A Successful End (to Whatever You’re Doing) Starts by Beginning with Everything in Its Place

Part of a recurring series on 27gen: Chef Stories. Stories from the past, present, and future in my personal experience in various parts of the culinary world. This particular story is from a few years ago, when my son was entering his senior year at Johnson & Wales University in pursuit of a degree in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management. It’s the second part of a longer post begun last week.


In the last post, we saw “Poetry in Motion” by looking at efficiency. Today, it’s all about a successful end to whatever you’re doingby starting with everything in its place.

In the culinary world, it’s called “mis en place.”

French for “put in place”, this is what allows all the actions described yesterday to take place. It is the hours of work that start before the first meal is fired: washing, cutting, peeling, pre-cooking, weighing, portioning, and positioning of all the ingredients that go into the wonderful final product.

courtesy Rooster's Kitchen

courtesy Rooster’s Kitchen

Taken broadly, it is the slow simmering of the soups for the night; the baking and preparation of individual items that comprise the wonderful complexity of desserts. It even goes to the preparation of the wood fires that will later cook the wonderful meats that anchor the meal.

Mise en place doesn’t get any attention in the final review, but you wouldn’t have anything without it. It’s all those things that aren’t noticed till they’re not there. It’s the sauté chef reaching in the cooler knowing that he has all the right ingredients to prepare the dish just called out. It’s the pastry chef preparing 3 different kinds of ice cream for the desserts on the menu. It’s the fry chef making sure the oil is fresh and hot, ready for use. It’s the salad chef having everything ready to assemble a variety of salads from the same few ingredients, differing in presentation and dressing.

courtesy Rooster's Kitchen

courtesy Rooster’s Kitchen

It’s the dishwasher, knowing if he doesn’t get the dirty pans out and clean ones back, the whole kitchen grinds to a halt.

Mise en place is all about the knowing everything that is required to produce the finished meal, and making sure all the ingredients are ready to use when needed. It’s about thinking through things before they happen, so that when they happen, you’re one step ahead.

It’s all about being prepared.

Our evening at Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen was delightful on so many levels. The front of house staff were gracious in working with me to make sure we could have a front row seat to all the action; the wait staff were friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive; the chefs prepared wonderful food while displaying their skills to an audience.

But it was more than just a meal – it was a demonstration of excellence from top to bottom, one that any organization could learn from.

Whatever your end product is – a worship experience, sermon, leadership class, playtime with kids, etc.

…it all starts with making sure you have everything in its place before beginning.

Poetry in Motion: Efficiency Defined Through a Fine Dining Experience

Part of a recurring series on 27gen: Chef Stories. Stories from the past, present, and future in my personal experience in various parts of the culinary world. This particular story is from a few years ago, when my son was entering his senior year at Johnson & Wales University in pursuit of a degree in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management.


Recently my wife, youngest son, and I were treated to absolute poetry in motion. A group of trained professionals were executing their craft, each one knowing his specific responsibilities as well as supporting the rest of his team. Years of practice were evident in their graceful moves, focused intensity, and clarity of purpose. We had front row seats, and the show was excellent.

No, we weren’t watching a ballet or dance company, or an athletic event – we were eating dinner, celebrating a special occasion.

This was not just any restaurant, but Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen, where the “open kitchen” concept reigns.

Roosters3

courtesy of Rooster’s Kitchen

The kitchen is right in the center of the restaurant, and we had reservations in the prime observation spot – the Chef’s Counter – where all the action was just a few feet away.

The food was excellent: fresh ingredients, prepared in such a way to bring out the natural flavors, served by a warm and friendly wait staff. But this isn’t about the food, as good as it was. It’s about two fundamentals of the restaurant business that can be applied to your organization: efficiency and mise en place. Today let’s look at efficiency; next time, mise en place.

Rooster’s doesn’t have a large kitchen, but it is designed to function with efficiency. The sauté station anchors one half of the center; this is where constant motion is an understatement. Sauté is where the chef is juggling eight or ten pans at a time, making flames, making things jump.

