In his 2013 bestselling book, The Boys in the Boat, author Daniel Brown chronicles the unlikely eight-man rowing team from the University of Washington that won the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics. Detailing their disciplined preparation, Brown celebrates the teamwork of those working class athletes. The author also identifies the importance of the team's 5'4" coxswain who kept the rowers focused on his verbal cues so they were not distracted by the competing shells alongside them.
As I read The Boys in the Boat, I couldn't help but think about another crew of unlikely oarsmen and their articulate coxswain. Jesus and his disciples spent countless hours learning lessons of leadership while rowing on the Sea of Galilee.
To Jesus, the boys in the boat represented those through whom he would achieve his mission. Over the course of three years he coached his disciples, teaching them how to leverage their opportunities, function as a team, and trust his commands.
Looking back over 35 years of pastoral ministry, I realize that in each situation I have been privileged to serve as a coxswain to a team of lay leaders. In each church the "boys in the boat" were those men and women who worked together following my lead to move our mutual ministry forward.
Upon reflection, in the churches I have served, "the boys in the boat" succeeded as a leadership team as we determined to …
1. Face the same direction. Historically, rowing teams that win have learned the secret of pulling their oars through the water at the same team as they face the same direction. The congregation on Mercer Island where I last served was located in a largely unchurched community. When I challenged our leadership team to find ways to serve our neighbors, they responded in a unified effort. Reaching our community was our common vision. The annual half-marathon sponsored by our local Rotary club provided a perfect opportunity to show practical support. We would encourage members to compete as well as fill volunteer positions behind the scenes. The fact that the race was held on Sunday morning initially posed a challenge. But the leaders unanimously pulled together and suggested we cancel our two morning services and schedule an evening celebration service following the event. The outcome was amazing. Nearly three-quarters of our church participated to the amazement of the race coordinators.
2. Pace for the long haul. As illustrated in Daniel Brown's book, rowers can expend energy prematurely and lose the winning edge if they do not pace themselves for the end goal. Effective coxswains will keep their oarsmen from stroking too fast too soon. To that end they do not over-achieve. They keep the goal in their sights. Likewise, I learned how easy it is for a church to try to do much at the same time without realizing the finish line is quite a distance away. In the first church I served in urban Seattle, I failed as an effective coxswain. Hungry for success I coached our board to create programs by which we would canvass our neighborhood with door-to-door invitations, send out visitation teams to follow up on first-time visitors, begin a second worship service, organize home fellowship groups, and launch a young adult ministry. Although each ministry was valid, attempting all of them within the first year proved fatal. We could not sustain the effort required to keep them all going. Had I realized that effective ministry takes time and can't be hurried, I would have chosen one or two programs at a time rather than burn out my team. In the words of Eugene Peterson, I have come to see that reaching the finish line is the result of a "long obedience in the same direction."