Rev. Jodie Flessner takes lessons learned while sailing and finds parallels to our life of faith. Can we let go and trust the winds of the Holy Spirit to raise up faithful leaders in the church?
Superintendent, Northern Waters District
This past weekend signaled my beginning of summer, the weekend that I got my sailboat into the water. It’s a small 1977 Sunfish, just shy of 14 feet long, comfortably holding 1 or 2 people.
With the sounds of waves and wind, I can go back and forth for hours on the small lake I’ve been sailing for over 40 years. The rhythm, the familiarity, and the occasional heeling at high speeds as the sailboat balances to not tip over—all of this deeply relaxes me.
Truth be told, I likely wouldn’t be sailing these days without my friends’ teenage son. The boat had been under a tarp in the barn for almost a decade when Austin stumbled upon it. “Is that the boat you and my mom used to sail with your friends?” I confirmed it was, and he asked if we could take it out. He had learned to sail at Boy Scout camp and was eager to hone his skills.
I had all kinds of excuses, including the fact that the mice had taken bits of the nylon sail to line their nests. By dinner time, Austin had found sail repair tape online, and promised to fix the rudder, wax the centerboard, and wash and wax the boat before I came back to the lake in a couple weeks. He sent me updates while I was away. When the sail tape arrived, he and I patched it up as neatly as we could.
I took Austin out sailing a few times to confirm that he knew the basics and show him how to get a feel for the ever-changing wind. Soon Chris, his younger brother, also wanted to join in.
As I don’t live at the lake, and the boys do, it wasn’t long before I had to decide if I trusted them to take my boat out on their own. I wasn’t concerned about their safety; they knew how to respect the water. I was concerned that their tactics were much more daredevil than mine ever had been. They were also prone to trying new ways of sailing, often in direct contradiction to the tried-and-true ways of sailing that I had been taught by my father and sought to pass on to them.
Through sailing I have learned to trust the wind. I’ve learned to read it, respond to it, navigate with it. I trust that it will pick up when its dull, and it will calm down when it gets a bit wild. I am confident I can roll with it, and I also know when to stay ashore.
Trusting the wind has deepened my ability to trust in the winds of the Holy Spirit. Sailing is a tangible example of listening and responding to something outside myself, something much more powerful and expansive. Years of sailing have reinforced my trust in the winds of God’s promised presence we hear about in the Acts 2 account of Pentecost.
While sailing this weekend, I wondered if I would place the same trust in the next generations of Christian leadership. Christ’s church has often been symbolized as a boat or a ship. It gave me a bit of pause to trust Austin and Chris with my boat. I wonder how much I (or we) hesitate to trust “new” Christians, “young” Christians with the Church. Yes, those of us who have been “doing church” and “being the church” for decades have skills and wisdom to share. And it’s always hard to trust something we love to someone else. We know someone new at the helm will try some things that will seem reckless, some things that we “know won’t work,” and many things which will fall into the “that’s not the way we do things” category.
And yet over the past 3 years as DS, I have been amazed by churches’ ability to adapt to ever-changing winds as we have navigated COVID-19, denominational decisions, and a culture that has been shifting away from organized religion for years. The churches that have fared the best are the ones that have tried new things and navigated to get the most forward movement from the shifting winds. They are also the churches where all generations of leadership are working together toward the same goal, keeping their eyes on God’s kingdom.
I know that I am simply reiterating what has been affirmed again and again from the best practitioners in revitalization and church growth. Sure, there are indeed times and places for sharing my experience and wisdom, but there are far fewer than I imagine. I have learned that I must be willing to genuinely give up control and trust the Holy Spirit, the Holy Breath that guides me, to guide others of faith as well.
I also know in the depths of my soul that if we don’t trust others to sail this boat, to lead this Church we love, it will end up covered by a dusty tarp in the barn with the sails that once responded to the wind nibbled away by mice.