Turning a church from unhealthy to healthy is a daunting task.
It starts by working smarter, not harder.
Here’s an example.
The Paint Can: A Parable
In the 1990s, I led a small group of church members on a missions trip to Bucharest, Romania. The country was just a few years removed from one of the most oppressive, violent and evil regimes in modern history.
One afternoon we were taking a short break in our hotel. While we were talking, a hotel employee was painting a wardrobe in the hallway—one of those portable closets they use in Europe, like the one in C.S. Lewis’s classic book. But there was something about the way he was doing it that was strange.
The employee would brush on a few strokes of paint, disappear into the hotel room for thirty seconds or so, reappear to brush on a few more strokes, then disappear again. This kept repeating. Why?
Then it hit me.
Although the wardrobe was in the hallway, the can of paint was in the middle of the hotel room, so the painter was walking into and across the room for every single dip of paint! But why would he do that? Probably because that’s where everything was placed when he arrived. This painter was nearing retirement age, and he had been raised under an extraordinarily repressive regime in which you kept your head down and did the job you were given, no questions asked. Conformity was rewarded, and innovation was frowned upon.
This painter was taking three or four times longer to paint the wardrobe because he had been socially, mentally, and emotionally programmed by a corrupt system not to think for himself. It didn’t occur to him to perform one simple step that would have made his job exponentially easier, faster and better: move the can.
What is true of that painter is also true for far too many pastors and other church leaders. Many of us are pastoring under systems that were in place long before us, and it hasn’t occurred to us that we can move the paint can.
Like the tired painter in that hotel hallway, it’s tempting to leave things where they are right now and keep going through the motions. Turning an entire church around is like getting the entire room ready—far too big a task to even contemplate at the moment.
But the first step in painting the wardrobe is simple.
Move the can.
Make the next step toward health as simple and doable as possible.
What’s Your Paint Can?
Like moving the paint can, here are some characteristics to look for when considering what to tackle as you help a church take its first tentative steps toward being healthy again:
- You can do it right away.
The painter didn’t need anyone else’s help or permission to move the paint can. He just needed the ability to see that it could be done, then do it.
In the church you lead, what fits those criteria? What simple action(s) can you do, that you do not need permission for? Start there.
- It will ease your burden, not add to it.
Sure, the paint can is heavier than the paint brush, and moving it will be harder than carrying a brush. Once. After that, everything else will get easier.
What tasks can be done in your church that will take a minimal amount of extra effort right now, but will clear a path for several tasks to be done more easily in the future?
- It will get you to your next step more quickly
. After the paint can has been moved, the current task of painting the wardrobe will be a lot easier.
Are there any simple steps you can take to reduce waste and help you get more done with your limited time and resources? Make them a priority.
- It will be a small first step toward thinking differently.
This may be the most important—and difficult—aspect of moving the paint can.
It’s difficult, because it requires the painter to think differently. But it’s important because, once you start thinking differently about some initial, simple tasks, you start realizing you can apply the same innovative principles to other harder tasks.
What if you moved the paint can—and no one got mad? No emergency committee meetings were called to correct you. The roof didn’t fall in. In fact, everything started working just a little smoother. After making a small change once, you’ll want to do it again.
Soon, you’ll be looking around for other paint cans you can move, other ways to change the long-existing dynamic of systems that have been in place because no one thought to change them for the better.
Now, I’m not naïve. I’ve been in pastoral ministry for almost forty years. I’ve moved paint cans and been treated as if I were guilty of spitting in the face of our church’s beloved founders. So you know what I did in response? I moved the paint can anyway. Then I kept painting.
It’s amazing what happens to the naysayers when the wardrobe gets painted in record time, under budget, and with a smoother finish. The complainers either fall away, or they join the paint-can-moving team.
Adapted from 100 Days to a Healthier Church: A Step by Step Guide For Pastors & Leadership Teams by Karl Vaters. (©2020) Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.