David was a cheerful, gregarious, easy-going young man who came to the congregation as a pastoral intern one summer after his four years of undergraduate work and one year of seminary. Three other ministerial students had interned in the congregations I served, and because of his temperament David was the easiest to tease.
Showing a willingness to tackle any task, it was no surprise that he wanted to go with the youth group on a camping and canoeing adventure, even though he did not have canoeing experience. He was a swimmer, his family had a cabin on a lake some distance away, and he was familiar with rowboats and motorboats.
Everyone partnered with someone who had experience, and most of the young people on that trip had been canoeing on a river before, so little training was necessary for that trip. I chose David as my partner. I had no intention of losing him, but had every expectation of getting him wet on a sultry summer day. Since he was young and strong, and I was old and tried, I explained to him, I would put him in the bow of the canoe to provide both forward motion and guidance. You guide a canoe from the front, I said, testing to see if he caught my misdirection, but catching no indication of it. We must, of course, keep up with the rest of the group to make sure that everyone was proceeding safely down the river, through its rapids and many boulders. Meanwhile I rested in the stern, barely putting my paddle in the water. Soon we were zigzagging our way from one bank to the other, and we were lagging behind. David was beginning to show his frustration and asked what he was doing wrong.
“Not a thing,” I said. “You just need help.” I admitted that I had given him the wrong instruction. You can indeed propel a canoe forward from the bow, but it is difficult to guide from there. The stern provides the guidance. This is one example where leadership comes, not from the one in front, but from the one in back. When I did my part, we soon caught up with the rest, and managed to get as wet as we wanted to be.
That was a theme we pondered on other occasions during that summer, as we worked with would-be and effective leaders, and tried to practice leadership ourselves, not always from in front of other people. David just celebrated thirty years of effective leadership in several congregations. He has somehow maintained his sense of humor and eagerness for his work, which is still exercised from the front sometimes, and sometimes from the rear.