In 2014, Joan Gray, a Presbyterian pastor and former moderator of the denomination, wrote a book called "Sailboat Church." In it, she described two types of churches: rowboats and sailboats. Rowboats, she said, are controlled by the power of the people rowing. With enough strength, effort and determination, rowers can move the boat on a fairly straight path in the direction they want it to go, often working against forces that could take them in a different direction altogether. They might reach their goal, but they often exhaust themselves in the effort.
A sailboat church, on the other hand, functions like a sailboat. A sailboat harnesses the power of the wind rather than the brute strength of the sailors. Those controlling the sails and the rudder are in sync with the wind and the water. Sometimes that means tacking back and forth, going sideways in order to go forward. Sometimes the trip can take a long time, because wind can change direction. Sometimes they end up where they didn’t think they were headed.
I read this book when it first came out six years ago. I liked the analogy, but could see how in many ways our church was more of a rowboat than a sailboat. We had (and still have) capable, hardworking and dedicated people who put a lot of energy and time into the work of the church. That’s a good thing, right? But were we putting all our effort into reaching destinations we chose, all the while fighting the tides that might take us elsewhere?
I have a confession to make. I’m a rowboat type myself. I like to feel in control. I like to have a destination and a plan. I don’t deal well with change. I definitely don’t like unknowns. I’m not afraid to work hard, and I like to work with others who do, too. I never really liked sailing when my husband tried to teach me years ago. I couldn’t get the hang of reading the wind. It was scary to let the wind take control. I chafed a little when I read this book the first time. I didn’t want our church to be a sailboat church. I thought we were doing just fine rowing along.
Then 2020 happened, and I’m revisiting this analogy. This year, I’d rather be a sailboat than a rowboat.
What happens to boats when they are caught in sudden unexpected storms? Sometimes, out of the blue, winds and waves can make a pleasant boat ride terrifying and dangerous. We were traveling along pretty happily in our boats when the pandemic hit in March, buffeting us against the rocks of isolation, job loss, loneliness, economic uncertainty, mental health issues and change.
Dropping anchor in a storm isn’t a good choice for either rowboats or sailboats. At best, they don’t move, either forward or backward. At worst, they sink, allowing the boat to be washed over by waves.
Skilled sailors have a better chance in a storm than rowers. Rowers would have to work very hard against strong winds or waves, and could expend all their energy just staying afloat. Sailors, however, can use the power of the winds to keep going, if (and this is a big if) they can read the winds correctly. Reading the wind’s direction and working with it will keep the boat not only afloat, but moving forward. It might be a wild ride, but it can take the boat to new and exciting places.
In case I haven’t overworked this analogy enough, the “wind” for sailboat churches is the Holy Spirit, which came to the early Christians as a “mighty rush of wind” at Pentecost. Not a gentle breeze, mind you. A mighty rush.
I’m happy to say as we proceed through 2020, we are becoming more capable sailors. This year, we swiftly adapted to new ways to worship, serve and gather. Online worship turned out to be an unexpected joy, opening our church to people who did not or could not join us in person before and who are now beloved members of our church family. We are free to experiment and try new things. We're taking our lead from God. We're trusting better. We're listening better. We're more in the moment, open to ambiguities and creative potential.
A sailboat church is not only more effective, it’s more faithful. As we let go of the oars, and let the Holy Spirit fill our sails, God only knows where we’ll go from here.
Jill Fandrich is an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 17 William St., Auburn, where she edits the newsletter, church website (westminsterauburn.org) and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.