When I was just out of seminary and beginning to lead my first church as a full-time pastor, a retired minister, the Rev. C. P. Stewart, told me a story I have carried with me throughout my 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 gradually slowed until finally it came to a standstill. The fireman in the engine cab was young and found himself defeated and 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 him take over.
The retired fireman started methodically shoveling coal into the firebox. The steam gauge began to rise and when it registered that pressure was adequate he signaled the engineer to open the throttle.
After a couple of sharp tugs the train began to move again and this time made it up the grade of the mountain pass.
Amazed, the young fireman asked his senior what he had done differently, noting that he himself had been shoveling just as hard.
As the train moved forward, gradually gaining speed, the older man opened the door of the firebox. First he pointed out a couple of clinkers — residue of burned coal — lying dead in the ashes, then pointed to places in the bed where the fire was burning brightly.
Pointing out this contrast with his long poker, he said, “If you want the train to move you have to fire the bright spots.”
Rev. Stewart was giving a young pastor a tip on how to go about leading a congregation without becoming a casualty of stalled initiatives.
Local churches are complex and lots of activities are going on at the same time – children’s programs, choir practices, committee meetings, some of which can at times be stalled by a variety of conflicting opinions.
While helping a church grow, gaining momentum and depth in ministry, Rev. Stewart intimated, one must take courage from the programs that are thriving, reporting this good news to the congregation whenever possible.
But the story fits many situations: the highly energized family, the public school classroom, the student striving to work her way through college, to name a few.
Things in life go better when one learns to fire the bright spots.
Photo credit: Thomas’s Pics (via flickr.com)