Here’s my confession: I enjoy piecing together jigsaw puzzles.

I’m still not sure whether my affinity for puzzles parallels my work as a pastor, but I have discovered that bringing order to the chaos of this fragmentation is both relaxing and reflective.

As an elementary school kid, I remember learning the names and locations of the 50 states by putting together a United States map puzzle.

A few years ago, I dared to tackle a more challenging puzzle of dark gray wolves in a snowy landscape. The colors were eerily similar – black, charcoal, gray, grayish white, and snow white.  The wolves’ whiskers were almost identical to the branches on the trees. And the raised fur around the ears resembled the tuffs of snow-splattered grass forming a worn carpet at the feet of these fierce canines.

Like life and like pastoral ministry, this puzzle was perplexing and time-consuming. But I found it to be incredibly rewarding to observe a full portrait gradually emerge as previously disconnected pieces were conjoined.

In recent weeks, I have tackled the puzzle table again. And periodically throughout the day, I find myself relaxing and reflecting as little pieces connect in a way that gives shape to the Mesa Arch monument in Canyonlands National Park or recreate a scene from the Cinca Terra in northern Italy.

Here are a few takeaways from my reflections on puzzling:

  • Every piece counts.
  • Force-fitting is futile.
  • It helps to keep the big picture in front of you.
  • No one piece alone creates the big picture.
  • Some pieces that don’t look like they go together, do.
  • Some pieces that look like they go together, don’t.
  • It helps to know the parameters and perimeters, so start with the edges.
  • Looking at the puzzle from different vantage points provides a clearer perspective on the big picture.
  • Make progress one piece at a time.
  • You will be tempted at some point to quit. Don’t!
  • Putting together little puzzles within the big puzzle helps to complete the big picture more efficiently.

Life is a puzzle. And so is ministry. As pastors, we inherit a collection of disconnected pieces, pixels of the kingdom, egos that want to be the big picture rather than contributing to the big picture.

And part of the joy of life is finding a piece here and there that fits. On the more discouraging days, helping seeming misfits to fit provides just enough inspiration to keep working at it.

The current ecclesial and cultural paradigm shift we find ourselves in makes congregational dynamics considerably more puzzling. CHC consultants are committed to the local church and we stand ready to assist you as you navigate the unique challenges and opportunities of your place of service. For more information about our services, please contact us.

Barry Howard
Dr. Barry Howard retired in 2017 after spending 39 years in pastoral ministry. He served the last 12 years as the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church Pensacola. He completed his coach training at the Pastoral Institute in Columbus, Georgia and he has a natural talent for fostering healthy practices among clergy and congregations. He is a coach for CHC.