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.

Following Directions

I love maps.  As a child, I would sprawl out on my our scratchy oriental rug and study our atlases and globe.  With my finger, I would trace interstate and highway routes through cities and small towns, from Atlantic to Pacific and Gulf Coast to Canada.

I remember when Mapquest replaced map-reading from getting from one place to another.  When my friend and I drove from Nashville to Wilmore, Kentucky to visit Asbury Seminary, we used printed turn-by-turn directions.  Now, I use Google Maps.

Maps, Mapquest, Google Maps—each of these navigation devices helps us get to our destination, and each generation of navigation technology offers us more specifics about our journey. I began using the approximate distance between two points (scale and ruler, anyone?) and multiplying it by our ideal speed to estimate the general time of arrival.  Now, my GPS app does the math for me, adjusts for traffic, and recalculates my arrival time to the minute after every stop for Starbucks or Chick-fil-A.

But using each of these tools requires some specificity, some clarity on my part about my destination.  Google Maps cannot give me directions to Eastern Kansas, so I enter a more specific location: Overland Park, KS.   Even then, Google Maps assumes I want somewhere around 83rd and Metcalf when I intend to go to 135th and Nall.  I have a specific destination in mind.

When it comes to my calling, I seldom have that sort of clarity about the destination.  As a result, I can flounder when I do not know which way to go, what step to take.  I feel akin to Abraham in that regard.  God told him, “Go to the place I will show you” (Gen 12:1).  In other words, “Pack up and go.  I will let you know when you have arrived.”  The fact that Abraham obeyed the LORD and went astounds me.  I would have needed a little more direction.

Then, a few months ago, I discovered that Abraham did have a little direction.  At the end of Genesis 11, we read this:

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan.  But when they came to Harran, they settled there. (Genesis 11:31)    

Abram and his extended family had already been aimed at Canaan.  They intended to go there, but they settled in Harran.  When I read this, it made sense to me that Abraham would naturally continue heading toward Canaan.  That destination had already been plugged into his internal GPS.

He probably did not have any sort of technology to tell him precisely how to get there and whether or not there would be an oasis or lame camel over the next dune.  However, with whatever means he had available, he intended on getting to Canaan.  Whether or not he had some foreknowledge that Canaan was the Promised Land, the Bible does not tell us.  Even with no clarity about his final destination, Abraham continued his family’s journey to their original intended destination.      

For me, clarity about my calling has been rather elusive.  All I can discern is Eastern Kansas when I crave to know cross streets.  But I have enough direction to get going.  I have enough to step out and move forward in the direction I sense Him to be leading, even when I do not have all of my questions answered.  This is the essence of faith.

The intentions I set for 2018 aim at the sense of calling I have.  They aim at a certain type of life I feel called to live—a life I believe to align with the values and priorities of the Kingdom of God.  They aim at a type of contribution I sense God wants me to make with my skills, training, and knowledge.

My four intentions: FLYWHEEL, INQUIRE, WRITE, and WALL keep me headed in a certain direction.  And the Post-It note on which they are written reminds me, even now, that the intentions cannot stay on paper or in my head.  I have to get moving.


This post is the second in a series on intentions.  You can read the first post here.

Paved with Good Intentions

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I came across the concept of “intention” for the first time in 2007 in an infomercial for Wayne Dyer’s The Power of Intention.  The infomercial showed Dyer teaching a huge crowd of people who seemed to hang on his every word.  Many sought to scribble notes as he talked about “emanating from the source” and energy.  My husband and I chuckled every time he talked about “the source” and gestured in the direction of a paper lantern on the stage.

In this excerpt from a 2005 interview with New Age retailer, Dyer spoke about one particular intention:

The No. 1 principle in the universe is “I intend to feel good.” Feeling good is what you should be doing every day of your life.

A friend of mine visited Swami Muktananda back in the 1970s in India. As my friend was going into the ashram, Muktananda stopped him and said, “Do you know the difference between good and God?” and my friend said, “Zero.” Muktananda held up a zero and said, “That’s right. When you look at God and good, the only difference between them is one little zero.”

So, when you are saying you want to feel good, what you really are saying is you want to feel God….

Dyer shared that same story about “God” and “good” and the difference of one little “o” in his talk.  Our trained-in-the-Biblical-languages brains could not handle any more of his nonsense, so we turned him off, likely to binge-watch Lost or whatever Netflix DVD had most recently come in the mail. But I think there could be some small nugget of wisdom, at least in his title—there can be something powerful about setting an intention.

I came across “intention” for the second time that same year, this time in Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, one of the first required books for our pastoral residency.¹  In it, Willard lays out a pattern for spiritual transformation: Vision, Intention, Means (VIM).  According to Willard, personal transformation begins with a biblically-informed vision of the kingdom of God.  Next, we must “intend to live in the kingdom as [Jesus] did.”  And we need the means (for example, the skills, resources, and community) to do so.

Willard does not explicitly define “intention,” but he does describe it.  To him, intention differs from a wish or a want because it implies a decision to act to bring about what we hope for. Willard states, “[T]he robust intention, with its inseparable decision, can only be formed and sustained upon the basis of a forceful vision.”

Nowadays I hear the word “intention” in yoga class.  As we begin our yoga practice in prayer pose or child’s pose, our instructor invites us to set an intention for the practice.  Inwardly, I am anything but calm and quiet.  My sit bone, or toes, or forehead—whatever is closest to the floor presses into the mat not to ground myself but because I am angry and want to yell, “Can we cut the new age lingo? I have no idea what you’re talking about!”  (Okay, who couldn’t benefit from a one- or two-sentence explanation of the yoga jargon?)

Merriam-Webster to the rescue!  Of the six definitions listed in my dictionary, I think the first is the definition I am after: “a determination to act in a certain way: RESOLVE.”²  Here is the list of synonyms: intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, and goal.  When you parse out the definitions of these words with similar meanings, you discover differing degrees of determination, deliberateness, and ability to measure what has been accomplished.

On December 31, 2017, I chose to set intentions for 2018 instead of resolutions or goals. I did so because I liked the freedom of intentions.  To this perfectionist, broken resolutions are failures, as are unattained goals.  And I do not need that type of failure right now, not when I trying to live into what I perceive God calling me to be and do.

But, as Willard says, we have to decide to act our intentions, or else they stay in the wish-and-want realm.  Failure to act on our intentions gets us nowhere. 

In 2018, I have paved my road with good intentions.  But I am not merely standing on the road, staring at the scenery, pondering my awesome intentions.  I am acting on them–not every day, but often enough to see that my road is going somewhere good.

I wrote my intentions on a pale blue Post-It note and stuck it to the wall in my office.  It’s at eye-level.  Even if my laptop is open, I can still see my intentions. When I sit down at my desk to grade a paper, look up a recipe, study the Bible, or check Facebook, I see four words in all caps in teal ink: FLYWHEEL, INQUIRE, WRITE, and WALL.  Each word represents one intention for this year.

If you want to know more about those intentions—what they mean, why I set them, and what I am learning as I act on them—then stay tuned for the rest of this series.


¹ Willard, D. (2002) Renovation of the heart: Putting on the character of Christ. Colorado Springs: NavPress, p. 87-89.
² Intention. (1993) In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (10th Ed.) Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc, p. 608.

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