November 2, 2022
For a good part of my business career, I worried about strategy. My job titles had things like Plans & Strategy, Strategic Account Development, and Competitive Strategy in them. It was part analysis and part prognostication. And like my fellow practitioners of the art, I read a lot of books. Some were case studies - "Birth of A New Machine;" others were more theoretical - "Competitive Advantage" and "Thriving on Chaos." But if you worked in a technology sector, like I did, much of it boiled down to creating, surviving, or taking advantage of a paradigm shift. This is where some new element in your world, or marketplace, changed all the rules about how you did things. Some of these changes seem to take place nearly over night, while others take several years to play out. When I was in college I used to write letters back home. Why? Because paper and postage were very cheap, whereas, a long distance phone call was very expensive. In many contexts, it is just the opposite now. Every engineering student was once required to own a slide rule to aid in complex mathematical calculations - now they are only found in museums, right next to the abacus. The early fortunes of the port of Burlington, Vermont, depended on a burgeoning finished lumber industry. It was primarily due to a tariff on imported cut lumber, when there was none on logs. To avoid the tariff, logs were imported by water from Canada, down Lake Champlain, and landed at Burlington, where they were then cut up, sold, and shipped on. The industry employed many people, until the tariff was lifted, and the need to float logs down to Burlington no longer existed. A single change agent could affect whole industries and the livelihood of thousands, or in some cases, millions of people. One of the books we read back then on how to manage, or cope with, or take advantage of, such paradigm shifts was a little book called, "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson. It drew the analogy with a mouse finally learning his way through the maze to find his cheese reward, only to have the rules, the maze, reconfigured and he had to start over. If we liken this idea to our church, in the way little things have paradigm-shifting implications, we would rename the book, "Who Moved The Parade?" The town's seemingly innocuous decision to move the annual parade route, cost us community visibility, irreplaceable foot traffic, and a source of revenue, that has yet to be replaced. For that and a host of other reasons, we re-set our strategic plan, focusing on rejuvenating our vision based on firm fundamentals, developing and empowering our laity, re-directing our relationship building outward, and initiating ministries around passionate leaders. We were like the servants of Matthew 13.
Matthew 13:24-26 Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared."
Farming, it turns out (ask Jessica and the others, who labor diligently on our Garden of Eatin'), is hard work. The rocks are heavy, the sun is hot, and the thorns are painful and sometimes draw blood. And the crop for which we labor, does not happen instantly - it takes its sweet time to mature to ripeness. We told the story of our church to the Rev Dale Edwards, our regional pastor, who focuses on church revitalization. We gave him our annual report, we showed him our new strategic plan, and we told him of the havoc being wrecked on our congregation by COVID and other "thorns." We then asked him to come and share his wisdom; and he did. He told us that churches, like businesses have a life cycle. They ebb and flow and periodically find themselves awash in painful "thorns." He told us that churches, who successfully rejuvenate themselves, do it by;
rediscovering or reinventing their driving Christ-centered vision
redirecting their relationship building efforts outward
developing and empowering their laity, and
building ministries aimed at felt community needs around passionate leaders
And then he gave us this advice:
continue to work hard and expect to get "bloody" from those thorns,
Those of us, who were there in the worship service and the meal and discussion that followed, received his words as what they were - a gift of encouragement. Ah, yes, there are thorns and weeds in amongst the crop, but the crop is growing. Be patient. In Jesus parable, the owner tells the servants,
Matthew 13:30 Let them both grow together until the harvest. At that time, I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.
As I looked around the parish hall, I saw hearts that were encouraged by his words. But more than that, I saw gifts of encouragement being given all throughout and after the event from one member to another. And I saw the smiles and warm hearts that encouragement produced. It reminds me, that we sometimes underestimate the power of simple encouragement.
The Bible, however, does not. It mentions acts of encouragement over 300 times, as a testament to its importance in the life of the body. The Apostle Paul goes even further in his letter to the Romans,
Romans 12:6-8 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Encouragement may not seem like one of the flamboyant, or most visible gifts, but it is just as important and vital to the health of the body.
When you are feeling the call to do something - remember, to encourage is an action verb - go do it! And like the pebble dropped in the pond, you may never know how far the ripples will reach. Never be shy of holding each other up! Years ago, the story is told of Donald Vairin. He served as a young hospital corpsman in the invasion of Guam during World War II. Suddenly, his boat came to a grinding halt. They had hit a coral reef and they were sinking. The commanding officer ordered everyone off the ship. Donald jumped into the ocean and sank like a rock, his rifle, medical pack, and heavy boots were dragging him down. He forced himself to the surface, gasping for air, only to sink again. He tried to pull off his boots, but the effort exhausted him, and he suddenly realized he was not going to make it. Just then, he saw another man thrashing in the water nearby, and in desperation he clutched onto him. That proved to be just enough leverage to allow him to get a foot hold on the reef, where he was later picked up by a rescue boat. But Donald felt so guilty about grabbing the other drowning man to save himself, that he never told anyone what happened. About six months later, on shore leave in San Francisco, he stopped in a restaurant. A sailor in uniform waved him over to sit with him. As he did so, the sailor announced to his friends, "This is my buddy, he saved my life." "What are you talking about?" asked Donald. "Don't you remember," said the sailor, "we were in the water together at Guam. You grabbed on to me. I was going down, and you held me up!"
I Thessalonians 5:11 ... encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
Your Brother in Christ,
Warren Warren J. Ayer, Jr. Chairperson, Board of Deacons United Church of Colchester