Lessons learned from climbing the Rockies
The day was clear as we cautiously climbed our way up the steep northern slope of Challenger Point, a mountain summit in the Sangre de Cristo range of the Colorado Rockies. There are only ninety-five other “fourteeners” in the United States, and Challenger Point towers 14,087 feet into the sky.
Above the tree line, there’s a thin coat of shale that covers the mountain. Small rocks and broken shards of stone that cover the landscape make it hard to get your footing. Many times, I’ve found myself sliding down the side of a mountain, reaching for anything to stop my downward momentum.
The best way to traverse a steep pitch like this one is to follow the well-worn path, which is already marked by the countless mountaineers who’ve climbed the mountain. Staying on this path takes you to the peak and prevents you from getting lost along the way. Since prehistoric times, climbers have used small stacks of rocks called cairns to mark the paths and establish landmarks.
The word cairn comes from the Scots Gaelic word “carn” which simply means “stack of stones”. In ancient Scottish lore, warriors would choose one stone before battle and put them together with other warriors’ stones to form a pile. Afterward, those who survived would remove their stones, using the rest to mark the graves of their fallen comrades.
As we ascended the face of the mountain, small cairns directed us along the path to the peak. Somewhere along the way, though, we started to question ourselves.
Looking at our maps, we could see the recommended way to the summit. When we looked with our eyes, though, we could also see what looked like the summit in clear view. From our vantage point, it seemed a much shorter route to leave the paved path and bear crawl up the brae, cutting down on our climbing time and reaching the summit in record speed. We opted for the “shortcut.”
However, as we crested the saddle, it soon became clear to us we’d made a mistake. What we’d thought was the summit was in fact a “false summit” – a peak that appears to be the summit but is much shorter. If we wanted to reach the true summit at that point, we’d have to traverse a steep gaping ravine, which would’ve required climbing ropes and technical skills (both of which we did not have).
The other option was to swallow our pride, retrace our steps, and return to the original path. This is what we did.
I learned a few valuable lessons that day. First, it’s much more effective to follow a path that’s already been paved than to pave a new one. Second, veering from the path may inevitably require a reroute.
Lessons learned from growing ministry
Around this same time, I had become the lead pastor of a church. As I attempted to grow the ministry, I was implementing every church growth strategy I knew, but to no avail. I began to look around at other ministries to see who was trending what they were doing, hoping I could imitate their successes.
After much prayer, I came to realize that just as I’d done in the Rockies, I had bypassed a path for ministry that had already been paved. I had taken a chance on a path that looked like it would lead me to the pinnacle of success, but I was going to need to backtrack and rediscover the path for ministry Jesus had created. I was going to need to learn the Jesus way of doing ministry.
I decided to do a study of Jesus’ life, in chronological order of events, to get a fresh look at His life and ministry. I began to see that while I knew the stories about Jesus and had even preached the sermons of Jesus, I really didn’t know much else about His life or His approach to ministry.
In fact, Jesus’ life had always seemed like a random collection of teachings, miracles, and conversations that ultimately culminated at the cross and empty tomb. In many ways, my understanding of Jesus was like pulling a box of family photos out of the closet and dumping them out on the floor. Each picture gave me a moment in time, a snapshot, but not the whole story. I needed to put these pictures in order, fill in the time gaps, and learn the context of every picture.
As I continued to study the gospels, key events in Jesus’ life began to appear to me like cairns along a path, making Jesus’ way clear. I started to see that He actually had a way of doing ministry that was very intentional and led to an expected end.
This blog features an excerpt from one of our books, His Way Still Works.