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We have argued that a paradigm of control over the process of advancing God’s kingdom leads to ministry structures that are not sufficiently flexible to respond to unexpected leading from the Wind of God. This is true even when in our hearts we really would like to be responsive.

If you lead a ministry with a formal organization, buildings, staff, and contracts with providers of goods and services, you have daily responsibilities and commitments that cannot be ignored while you wait for divine direction. How do we reconcile the basic demands of living and working in the world with the need to be flexible to God’s leading?

I am helped in my reflections by looking at the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt under Moses’ leadership.

There were two realities Moses had to consider:

1. He had to lead his people to Canaan;

2. And he had to provide for their well-being and security during the journey.

These are not contradictory but complementary realities. How was Moses to exercise his leadership responsibilities concerning the two areas?

God was very clear about the first one. God said concerning his mission to reach Canaan: I will provide you with spiritual guidance concerning when to move and when to stop. A pillar of fire will guide you at night and a cloud during the day. When they move, you and the people move. When they stop, you and the people stop. It would be foolish for Moses to continue moving when the cloud stopped, and foolish to stop when the cloud kept moving.

As to the second responsibility, there was no cloud by day or pillar of fire by night. Does that mean Moses did not need to do anything about the people’s well-being? Of course not. He did not need special guidance from God to manage the needs of the day. Camping space was allocated to families; provision was made for herding the cattle, for fetching water, and for all the activities that a large people must fulfill on a daily basis. There were also preparations to be made for the journey when the cloud moved again.

Moses and the people were not idle when the cloud stopped. When we talk about ‘sailing’ as a better metaphor than ‘powerboating’ for Christian ministries, we are not suggesting that we just sit idly waiting for the wind to blow. The Israelites were not idle when the cloud was not moving.

The issue with powerboating is not with regard to the operational aspects of running an organization; it has to do rather with plans and strategies that drive us to move when the cloud is stopped. Our model of ministry is generally based on ambitious strategies and timetables that demand we keep moving. They encourage skills related to relentless pursuit of results and target dates, and they undervalue the need to develop our spiritual sensitivities to the Wind of God. Therefore we may not be skilled at knowing how to wait: we equate waiting with lack of commitment, even disobedience.

If we conclude that our powerboat model is harming our desire to serve God well, we need to keep in mind that changing to a sailing model will involve learning how to be obedient as we wait. Moses was not idle while he waited for the cloud to move. But he had the flexibility to move and to stop as the Lord directed.


It is amazing how rich this metaphor about sailing can be. There are many applications for different purposes. We can imagine how specific parts of the boat illustrate ministry tools, how sailing skills suggest certain spiritual practices, etc … This richness of possible interpretations, though stimulating, runs the risk of obscuring the primary value of the metaphor, which is to call our attention to a paradigm change.

Here is one way to summarize the core of the sailing metaphor:

1. God advances his kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit: the wind, in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus (Jn.3).

2. The Spirit, like the wind, is beyond our control; if we want to serve the kingdom well, we must depend on the Spirit’s leading as far as intensity, timing and direction of our service – we do not set the times and seasons or control the wind of the Spirit.

3. Spirit dependence as a way of life and service is in conflict with the Western entrepreneurial paradigm, which is predicated on our ability to control the forces that enable us to achieve our objectives.

4. To the degree that Western entrepreneurial thinking shapes how we seek to serve God’s kingdom, it undermines our very heart’s desire to serve Christ well. However sincere and well-meaning we are, we must work within a paradigm that resists the life of dependence on the Spirit’s guidance.

5. A change to sailing can free us from the pressure to control God’s work and put us in a place of surrender to his control.

6. I have used the metaphor of contrasting powerboat and sailboat simply to show how the pursuit of the same objective can have radically different characteristics when pursued from different paradigms.

7. In the classic sailboat, the motive power is outside the boat, and we need to develop skills related to understanding and working with the wind; in God’s work, as in sailing, the force that enables the church to serve Christ is beyond our control. The Spirit will empower our work, set timetables and direction. We need to learn to discern the Wind, and understand how to set our souls (sails) so as to catch the Wind.

8. The powerboat image, by contrast, with its motor and fuel tank, seeks to accumulate and store power within the boat so that the operator can determine when, how and where to go. The wind is not necessary.

Any other application of the metaphor may indeed offer helpful insights, but it needs to be used with care so that it does not distract us from considering the need for radical paradigm change.