Around the corner at the rear of the kitchen is the namesake of the restaurant: a wood fired grill and oven. The chef here grills all the meat dishes called out, sending them to the front to be paired with side dishes – some from the saute’ station, others from the other half of the kitchen center – the salad, soup, and fry station. To call these dishes “sides” is an injustice – any one of them (we had five among the three of us) could stand alone as a signature dish.

The front area is grand central station: here the expediter calls out the orders as they come in, checks on orders in progress, and makes the final touches as they head to the guest. The final touch is important – it may be the finishing touch of sauce, or a garnish, or a quick wipe of an errant splatter on the plate.

The corners of the kitchen: pastry chef, preparing delicacies to finish out a wonder dinner; meat chef, taking larger cuts prepared on the grill and finishing them to order; and the support staff, taking out dirty pans and bringing in clean ones and bowls, plates, cups and saucers for the chefs to cook and plate food.

A picture doesn’t do this justice – you would have to have a video camera to catch all the movement involved above. But I want to drive home the point:

courtesy of Rooster's Kitchen

courtesy of Rooster’s Kitchen

It’s all about efficiency: no wasted movement.

Everyone in the kitchen knew what was going on, what their job was, and how they can support the rest of the team as needed. The pastry chef would slip around the sauté station, helping the chef plate items as they came off the stove. Once, she literally held out a plate to her back, out of sight, and the chef plated the dish, while she was moving another one with her other hand.

The sauté chef helped out on the grill; the expediter helped out on saute’; the pastry chef started an item on the grill when that chef had to step away for a moment.

That is more than efficiency – it’s the solid work of a team that knows individual and team roles, to the point that they are one.

Can you say the same about the teams in your organization?

Coming Next Week: Part 2, A Successful End Starts with the Beginning

If You Want to Be a Coach, You’d Better Have a Whistle

Like many parents, my coaching career began with my own kids. First it was my oldest son (now 40) and Pee Wee Basketball. After a couple of years, I traded my tennis shoes for a pair of soccer cleats, and began a 10-year run coaching various levels of soccer teams for all 4 of my kids at one time or another, often multiple teams in the same year. When my youngest son (now 28) moved beyond my coaching skills and desires, it was time to retire and become a spectator.

Of the many lessons I learned as a coach, one stands out:

If you want to be a coach, you’d better have a whistle.

Imagine a group of 14 5-year olds, most who have never participated in any kind of organized sports. Add a beautiful spring day, a group of over-eager parents, and the child’s natural tendency to just want to kick the ball. Often jokingly referred to as “herd ball”, that’s what most kids’ introduction to soccer looked like.

Over a 10-year period, I coached 14 different teams, often 2 seasons a year. The teams went from beginning level soccer as 5 year olds to Challenge level for 12 year olds to Classic level for 18 year olds. Coaching both boys and girls of all ages and skill levels, with each one bringing their unique personality to the field, it was often challenging at best to coach.

Enter the whistle.

You may consider it a throwback to a different time, but I found it quite effective for all ages of players (and quite a few parents, too). It may have been unorganized chaos on the field to begin with, but after two sharp and loud blasts on the whistle, the players would stop what they were doing and give me their attention. What I did with their attention is another story, but it’s the sound of the whistle that is important here.

It stopped everyone from what they were doing and turned their attention to the coach.

You may not be a coach, but as a leader you have a room full of team members, often doing all kinds of different activities at once. When you need to get their attention, what do you do? How can you quickly and efficiently get their attention and make the best use of everyone’s time?

Leaders need a whistle, too. 

The difference between a great practice session and a good one – and often the difference between a great organization and a good one – is established in systems that allow your productive work to be obsessively efficient.

Great leaders step in with whistles – clear, distinctive signals – to make people’s practices efficient as possible – even in professional settings and even with adults.

How is time wasted in your organization? What can you do differently?

