Bob the Bootmaker - a Parable

Bob the bootmaker finally graduated from boot-making school and boy could he make a lovely pair of boots. He went happily home to his family, waving his boot-making certificate.

"And guess what?" He asked his wife. And then, without waiting for her reply, "the principal called me in and told me that he's found me a leadership position at a great boot-making factory training all the other boot-makers."

His wife was overjoyed. "But it gets better still" Bob said. "They have a flat attached to the boot-making factory which we get rent-free as part of the salary package."

Within weeks Bob and his family were packed up, moved to the boot factory and happily settled in the new flat. (Being totally honest, it was a little too close to the factory and Bob's wife secretly wondered if it would mean he was never really off duty).

Bob spent a couple of weeks familiarising himself with the factory floor, the leather tanning rooms and the staff. One thing nagged at him - he didn't see a huge number of boots being made. "But of course" he reasoned "that's because they've been waiting for their boot-making trainer to arrive. We'll soon see that change."

At the end of his honeymoon period Bob decided it was time to swing into action. He called a meeting of all the staff and laid out how he intended to begin the new boot-making training. Only to be met with confused, slightly awkward silence. He pressed on through to the end of the meeting with the enthusiasm of a new leader. "They clearly don't quite get me yet. That's understandable, I've only just arrived. It will all change as they learn to trust me", he reasoned.

But the following day the three next most senior people in the factory asked for a meeting. "How did you feel the meeting went yesterday?" they asked, seemingly non-committally.

"Pretty well" I thought. "I know I'm new and need to get to know people, but we will have everyone trained and making great boots in no time, just you see. This is going to be a boot factory to be proud of!"

The three shuffled and looked at each other nervously. Finally one took the lead. "You see, the thing is Bob, we think there may have been some miscommunication. None of the rest of us are actually boot-makers".

That made Bob sit up. "What do you mean, you aren't boot-makers?"

"Just that. We aren't boot-makers. We don't make boots. We aren't qualified to make boots."

"Ah, I see. Lack of confidence. But that's why I'm here - to train everyone. Just let me at it and everyone will become a confident boot-maker."

"We're really sorry Bob, but you seem to have got the wrong end of the stick. We weren't told that you were being sent here to train us as boot-makers. We were told that you were coming to make all the boots. That's why you're here." And then, with an encouraging smile, "we are your backroom people. We'll find the cash for you to make all the boots. We clean the factory and are sure the machinery works. Oh, and one more thing, the company global headquarters has given the three of us responsibility for doing your performance reviews."

"But don't you see that 100 trained boot-makers are going to make many more boots than just one person doing it for them?" Bob gasped.

"That's just not the way it works" came the reply. "You're the boot-maker. You are the one with the boot-making qualification after all. There it is framed on your office wall."

Looking back later Bob realised he should have put his foot down, but he didn't. Reasoning that he would change the organisational culture eventually he just got on with making great boots. He did it alone but at least some boots were being made. So wonderful were the boots that the factory staff started to buy them for themselves and recommended them to their friends. And so the orders piled in. If you looked from outside business seemed very good. Black boots, brown boots, high healed, mock crocodile skin, Bob could make them all. He was a great all-rounder.

As demand grew Bob worked longer and longer hours. His people constantly applauded and praised his dedication. He felt guilty that he was spending more and more days making boots late into the evening often not seeing his family from one day to the next. Finally he decided it was time to take some positive action so he went to see the college principal.

"Principal, things are going very well. Our output has grown and everyone wants our boots. But I can't keep up with demand. Please will you send me a colleague to help."

The principal was sympathetic. "We've all noted your great work, Bob. Well done. Your factory is a flagship." For a moment Bob glowed with satisfaction. It was short lived. The principal continued "however I'm afraid I have bad news. While your factory is doing well many others in the group are not. In fact we're in deep financial difficulty. Not only can I not send you a colleague but I have no choice but to ask you to take a pay cut. I'm so sorry. It's no indication of the high regard in which you are held, it's just facing reality."

"But that money was what we needed for a deposit on a place of our own" Bob said.

"I know, in know," the principal murmured, clearly distressed. "But that's the way it is. It's that or nothing."

Bob left disturbed and distressed. His next port of call was his management trio. They were distressed for him about the pay cut and the lack of a colleague and deeply sympathetic. "That's hefty burden. How will you manage to keep things ticking along?" they asked. "We all really love what you are doing. Great job, Bob!" Bob simply didn't know how to answer.

There was a silence.

"Actually we have some good news" the team announced. We love this factory and your leadership so much that we've all decided to buy stock in it. It's clearly a flagship place. And we've encouraged everyone else to do so as well. So as well as being your team and your encouragers we are your employers as well. Isn't that great news? Such a close relationship!"

Bob took a risk: "I've decided to take young Bill under my wing. I think he could make a great assistant. I can train him and he will help take some of the burden off me."

"We don't know about that, Bob," they replied. "We love young Bill, don't get us wrong, but he doesn't make boots like you do. You're the one employed to make the boots. You have the qualification and you make such good boots."

