These are the forklifts I regularly drive at three locations for my place of employment. Take a look at them. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Beyond the obvious cosmetic differences, there are others hidden from view of these photos, not least the controls, the unique characteristics of handling, the environments in which they are operated, the payloads they are required to handle, plus the specific safety features on each one. So take a look. Make a note of what you perceive. I would like to walk us through an examination of forklifts and warehouses as a metaphor for ministry. Having worked in warehouses professionally for over twenty years (much of that time was spent in floorcovering, wholesale and retail), I believe there are some concepts to be gleaned by making observations about the industry as it relates to ministry.
Warehouse tasks and the forklifts that enable so much of the labor to be done effectively are an interesting breed. I have worked in and visited many warehouses over the years. They vary in size, scope, complexity, purpose, personnel, technology, atmosphere, safety protocols, leadership structure, and so on. Some are quite sophisticated and rival clean rooms due to their pristine appearance. Others look like a tornado hit, with workers walking about in a daze, wondering where to find product.
The warehouses I work in fall somewhere between these two extremes. There is a unique culture in each, largely due to differences in personalities, size and management styles.
The forklifts vary as well, so let’s start by pointing out a few key similarities and differences.
Similarities between these forklifts: They all have four rubber tires, a protective roll cage, a lift mast, an attachment to the mast, although the attachments vary in size and function, a start key, forward/reverse mechanisms, steering wheels, electric power, excelerators, brakes, tilt gears, lift gears (all but one have side shift capacity), very large batteries which also serve as a counterweight feature, seats, fire extinguishers, lift/tilt/sideshift gears to the right of the steering columns, plus a number of less notable common features. You get the idea. These are all forklifts. They look like forklifts. They drive like forklifts. They function like forklifts. Yesiree, they are forklifts. But, if they are all forklifts, why are some of them so vastly different in performance, capability, technical specification, sophistication, and functional nuance than their counterparts? It reminds me of churches. From a distance, so many churches look the same, but upon closer examination, moving beyond broad common forms, there are worlds of difference. More on that in a moment.
Differences between some of these forklifts:
The first photo depicts a Hyster. It is used at our main corporate location to move skids of ceramic, granite, wood and laminate, among other things. It has four foot long forks which can be outfitted with six foot extender sleeves, if necessary. It is a solid workhorse, not unlike its Hyster counterpart in the fourth photo below, which is located at our smaller warehouse location, where I primarily work. Yet they are different. The second Hyster has identical controls to the first, with the forward/reverse mechanism located on the foot pedal and with similar performance in terms of lift capacity. Yet they feel difference with regard to responsiveness. It is something intrinsic to their unique usage histories and current work environments. The first hyster is used far more extensively, whereas the second is used minimally. The first gets more use in one day than the second gets in one week, or even two. Smaller warehouse. Different level of intensity. Both have value for their environments, but the requirements on them differ. Isn’t this so much like churches? Small churches are not better or worse than large churches due to their size. They simply have a difference set of expectations at that point in their histories. Those of us in small churches would do well to remember that when talking about the differences. Perhaps this might be true of folks in large churches as well. Yoda was very much correct. “Size matters not.” If you don’t believe me, investigate the Brooklyn Tabernacle and ask yourself how such a small church can have such a large impact. They are not the only ones. So, whether large or small, God has a purpose for your church which far exceeds missionally what you are currently doing. This is true for my church. The churches in our neighborhood. Your church. Even the really, exceptionally creative and effective churches which already have made an international impact for God’s glory. Yes, God would even have them increase their missional impact. While we can celebrate God’s victories in the past, we should never sink into self-satisfaction, which is one portent of ministry decline. Imagine that. Notice that I said missional impact rather than membership size. The two do not always walk hand-in-hand.
The second photograph shows a Halton m500, a great smooth ride which is used at our corporate location for moving carpet and large rolls of vinyl. The forward/reverse is operated by a lever on the left hand side of the steering column. The pedals are for braking and excelerating. It does sport separate right hand controls for tilt, lift and side shift respectively. It has a three stage lift capacity, as opposed to the two Hysters which are only two stage, and thus cannot lift material as high. It reminds me of churches which are uniquely gifted and postured to make a broader community impact, not necessarily because of their size, but more often because of the giftedness of their leadership and members and the opportunity which God has deposited before them for specific purposes. Their value is not any greater than churches which do not garner as much attention, but God has given them an opportunity and responsibility to utilize their gifts in focused ways to share Jesus’ love to their communities and around the world. Ask yourself, is your church being used to the fullness of potential which God has given you? Are you personally being used of God in this way? If not, why not?
