Ships. The church is often compared to a ship at sea in some helpful and some terrible analogies. A good friend used this analogy to talk about how the church can be a place of faith in a world without faith. I have used it to talk about our job of saving people from the flood. Another common one is to see the world as the ark in the flood from the Noah story. I am deeply uncomfortable with that one because we are called to be about the redemption of the world, not to shut the doors and let everyone else drown. But on the other hand in one of the better books on constructive theology, Peter Hodgson in Winds of the Spirit compares the theological task to repairing a ship at sea. There are lots of ship analogies.
My favorite analogy is leadership-oriented. As a captain, I have a certain job to do on the ship. It is not possible to captain a certain size of ship without a crew. You just can’t. And though there may be times when you are needed to step in and help with rigging, if you are spending all your time on ropes, you are not the captain. The captain has a role that requires a sense of direction, purpose and mission, and time spent planning.
This latter piece is the one I want to focus on today. You have to spend enough time below deck with the charts and maps as a captain. You have to know where the ship is going. You don’t always have to be the one at the wheel, of course, but the crew and passengers, investors and customers are all waiting on the ship to go somewhere.
As a pastor, this is an important part of our role that is undervalued and underdone in communities that begin to grow. My congregation is not a Sunday-only institution. We work all week long. Our worship is, and should be, the praise of a community that is living the faith and doing the work of redemption during the rest of the week. Sunday is dessert. The meal is served Monday through Saturday. (I would love to take credit for the life of Grace Church, but I inherited a busy church.) Our ship’s problem isn’t speed.
The analogy is not going to hold for long, so let’s look at our primary idea. As a captain, you have to know the ship. You have to know the ropes, so to speak. You have to know the crew, and your first officers especially well. You have to know what is in the hold and what the scheduled stops are. You have to know these things and know them first-hand as much as humanly possible. There is no substitute for time with the crew and pulling on the pieces. But you can do all of that and get everywhere late, nowhere important, and make everyone involved feel lost and frustrated.
You have to know where you are going, that you have the resources you need, and can plot a course, even if you have to modify it a million times.
Knowing where you are going is one of those mystical sounding phrases that can mean not very much in the real world or it can save your community. If you don’t know what it means at all, I recommend Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage highly simply because it offers some examples and then practical ways to discover direction within a corporation. It is especially good when the captain shares the chair with a room full of people, as most of us do. Another good book is Rainer and Rainer’s Simple Church. This one benefits from church-specific advice, from a free church congregational model, but it is great on principles as well. You need to be able to state your purpose over a set period of time in a sentence. One sentence.
This seems like it would be an easy thing to do, but as already shown the large areas of moving pieces and people involved in a healthy community make it a challenge to get far enough perspective to see it all, name it, and then be able to get people involved with the whole picture from where they currently are. You cannot “wing” the work of perspective. It takes time to look down the route, chart the currents, and choose the language carefully. You have to spend enough time below deck.
In old pictures of captain’s desks there are always piles of charts and maps, old books, and arcane tools. I feel like a pastor’s office should be the same way. It takes some basic tools to do our job. They don’t really change century to century. You will always need a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer, for example. But then there are the current events and relevant histories. Too many pastors and priests get used to our favorite maps and do not update. We are luddites by attrition and busyness. But we cannot effectively guide in today’s waters without some relevant maps. We should be comparing notes with other captains and other sailors. We should be staying current on the currents.
Time to think and work and compare should not keep us off the deck either, but we do need significant time below to do our job. The church has gotten used to pastors and priests who are hospital visitors and funeral planners and deacons first. We are called to a particular role, and if those roles are yours, great; you may not be the person to lead a community. Leaders lead first. It is a service that the church needs like the ship needs a captain who knows where they are going.
It is telling in Acts that the community complained about the inequities of help and service and the response of the apostles was to assign some people to do the work, after prayer and clear delineation of duties. Too many pastors do the work of the laity. Too many captains spend their days pulling on ropes and holding the hands of those who should be working. We are called to proclaim the Good News and teach and preach. We do have to make sure that the work of the community gets done. A ship with no sails has a captain who isn’t doing their job too. But we do that work, our serving, in relation to the whole ship. Our job on the ship is to know where the ship is going and to get everyone working toward that destination.
Our service is leading. We are no more or less necessary than the kid who swabs the deck so that our crew doesn’t slip into the sea. But that kid can’t do my job, and I can’t do his, at least not all the time.
As a pastor I have cleaned a lot of toilets and wiped down a lot of counters and set a lot of tables. It happens. But if I am always doing those things and not praying, studying, and preaching and teaching, then I have failed as a leader in the church. And my ship is adrift at sea.
How do we discern what is the leader’s duty and what belongs to the crew? How do we clarify roles? Lencioni can help with this process. How do we set aside time with the charts and maps of your community? What tools are necessary? What new maps do you need but don’t have? Who are your first mates, your crew, your investors, your customers? If you are not the captain, how do you make sure your captain has time to do their job well?