Praying for the Flywheel Effect

by | Jan 25, 2024

In this final reflection on Courageous Discipleship, here is an excerpt of my address to the Diocesan Convention on January 27.

2023 is my thirteenth year as your bishop and the fifth year of our strategic plan. We are in the final two-year stretch of a journey we began in 2020, intentionally investing diocesan resources in mutually discerned areas of focus.

As you know from your own experience, any long-term, vision-driven endeavor goes through stages. It begins with the early enthusiasm of mountain-top clarity; then back down into the valleys of reality. What follows is a middle stage marked by setbacks and unanticipated complications. In that “messy middle,”1 your understanding of what’s possible changes. It can be a discouraging time, and tiring, because you’re working hard with little to show for your efforts. You might even want to quit. But if by grace and with perseverance you keep going, a new energy can emerge, as your steady efforts gain momentum. You’re working just as hard as before , but now, at last, you see the fruit of your labors.

Author Jim Collins calls this shift in energy and momentum “the flywheel effect,”2 borrowing from the image of turning a massively heavy metal disk on an axle, one rotation at a time. In the beginning, it takes all your effort to turn the flywheel one rotation, and the second time is just as hard, and the third. But as you continue pushing, the weight that once held you back begins to work in your favor. The amazing thing is that there isn’t one moment or thing you did that alone can account for the shift—the breakthrough comes through the cumulative result of countless small steps.

In Scripture, this same process is described as the fruit of faithfulness, the virtue of perseverance. What’s more, a spiritual transformation takes place within us as we walk by faith toward a vision that initially we were not capable of fulfilling through our efforts alone. By the grace of God, we become people who are now capable of doing what was once impossible. It takes more than courage to keep going; this is work of the heart.

The Scripture passage that keeps coming to me as I prepare for Convention is from the Gospel of Luke. It’s a simple introductory sentence to a parable, to make sure that we don’t miss its meaning.

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
Luke 18:1

The story that follows is of an unscrupulous judge worn down by a persistent widow who keeps badgering him for justice against her enemy. I love the fact that Jesus tells an outrageous story as a way of encouraging us not to lose heart, to “guard our hearts,” as is written in the Book of Proverbs, “for everything we do flows from them.”

Then I began to explore other places throughout the Gospels where Jesus speaks directly to our hearts. In the Gospel of John, he says to his disciples on the eve of his arrest, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” There were lots of things to be troubled by that night, as there are for us today. Jesus doesn’t promise the disciples, or us, an escape from trouble. What he promises is that in him, there is a deeper well from which to draw, a peace surpassing understanding, a love that is the antidote to anxiety and fear.

Elsewhere Jesus warns against what he calls “hardness of heart,” an image found throughout Scripture to describe what happens when we withdraw into ourselves. Hardness of heart is a survival response, a way we try to protect ourselves from the pain of a broken heart. Here Jesus seems to be saying that our hearts will break in this life, that they need to break sometimes, or we risk turning to stone. Looking at the pain so many must endure, Jesus’ heart breaks too. In our broken hearts, united with him, lies the hope for this world.

The theme of our Convention is Courageous Discipleship, an acknowledgement that these are days which call for courage in nearly every sphere of life, and what we have in common is our commitment to follow Jesus. To be a courageous disciple is to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, with the goal of becoming more like him—loving as he loves, forgiving as he forgives, being merciful as he is merciful, and joining him in caring for others and healing our world.

It’s astonishing how much trust Jesus places in his disciples to carry out his ministry. From reading the gospels, we know that the first disciples weren’t exactly up for the task, and frankly, neither are we when we rely on ourselves alone. Brother Curtis Alquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminds us that Jesus calls us to be his disciples not because we’re amazing. God’s grace is what’s amazing, being made perfect in our weakness.

As a diocese, we’re turning the flywheels toward what we believe is God’s preferred future of vitality and greater capacity for ministry. We have every reason to be hopeful that in the next two years we will see the momentum shift and experience the fruit of faithful efforts. In the meantime, we entrust our hearts to Jesus.

If there’s one thing I know about the Diocese of Washington is that we have an outsized impact for good in this world. For that reason, I’m convinced that growth in capacity for ministry is God’s preferred future for The Episcopal Church, not for the sake of budgets and buildings, but for the lives Jesus’ love can touch as we give the Spirit more to work with through us.

Thus I am grateful to renew my commitment to a life of courageous discipleship alongside you. I pray that you are inspired to do the same. If your flywheel feels too heavy, remember that you’re not alone. We’re in this heart work together.

1Scott Belskey, The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture
2Jim Collins, The Flywheel Effect