Spiderwebs and Hiking Sticks: How You Can Support a Visionary Leader

by Clayton Shenk

Clayton has spent nearly 30 years in Christian education—much of it pioneering a school in the city of York. But not everyone has the ability to start new projects. How do the rest of us fit in? Visionaries need people who are unlike them, says Clayton. He reflects on the people and tools that have supported his leadership, and describes the strength brought by staff who serve, colleagues who collaborate, and board chairmen who take charge. Even the strongest hiker can use some help with spiderwebs, and even the most visionary leaders need the perspective and commitment of their team members.

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I’ve been teaching school for almost 30 years and (in) two different schools. I taught at Mount Hope for a couple of years and then we founded this school: Tidings of Peace Christian School here in York City.

I was thinking of the analogy that the first hiker gets the spiderwebs. Now that’s from my time with the Appalachian Trail and on the Appalachian Trail, it seemed like those spiders were all hyperactive all night. They were making webs right where we hikers wanted to hike in the morning. Whoever was the first in our party—it was my three sons and I who were hiking together. And there were other hikers; sometimes they would go before us. We always liked to have other hikers go first because they got the spider webs. Sometimes if I was the first hiker, I’d just take my hiking stick and hold it in front of me just to get the spiderwebs. So many spiderwebs! And why so many spiderwebs first thing in the morning?

Well, it’s sort of like starting ministries. The first pastor of the church and the first principal gets all the spiderwebs, all the problems, all the things that you have to iron out and straighten out. So, when we started our school, we had five students, real small. Now, we’re up to 50 students, 24 years later. Thinking back of all the issues that we had to go through, all the policy we had to write, all the details, all the culture that had to be built and some of the mistakes we made in the very first years and how that all worked—it’s sort of like the spider webs. And so many people would like to get on board after it’s rolling, after things are going, after the spiderwebs are taken care of then we’ll jump in and we’ll help you out or we want to teach or we want to help with administration or whatever.

But there’s this uniqueness for the visionary, the uniqueness for the first person there who—you have to think through. There are some who are visionary and some who are maintenance type: “Let’s maintain what’s already going, what’s already rolling.” And the body of Christ, there are different ways. We all have our own giftedness and we can’t say, “Well, because I’m not the eye, I’m not important. Because I’m not the ear, I’m not important.”

We have to encourage our visionaries. We have to help our visionaries along to start the new works and to encourage. because there are plenty of cities that don’t have schools. There are plenty of unreached people that should have schools. But there is a uniqueness about that and some visionaries can get worn out because of all the resistance along the way and people saying, “No, this isn’t going to work. No, this isn’t going to work.”

If you happen to serve with a visionary, you have to also understand that their visionary mindset is not the same managerial mindset that you want to have in some others. And so, we need each other, we need to help along the way, but there is a uniqueness when you are starting something.

The comment I made earlier about the hiking sticks when you’re hiking along the trail. Some people don’t use hiking sticks. Some people just hike the trail and just go and they get their own balance. Most hikers have a stick in each hand and it’s there to help you balance, it’s there to help you up the hill, it’s there for spiderwebs.

Staff that’s there as servants. How can I serve, how can I assist, how can I work? If we’re going to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be servants of all. There are some staff over the years who just have this hyperactive service mode and that really helps versus, “Let’s see, is it three o’clock? Okay, see you tomorrow. I’m out of here.” The least minimum, the least you can do.

I think of Faith Builders administrative team, like the conference for administrators. That’s a good one to help bounce off questions. There’s a conservative Anabaptist group for administrators, an email group. Anytime you have a question you can ask them and you can come up with—like just today we were looking at postage machines. Does anybody run a postage machine for the office? Well, you can ask the administrators. Anybody else have any idea, any pros or cons? And which service did you choose? Did you choose the cheapest or you choose one that was more expensive but more effective? That would be a way to help with getting rid of the spiderwebs.

A good school board that can support you and encourage you—As I think about a hiking stick academically, what will help clear the way? As a visionary, I had to come to a point where I recognized and realized I’ll live three lifetimes without ever getting done all the brainstorms that come to my mind. But there are some people who roll their eyes when you come up with another idea, “Hey, we ought to do this.” They go, “Oh, Brother. Here we go again, Clayton.” There are others who say, “That’s a sometimes idea. Sometimes you have some good ones and sometimes you don’t. That’s a sometimes idea.” But there are others who say, “Well, let’s pray about it, at least let’s think that through.” There are some people who throw water on your ideas right away. “No, that’s not—we never did it before. I don’t know of anybody else who ever did it before and so therefore forget it.” Where a good board, a good support team, a good administrative team can really help. And that’s what the first thing come to my mind as far as an academic hiking stick would help clear those spiderwebs.

In some ways, the administrator has to help train the school board. There are a lot of people who come onto the school board without a clear vision of what a school board really is. What’s the job of the school board?

And so, we had, a few years back, a chairman who had served on another school board before he came to our school. One of the things he implemented was an executive session. Where, prior to that, I was present for all the school board, the whole school board (meeting). Everything that was decided, I was there to help give my input. He implemented executive session where I’m dismissed. At first, I fought that really hard. I was like, “Wait, whoa. I mean, if you can’t say it in front of my face why say it all?” right? They had my input for many other issues, but now it’s their turn. “We’re in charge, we’re the board and we’re going to talk about you, yes, and you’re not going to be present.” And it’s important. It’s like parents, right? There are times when parents have a family discussion and there are times where they talk about the children, just the two of them, and so that’s important.

I think in many ways, part of the visionary, “Hey, let’s start a school. This is Clayton’s idea,” right? It took a little while for the school board to get the idea that, “No, this is our school and we’re in charge of the school and we’re in charge of making sure that 50 years from now when Clayton is dead and gone, that this school is still going.” A board that is really actively trying to learn more what it means to be a board instead of just “I’m a willing soul that’s willing to put in some time once a month,” that’s very, very helpful. The board who reads books and reads books together and then talks about books together and attends seminars together, CASBI or whatever, wherever they go—very, very helpful to get a board who is more than just simply filling time and more than just, “I’m willing. Yes, I want to help this school,” but to say, “I’m in charge of the school and it’s going to rise or fall based on my participation.” That’s very helpful.

The spiderweb are there, right? You have to have to clear them.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Clayton Shenk

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