily-accessible ski hill after school and on weekends. It’s still maintained by the city and is open for a couple of hours each weekday afternoon and longer hours on the weekend. This simple slope might have been developed as vacation homes, but one woman looked at the bored children of winter and the empty expanse of downhill snow and thought up an idea that would be popular in the moment and carry on into the future. To do it, she had to study a little real estate, be clever enough to pick up a series of adjoining properties in a tax sale, and convince the neighboring homes and the local government that the idea was worthwhile. But she did all those things and brought her idea to fruition.
Such triumphs of vision and pluck always make me smile.
Local churches are full of them. Independent ministries are born of them. We should be about the business of encouraging them.
Instead of CALCIFIED, we should be ENERGIZED.
I’ve written quite a lot in this space about the power of individual vision. Although we tend to plan by committee and vision by process, surveys, and wordy goal-setting documents, the Bible is brimming with narratives of individuals who were inspired by God and led others to great outcomes. (And by great, I don’t necessarily mean dramatic or transformative: the Bible is also full of wonderful stories of individuals doing small things with conviction and faithfulness that channel God’s grace in profound ways.)
In congregations — as preachers and leaders — we are very good and very consistent at challenging people to dream big, invest in visions, and work hard to support programs; it’s just that, almost universally, it is our dreams, our vision, and our programs we are constantly badgering them to channel. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se — it’s natural, of course — but I like to argue for a broader range of micro visions, even if they are under the umbrella of a central leadership vision.
Is your congregation or independent ministry a cult of personality? Or is it a dynamic environment in which individuals feel empowered to pursue their God-given passions? There is a simple test. Do people say . . .
I like and support Church X because of Pastor _____.
Or do they say . . .
I like and support Church X because it helps me understand who God has called me to be and how I can serve. I am encouraged to follow my passions, and I am engaged in ministry in multiple ways, like _____, _____, and _____.
Even if Pastor _____ has been instrumental in helping the church’s leadership embrace a central vision for the coming year — for instance, “Forging connections of caring with our surrounding community” (a noble, biblical vision) — there are still five hundred ways to do that. We frequently roadblock people with ideas and abilities because, even when we have a robust vision, we insist on shoehorning our followers into our specific understanding of what that vision should look like. We conceive the big picture, but then we get hung up on the nuts and bolts of it.
The classic example of this is when — frequently during stewardship campaigns — we challenge everyone to think about how they will serve and then give them a survey or brochure to check off which slot they think God is calling them to fill. This would be the equivalent of giving Ms. Lee (of free ski hill fame) a survey of “ways to help children pass the time” and letting her choose between leading a macrame class, babysitting in someone’s house, being the forewoman of a snow shoveling ministry, or tutoring math. She might well have done one of those things out of a sense of civic concern, but her insight was bigger than such a limited range of options. She could see — and this is literally what vision is all about — beyond what other people could see.
From whence does such vision come?
Some would say it’s perspective: she just had a different angle on things than other people who were working with the town’s children or those who owned vacant pieces of land. Some would say it’s imagination: she was just a creative problem solver by nature (in a world in which creative problem solvers are not necessarily the detail-oriented or highly vocal leaders who become committee chairman and elected leaders). Some would say it’s fearlessness: she was not afraid to concoct an improbable plan and see it through to fruition. Some would say it was passion: she persisted in pondering this problem because it mattered to her (for whatever reason) in ways it didn’t matter to anybody else. In ministry circles, a lot of people would say it was directly inspired by the Holy Spirit: perhaps one of the things we should be reinforcing with those we lead is that followers of Christ should routinely expect to be prodded and prompted by the Spirit, and not just in service to our own goals, but in inspiration to chart their own.
There are ways to promote each and every “some would say” scenario listed above. Imagine a new approach in which, rather than focusing on slot-filling, we encouraged people to identify the ways God is uniquely calling them, and then we gave them the support and tools to follow through on that call.
I know, some of you are are shouting, “Chaos! What you propose is chaos!” But just because we free things up in this way does not mean that we won’t be able to get our slots filled — Lord knows we still need ushers, money counters, chair arrangers, choir members, etc. We’ll still have them! Not everyone is called to do something uniquely their own — many are called to serve humbly, expertly, and with joy. And many are willing to serve in nuts and bolts capacities to do the necessary work of ministry, even as they are fulfilled and creatively challenged by bold new visions of how they will utilize their talents and gifts. It’s the best of both worlds. And it’s only a fear of change and a fear of loss of control that keeps us from dreaming new ways of doing things.
How about in your local ministry? What sort of job are you doing in helping people have “Ms. Lee moments”? Share your stories: the challenges, the heartbreaks, and the joyful triumphs.