On Flywheels and Calling

Intention #1: Relentlessly Push the Flywheel

I am still not entirely sure what a flywheel is, but the flywheel concept has been seared into my mind for over a decade.  Among the many books deemed important for my formation during my pastoral residency was a business book: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t.   

In the book, Jim Collins describes the practices of companies that move from being good companies to great companies.  (He also wrote a companion book on how to apply the concepts to the social sectors.)  Our church leadership believed the principles in Collins’s book applied to churches, and so we read and discussed the book at the time when church staff were developing their ministry plans for the upcoming year.

One of the practices that help good organizations become great organizations is relentlessly pushing the flywheel.  If like me, you are unclear about what a flywheel is, this definition may or may not help:

“a heavy wheel for opposing and moderating by its inertia any fluctuation of speed in the machinery with which it revolves; also: a similar wheel used for storing kinetic energy (as for motive power)”

I do not understand machines or gears, and I took applied physics instead of theoretical physics in college, so this definition makes zero sense to me.

As I understand it, a flywheel is a huge wheel connected to several other wheels or moving parts.  Pushing the flywheel causes the other parts of the machine to start turning—slowly at first but then faster and faster over time.

In terms of business, or ministry, or, in this case, calling, relentlessly pushing the flywheel can create productive movement.  Collins describes the breakthrough that can come as a result of pushing the flywheel:

“Then, at some point—breakthrough!  The momentum of the thing kicks in in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn, after turn…whoosh!…its own heavy weight working for you.  You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster.”  (p. 164-165)

But how does the flywheel relate to calling? In my last post, I mentioned that I had a vague sense of calling regarding my professional work.  It seemed like my gifts, skills, passion, and training aligned well with that of a full-time college or seminary professor.  I love to teach.  I love to conduct research.  I love encouraging students.

So I started doing what professors do.  I took adjunct teaching jobs.  I published journal articles.  I launched a research study.  I also continued my consulting work with a non-profit in the absence of a steady paycheck and without the promise of career advancement.  Slowly, slowly, I pushed the flywheel.

But I didn’t do so entirely on my own.  I invited God into my work and asked him to bless it.  One of my frequent prayers echoes the psalmist: “Establish the work of my hands” (Psalm 90:17).  It never hurts to ask God to help you push the flywheel.

And then, all of a sudden, the flywheel started to turn. Momentum built, and the machine started to run.  I saw the work paying off.  Not paying off in terms of significant income.  Not paying off in the form of a faculty position.  Relentlessly pushing the flywheel has paid off in more clarity about my calling and more opportunities to do work I love.