Building a Plane While Flying

Originally posted on The Presbyterian Leader on June 14, 2012 . . .

Growing up, I used to hang out with my dad at the airport. This wasn’t the kind of airport that you go to when catching a flight. This was a small airport where airplanes were built and tested. My dad was a mechanical engineer and part of a team that would experiment with new materials and technology when designing an airplane. My favorite days to hang out with my dad were the days they tested airplanes. Most often the plane would take off. The crowd of engineers and their families would ooh and ah. The plane would coast for a while, but eventually something would go wrong and the plane would have to make an emergency landing.

Although a plane crashing is never a good sign, for my dad and his fellow colleagues, it wasn’t a sign of failure. These take offs and “landings” provided vital information on what worked and what didn’t; and what needed to be tweaked and scrapped. There was genuine enthusiasm watching these planes because for them it was about trying something new and seeing where it would go.

I recently moderated a presbytery meeting where we were taking a vote to approve our new Presbytery Pastor. This was a big deal because we had been without an installed executive presbyter since 2005. Not only that, but this was our third attempt at calling someone for this position. One of the challenges is that the presbytery of San Francisco was in a transitional place: staff restructures, budget revisioning, church dismissals – just to name a few. When searching for a Presbytery Pastor, it became clear that years of experience as an executive presbyter didn’t equate to having the ability to move this presbytery forward during this particular time. We were looking for someone with particular skills and a particular point of view.

Our now newly elected Presbytery Pastor recently described this time in the life of the presbytery as “building a plane while flying.” Being a daughter of an engineer that image resonated with me. So much of what is happening in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. denomination is in flux. New denominations are being formed, churches are leaving, and middle governing councils are restructuring – and yet we are still called to move forward, to make changes, to envision, and to adapt in a time that is uncertain. We are called to build this plane while flying.

Where once it was required for our leaders to have a vast amount of experience in certain things, leaders of today need to have the confidence in their ability to go with the flow and adapt accordingly. Where once it was necessary for our leader to be “fearless and strong,” leaders of today need to have the temperament to collaborate and work as a team player, sharing the responsibility of the task at hand. Where once it was assuring that our leaders know where we are headed, in these uncertain times, it is more assuring that wherever we are headed, we can trust that our leaders are capable of providing guidance, support, and tools to thrive.

Last week, I was a part of training the 220th General Assembly Committee Moderators, Vice-Moderators, and leadership. I shared my own experience as a committee moderator, where members of my committee would test me to see what kind of a leader I was. Some would make it clear that they were gurus of Robert’s Rules of Order. Some made it a point to inform me that they too were moderators of their own presbytery. And some sat back waiting to see what I was made of and all about. What I shared with them is that it’s okay if there are those that know Robert’s Rules of Order better than you. It’s okay that there may be people more experienced than you. What is important to keep in mind is what they really are wanting know is whether you are the type of leader that won’t get flustered when things get out of hand, is flexible when the path isn’t quite clear, or knows who to go to when things come to an impasse. Can you build a plane while it is flying?

One of the things I learned by watching my dad is that a leader isn’t successful by whether the plane can actually fly. A leader is successful if they are able to learn, adapt, and build confidence in others in their ability to journey with them in a process of figuring out the next steps.

How are you at flying?

2 thoughts on “Building a Plane While Flying

  1. Theresa- brilliant piece! I follow all your blogs with great respect and interest, but I think this is your most important. You have nailed exactly the nature of adaptive change with your metaphor (and our new EP’s). So glad to have you working with us here in SFP and nationally. Great job!

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