Spinning Plates

Spinning Plates

—by Julian DeShazier

The gearbox of an automobile is one way of talking about how a church operates. That is to say: sometimes we do a lot, and sometimes we are moving slow, and that’s okay as long as we are going the speed required of us at the given time: 1st gear on the highway, or 4th gear on your block = no good. What’s helpful about the gear metaphor is that it acknowledges that doing the most is not always productive; in fact, it can work against your mission. Sometimes you NEED to slow down, and sometimes you need to work a LOT harder. Knowing what for when is called “wisdom”: we should privilege wisdom over speed.

I like the gears metaphor too it resembles the life of a pastor. If pastor can be linked to shepherd for a moment (another metaphor): the shepherd is a classic and useful model of leadership. It’s not until you actually watch a shepherd, though, that you appreciate the how useful the connection is. Shepherds aren’t always out in front of the sheep, keeping them focused; he spends a good amount of time behind them as well, pushing them forward; and she is alongside them sometimes too, keeping them together. Focused. Forward. Together. That’s a shepherd’s work. That’s how you switch gears.

As a pastor I need to be careful though: cars and shepherds are headed to defined places. Journeys end there, while the movement of a church is dynamic – we’re here, and 2 weeks later, we’re here – and it wouldn’t help us to think of “church” in a linear way. 300 members as opposed to 150 says nothing about health, and programs done fast are not always programs done well. Focused might mean “on God and community”, but those depend on ever-evolving theologies; Forward might mean “towards mutuality, justice, and greater faith”, but you can’t plot that on a map; what do we mean by Together when new people are joining us every week? You see the challenge in the imagery? (Is anyone getting a Ph.D. in Leadership? Write about this!)

I’ve been mulling over a new metaphor since November 2010, and on TV happened past a program that documented the history of circuses. They were showing someone spinning plates with their hands, then on their feet, and then they put a stick in their mouth and start spinning one on there. The spinner focused on the new plate, getting it steady, but would always turn back to each of the existing plates as they began to slow down. The idea is: all the plates are spinning at once, and it takes great skill to introduce even one new plate without disturbing the others. Wow…

The punch line came alive in you before you even finished reading this sentence. That’s pastoral work. Spinning plates! That’s being a parent and having a career. That’s having a career and having a passion. And what we know within ourselves is that when one of the plates drops in our lives – when we allow that to happen – something feels missing. No matter what is new, when we neglect what is there. Some of us have ignored major spheres of our lives for too long, and have called it “moving forward.” If something feels off, maybe it’s because you are switching gears instead of spinning plates.

The new plate at University Church is our advocacy around the South Side of Chicago having a Level 1 Trauma Center (because there are none). Johnny Kline and Sarah Jones have been providing leadership from Day 1, and it seems that we have a unique opportunity to introduce a faith perspective to all of this waiting and yelling. A church that believes in “Equal Rights and Equal Access for ALL God’s Children” should be present in an issue that speaks to poverty and access to health care. The Social Justice committee voted unanimously to take this issue on, and I am proud of the deep discernment process the church undertook. By the next Messenger, the website should have a section with all the research and debate around the issue. We are the first faith community to officially join this advocacy: one pastor told me they weren’t getting involved because it seemed too “adversarial.” Let me be clear: it is not our job to yell and alienate others, and if we can be a calming and discerning yet faithful and just voice in the dialogue – that is our aim. Our strengthening relationship with the University of Chicago should not be endangered; in fact, it should allow us to provide access to conversations that are happening at the University and the people of Woodlawn are not hearing. These are exciting times. This is a new plate.

In all of this excitement – the new partnerships, the vocal advocacy for schools and trauma centers, the brand revitalization of the church – I want you to know that I’m still focusing on some of the other plates. How we engage the wider community is very important, and how we take care of ourselves remains critical. Expect more potlucks (SOUL FOOD CONTEST on JUNE 2nd!!! My peace cobbler is vengeful). Expect the small group dinners to return in June. Suggest to me a topic for Christian Education that is of interest to you. Expect to meet these new faces you are seeing around the church. Expect our community to remain welcoming and sensitive to each other’s differences — that’s the thing about you that impresses me the most. We do community well, and even as we aim to do wider community well, we must still do community well. That will be your pastor’s focus this summer. Please help me with any suggestions. I’m focusing on our youth and I’m focusing on how we nurture community.


An old “plate” that used to spin wonderfully here at the church is something called “The Blue Gargoyle.” Those who are unfamiliar with this history should ask a longtime member about it one day in social hour (tell them I sent you). Many of you have expressed interest in us becoming a service provider again, and if that is you, and you have ideas and/or grantwriting experience, it’s time for you to spin that plate in your life once again. I’d like us to have a conversation in early July.

-Pastor Julian