For the first time in his boot-making career - Bob disobeyed. He took on Bill anyway. But it didn't last. The criticism was low-level but constant and wearing "Bill's boots aren't black enough. Bill doesn't make boots that last as long as yours. Bill isn't trained. Bill isn't the people person you are. Many people are saying that Bill might be better elsewhere."

Bill got the message and decided he really wasn't called to boot-making.

Bob laboured away, he and his family getting more and more discouraged. Occasionally he was bouyed up by a compliment about the boots but more often than not it was criticism that came his way for not making more, not making to order, not fulfilling the demands of each and every one of his new bosses. "I want green ones, make green ones. I want ankle boots, this should be a factory for brown ankle boots. No, thigh length. No let's stop making boots altogether and diversify into a range of other leather products."

"And Bob, we see you so little now. You used to be so personable. You used to share yourself with us. Your wife used to be so committed to the boot-making but now we aren't sure her heart is really in it. Don't you want transparent authentic relationships? You do like us, don't you?"

Eventually Bob could take it no more and packed it in. Not knowing where he and his family would go or what they would do he nevertheless decided that any other option was better than being trapped any longer in the boot factory. He was good at what he did but the situation had become unsustainable, inescapable and un-negotiable. There was clear blue water between what he thought the job would be and the expectations of everyone else. And those expectations turned out to be unchangeable, at least by him.

One day, a little while later, Ben, a newly graduated boot-making trainer, was summoned to the principal's office. "Well done on your graduation. I have excellent news for you. A post has recently become vacant in one of our factories for an aspiring young boot-making trainer. You can train all the other boot makers. It's a great opportunity. The factory has made some of our best boots under its previous management. It even comes with its own flat, rent free, as part of the salary package."

Benny went home with eyes shining to tell his family the good news.

(Never, ever let what happened to Bob (and to Bill, and probably to Ben) happen to any boot-making trainers you know or who come to serve in a factory near you).

Diaries, Wisdom and Spiritual Healthiness

If you are a pastor or some other kind of Christian leader would you say that you drive your schedule or that your schedule drives you? How much control do you exercise over external demands and expectations?

Furthermore, what does your schedule do for you? Does it function to facilitate organisation and activity or Sabbath, spiritual life and wisdom? If you are anything like me you tend to use it for the former rather than the latter. It is very telling that my diary organises my meetings and appointments rather than my spiritual life. I don’t know many people who use it for both, or indeed for spiritual life.

Our diaries describe our normalised patterns of life. And and normal patterns or habits reveal what’s most important to us. Its worth looking carefully at our diary to see what it reveals about our spiritual walk with God. How can we use them to help us live lives of quality and depth rather than massive running around.

Our diaries might show we are really good at organisation. Many pastors juggle a huge number of difference commitments and people with amazing multitasking skills. But what would a diary look like that schedule enough space for praying, worshipping and seeking God? What would a diary look like that is being used well to produce a spiritual life of quality? As the Bible says, like a tree planted by streams of water whose roots go very deep?

Most pastors I know work up to the limit of their capacity pretty much all the time. They believe - rightly - that it is good to work hard for the Lord in the service of the gospel. But many struggle with the sheer subjectivity that plagues so much of the work. It is very difficult in pastoral ministry to know when you have done enough or to evaluate whether it is good or bad work. The frequent answer is simply to do more hoping that means it is better. This leads to living at the outside limit of capacity, with no margins, all the time. Of course it only takes an unexpected pastoral crisis or two to push us over the edge.

I’ve read a few books recently about Getting Things Done time management principles. They all work with the idea that working efficiently frees up more time, reducing exhaustion and providing space. The trouble of Getting Things Done material for pastors is that it assumes there is a finite workload that can simply be managed better. If we perceive there to be an infinite workload - or at least an impossibly large one - so that no amount of efficient working will ever free up time then there is no incentive to work efficiently. Any time freed up will always immediately get refilled. The demand perpetually exceeds supply and eliminating the truly unnecessary is difficult because there is always a real person on the other end of it.

I think the answer is to use the diary to demarcate the spiritual input part of our lives before we put in other things. To prioritise life with God before meetings and to normalise sabbath, prayerfulness and worship. And space for thinking. Wisdom is a by-product of seeking the Lord with faith and fear. And seeking the Lord is a product of deliberately making space to do so.

We get spiritual input from one of 5 places:

  1. Directly from God
  2. Care that we do for ourselves or in small groups of friends
  3. Within our church or ministry environment
  4. From wider networks, for example at conferences
  5. From specialist pastoral carers

What is your mechanism or system for ensuring you are getting appropriate spiritual input in each of these areas (or at least 1-4)? What is your lifestyle in each? How do you use your diary for each? Or what is stopping you and what will you do about it? Note that number 4 alone will not sustain you if 1-3 aren’t working for you.

Over the weekend I spent a few hours with a man who builds networks for pastoring pastors in Latin America. For him the key was accountable groups of friends who deliberately, intentionally pastor each other. I wish everyone in pastoral ministry would have a group like that. But whether you choose that method or some other, we all need some accountable system for maintaining spiritual vitality whether it one to one, in a small group or some wider context. Without it eventually running out of steam is practically inevitable and with it goes our discipleship, wisdom, worship and the ability to do the job. When our discipleship dries up we can’t fulfill our pastoral calling either.

