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Lessons in Church Leadership from Behind the Wheel

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“Focus. … It’s all about where you focus.”

That’s how Ray started the driving lesson after I shut the car door. I was 15, proudly displaying my driver’s permit in my wallet, yet not sure I was ready for my 16th birthday when I could take the driving test for an unrestricted license.

Ray was our next-door neighbor whom I had known all my life; he also happened to own a driving school.

When I neared driving age, Ray asked if he could give me a lesson or two, reminding me and my family of how much he loved giving new young drivers what they need to succeed on the road.

My parents were so glad he volunteered (I can’t imagine why). Now, as a pastor looking back, I had no idea Ray would teach me so much about leading a church as a driving instructor.

“Most of the time keep your eyes straight ahead, focused on what’s right in front of you. Don’t look too far ahead or you’ll miss what’s right there,” he said.

“At the same time, don’t stare at a single spot on the road in front of you, or you’ll miss something important. Keep your eyes moving but focused out the front windshield. Get that right and you are three-fourths of the way to being an excellent driver.”

Now, 18 years later and serving as a pastor, I regularly remember this part of Ray’s guidance.

Sometimes, I feel like a kid again out on the road, shaky and unsure, distracted by all the activity around me while trying to keep it on the road.

It’s so easy to focus on peripheral issues and low-level activities, shifting my focus to the small stuff.

Then I remember Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is among you (Luke 17),” and I remember that Ray was right.

Be here, be focused, pay attention to what’s rising up and taking shape right in front of you. That’s where the action is, where the Spirit is moving and influencing.

Now Ray’s wisdom helps me to remember that those with the “eyes to see and the ears to hear” will notice the kingdom of God taking shape right before them.

I don’t want to be sucked into the distraction vortex, nor do I want this church to give itself to the small stuff. We (this church and myself) want to engage what’s right before us, the kingdom of God rising up right in front of us.

“Check your rearview and side mirrors from time to time, noticing what’s behind you, but don’t stare,” Ray instructed. “Keep your eyes moving.”

Ray noticed I kept looking at the rearview mirror, a bit nervous about that truck coming up behind.

He was stating the obvious: Drivers who stare behind them set themselves up to miss what’s happening right in front of them.

Wow. I wish I could find Ray now and get him to teach our long-tenured members this insight. They love to tell me how wonderful the church was back in their favorite era.

Some tell me about the tenure of their beloved pastor while others tell me about another season when they were personally so engaged it seemed like the heyday of this church.

I’m for celebrating the past, especially when harvesting the healthy DNA from those experiences and translating it into the present.

Fixation on the past though, is like driving down the road, staring in the rearview mirror. I can’t see anything but tragedy ahead when that’s our church’s way of being church.

“Yes, look to the side and notice who’s doing what, but remember your job is to keep your vehicle in its lane,” he said. “Watch the traffic flow for clues on what to do next, but don’t imitate other drivers. They aren’t driving your car.”

Ray had no idea (I don’t believe) his driving lessons would influence my ministry so much.

Don’t get me wrong, I do notice what other pastors and churches are doing. I meet regularly with my leadership coach, read as many books as I can, take in podcasts and engage in learning events.

I’m clearly interested in what others are doing, learning as much as I can from others.

At the same time, I’m grateful that Ray taught me to keep my vehicle in its lane. Our church is in a specific context with a strange mix of community variables, people dynamics and organizational challenges.

Taking what others do and trying to imitate it works with some technical matters, but rarely helps with our adaptive challenges.

Because ministry is so contextual, imitating others typically backfires on us. Ray’s driving wisdom helps me keep this in perspective.

“You’ll see people driving their cars, doing all kinds of things besides paying attention. But you remember your focus,” Ray reiterated. “It’s all about being present, paying attention and staying focused.”

I guess this was the pinnacle of Ray’s driving wisdom because it’s the last thing he said as I parked in our driveway.

I think he’s right. When I keep first things first, encouraging our leaders to do the same, we make great progress as a church.

When I or we grow distracted by peripheral matters or nostalgia, we lose our energy and momentum.

Focus; it’s all about focus.

I wonder if Ray’s still around. Maybe this fall, when we visit the parents for Thanksgiving, I’ll wander next door and ring the doorbell.

If he opens the door, I think I’ll say, “It’s focus Ray; it’s all about focus.”

He has no idea how much I’ve relied on his driver training wisdom. Or does he?

Thanks, Ray. You are training me to drive still.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle Leadership Associates’ blog. It is used with permission.

Mark Tidsworth

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.