Maybe it’s time to buy a whistle…

inspired by Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better

The Discovery of DNA and the Meaning of Life

…or how individual intelligence led to second place

Sixty eight years ago this Sunday, on February 28, 1953, two scientists walked into their neighborhood pub in Cambridge England, ordered their drinks, and one of them announced to the patrons “We have found the secret to life.”

This was no lie – that morning, Cambridge University scientists James D. Watson and Frances H.C. Crick had discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, the biological material that carries life’s genetic information.

On the fiftieth anniversary of that discovery, Watson took part in an interview inquiring about the aspects of their work that had led them to solve the problem ahead of an array of other highly accomplished and recognized rival scientists.

Along with the expected answers – they identified the most important part of the problem, they were passionate about their work, they devoted themselves single-mindedly to the task, they were willing to attempt approaches outside their area of familiarity – came this surprise:

Watson said that he and Crick had cracked the elusive code for DNA primarily because they were not the most intelligent scientists pursuing the answer.

Watson went on to explain that the most intelligent person working on the project in those days was Rosalind Franklin, a British scientist working in Paris at the time. According to Watson:

Rosalind was so intelligent that she rarely sought advice. And if you’re the brightest person in the room, then you’re in trouble.

Watson’s comment describes exactly the error that many leaders in today’s organizations make: they believe that they are the best-informed, most-experienced, or most-skilled person in the group. They may be, but studies have repeatedly shown that the approaches and outcomes of groups who cooperate in seeking a solution are not just better than the average member working along, they are even better than the group’s best problem solver working alone.

Far too often, leaders – who by virtue of greater experience, skill, and wisdom, deem themselves the ablest problem solver in the group – fail to ask for input from team members.

  • Lone decision makers can’t match the diversity of knowledge and perspectives of a team
  • Input from others can stimulate thinking processes that wouldn’t develop on their own
  • Individual thinkers can’t parallel process – dividing parts of the problem among many members

Trying to discover the meaning of life? How about something much simpler, like a new funding initiative to increase service to one of your target groups? Or any problem facing your team?

Don’t forget the danger of being the brightest person in the room.

Do You Ever Feel Like You’re Living Out the Movie “Groundhog Day” at Your Church?

Groundhog Day is a celebration of an old tradition – Candlemas Day – where clergy blessed and distributed candles for winter, representing how long and cold winter would be.

Groundhog Day is also a 1993 movie starring Bill Murray that popularized the usage of “groundhog day” to mean something that is repeated over and over.

Many churches find themselves in their own version of groundhog day, living out a dream and vision that was once relevant, but now is long in the past. Unwilling or unable to face reality, they are simply repeating the past over and over.

27g020217fb-1

 

Church leaders who find themselves in this situation have an excellent resource in Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code by Sam Chand.

“Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code” offers a practical resource for discovering the deficits in an existing church’s culture and includes steps needed to assess, correct, and change culture from lackluster to vibrant and inspirational so that it truly meets the needs of the congregation.Cracking Your Church's Culture Code

The book includes descriptions of five categories of church culture (Inspiring, Accepting, Stagnant, Discouraging, and Toxic) as well as diagnostic methods (including a free online assessment) that church leaders can use to identify the particular strengths and needs of their church.

One particularly useful section of the book deals with the seven keys of CULTURE:

  • Control – it isn’t a dirty word; delegating responsibility and maintaining accountability are essential for any organization to be effective
  • Understanding – every person on a team needs to have a clear grasp of the vision, his or her role, the gifts of the team members, and the way the team functions
  • Leadership – healthy teams are pipelines of leadership development, consistently discovering, developing, and deploying leaders
  • Trust – mutual trust up, down, and across the organizational structure is the glue that makes everything good possible
  • Unafraid – healthy teams foster the perspective that failure isn’t a tragedy and conflict isn’t the end of the world
  • Responsive – teams with healthy cultures are alert to open doors and ones that are closing; they have a sensitive spirit and a workable system to make sure things don’t fall through the cracks
  • Execution – executing decisions is a function of clarity, roles and responsibilities, and a system of accountability

Understanding your church’s culture is not an easy task. Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code is a very helpful resource for the leader who wants to delve below the surface of church as usual and lead it to greater impact.

