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Churches Struggling with Headwinds are Ready to Fly

I had a first-ever experience flying out of New York’s LaGuardia airport recently.

The weather was deteriorating, but we boarded our flight on time and I had high hopes of getting out before things backed up.

We pushed away from the gate when the captain informed us that we would be delayed 45 minutes while air traffic control “turned the airport approach pattern.”

He went on to explain that the winds had shifted direction, and that all air traffic would now need to take off and land in the opposite direction than what had been anticipated.

Shifting all of those approaches and takeoffs would take a while, and so we joined a long line of planes waiting our turn to depart.

As we waited, I overheard a veteran pilot sitting nearby explain to someone the necessity of landing into the wind rather than with the wind.

“Lift is what makes this 100,000-pound plane fly. We need the resistance of the headwinds to help us generate the lift to become airborne.”

Tailwinds and crosswinds make landing and taking off treacherous. Headwinds combined with thrust generated by the engines, eventually provides the lift necessary to fly.

Less than 24 hours later, I was seated at a table with a group of congregational leaders seeking a way through a difficult season in the life of their church.

One of them made this comment: “We face so much headwind right now in our church. What can we do to avoid that?”

I shared with them my recent experience, and we launched into a thoughtful conversation around the idea that headwinds might actually be beneficial.

As we considered whether resistance could be an asset, someone quoted James 1:2-4. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

We agreed that our personal faith and discipleship had been enhanced across the years by struggle.

In fact, without struggle, many of our most profound spiritual insights and learnings would have never emerged.

Several talked about times in their Christian pilgrimage when they nearly lost hope, but emerged with a stronger, more vibrant faith from their trials.

Just like with weight training, resistance forces us to stretch and use capacities that would remain dormant otherwise.

We admitted that hurdles, obstacles and headwinds had produced tenacity, perseverance and character in us as well as those around us.

By contrast, having success handed to you or never facing adversity seemed to be a recipe for disaster.

One woman at the table shared that she wanted people who disagreed with her to always be in the room at the company she ran.

She said they kept her honest and forced her to avoid shallow or shortsighted ideas and responses.

As aggravating as it was to deal with them, she had learned the hard way that the struggle resulting from constructive critique was a key ingredient in their success.

She had never thought of it as “lift,” but she liked the term and commented, “My loyal opposition forces me to raise my game.”

We agreed that “loyal opposition” is a different experience than simply “opposition.”

When we disagree about means but not about ends, then we have the potential to emerge from the conversation with a better solution than we might have found alone.

However, when the opposition is irrational, vindictive or personalized, it is more akin to trying to land or take off in a hurricane. Winds that are too high and too intense ground the plane.

We finally returned to the issues at hand in this particular congregation. In light of our new appreciation for headwinds, we began to brainstorm ways to turn the resistance into lift.

With only a few exceptions, we agreed that the resistance was reasonable and rational.

We devised a plan to engage those people proactively and respectfully, seeking to find a third alternative as we moved into the future.

I’d like to tell you that everyone lived happily ever after in this situation, but that was not the case for all parties.

A sizable group of those in the congregation who disagreed with the leadership were able to sit down and have a thoughtful and creative conversation about alternative futures.

Their resistance became lift for the church. A few took an all-or-nothing approach and ended up leaving the church in frustration.

The congregation emerged from their conflict wounded and bruised, but essentially intact and unified around a vision for their future.

Had they not reframed their headwinds into an opportunity to produce lift, I’m not sure they would have survived the confrontation.

In the end, their headwinds produced lift. Perhaps yours can, too.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C.