I was living in eastern Washington when Mount St. Helens blew megatons of rock, dirt, and ash into the sky back in 1980. For more than two days we watched the ash fall and accumulate in the fields until it blanketed almost everything. Though there was a good bit of fear about the effects it might have on us, it turned out to be a boon to the farmer. Still, it was the enemy of car air filters everywhere. One unexpected gift that the ash brought was quickly discovered by potters and ceramic dealers alike. The ash became the base for prize-winning glazes.

Beautiful glazes on ceramics and pottery often make the difference between a nondescript pot used to store cherry tomatoes and a priceless pot on display in an art studio. It’s all in the hands of the potter.

And speaking of clay, in the late 1980s, I moved to North Florida to begin my ministerial studies. As a student, I began serving a rural church located on a road where the paving ended and the red clay ruts began. I suppose in a potter’s hands, that red clay could have been the base for ceramics of great beauty (with enough Mount St. Helens glaze), but as far as I was concerned, it was the bane of life… or at least of the side panels of my white Pinto (did I mention I was in college?).

It turns out that the church is a lot like clay. In the right hands it can become a vessel of priceless beauty. Left to itself, though, at best it’s the raw materials of what could be and at worst it’s an unsightly blight on the face of the faith. 

Church leadership makes the difference between the two. A great leader who not only pursues the leading of the Spirit, but has the skills and finesse to navigate the molding, firing, and glazing of a congregation is a priceless laborer. Unfortunately, there are too many leaders who are either faithful in pursuing the Spirit, but have inadequate skills and virtually no finesse or who have adequate training, but couldn’t find God in a burning bush.

But what about the church? Doesn’t it have a role in all this? Yes, but it’s more limited than most observers believe. A church really is like clay. In the hands of a competent potter it can be molded and shaped; the impurities identified and dealt with; the flaws reshaped, recast, or repaired; and once it’s been glazed, fired, and polished it can become what the Master Potter envisioned.

John Maxwell said that “It all rises and falls on leadership.” Great leaders aren’t necessarily born that way; they can be trained and coached, their skills and their spirituality can be honed and sharpened, and when given a lump of clay they have the ability to mold the church into an entity with an effective, faithful, and sustainable future.

Question: How do you believe churches are best “molded?” What are some areas of a church that are especially difficult to mold? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.