How to Turn a Ship

written by Matt Britt
10 · 26 · 23

On March 23, 2021, the Ever Given, a near-400 meter container ship was caught in sandstorm consisting of 45+mph winds while attempting to cross the Suez Canal. This resulted in an inability to steer the ship and causing it to run aground and turn sideways due to a “bank effect” on the stern of the ship. It came to rest sideways, completely obstructing both sides of the canal. The ship blocked all crossing traffic for six days and costing millions of dollars each day in delays and fees for shipping companies and countries expecting deliveries of goods.

It takes a long time to turn a big ship. The bigger the ship, the longer it takes for it to turn and the more distance it covers while it tries. Of course, there are a lot of factors that play into that equation – the length, width, and weight of a ship all change the turn radius required – and a ship’s steering control involves a direct relationship between the force of the propeller’s wash against the rudder, meaning the slower they’re traveling, the less control the captain has of the path they’re on. Turning a ship, especially some of the one’s nearing the size of a small city, require a host of crew members who are in constant communication and on the same page with one another. Unforeseen circumstances, such as an unpredictable sandstorm, can blow a ship so off course that ending up “stuck” – at least for the time being – is inevitable.

Organizations are no different. The larger they grow, the more money and people involved, the harder it becomes to change directions. Instituting change in churches can be even more challenging, as our churches often become our homes: safe, familiar places and people where things are just as we left them, everything neatly in its place. Churches espouse values – “this is who we are, this is what we believe in” – that congregational participants adopt and make part of their identity as members of that community, so actual or even perceived disruptions or changes to those identifiers can feel like a threat to who we believe ourselves to be. 

Leaving behind the safety and security of what we already know for an abstract future can feel overwhelming, if not intimidating, but change is often needed before we realize it. Positive organizational change rarely happens on accident – it must be intentional, thoughtful, consistent, and resilient when things inevitably go sideways. Lasting change often takes more effort and time than we expect or are willing to give it, and we can find ourselves as leaders feeling frustrated that we aren’t further along in the process, that we haven’t managed to convince enough people to buy into this new vision, this new future, and want to abandon change all together, seeking out the comfort and stability of how we’ve always done things. But God is always calling us forward – never back to the good ol’ days or where we were before or the people we were before, but into a new future, a new world, a new earth that looks a little more like heaven. God calls us to seek out the next person who needs a community to belong to, to draw the circle ever wider to include more people who don’t look like us, to seek out the spaces and places where there is hurt and bring a word of hope, hope that things don’t have to be this way, won’t be this way forever.

Which brings us back to the Ever Given. How do you turn a big, stuck, ship? The ship was freed not with one big dramatic movement, but around the clock digging of the dirt around the hull, and tugboats slowly inching it in straight. These thousands and thousands of little pushes and pulls eventually freed the ship through constant pressure in the right direction.

Large organizations and churches are like big ships, and they only turn one way – with constant pressure in the right direction. No change happens overnight, not at this size or scale, and you’re going to spend plenty of nights second guessing yourself and your course along the way. But slowly, surely, with a little pressure on the wheel and a lot of hope that God is leading you in the right direction, things will change and they will change for the better. 


Matt Britt

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