Ministry can be so busy that there are potentially an uncontrollably large number of inputs into our lives. And it is so people-oriented that a large number of those inputs lead to situations that remain open loops rather than leading to closure. Allow an ever increasing number of inputs and open loops and life eventually overwhelms us. We start to run just to stay standing still and eventually we can’t sustain it any more. Our diaries can be a critical tool for a wise, God-directed life if we use them to help us be proactive, not reactive, about our life-choices and spiritual-life-choices.

Ministry and Healthy Spiritual Life

Everyone in the church would like a relationship with the pastor. And that’s a good thing, right? Leading the flock is inherently relational. Its hard to speak the gospel into people’s lives where you have no personal connection.

How many people do you think a pastor can have a meaningful relational connection with? 10? 50? 100? At what point does a church grow beyond the ability of its pastor to maintain those relationships at a meaningful depth? If they or the church continue to expect the same level of connection after that point as they enjoyed before surely that is a recipe for destructive patterns sooner or later?

The difficulty is that many pastors don’t know how or when to say “no”. And many churches expect them to work right up to capacity all the time (while not actually knowing where the line of realistic maximum capacity is). The point at which church growth means the pastor can no longer have meaningful contact with everyone is not only the point where those pastors are at their most stretched it is also the point where criticism starts to rise. Previously people enjoyed and valued having a piece of you. Now they clamour for a piece of you they can’t have but feel they have a right to.

Criticism - real or perceived (”don’t they know how much I am doing for them?” (no, they really don’t!)) - has a nasty habit of coming when we have least emotional resources to deal with it constructively. It’s easy to cave in and continue to try to satisfy all the demands. It feels easier than renegotiating expectations. However over a period our sense of who we are starts to be determined not by relationship to God but by multiply, competing, unfulfillable demands from everyone in the church. Our sense of achievement - so difficult to define in Christian ministry at the best of times - starts to be defined by how well people tell us we are doing at satisfying their requests rather than our enjoyment of being in Christ.

Add to this the collapse of clear boundaries and ministering always at the edge of capacity has the potential to seriously disrupt a healthy sense of identity. As one assistant minister put it to me recently “nobody at my training college told me that when you work for a church your work, non-work, church life, family life and leisure-time which were previously distinct now all become blurred.” The identity markers that function for most people - work, accomplishments, life-boundaries, family - can simply stop working for pastors and their families.

But we live from our identity. We pastor from our identity. We minister out of the overflow of a healthy spiritual life with God. It is ironic that church life and growth can itself be the thing that damages the spiritual life of leaders. But it is remarkably common - perhaps inevitable - where there are no healthy mutual expectations of what leaders should and should not do, that we need to receive as well as give, rest as well as work. It is critical for churches to find ways to help their pastors live in Christ.

Whenever I visit another church as a guest speaker I like to ask whether they know who feeds the people who feed them. I don’t need to know the answer - I know what it will be before I ask (”no”). The church assumes it pastors are themselves being fed, but they don’t know that they are. The assumption is almost always wrong. The result is that pastors and their spouses can easily be the least spiritually fed people in the church. Their spiritual outgoings constantly outweigh their spiritual incomings. They feed others, nobody feeds them. They are the focus of the hopes of a large number of people. When they fail to deliver they can become the sole focus of all the criticism of a large number of people. On the occasions when it all goes wrong they can become isolated, often without mechanisms for negotiation or redress at the point where they are also spiritually running on empty.

Hence the Hebrews 13:17 command to churches is critical for the health of pastors and of their churches:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority because they keep watch over you as those who must give account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you

Make pastors’ work a joy because pastors who have lost their joy in God and in the church through unfulfillable demands, criticism and perpetual overwork no longer pastor well. The Bible says their job is to work for people’s progress and joy in the Lord. It is a wise church that finds ways to work with them for their own progress and joy because it is out of that centre that all good pastoring flows.

6 Factors in Bringing Christ-Centred Change

Over time churches can become quite change-averse communities. There are some positives to that of course - stability is important in any family. But sooner or later an aversion to change will prevent any community carrying out its purpose. People will join because they like it as it is at present not in order to join themselves to a vision for the future. They invest a large part of themselves in creating something they like and enjoy. Structures, activities and expectations build up over time until you get a mismatch between the church’s purpose - reaching its area with the gospel - and the structures that are meant to assist it. Maybe they were good 25 years, but they aren’t now and they aren’t easy to change.

Churches can suffer from inertia in the following ways:

  • Individual inertia: Individual self-interest, and self-perception about why I am here
  • Structural inertia: Activities are perceived to be the essence that makes church attractive rather than gospel vision; outdated but unchangeable structures and strategies from a previous age
  • Vision inertia: Lack of clarity of purpose
  • Leader inertia: Factors that make leaders unwilling or unable to lead

All of which are likely to demotivate change and to paralyze. 

Read More