Leading Forward by Looking Back: The Leadership Lessons of Walt Disney

Courage is the main quality of leadership, in my opinion, no matter where it is exercised. Usually it implies some risk – especially in new undertakings. Courage to initiate something and to keep it going – pioneering and adventurous spirit to blaze new ways.   – Walt Disney

Walt Disney – and the company he founded in 1923 – was no stranger to adversity and even failure.

The setbacks, tough times, and even failures of Walt Disney are well-documented. In every case, he led the company bearing his name to greater success in spite of adversity.

Today is a sobering, disconcerting time to be a Cast Member of any Disney organization. In the last week I have had several conversations with both current and former Cast Members, and to a person, there has been one trait that stands out.

Optimism.

Even when it is hard to see in the increasing numbers of Cast Members laid off, the curtailment of operations, the postponement of work in progress, and the likely cancellation of future planning, optimism is the underlying strength of the Walt Disney Company.

So where did that come from?

Jim Korkis is a Disney historian and long-time writer and teacher about Walt Disney and the organization he created. Who’s the Leader of the Club: Walt Disney’s Leadership Lessons is a departure for Korkis in that his usual subject matter is about the culture and history of Disney, a topic which he is uniquely qualified to write about.

As a boy, he grew up grew up in Glendale, California, which just happened to be located next to Burbank – the home of the Disney Studios. Korkis was an inquisitive and undaunted fan of Disney who not only watched the weekly Disney television series but took the initiative to write down the names he saw on the end credits.

He matched passion with inquisitiveness and began to look for those names in the local phonebook. Upon finding one, he would call the individual up and ask them about their work. Many were gracious enough to invite Korkis to their homes where he spent hours being enthralled by their stories of their work at the Disney organization.

Fast forward decades, where you will find that Korkis relocated to Orlando FL to take care of aging parents. In his own words,

I got a job at Walt Disney World that included assisting with the professional business programs, where I met many executives who had worked with Walt Disney and been trained by him.

I was often called on to research, design and facilitate customized programs for different Disney clients like Feld Entertainment, Kodak, Toys “R” Us and more that touched on both the connections of the individual companies to Disney history, as well as how Walt did business.

I was tapped to do this work because of my knowledge of Walt Disney and his approach to business.

I got the opportunity to meet with some of Walt’s “original cast.” I was enthralled by their stories and experiences and took detailed notes. Hearing stories about how Walt led and how he expected others to lead with compassion, integrity and common sense made a huge impact on me.

Twenty years later, the result is Who’s the Leader of the Club.

Korkis goes to great lengths to use Walt Disney’s own words, from a variety of published and unpublished interviews, as well as the words of those who personally experienced him in action, to help elaborate and describe the basic concepts.

In doing so, we have delivered to us a refreshing breath of fresh air – a business book using the words and actions of a rare genius that are glaringly absent from most organizations today.

Five decades after Walt Disney’s death, his achievements and legacy continue to inspire new generations.

In my case, it’s actually to re-inspire old generations. As a Baby Boomer, I grew up with “The Wonderful World of Disney” as a weekly television show. As a child, I was taken to see most of the Disney films of the 60’s and early 70’s. As a teenager, I took myself – and then, once I became a father, took my family to see those movies. Though I only visited Walt Disney World once as a teenager, I maintained a fascination with the Disney organization that has continued to grow through the years.

In the early 2000s my vocational role as a consultant to churches took on a specific niche – a focus on guest experiences. That lead to a Disney immersion of research, books, films, on-site visits, and conversations with Disney Cast Members past and present. Over the past three years alone, I have spent over 70 days on Disney properties from coast to coast – and on the oceans. My Disney library numbers over 400 volumes – the oldest released in 1939; the newest coming hot off the press next week.

Vital to that immersion was the work of Jim Korkis – through his books and writings by, for, and about Walt Disney and the Disney organization.

