On teaching a pig to sing(*)

I’m not looking for Handel’s “Messiah”, Meatloaf’s “I’ll do anything for love but …” or even Manfred Mann’s" Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do." [Mind you, the latter might be helpful in interpreting some of the things I’ve heard over the years].

Because I like pigs – I think they’re cool, friendly and intelligent animals – I don’t want to make it too stressful. I’m content to set my goals rather lower, at least to start with. To be honest if I get to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in a few weeks, I’d be really happy and feel I’ve achieved something.

Catching the Tune

This isn’t really about teaching a pig to sing, although it’s surprising what one will do for someone they trust. Someone I know used to take his prize boar for a walk every night: he, (the pig that is), loved hoovering up the conkers under the chestnut trees. It seemed to do him good: he won several prizes, had a very glossy coat and bright eyes.pig.jpg

Teaching a pig to sing is a phrase that came into my mind when I was trying to work through a difficult problem which didn’t have an immediate or obvious solution. It couldn’t be left too long: inattention or delay would result in a much more tangled web to unpick, with significant consequences for those directly involved and with a high degree of risk from collateral damage.

Did my desire to solve everything in one go reflect the fact that the circumstances demanded it? Was I trying to create space and/or time (mainly for me, perhaps for others) by trying to wrap it all up? Was it hubris on my part, the pastoral cavalry riding in to save the day? Might a better approach have been to set my sights lower, aiming for small steps which could be accepted and owned by the people concerned, rather than big picture thinking which glossed over the important detail?

In short was I really trying to teach this pig to sing when what I really needed was to recognise the notes that made up the tune?

As I tried to isolate the real issues from the superficial, it struck me that I was problem solving and not dealing with a person’s life: I’d looked at the big picture at the expense of the finer detail.

Feeling the rhythm

Strategic Leadership encourages the use of the wide angled lens, seeing the big picture whilst assuming that the finer details will be considered, ironed out and/or incorporated in the process of delivery. This approach looks to popularise and embed organisational values that can be embraced, owned and shared by individuals who are part of the group.

That isn’t wrong in and of itself – an overview is vital to understand context, trajectory and direction – but it can mask the “one more fact” that attention to detail brings to the process. The choices we make involve and affect others and it’s important, then, to take particular care that what we do and decide benefits them, widening their access to life affirming opportunities in the process. Emotional intelligence is a vital cog in this mechanism.

Trying to solve the big picture with an inadequate or superficial grasp of the detail reduces the individual from someone to be helped and supported, to the status of an issue to be (re)solved. This isn’t care in the biblical understanding, as we would want it for ourselves or as people deserve. In the bigger picture of “church” (as community) the individual should not be overlooked, if we claim to be an authentic community with shared values and universal access to God.

Singing the Lord’s Song

We attempt the difficult because there is no virtue in doing that which is easy.

I’m not sure who wrote these words [and I can’t trace them on the ‘net] but I remember them being quoted at school, presumably as a means of encouragement to strive beyond our comfort zone.  Laudable as these sentiments are, they encourage us to overlook the small(er) things that are easier to deal with by setting our goals and targets on the big picture. We will no longer be content with teaching our pig to sing, we’ll soon be wielding the conductor’s baton for a piggy voice choir with a recording contract and a place on “Help I’m a pig get me back in the Sty” Reality TV Show.

It’s not a case of either/or but of both/and. Seeing the big picture will only bring 20/20 vision when we realise what (or rather, who) we are working with and what we are aiming to achieve. All churches have opportunities of getting involved in communities - this requires thought, prayer and planning, as well as resourcing. Not all will be involved in the same way – each is unique – but every one can do something.

The greatest impact comes when, in seeking to express our faith and our values, we ensure that we are not teaching pigs to sing but are introducing people to Christ.


(*) By the way please don’t try this exercise at home: teaching a pig to sing takes a long time and it really, really annoys the pig. If you really want to try follow this link to see how it has been done https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMw5jzO_lv0

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