For several years I lived in Joseph, Oregon, a small community (1000 people) tucked up in the far northeastern corner of Oregon. The house I lived in was heated by a wood stove, so during the fall and winter I would step outside and split wood to take in and toss on the fire. Joseph is located right next to the fabulous and mystical Wallowa Lake, which is cradled by two picture-perfect lateral moraines deposited during the most recent periods of the Ice Age. Wallowa Lake is a favorite stopover for migrating waterfowl, especially Canada Geese. So it was that frequently as I was chopping wood, a skein of geese would fly overhead, flapping and honking to beat the band. Sometimes they flew so low that not only could I distinguish their individual honks, but I could also hear the flap of their wings. I would stand there enchanted and delighted by the experience. I never tire of hearing honking geese.
Occasionally I would hear a strange sound. It had a tinge of desperation, and mournfulness to it. Looking up, it would turn out to be a solitary goose flapping wildly, looking for its flock or its mate. Viewing it, I came to realize that geese are meant to be together. A lone goose is not only a sad goose, it is an endangered goose.
Scientists have studied geese in flight and have made several interesting discoveries. For instance, flying in a V-formation conserves 36-70% of energy the geese would use flying alone. Apparently by flying in a V places the trailing goose's head right at the trailing tip of the wings of the goose in front, and the trailing goose benefits from the uplift generated by the wing-flapping of the preceding goose. The geese in a skein change leaders frequently to prevent any single goose from becoming worn-out. (See discussion of this at http://jeb.biologists.org/cgi/content/abstract/128/1/445 and http://beheco.oxfordjournals.org/content/15/1/158.abstract).
Nearly thirty years ago, Browne Barr, who was at that time Dean of San Francisco Theological Seminary, came across this information concerning the reasons geese fly in a v-formation and honk while they fly. It occurred to him that this behavior of geese provided an important insight into how congregations could function effectively and healthily. He published a book entitled High Flying Geese in which he discusses some of these insights. In his opening, he says this about his research:
One time, when I was full of despair about the Church, I heard a preacher claim that geese flying in formation fly seventy percent faster than a single goose. Could that really be true? Seeking the answer became the genesis of this little book about geese in flight and the Church. Full of excitement about this illustration I telephoned a friend who is a zoologist. I told him what I had heard. He agreed that it was a splendid sermon illustration except for one thing. He suspected it was too good to be true. 'I don't know much about the flight of geese,' he said, 'but I'll check it out with one of my colleagues who does.' A few days later he called me. 'About those geese,' he began. 'Not only is it true what the preacher said about the speed of geese in formation, but there is a lot more I think you'll want to hear. You've really hit the jackpot this time.'Here are some of his insights about high-flying geese as applied church congregations:
1. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an “uplift” for the bird following. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds 71% more flying range than if each bird flew alone. Lesson: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.
2. Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone, and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the “lifting power” of the birds immediately in front. Lesson: If we have the sense of a goose, we will go in formations with those who are headed where we want to go.
3. When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies at the point position. Lesson: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks, and sharing leadership—with people, as with geese, interdependent with each other.
4. The geese in formation honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. Lesson: we need to make sure our honking from behind is to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot, two geese drop out of formation and follow their fellow member down to help and provide protection. They stay with this member of the flock until he or she is either able to fly again or dies. Then they launch out on their own, with another formation or catch up with their own flock. Lesson: If we have as much sense as the geese, we’ll stand by each other.
When we gather as a church community, it isn't simply to be entertained on Sunday mornings, as if we were gathering at a theatre or movie or even a concert. We gather in the context of a greater mission and purpose. We can most effectively achieve that purpose and mission by behaving like a skein of geese in flight.
(Image credits: Joseph, Oregon panorama found at www.josephoregon.com; Wallowa lake from my personal collection; flying geese found at http://www.clker.com/cliparts/1/0/1/b/12198030981941109429flying%20geese%202.svg.hi.png; geese flying found at http://www.1atexasgoosehunting.com/canada-geese-flying.jpg)