Pam and I went to the beach last week for vacation. For five days we forgot all about our usual responsibilities and instead listened to the roar of the surf, played in the waves and read books under an umbrella. We had a great getaway and I realized—not for the first time—how a week at the beach may be a better investment than a year of therapy.
On Wednesday (I think it was Wednesday but at the beach I lose track) something happened that caught me by surprise, not just because it was a new experience but because of the larger meaning it had for me as a pastor.
A man showed up carrying a large case; opened it near the water where the wind was strongest; and pulled out a bunch of kites attached to one another in an odd combination of frames, strings and tails.
When he got the whole thing assembled I counted twelve kites attached to one another and dyed in a coordinated spectrum. Starting from deep blue the kites were colored in progressively lighter shades of green fading on to yellow. A festive ribbon streamed from each tail. At one end a harness connected the assembly to two guide lines that looked to be made of strong fishing line; they were invisible from a distance but strong enough to secure the kites even in a strong wind. The lines in turn ran to two spools with handles. The man held one in each hand.
When it was all put together, the man—I’ll call him the handler—laid the contraption on the sand, backed off about one hundred feet and took the handles in his hands. With a twitch of his wrists he pointed the kites’ noses up just enough to catch the wind coming off the breakers. Before my startled eyes realized what was happening, the kites jumped from the ground like a flock of gulls and soared into the wind. The video I took at the time wouldn’t load on the blog, so here’s a YouTube video of the same kind of 12-stack kites that I’m talking about:
It was one most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed. From my vantage point just a short distance away, I couldn’t see the handler or the lines he held in his hands. All that was visible were the brightly-hued kites dancing in the summer sky.
And did they ever dance! They shot straight up; they dropped like a stone; they swirled in lazy curly-ques. The kites would change directions without warning, swooping from right to left to up and down with the streamers marking their course like a wake in the air. I could hear their fabric flapping in syncopation with their movement: softer when higher up then louder as they dived toward the earth. They would fall to within a few feet of the sand and hover motionless for a few moments like a helicopter about to land then rise so quickly it took my breath away.
A group of children gathered, laughing and pointing at the sheer joy of it all. They were even more excited when the kites came so near that they were able to reach up and touch the cloth. Then the handler tweaked the line and the kites leaped back into the wind, the streamers lingering just long enough for the kids to feel them slip through their grasp like a dream.
There was such joy, such wild imaginative designs in the kites’ flight that I was mesmerized and could have watched it for hours.
Then I realized it wasn’t just the kites that caught my attention. There was something more to it. Ok, so I’m a preacher and I tend to see lots of ordinary experiences as examples of ministry. But this was no ordinary experience. In fact, the flight of the kites was for me a startling metaphor for pastoral leadership in modern America, and as I watched the scene unfold I could feel much of the tension and fatigue I had brought with me to the beach drain away. The flight of the kites taught me something crucial about church leadership at the very moment I needed most to know.
The three pieces to the experience seemed to me to reflect the three crucial components of pastoral work. First there were the kites dancing in the air. Second was the handler, the one responsible for the kites’ movement. Finally, there was the wind that made the whole scene possible.
The kites were the most visible portion of the scene. They were connected together in such a way that even though each was a different color, their individual shades all were coordinated to a single spectrum. There was a purpose to their variations. The harness that bound them together made their flight possible. Without it, they would have floated off in different directions.
The parallels with how the Bible describes church were hard to miss. Unity in diversity; connectedness verses individualism. Churches embody those very characteristics, or should.
The kites’ handler was harder to pick up. From any distance you had to look hard to find his figure standing on the sand. His presence was more subtle than I would have thought, and the main thing he did was to hold onto the guidelines and direct the kites in whatever direction the wind would allow.
He was a leader in the same way pastors are leaders, or should be. Congregations put pastors into place in order to provide voice and direction for the church as a whole. It’s a vital position and one that all pastors take seriously. At the same time, though, our task by necessity keeps us in the background, just like the kites’ handler. All we really do is hold the lines that keep the congregation in correct alignment and position. In our day of celebrity pastors and secular leadership techniques masquerading as pastoral leadership, the image of a pastor as an anonymous figure standing in the background isn’t something many of want to embrace.
But the main thing I learned on the beach wasn’t about the kites or the handler. What I realized with such clarity was the central place of the wind. The wind drove everything. Without it, the kites would never have flown and the handler would have had no reason to be there. Everything I observed on the beach was designed to simply capture the power of the wind blowing in from the sea. The kites had no other purpose than to soar in the wind. The handler had no other task than to put the kites in the correct position to capture the wind’s power.
The wind, of course, is the Holy Spirit, who calls the church into existence and anoints pastors to their task. The Holy Spirit allows churches to soar and pastors to function. Apart from the divine wind, neither churches nor pastors can fulfill their purpose.
Pastors today struggle with leadership. We’ve become effective in accomplishing our own agenda and promoting our own brand—but the cost has been that our churches have lost the capacity to soar in the wind of the Spirit. What I saw on the beach was a different kind of leadership, one more humble about the role of the pastor and more passionate about the priority of the church. A leadership—most of all—that recognizes the pastor’s main task is to capture the power of the wind.