Your eyes are the two most important parts of your body when riding a bike. Yes, your legs turn the pedals, and your heart pumps the blood. But your eyes direct where the bike is going to go. When you watch someone learning to ride a bike you will notice they often look down at their pedals or at the front wheel. I know from experience that does not work well!
If you are looking down, you will wobble all over the road. To ride forward, you must look forward. In fact, you need to keep looking at the place you want to go. If you look at the curb while riding, you will almost certainly hit the curb. If you look directly at the pothole you want to avoid, there is a good chance you will fall right into it. But if you look up the road at the part of the pavement that is clear, that is where you will go. You will go where you are looking.
The same principle applies when building a ministry or organization. The first and most important step to getting somewhere new is to fix your attention on where you want to be. Not on where you are now, not on the obstacles in the path, but you must fix your attention on where you want to be. You will go where you are looking.
In 2004, I moved with my wife Erica Liu to take a call as co-pastors at Pres House, the Presbyterian Campus Ministry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. When we arrived, there were zero students, the building was run-down, and there was not enough funding to pay for our salaries and other expenses. But the board of directors knew where they wanted to go. They wanted to relaunch and grow an active, thriving campus ministry to undergraduate and graduate students, build an apartment community on the parking lot, renovate the 75-year-old chapel building, and develop a funding plan to cover the expenses of a comprehensive campus ministry center into the future. They wanted to completely rebuild and reshape Pres House for decades to come. The vision was bold. It was challenging. Perhaps we were naïve as 20-something-year-old seminary graduates, but we fully bought into this vision. We knew where we wanted to go.
So we fixed our eyes up the road. The first thing I did in my new job was put together a desk from a kit and get the phones working. I fixed the toilet with paperclips. I caught the bats that came in through holes in the roof. I made literally thousands of decisions about programs, policies, and construction designs in the first few years. But I tried my hardest to not get distracted by the potholes or the side streets that popped up along the way. I kept my eyes focused on where we wanted to go and looked straight towards that destination.
In all honesty, when Erica and I were interviewing for the position at Pres House, we had very little idea what we getting ourselves into or what we were going to do to carry out the vision of the board. But we knew one thing for sure—we knew it was going to take some time to realize the vision. We asked the board if they would commit to us and the effort for at least seven years, and we agreed to do the same. We knew that the destination we had in mind was many miles away and that it would take years of pedaling for us to reach it. We took a long view with our eyes fixed on where we were going.
What did that look like practically? It meant that we thought about and described Pres House, not as it was, but as it would be. We talked about Pres House as a full-fledged, thriving campus ministry—even before it actually was. We spoke its future into existence. We put aside the cheap newsletters and brochures made in-house on a small printer and started producing professional-quality publications. Why? Because that is where we were going. That is the level of organization we were becoming. We redesigned the website, cleaned up the building, created a new logo, made new signs—all to signal to ourselves and others that Pres House was going somewhere and was going to be something. And we stayed laser-focused on the vision for the future by saying no to more things than we said yes to.
We have had to say no to some great idea at least once in almost every one of the roughly 750 weeks since we started this work in 2004. For the first year of our ministry, we said no to all programing. Instead of organizing activities or hosting events, we made a commitment to spend an entire year learning about what was happening on campus, getting connected with our board and other leaders in the area, and listening to students and their needs. We said no to partnerships that were no longer moving Pres House in the right direction. We even said no to ideas that board members thought we should try right away. This didn’t make everyone happy, but it is a big part of how we got to where we are today. We kept our eyes on the road ahead and stayed focused on where we were going.
There are always more good and important things to be done. Any pastor or nonprofit leader knows this well. There are countless good ideas out there, infinite causes worth supporting, endless options for how to spend energy, time, and money. But many of these ideas are side streets on the road. They are distractions from the real direction you are headed.
You will go where you are looking. Don’t look down at where you are now. That will leave you wobbling along and not getting very far. Instead look up and ahead to where you want to be. Don’t focus on the obstacles in the way. Obstacles will come up, and you’ll have to ride around them or maybe through them. But if you focus on those potholes, you’ll get stuck in them. Look ahead to where you want to be. Don’t take side streets that pull you off course. Say no to the things are not moving you in the right direction.
Let Go of the Brakes: Commit fully. (Part Three)
Don’t Forget to Oil Your Chain: Pay attention to the details that make a big difference. (Part Four)
PODCAST The Distillery, Season 1
Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.