By his own admission, Who’s the Leader of the Club was the most difficult book Korkis has ever written. That may be true from his perspective, but the words and stories flow off the page and into the reader’s conscience in an almost imperceptible manner.

Leaders of any organization would do well to settle in with Who’s the Leader of the Club, and be prepared for a story-filled journey of insight into one of the most creative geniuses of recent history.

Along with the stories the reader will find seven “lessons” about Walt Disney’s leadership. Best of all, Korkis concludes each of the “lesson” chapters with a one page checklist called “What Would Walt Do?” summarizing the key points in the lesson and a space to write notes.

Of course, when Korkis wrote the book, he could not have anticipated the  uncertainty caused by the disruption to the Disney “kingdoms” around the world by the pandemic.

Disney will emerge a greatly-changed organization – and future generations of families – and leaders – will benefit from it. After all, Walt Disney himself went through countless setbacks, and even failures, before the launch of the Walt Disney Company in 1923…

…and look what that has brought to the world in the almost-100 years since!

What are you waiting for? It’s time to join the “club!”

For more on the book by Korkis himself, see here.

Who's the Leader of the Club

Look Back and Learn: Investing in Wisdom Equity

In researching and working on some leadership development material for an ongoing writing project, I came across the following:

Christianity is a religion of change. Jesus’ call in Mark 1:15 (the kingdom of God is at hand) was a call to change – change of mind and heart, of conduct and character, of self and society. By its very nature Christianity is a religion for a changing world and has always had its greatest opportunity during times of upheaval.

The Christian leader has no option; he must face a changing world. If the leader is to render maximum service, he must both adjust himself to the phenomena of change and address himself passionately to the business of producing and guiding change. Here are some elements that constitute the changed world in which the Christian leader today is called to fulfill his ministry.

Changed world outlook

Changed economic philosophy

Changed social consciousness

Changed family life

Changed community conditions

Changed moral standards

Changed religious viewpoints

Changed conceptions of the church

Changed media for molding public opinion

Changed demands made upon the leader

Pretty good list, right? Dead on. Taken from today’s headlines.

Nope.

courtesy the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

courtesy the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The author was Gaines S. Dobbins, distinguished professor of Religious Education at my alma mater, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville KY.

Written in 1947.

As the introduction to the book “Building Better Churches: A Guide to Pastoral Ministry.”

Dr. Dobbins retired before I was born, but while in seminary in the early eighties I had the privilege of sitting under a couple of professors who were students of Dr. Dobbins and spoke of his great influence on their development and career. There is a chair named for him at SBTS, and of course I recognized his name and influence. When I came across this book in a used bookstore, I bought it on impulse. After flipping through it, I realized it was a treasure of leadership wisdom.

At Auxano, we talk about a concept called “vision equity.” It’s realizing that the history of a church is a rich resource for helping rediscover what kinds of vision language past generations have used. That language is very useful for anticipating and illustrating God’s better intermediate future.

As I read Dr. Dobbin’s book, I think there is also a concept called “wisdom equity.” It’s realizing that there have been some great leaders and deep thinkers over the past decades and centuries whose collective wisdom would be a great place to start as we struggle with the new realities that face us every day.

It’s why I love history – I see it not as an anchor that holds us to the past, but as a foundation to build a bridge to the future.

History is not just books and information stored about the past. It can also be found in living beings – those around us, family and friends, who have lived through events and learned lessons my generation – and the ones following me – need so desperately to learn.

Go ahead – look back and learn.

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

On the way to pick up a take-out lunch from my neighborhood diner yesterday, the warm sunny day found me with the sunroof open and the windows down. I came across a field that had freshly cut and baled hay in it – the old style small bales. The aroma of the hay took me back to my teenage years, when my buddies and I helped nearby farmers as they would bring in hay for their cattle. My usual job was to stack hay bales on a wagon pulled by a tractor – sometimes tossing them from the field, sometimes stacking them on the wagon. Hard work, but good exercise and fun for a bunch of teenagers.