You will notice that there are two Yales in the third and fifth photos, the first located at our corporate warehouse as a third backup lift, second located at another large store, with its larger six foot long forks. These two lifts are the largest in size and weight lifting capacity. They are workhorses beasts really. Unlike some of the other lifts, there is nothing subtle about these machines. They are noisy, but effective when a very large payload needs to be handled. The three and four stage lifts used for carpet are much slicker, more glamerous, and frankly more fun to drive. These two lifts are harder to drive with respect to being larger, especially within narrow spaces. The orange and white colored lift in the sixth photo is just the opposite. It is the sports car in a fleet of average workhorses. While the other lifts use eight foot long stingers for carpet, this one uses a ten foot long stinger on a four stage lift mast. It smoothly lifts payloads up to twenty feet high with flair and nuance. Forward/reverse is located on the left hand lever on the column. However, the tilt/lift are ALL on one single lever on the right hand. Only one. The gear functions diagonally. Diagonal left/up/down is tilt up or down and diagonal right up/down is lift up or down. The sideshift is on a second lever. This is something to be mastered before lifting 2,500 lbs twenty feet in the air in dim warehouse with people walking all around gawking.
Although this lift really is the favorite ride among them all, at least for me, it is also one that bears enormous responsibility due to the complex high capacity environment in which it operates and the volume of work expected. So, it also is a workhorse in its own right. It reminds me of the jealousy I sometimes perceive among people concerning churches of greater means. Yes, they may have greater means in certain respects. But with that comes greater responsibility. We would do well to think less about what others have in comparison to what we do not have. Rather, we should focus on who God is and what he is doing in our midst, rejoicing that he is working uniquely in other environments, but asking ourselves and God what might he be up to in our situations, specifically with regard to how we might respond to his heart, his mission, his purposes.
Working in all three of these environments, with their varied management styles and cultures has been a learning experience for me. It reminds me once again that the managed laborer (that would be me) transitions into being a defacto manager, just to keep the respective managers on the same page. That is to say, I have to take pains to remind them of when I am coming and going so that their competing priorities do not cause unfortunate conflicts for me or them. Likewise, I have to document everything, as I always do anyway, so that as I am working in the respective locations, I can better recall specific work related situations concerning customers, receiving records and so on. Of course, they expect me to memorize it all. But with three sites, it just isn’t possible to remember every salesperson’s orders on demand. Documentation helps often, but not always.
Leadership of churches would do well to remember the complex array of responsibilities placed upon their children’s pastors. They are expected to be a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people. Even I, as a part-time children’s pastor am on the clock when I am at the church campus on the weekend or during the week just to attend worship. The mere fact that I am present mean I am on the job and people treat me accordingly (not badly-usually-just accordingly with respect to my role), which is fine. I have learned to cope with it. I am, however, very grateful to my pastor and our congregation which has loved me, supported me, encouraged me, even to the extent of saying, we want you to get your rest and refreshment too. My church is so awesome. I have to tell you, why would I want to leave for a more financially lucrative situation when I have a church already that not only says they love me, they show it in practical ways? Why would I want to “upgrade professionally” as some have suggested I need to do, when I am living out my heart’s desire missionally? The only reason I would leave is if God clearly directs me to do so. And it would be demonstrated in terms of mission, not compensation package.
Unfortunately, not every children’s pastor is blessed to be in a situation like mine. It is no small surprise that so many burn out, or transition out into new churches with great frequency. Frankly, I think the general system is broken. I think church leaders and their congregations often are unreasonable in their demands on one individual. Good grief, we expect them to be creative innovators, media gurus, professional therapists to children and their parents, multi-sport athletes, multi-skilled musicians, leadership tacticians, Las Vegas quality illusionists and thespians, mediation specialists, missionaries….well, you get the idea. I realize I am overstating the case, mostly. Sort of. Or am I? With increasing complexity in so many large and multi-site congregations, it is the children’s pastor’s responsibility to see that these needs are met in some form. Even if one person does have all these skills, there is not enough time in the day to do them! Yet the metrics used to guage ministry success is contingent on them. Attendance, salvations, baptisms, confirmations, etc. Where it becomes problematic is when the trends track downward. Imagine that, being disciplined because of a downward trend in attendance, especially when children are dependant on their parents to bring them, or on the church to pick them up and drive them in! So, add transportation secretary to the previous list.
Hopefully this spurs some conversation, but only in a positive way. I welcome your feedback, as always.