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The Parable of the Cruise Line

Do Healthy Church initiatives even apply to small congregations and fellowship groups?

By Tim Sitterley, US Regional Director West, and Dan Rogers, Pastor, Las Vegas, NV

Over the years I’ve learned that it is way too easy, when presenting new concepts and ideas, to talk all around the real questions. It’s also easy to presume everyone understands what you are trying to get across, and any resistance simply stems from a lack of understanding. Unfortunately, when you take this approach, you occasionally fail to see that your listeners fully understand WHAT you are presenting, they just don’t see HOW it is relevant to them.

This became the case in a recent regional townhall Zoom discussion on the denomination’s healthy church initiatives. In the middle of the conversation a pastor presented this statement. “After listening to all this, I don’t see why I’m even here?”

He went on to point out how small his congregation was, that they were mostly elderly members, and that he was feeling discouraged by all the expectations that the denomination seemed to have placed on him and his congregation. He couldn’t see how concepts like team-based/pastor led and avenue champions, nor the recently released job description had any relevance to the six to ten members who showed up each week.

Before I could come up with what might have been a suitable answer, Dan Rogers (retired US Church Administration Director and now lead pastor in our Las Vegas congregation) stepped in with an analogy between a cruise ship and a small fishing boat. The comparisons of intent vs application that he presented resonated with not only the discouraged pastor, but with the entire group. So I asked Dan to flesh out his story, and I present it to you.

The Parable of the Cruise Line

There was a cruise ship line that had huge cruise ships that carried many hundreds of passengers along with large crews and staffs on each ship. The cruise line also operated some much smaller boats that were for day cruises and sightseeing excursions.

The cruise line decided it would be wise to publish regulations and guidelines for the safe and effective operation of its fleet. With the help of planning, safety, and efficiency experts, along with a team of attorneys knowledgeable in maritime law, the cruise line produced a 500-page manual of requirements and instructions for its fleet. 

The manual was distributed to all the captains of the cruise line’s vessels. The captains were instructed to inform their crew and staff of the regulations and guidelines and see that they were implemented on their ships.

One of the ships owned and operated by the cruise line was a small vessel that was used for day cruises and sightseeing excursions. The vessel, the S.S. Minnow operated with a captain, a crew of one, and carried up to five passengers.

When the captain of the Minnow received the manual and read through it, his first thought was, “This is ridiculous! The heads of the cruise line don’t know us and don’t understand us. We can’t possibly implement all these things laid out in this manual. These guidelines just don’t fit our situation.” The captain felt very discouraged. “Maybe I should just give up,” he thought. “Maybe I should just resign from the cruise line and go off on my own.”

Then it occurred to him. In addition to legal requirements that applied to all sea-going vessels, the manual did offer some great principles and ideas for safe and effective operation that the Minnow might be able to use. While not all (or even many of) the instructions could be implemented exactly as stated, still there were some valuable ideas and guidance offered. He thought to himself, “I think we could adapt these principles and ideas into our context and make the Minnow a safer and more effective ship.” 

The captain began to think about some of the guidelines that were given in the manual and how they might apply in his and the Minnow’s context:

Further training required? Well, we all need ongoing training, even me and my “little buddy” crewman. We want to give our customers the best experience possible, so we constantly need to improve in our jobs. And even though we have lots of experience, there are always new things to learn.

Mandatory safety requirements for all ships? We do care about our customers’ safety so we all should be wearing life vests, even the captain and crew. My little buddy and some passengers may not like that, but it is a requirement that is wise and necessary for their own safety.

A script of required announcements is to be made by all captains prior to beginning each cruise. I like making up my own announcements. But following the set of standard announcements for all ships is unifying for the fleet. It also makes sure each ship covers the necessary safety regulations for each cruise. I can always add my own comments to the announcements as I feel they are appropriate and needed for my ship. I can see that covering those necessary safety regulations each trip as the cruise line dictates is very important. We certainly don’t want to end up shipwrecked on some uncharted desert isle!

As far as the instruction to have teams and team leaders for different jobs, it’s just me and my little buddy as the crew so we are going to have to do double duty on some things, assist each other in various areas, and maybe we could even get some of the passengers to volunteer to help out. They might even enjoy that.

What about the requirement to have complementary meal food service on each cruise?  We can’t offer a dining room, a chef, a kitchen, or a buffet but, it is a great idea to offer a free picnic lunch to our passengers. All we need is a picnic basket with some sandwiches and beverages since we are just out to sea for a three-hour cruise.

The captain concluded:

I think I get the point. Why are we here? What is our mission? No matter the size of the ship, the size of its crew, or the number of passengers on board, the idea is that all our customers and our crew have a safe and enjoyable time at sea. As captain, what I first need to do is make sure all legal requirements are followed. Then I need to apply in my context the principles, not necessarily all of the exact details, given in the instructions. When I successfully do that, the cruise line’s purpose and mission will be accomplished. We will have a safe and happy crew and safe and happy customers, and that’s what we all want.

Upon this realization, the captain exclaimed, “We can do this!”

(And so he did, and they all lived happily ever after.)

The End.

I believe that Dan’s story put congregational size into the proper perspective. Mike Rasmussen made the statement publicly that he believes a congregation of a pastor and three active members could implement a team-based/pastor-led structure, and could appoint faith, hope and love avenue champions. I know many eyes glazed over at that comment, but as Dan points out, the healthy church initiatives apply to the fellowship group of four just as clearly as they apply to a congregation of forty. It’s the implementation that will naturally look different.

And to the pastor or fellowship group facilitator out there who may be asking the same question “Why am I even here?”, I hope and pray that Dan’s little parable will give them clarity of what we are asking of them, and the clear understanding and acceptance that…no matter how small…they can do this!

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