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Strengthen: Lessons from the ‘no clutch shift’

Growing up around the farm in southwest Oklahoma provided many wonderful opportunities, including learning how to drive at any early age. While I’m not sure of the details of the transaction, my dad acquired my grandfather’s late 1960s Ford farm truck when I was a boy.  Because of the age and the condition of a well-used farm vehicle, they thought teaching a boy to drive it would not do any further damage.

The truck had a standard transmission with a “three on the tree” shift. I was amazed that my grandfather could shift gears without using the clutch at times and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. When I tried for the first time, I brought the truck to a lunging stop.

Eventually I learned the trick, and by the time I stopped driving that old truck, I could shift pretty well. What I did not realize was that I learned a lesson that I could apply to what God would call me to do.

Leadership in the church is tricky (that may be the understatement of the year). I think it is particularly difficult because it involves leading change. Change is inevitable, and our natural tendency is to be resistant to change.

One of the skills that an effective pastor needs to develop is that ability to lead change. I think some of the lessons I took away from the “no clutch shift” are helpful in navigating the church through a season of change.  Here are a few:

First, take it slow. It took time to learn what I perceived to be the great skill of the “no clutch shift.” One of the observed mistakes that I often see pastors and church leaders make is trying to move too far, too fast. They often do not take the time to build the needed relationships that will create the “followship” for the change. There is also a tendency to go far with the change instead of taking a more incremental approach. The combination of too fast and too far can often cause a lunging stop that is detrimental to all involved.

Second, listen for the sound. I learned that when the engine of the truck was making a certain sound, it was time to shift. In order for the pastor to hear this sound, he has to have his heart tuned to the Lord and the church. Godly wisdom is often more about when we do something than what we do. The right thing done in the wrong timing can produce a grinding of the gears in the church. A wise pastor will walk humbly with the Lord and have his finger on the pulse of his congregation that will give him a greater sense of when to make the change.

Third, make it smooth. The “no clutch shift” could not be forced. It required a smooth and steady shift.  Pastors and churches often struggle with change because, at the very least, it feels forced. Sometimes the leaders have not taken the time to think and pray through the change before implementing. Sometimes the leaders have not thought past the initial moment or impact of the change with a plan to continue or complete it. Sometimes they simply force it when the timing is not right, and the conflict that results can be devastating. All can result in the change getting stuck and the church spinning its wheels. When you missed the shift in the farm truck you were stuck in neutral with the engine revving, and the truck going nowhere. Sadly, that describes what is happening in many churches today.

It is a great privilege and responsibility to lead in the church. It is a call to lead change for the glory of God. It will not be easy, but when done well, it is a blessing to all. I hope these lessons from the old farm truck help.

James Swain

Author: James Swain

James Swain is the Associate Executive Director for Church Relations, Oklahoma Baptists

View more articles by James Swain.

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