[Note: at the top of this entry, just below the title, you will find some words in blue. Please click ‘leave a comment‘ to view and enter your own comments. I would love to know what you think.]

Is sailing realistic? One of the most common reactions to the sailing paradigm is whether it can really be done at the organizational level. It is easier to believe it works at the personal level. Organizations, on the other hand, are objective entities with working relationships with the outside world. There are commitments to staff, clients, investors and government.

How does one wait on the wind to blow while there are salaries to pay, supplies to purchase, and government forms to fill? Is it easier to see how sailing works with a small mission agency, with volunteer staff and an understanding board of directors? Can a complex multi-level organization even dream of abandoning powerboating for sailing? These are very good questions that deserve good answers.

The answers are more accessible that we might expect. Dr. Roger Parrott, president of Belhaven College in Jackson, MS, has been applying sailing principles for several years, and has amassed a lot of practical experience. I have had the opportunity to meet Roger and visit the college twice this year.

The second time I visited Belhaven, I was part of a group of ministry leaders examining together the implications of a sailing paradigm in our work. Roger was part of our meetings and we were able to question him concerning practical applications of the paradigm. His answers consistently demonstrated that leading a large complex organization according to a sailing paradigm is not only possible but also quite beneficial to students, faculty, staff and the larger community.

Dr. Parrott has collected his insights and lessons learned in a very practical book for leaders released this month with the title “The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders”, (David C. Cook Publishers) The book is available at If you have been intrigued by the sailboat paradigm and wonder whether it is practical, I believe you will find Roger’s book very helpful.

In John 3:8 Jesus speaks of the total freedom of the Spirit of God to move when he wishes as he wishes. The Spirit is not controlled by any one. He, like the wind, blows where he pleases. We hear his sound, but we cannot tell where he comes from or where he is going.

Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:3-8 speak of our utter dependence on the Spirit to do serve Christ. Jesus, having commanded his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes to them, before starting out on their mission. Yes, there was an urgency to the mission, but not without the Spirit’s empowering and guiding. We must adjust our sense of urgency to the parameters of the kingdom.

We know very little about times and seasons; we have almost no concept of the specific circumstances that determine how and when God will act in the world. Yet, we are given an assignment within the kingdom. How are we to know what to do?

This utter lack of knowledge of when and how God will act is likely to make us very uncomfortable. In fact, we are so uncomfortable that we resort to our best human resources to come up with plans to do what God asks us to do. We try to make up for the fact that God has left us in the dark about his plans and agenda by coming up with our own. When we do this, we fail to understand something very basic to being people of Christ in the world. What is this very basic thing?

Here is essentially what the Lord seems to be saying to us about our role in his work: ‘I will tell you very little in advance about what I will do next and what specific part you will play. Instead of giving you advance knowledge, I will give you my constant presence. What I ask of you is to stay close to me, wait for me and follow me to the degree that you see and understand me’. Jesus concludes his instructions to the disciples in Matthew 28 with the words, “and surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Instead of giving us advance knowledge of the plan, he gives us something the he determines is much better: his abiding, guiding and empowering presence.

I believe Jesus meant for us to feel relieved by witholding from us control of the process and energized by the promise of his presence. He takes from us the burden of knowing and controlling the steps of our obedience. As he said before, he can make even the stones to praise him; he can send his angels to do the work of world evangelization if all he cares about is the task. Instead, he wants us involved, and has made us integral part of plan. It is not about the task, but about our fellowship with him as he goes about the task. Our effectiveness in the task is more related to our familiarity with him, our closeness to him, than it is with our mastering of times and seasons. Should this not bring us immense relief? Apparently not, if measured by how we go about serving him.

What I see in myself and my missions colleagues instead of walking closely with Christ is a fair amount of anxiety, of frantic attempts to fill in the knowledge gaps Jesus intentionally left. We still want to serve him well, and we fear that unless we know the details and grasp the controls of the process, we will fail him. Yet, the truth is the opposite. The more we try to fill in the knowledge gap that he left , the farther we risk missing the mark of his intention for us.

How are we then to respond? If he has given us his presence instead of plans and timetables, I strongly suspect that the best way for us to be obedient to his command is to learn how to stay close to him. If his presence is described as the wind of the Spirit blowing at will on us and in the world, our hope is in learning how to sail. We need to learn how to discern the sound of the Spirit’s voice, and how to stretch our spiritual sails to receive the wind and trim our souls to best be moved by him where he wants us to go.

What does this say to our existing approaches and structures of obedience? How are our organizations structured to catch the wind?