When I was fresh out of seminary and assigned to my first full-time appointment, in New Westminster, British Columbia, a retired minister, Rev. C. P. Stewart, told me a story I have carried with me throughout my pastoral life. Here it is:
Back in the days when steam-driven locomotives pulled 100-car freight trains across this continent, a westward bound train was laboring up a pass in the Rocky Mountains. Its pace slowed until it finally came to a standstill. The fireman on the locomotive, a younger man, felt helpless.
Riding the caboose at the end of the train was a retired fireman. He walked the length of the long string of boxcars, climbed into the locomotive’s cab, and offered his help. The young fireman was glad to let the retired man take over.
The fireman started shoveling coal from the tender into the firebox. The steam gauge began to rise. Finally, he signaled the engineer to open the throttle. After a couple of sharp jerks, the train began to move again.
Amazed, the young fireman asked his senior what he had done differently. He himself had been shoveling just as hard but without the same results. The senior man opened the door of the firebox. He showed his student that the fire was burning more brightly in some areas than others. Then he said, “You have to fire the bright spots.”
Local churches are complex. There are programs aplenty going on all the time — outreach efforts, children’s ministries, music groups, senior citizens agendas, membership classes, boards, and committees. Although the first duty of pastors is not to be promoters, wise pastors fire the bright spots. They keep the congregation aware of good things that are happening: that the new summer children’s program for the neighborhood has made contact with seven new families; that giving for missions has gone well beyond its annual goal; that the weekend youth retreat witnessed several commitments to Christ.
By firing the bright spots, they can help get their churches get moving again.