There is a story told of a ship and crew in peril on the sea. In the engine room the men were being tossed back and forth, and with each pitch in the sea they became more and more convinced that they wouldn’t make it through alive. One of the crew managed his way up to the bridge of the ship just to see if there was any chance of surviving. Several minutes later he returned to his shipmates, and though the seas had grown no less angry, he reported to them that they were going to be fine. “How can you know,” they replied. “I’ve been to the bridge,” said the crewman, “and I saw the captain’s face. And he was smiling.”
I’ve always found it encouraging that historically the Church has taken as its symbol – a ship in full sail on the sea. It likely goes back to that story of Jesus and the disciples on the Sea of Galilee amidst the great storm. While the disciples are in full panic mode, Jesus is asleep in the stern. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” the disciples screamed. And, as we know, Jesus stood up and calmed the sea. I’m guessing there was a smile on his face. That story has been repeated year after year and in church after church over the centuries. We are tossed and turned with sails eager to catch the wind of the Spirit and the captain is in the boat with a gentle smile.
Ministry in the 21st century Church demands a lot from its leaders. We sail into some pretty stiff headwinds of the world around us. We work with crew members that may not always agree on the coordinates. We may discover some historic church family skeletons down below deck. Finances might be tight. Staff members may not get along. It’s enough to rock the boat.
All the while, God empowers leaders to employ each and every gift we have to keep us afloat – administrative skills, pastoral skills, communication skills, exegetical skills, teaching skills, finance skills, facility skills – the list is endless. While the ship is rocking we scurry around to find people who have these gifts to keep us from keeling over. One often overlooked and undervalued gift though is the leader’s smile. And what I mean by smile is his or her non-anxious presence. The hope and confidence of a congregation is directly tied to the anxiety, or should I say LACK of anxiety, they see in their leader. Someone has to believe that we are going to be OK and that someone has to be the pastor/leader.
It’s not to suggest that conflict shouldn’t be confronted, or hard decisions shouldn’t be made, or thorny issues discussed, but while all that is happening the crew are looking to the face of the captain. And they need to feel the non-anxious presence of one who believes that the Lord is somewhere in this boat.
Now we all have different styles that we bring to leadership. We don’t all need to be the same personality type on the Myers-Briggs scale. Some of us may not even like to smile too much. So here are a few things that can help a pastor maintain the non-anxious presence in the midst of the headwind:
- Pursue and exhibit a gracious intimacy with God. The deeper a leader knows of the unconditional love of God for her the less afraid she is of the inevitable storms and criticism that will come her way. You’re not perfect, but God’s love is. You are a child of God before you are a pastor, elder, chairperson, President. If you are not anxious about yourself then you’ll be less anxious about your people.
- Develop a leadership community. The more that leaders come to know each other in life together the greater the investment they have in supporting each other to make things work. Set aside time for your leaders to share together in conversation, study and prayer. Help them to see each other as brothers and sister in Christ first, and leaders second.
- Set the vision and remind folks where WE are going. A great bit of anxiety in the church comes from not knowing where we are going. People don’t like change, but they especially don’t like it if they don’t know what it’s for. Carefully take the time with your fellow leaders to set coordinates for your journey – a point on the horizon – and keep pointing them in that direction especially when changes are occurring that feel unsettling. “We’re doing THIS so we can make sure to get THERE,” is easier to swallow than “Well, we just thought we’d try something new.”
- Be yourself in your care of your people. Every leader has their own way of caring for their people and people know if it’s real or not. We all have our own love language. Discover yours and use it often. The key is, do people see in you the genuine attempt to care for them? Note writing, prayer request follow-ups, hugs and handshakes, email check-ins, ministry recognitions, hospital visits, phone calls to home– they’re all ways to uniquely use your personality to make sure your people know that despite the rocky seas their pastor loves them.
- Trust the wind of the Holy Spirit. Leaders are too often implored by Leadership journals to, “Go!” And they are reminded that the resurrected Jesus in Matthew said, “Go. Go into all the world and make disciples.” Emphasis on the word, “Go.” But in Luke’s version the other thing the resurrected Jesus said to those early leaders was, “Wait. Wait for the Holy Spirit and you will receive power.” Both, of course, are necessary admonitions. But usually we create anxiety when we Go before we Wait. Patience comes to the leader when he realizes that that his job is not about proving what he knows as quickly as he can, as much as believing how dependent we all are on the movement of the Holy Spirit. When you’re out on the water with the sail limp on the mast, you can paddle a bit, but usually the best thing to do is wait and pray for wind! As one sailor once told me, “If you’re on a schedule, you shouldn’t be sailing!”
The good news in all this is that we get to be leaders in a 2000 year old enterprise. The ship set sail a long time ago and has stayed afloat despite some tough storms and less than effective captains. Our part upon the sea is but for a few moments. And if we can spend those moments keeping the crew calm and together pointed in the same direction, mindful of the Savior’s presence and the Holy Spirit’s power, then we will have done more than our part in getting the ship to shore.
Dr. Stephen D. McConnell comes from a long line of Presbyterian ministers including his great- grandfather, grandfather, father, uncle and two brothers. He was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, but did most of his growing up in suburban Detroit. Steve attended Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA and Princeton Theological Seminary.
Steve served the Melrose Carmel Presbyterian Church in suburban Philadelphia and the Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church in Liberty Corner, New Jersey. He is presently the Senior Pastor of Church of the Palms in Sarasota, Florida. He has served as speaker at the New Wilmington Missionary Conference, the Massanetta Springs Bible Conference, the Wee Kirk Retreat in New England, and a variety of church renewal events. He also serves as a consultant for Ministry Architects, a consulting ministry for local churches.
Steve received his D. Litt. from the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University with a focus on C.S. Lewis studies. He is married to Amanda and they have a daughter, Brittany. Steve enjoys reading and running and watching his favorite sports teams – the St. Louis Cardinals and the Michigan Wolverines – bring home the victory. He is the author of two books: Take Me to Aslan: C.S. Lewis and the Art of Trusting and When the Wind is Against You: Encouragement for When Life Pushes Back.