In The Driver’s Seat (Thoughts from a Bus Driver – Part 1)

You’ve probably ridden on a bus at some point in your life.

But have you ever driven a bus?

From the perspective of simply operating the vehicle, it’s not terribly complicated to make it go and stop. The pedals and the steering wheel and the turn signals all operate pretty much the same as most cars or trucks. The transmission may be different than you’re used to, but most of them have automatic transmissions and really function in a familiar manner to a driver of any experience.

But when you see that big console of switches and realize there are a lot more lights on this thing than your car, it starts to get a little more challenging. What are those flashing yellow lights and what’s up with the stop sign attached to the side and what are the places you have to stop where other vehicles may not?

But those are mostly simple details that just have to be learned. It’s not a huge hill to climb.

Back in my public school teaching days, I had to get my school bus license. I had to learn all of the unique regulations for large passenger vehicles. But then I had to learn all of the particular regulations and operational practices for driving a school bus… such as all of the proper safety procedures of stopping on the side of the road for passengers to enter or exit the vehicle and what must be done to ensure that your precious cargo would arrive at its appropriate destination (and in proper working order, of course).

We had to study all of the regulations and talk through all of the strange situations we would likely encounter. But then we had to actually get in the bus and go practice. We had to drive around town learning how to make right turns with climbing the curbs or knocking down mail boxes. We had to learn how to back up a 40-foot vehicle without somehow going sideways. We had to practice the very important sequence of steps for crossing a railroad track.

All of this was no big deal really. We made mistakes. We learned from them. It wasn’t much different from my high school driver’s ed course in which every blatant driving mistake was allegedly pledging a contribution to the coach’s lunch.

And then we had to go and take our test. We were told very plainly that any violation of a traffic law would be an automatic fail. By the way, the traffic law said that you can only turn on the red flashing lights (and accompanying stop sign) when someone is entering or exiting the vehicle. So if you do that when you pull up to the railroad track in an effort to see more clearly, you fail the test and have to come back next week. Learned that from a friend who is, of course, me.

But even with the examiner in the vehicle, it really wasn’t a big deal to operate the bus.

You pass the test. You go get your license. You get your special school bus license from the state school board. You’re all set.

Leadership is, in many contexts, much like driving a bus. We have the responsibility to operate with care and caution to get the people on our bus to the place they need to go. In more than 20 years as a pastor, I have done a lot of bus driving—in both a literal and figurative sense.

I want to share a few observations about being the bus driver.

First, almost everyone who has ever ridden a bus knows how it should be driven regardless of the fact that they have never done it. They didn’t take the classes and learn what the switches do. They never had to learn how to make a right turn from one narrow street to another without smashing pedestrians. But they know how to shout, “Curb check!”

In my personal leadership context, it seem that most people that have spent much time in a church think they know what a pastor does… but I’ve never been able to get the same answers independently from two different people. I know firsthand of a room of 8 deacons that had 7 different understandings of what the pastor’s role ought to be. Do you see what I’m getting at? Whether or not we know, we’re pretty sure we know.

Second, when the bus is full of people who think they can drive, you can bet that there are a vast array of expectation as to how it should go. It doesn’t matter that they can’t see out the windshield like the driver. It’s of no consequence that they have no idea what mechanical challenges or road conditions the driver is having to compensate for to move safely along. Having no experience doing something does not at all keep most folks from having an opinion on how it should be.

In  most dimensions of life, we all tend to have a really high opinion of our own opinion. That results in leaders being criticized in comparison to standards they may not even recognize as expectations.

Finally, no matter how smoothly it may be operated, it’s still a bus. It will not only feel every bump in the road, it will toss the passengers around at each one. Life is that way, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what our station in the world, bumps will come and they will affect us all.

Why bother to point all of this out?

Through these unprecedented days of sequential crises, leaders in every context tend to face more criticism than ever. I want to beg you to be kind and gracious and patient with them. Just like no bus driver ever wants to check the curb or bounce passengers out of their seats, it’s sometimes simply unavoidable.

And please… PLEASE take some time to PRAY for your leaders BEFORE you offer your criticism. They may need to hear what you have to say, but if you will take the time to pray for them first it will change both the way you speak it AND the way they hear it. Then, of course, it’s also possible that God may tell you to let it go.

P.S.—I want to thank my CalvaryDuncan family for demonstrating this grace to me as I feel my way through these strange days. You make me want to be a better pastor.

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