What is it that differentiates drudgery of task fulfillment from vigorously serving with enthusiasm?
Once there was a small town in the southern Midwest portion of the USA which was located along a beautifully flowing river. The town was constructed there because of its proximity to the river. The businesses and streets were organized and planned around the river’s contours. This allowed people to see the small boats on the river, enjoy the green spaces adjacent to the river, or stop to rest or feed the ducks at the edge of the river. Along the banks, river walls protected the town from occasional flooding. Usually, the river rose 3-5 feet above normal when the winter snow melted and spring rains began. At times, the town leadership thought about raising the height of the wall, but they utilized a sand bagging system instead to secure the town when unusually high water was anticipated or reported farther upstream. Since this type of heavy flooding only happened once every 8 to 10 years, this plan remained the standard practice.
One year, the town leaders heard that the spring forecast called for heavy rain. They decided upon the “usual plan” to employ a dozen men to fill sandbags and begin the preparation for the potential flooding. They budgeted an amount to allow 12 men to work for 8 hours, and tasked each one to fill 100 bags a day (this was a reasonable 12.5 bags per hour). The men were given their supplies, and sand was dumped in strategic places. The work began—“shump, shump” the shovels dug in and sand filled the 25 pound bags. The men worked well, and were able to get just about the desired 1,200 bags filled, but by the end of the day, they were quite tired and had sore muscles from their new activity. It was a challenge to begin day two with the same vigor they had on day one. In fact, on the second day, some of the men decided that $12 an hour was not worth all their sore muscles, so they petitioned for $15 an hour or they threatened that “This would be their last day.” The day ended with only about 950 bags being filled, and the entire group clamoring for higher pay.
The rain had not yet begun to fall, but the forecast was certain of rain, as it had already begun to rain upstream and to their west. Reluctantly, the town leaders granted the request of the workers and day three began with 12 workers filling bags “shump, shump, shump.” As they labored, their happiness with their wage increase faded. Additionally, they wanted other people to tie off and stack the sacks so they could merely focus on filling them. They were only “filling bags,” and as the week progressed, their rest breaks grew longer and longer and their production decreased to only 75-85 bags per worker per day. By the time Saturday rolled around, there were only eight men left and they were not making their quota. In fact, they demanded another pay increase if they were to come back to work on Monday. During this time, the rain had been steadily accumulating upstream, and the reality of flooding was suddenly becoming very real. Sadly, the sand bag production for the full week had produced just over 4,000 bags when the original plan was for those 12 men to produce over 7,000 that week! The town leaders took action by broadcasting the severe need for workers. They offered $20 an hour plus one “stacker” for every three “bag fillers” to expedite the work. About 18 workers began the second week with a minimum goal of 1200 bags per day, and the town maintenance workers took the filled bags and placed them along the river. The new team began to work and made their quota on day one, but soon, the same attitude toward “filling bags” with sand began to infiltrate the group. By the end of the second day, some of the workers receiving this increased wage quit while others demanded even higher pay.
Meanwhile, the rain began and the water began to rise. As the town leaders dealt with the unhappy sand baggers, their production did not increase. But, the people of the town began to see and hear about the flooding upriver, and realized the potential danger. By Thursday, the men had only produced another 3000 sandbags, and discouragement prevailed. It was at this point that the town leadership declared a state of emergency to all the town folk – stop all work and come to the sand piles and help us “save the town!” The people came with their own shovels, and in the middle of the pouring rain, men, women, and children worked from sunrise to sundown, and well into the night filling bags and placing them in piles along the river. The people worked feverishly and with unity to fill over 5,000 bags on Friday, and also on Saturday and Sunday! They were unpaid volunteers, yet they never complained (except when they couldn’t get bags fast enough to keep up with their efforts!).
The water peaked along the piled sandbags, and eventually the rain subsided, and the little town returned to normal. The sandbags were left in place because, due to the high cost of labor to fill the first 25% of the bags, the town leadership did not have any more money to pay workers to remove them. So, the town folk declared the next Saturday as clean-up day, and they all came together to clear away the bags and restore beauty to their waterfront. At a town meeting, the leaders discussed why they were not able to prepare for the emergency with their budgeted labor. The answer came from a wise elder who said, “We made the mistake of hiring people just to fill sand bags—that’s drudgery! We needed people with urgency to save our town!” They proudly labored and celebrated their labor at personal costs.
It was a matter of vision and purpose for the work. The whole town saw the situation as crucial and important and needing action, while the workers only saw some bags, some sand, and their quotas. People who work together on a vision which is much bigger than themselves will attack it with vigor, self-sacrifice, and determination against great odds. But the man who looks for work only for his advantage, not seeing how it fits into a purpose greater than himself, will always become increasingly dissatisfied and unproductive. Vision will supply a state of dissatisfaction with the present situation, moving us to act with others to bring about a preferred future. There was a watermark in the story of the little town, which, if reached, would make the preservation of what they valued to be vulnerable in the changing conditions. So, as we serve in our work, there is a watermark of changing influences which will put at risk that which we value. This forecast of change may come from the culture in which we live, economic challenges, or other sources. To preserve the past yet not adapt to the reality of change will only lead us to extinction. To be influential in the future, we must hold our values in place, pay attention to the world around us, and seek to adapt and reframe our vision to preserve the mission of our lives and organizations. In America, and our world, the changes have never been as widespread. As people of God, let us be influencers of the future for the glory of God.
– Ken B. Kemper