My instantaneous trip down memory lane was shattered when I rounded the corner and saw one man, driving a tractor pulling a machine that picked up the bales, stacked them in neat rows, and when a row was complete lifting the whole thing onto a trailer. The work was quicker, neater, and in the long run more economically advantageous for the farmer.

On the way back from the diner, going down the same road, but on the other side, I saw an elderly gentleman driving a tractor cutting a small field around his house – but with an identical International Harvester tractor and mower to that I used in the early 70s. Now, the tractor I used then was old – that made this one really ancient. But it seemed to be doing the job just fine, and the farmer was moving right along in his work.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The season and needs of both farmers dictated their actions. Each was using tools at his disposal to accomplish a task. Each was satisfied that they were doing the right thing, and they achieved their desired result.

Change, even as regular as the seasonal changes (at least in NC) is a constant. I’ve been a student and practitioner of change for a long time. One of the best resources for understanding change is William Bridges’ Managing Transitions.

Don’t let the title fool you: the first sentence explains the premise of the rest of the book: It isn’t the changes that do you in; it’s the transitions. Bridges sees change as situational – the new job, new boss, new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation.

I think Bridges would translate the old French saying above to: There can be any number of changes, but unless there are transitions, nothing will be different when the dust clears.

Situational change hinges on the new thing, but psychological transition depends on letting go of the old reality and the old identity you had before the change took place. Nothing so undermines organizational change as the failure to think through who will have to let go of what when change occurs.

Got Change, anyone?

 

How to Harness the Power of TNT

Positive Learning from Negative Feedback

Leaders in all sizes and types of organizations often face negative feedback and criticism – and many have problems dealing with it.

Maybe it’s time to blow criticism away with “TNT”.

Recently I was reading HBR.org and came across a great article by John Butman entitled “The Benefits of Negative Feedback.”

I recently gave a lunchtime “author’s talk” at Children’s Hospital in Boston and, although I thought the talk went well, somebody in the audience didn’t like it at all. On the evaluation form, the person in question wrote a single word in the comment box: CONFUSING.

Thank you, whoever you are. While everybody else gave me good marks and said nice things, which I appreciated, my critic forced me into self-examination. Was he the only one forthright enough to speak up, or was he the only one not paying enough attention to get it? What was confusing? The ideas? The presentation?

His thoughtful suggestions contained in the article on dealing with negative feedback reminded me of a simple but powerful tool that I use whenever I receive criticism.

It’s called TNT, and I learned it over twenty years ago from Sue Mallory, a training instructor for the Leadership Network. I’ve been using it in every shape and form since then.

Are you ready?

The Next Time.

That’s right – once something has been said or done, you can’t do anything about it – for good or bad! Why should you beat yourself up and let it drag you down?

But you can learn from it and apply that learning to The Next Time the situation presents itself.

Here’s a great example: A presentation I gave at a national conference in Dallas TX. I was no stranger to the conference – I’ve been speaking at it for over ten years. The topic was not new to me even though it was the first time I had presented it in its current form. I had prepared adequately – or at least I thought.

As it turns out, I had mistakenly assumed that the attendees of this year’s conference attending my session would be the same as in prior years, and I neglected to gauge the makeup of the audience before I launched into the presentation.

Over half of the session’s attendees were from a technical background, when I had expected most of them to be from a church ministry staff background. The presentation was only 5 minutes old before the quizzical looks and a few responses to my questions made me realize a mid-course correction was required!

Fortunately, I have a background (albeit several decades ago) in the technical production aspect of church ministry, and I was able to shift on the fly to orient the presentation more in that direction. The formal evaluations I received backed up the comments from several attendees following the session, indicating the midstream switch was a success.

Looking back, I could have avoided the situation by noting what other sessions were being offered at the same time (and thus gauging potential attendance) as well as taking a quick audience poll to see who was present (to adjust the presentation at the beginning).

But it happened, and I couldn’t change a thing.

