Learning from a Chambered Nautilus


When I was young, the word Nautilus made me think of one of my favorite books, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” And this corresponds with one of my favorite movies (of the same name). Then when I was in the US Navy, the Nautilus made me think of the USS Nautilus (SSN-570), the first nuclear powered submarine in… well… all of history. I trained at the nuclear plant that was a copy of the one on the Nautilus. Years later, I had the opportunity to visit the actual submarine, although long-since decommissioned.

Today, I don’t think of either of those things. I think of the animal, the chambered nautilus. At our counseling center, we use the nautilus shell as a symbol of growth and transformation.

In its living form I think provides a metaphor for the church and for ministry.

How does a nautilus grow. It gets bigger…. a pretty common implication of growing. And as it grows, it outgrows its previous home. Different creatures have different ways of doing it.

Many animals shed their skins. This includes those with exoskeletons… but also animals like snakes. Hermit crabs move from borrowed lodging to a new borrowed lodging (much like humans do).

The Nautilus doesn’t do things this way. The nautilus starts very small in a small chamber shell. As it grows, it creates the shell that slowly spirals outward. As it moves out, it closes off the area in the shell it was once in.

It can seem like a bit of a waste. It is not efficient to carry those old chambers it doesn’t use, and cannot use. But in truth, it does use these chambers, but in a different way. The chambers have air in them. The air provides a couple of things. First, it provides neutral buoyancy. That actually makes it move MORE efficiently, not less. Second, it provides orientation giving it more stability. It maintains this orientation giving it better control as to where it goes in the water.

What's special about the shape of a Nautilus shell? Find out. | Human World  | EarthSky

I would argue that in the church, there is wisdom in this. Some churches seem to get stuck in a space that doesn’t fit it. Sometimes they embrace tradition a bit too much. But things go the other way as well. Some churches are so focused on being “current” that they lose their touch of history. I have been in groups where people get a bit giggly if one uses a song in worship that is more than 20 years old. I used to be a member of a church where the pastor stated publicly that he would change the decor in the church every couple of months to ensure that things would not become stuck in a long-term tradition.

This is too bad. The church I was raised in has a building that it 124 years old, and had existed as a congregation before that. Our sending church is 165 years old. As a Protestant, I am part of a movement that is at least 500 years old, and as a Christian, I am part of a movement that is almost 2000 years old.

The humans that make up the church (whether local church or universal church) are ephemeral. They are like soap bubbles… some bubbles endure for awhile, while some are barely present before they are gone… but all are relatively brief. And this thing we call the present (“The Now”) is even less enduring. It is more like a a bit of sunlight that glints off of one of those soap bubbles.

The church that rejects traditions and symbols are likely to lose identity… and can often careen off course.

While traditions, rituals, and symbols can hold back the church… shackling it to a past that has lost relevance, they can also give stability that leads to good direction. I have seen so many churches that have hired new pastors. These pastors don’t know the DNA of the church, and have no sense of the history of the church. In fact, arguably, the church members hardly know the church’s own identity themselves. When these pastors come in… they bring in their own novelties. Sometimes, these novelties are good and valuable. Often, however, they are simply bringing a tradition from a different church to replace the one that already is embedded in this church. And sometimes, it is worse than that. Sometimes the pastor saw a Youtube video, or went to some conference, that is marketing some innovation in theology or practice, and that pastor buys into it. Often the logic is, “Hey, it seems to work over there, so it must work here!”, without consideration of what differences in setting may mean to this (and often hardly considering what “works” mean in terms of the church vision and mission).

There needs to be a balance of embracing tradition and embracing change. There needs to be wisdom. Years ago, I was at a church council meeting. They were looking into searching for a new senior pastor. I suggested that we need to set up a pastoral search committee, get a list of possible candidates, and then do background checks in terms of their theology, track record, and behavior. I was told that this is not the way this church does things. Their method is this… the church council gets together and perhaps one of the members says that they know that “Ptr. A” is available and seeking to pastor a church. Then a member of the council contacts that pastor and invites him (since this was a church where the pastor would always be a ‘him’) to preach. If the preaching goes well… the church calls him. Interestingly, this is a tradition to reject tradition. It is tradition in that “this is the way we have always done things.” It is a rejection of tradition in that there is nothing in the process to ensure that the pastor is the right fit for the church. There is nothing to ensure that direction of the church is affirmed and maintained. I would argue that in this case, to honor the tradition of the church, one needs to reject some aspects of the tradition. Maybe my suggestion was not good, but if so, neither was their tradition in finding a pastor. The church could easily become like a nautilus without air in its shell and so moves more like an anemone that has broken free of its anchor point (awkwardly with little control of its final destination) than of a healthy nautilus. I have seen a lot of churches that have been DESTROYED by bringing in a new pastor with a radically different vision. I am thinking of one right now that lost most of its membership when it hired a pastor whose beliefs and practices were WAY out of line of church. After he left, members said, “Oh, we did not know what we were getting!” However, that was hardly an excuse since he had his own website that clearly articulated his views and practices that were in many ways in opposition to the church that brought him in.

Of course, this is not simply about churches. This applies to parachurch organizations as well. I worked at a Christian Summer Camp for five years. The first three years it was led by a director who had been there for many years. He was, perhaps, a bit set in his ways, but he understood how the camp worked, and kept it successfully doing its intended mission. The director retired and was replaced with a pastor who took over who had long been associated with the camp. He kept things pretty much the same. Was the camp “stuck in the past.” In some ways, probably Yes. But much of what they did was good and worked. The first year there, they hired a new director from a different camp. As we entered the camp schedule a pattern emerged. An issue would come up and one of us from the staff who had been around for awhile would give a response to the situation based on what was done before. The new director would then pipe in and say, “Oh yes… that is the way we have always done it.” He would say it in a funny voice as a sort of verbal meme. Then he would decide to do things in a different and innovative way. Eventually, I found out that what he was doing was NOT innovative. Rather it was simply what he did at the camp he used to be at. He was simply replacing traditions.

I can’t remember how many years he served there as director… but he eventually got in trouble by mocking the board of directors for making a decision that he did not agree with. Truthfully, I am not sure whether I agree with the director or with the board in the issue (that I won’t share here). However, the board decision was very much in line with the roots, traditions, and support structure of the camp. The director was removed and replaced with a friend of mine who had worked there many years, and did (I believe) a better job of innovating in a way that honors the DNA of the organization.

Innovating in ways that are in line with this DNA actually makes change happen easier, normally, than simply diving in and trying to force change. This is like the nautilus where the extra baggage it carries gives it neutral buoyancy… making it easier to move rather than harder.

I think I will stop here. If there are other things that one can learn from the nautilus, feel free to share it in the comments.

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