There’s always The Next Time.

What about in your leadership position? How will you use the power of TNT in evaluating an event or lesson or sermon that got some negative feedback in order to provide a positive launching point for improvement in the future?

Don’t let the negatives get you down – instead, blow them away with TNT.

Join Me on a Trip in the Yellow Time Machine

Note: During the current “stay-at-home” mandates and other restrictions in place across the country, I am diving back into 12 years of posts, articles, and reviews across my different websites to bring back timely information for today.


 

There are times when pictures are worth more than a thousand words…

My wife travels to Baltimore, MD at least once a month on business. Because I work for a virtual company (Auxano) with no “office,” my primary role of Vision Room Curator requires only an Internet connection to “set up shop.” Occasionally, I accompany her and we spend the evening or weekends visiting in the area. Recently we found ourselves with a couple of hours to spare before leaving Washington DC to return home. We have a standing list of places to visit, and we agreed on the National Geographic Museum. Located in the heart of the city just a few blocks from the White House, the Museum had a surprise in store for me:

A literal wall of all the National Geographic magazine covers since the magazine’s launch in 1888.

NGwall1

A story I wrote a few years ago, and updated later, immediately came to mind:

The image below,  from the December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, once again stirred memories.

Giant sequoia

The following is an updated repost from 2009:

NGM Oct 2009

Images are often powerful reminders of our past. One of my boyhood memories is that of eagerly anticipating the monthly delivery of “National Geographic” magazine.

The familiar yellow border outlining an amazing photo was my ticket for travel around the country and the world. It’s a pleasure I enjoy to this day, as my mother continues give the magazine as a gift each year. Until recently, I kept them all – now going on 36 years, plus dozens of other pre-1979 issues I have picked up at occasional yard sales (but that’s another story!).

The October 2009 issue has a striking image of a redwood tree on it. As soon as I saw the magazine in its shrink-wrapped shipping bag, I was transported back to first grade show and tell: my crude drawing of a redwood tree, taken from a July 1964 NG story.

I filed that thought away, and not long afterwards, had the occasion to visit my boyhood home in Tennessee. I asked my dadNGM July 1964 (who was still living at the time) about that magazine, and sure enough, he had kept the magazines too! I pulled the issue off the shelf and thumbed through it, gazing again at living giants thousands of years old, comparing them to the same family of trees 45 years later. While I enjoyed that trip down memory lane, there was still something tugging at my thoughts.

When I returned home, I searched my library and found the answer: Growing Spiritual Redwoods by William Easum and Thomas Bandy. Published in 1997, it was a striking call for church leaders to understand the new paradigm the church was entering. They likened the healthy church to a redwood tree. I remember reading the text when it first came out, and my copy bore highlighted sections, Post-It© Notes, and scribbles throughout.

Using the metaphor of the redwood tree, the authors described the growing and healthy church as follows:

  • They stand taller than any other tree, but their visibility is less a function of the numbers of their adherents, and more the magnitude of their ministries
  • They hold aloft an enormous umbrella of intertwined branches, which shelter a huge diversity of life in an atmosphere of peace and mutual respect
  • They are resistant to crisis from beyond and disease from within. Political winds do not break them, and ideological fires cannot burn them down
  • They put down strong, extensive root systems that intertwine with those of other Redwoods. They draw nutrition from unexpected sources, and reach out into unlikely places
  • They regenerate in abundance. Not only do seeds initiate new life across the forest floor, but they sprout vigorously even from the stumps of felled trees

What can your church learn from the redwood tree?

The Lesson of the Redwood Tree aside, I was again reminded of the power of the visual image in communicating. That visit gave me a sobering perspective on what it takes to deliver that image. Walking through the rest of the museum, I was struck by the lonely quest the NG photographers had embarked on: months of often-solitary work, shooting 50,000 to 90,000 images to get the few dozen that ultimately become a story.

That’s the price they willingly paid to bring their vision to fruition.

What price are you paying to bring your vision to reality?