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Hoover Dam: A church lesson on problem solving


By Clay Morgan

The Hoover Dam was constructed during the Great Depression and dedicated on September 30, 1935, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was the first man-made structure to exceed the masonry mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Building something that big came with a lot of challenges. The first challenge — the fact that rivers don't tend to follow human wishes — had to make even the idea of building the biggest dam the world had ever seen seem daunting.

Throughout the construction, unexpected challenges continued to pop up — all to be met with innovative solutions. Human lives were always on the line. Indeed, dozens of men died in the effort to make the American Southwest thrive.

If you've been leading in the church world for any length of time, you have likely encountered more problems than you would find in a math textbook. The ability to work through those issues is one of the most important skills a leader can develop.

On September 30, as we celebrate the birth of the Hoover Dam, let us honor one of the most astonishing feats in U.S. history by learning from its story.

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Here are five steps to help your church navigate the river of issues flowing your way:

Step 1: Don't rush in

A lot of people attack problems without truly understanding them. "Ready. Fire. Aim." rarely works. Wise leaders spend much of their time thinking about problems before rushing in and attempting solutions.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions." The sentiment is a good one. Problem solving done well is an exercise in critical thinking.

Step 2: Define the problem

How well can you define your problem? The first thoughts that come to mind probably center around the tension or pain you're experiencing as a result of the issue.

Think of a specific problem you're dealing with and ask yourself these three questions:

  • Is it a short-term or long-term issue?
  • Is it "mission critical"?
  • Is it something only you can fix or can you delegate finding the solution?

Next, focus on concrete facts. Use the journalist's questions of who, what, when, where, why and how. Be as specific as possible in your answers.

A S.W.O.T. analysis, which helps you identify your church's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, can also be useful in defining problems.

The Hoover Dam story offers some literally concrete illustrations of what we're exploring. The dam contains enough concrete to pave a strip of road 16 feet wide and 8 inches thick from San Francisco to New York City. Project leader Frank Crowe created an elaborate cable system to deliver a large bucket of concrete every 78 seconds. As the material cured, it generated a lot of heat. If the concrete had been poured nonstop, it would have taken 125 years to cool. Their solution was the 1930s equivalent of going to the moon.

It's tempting to dive into trying solutions, but we must first understand what problem we are trying to fix. Echoing Einstein's thought is the Pareto principle: Spend at least 80 percent of the time understanding a problem and the remaining actually implementing a solution.

By understanding the timeframe, impact and scope of a problem, you will have a better handle on what role you should play and how to find feasible solutions.

Step 3: Find the root cause

Consider how to find the root cause of problems with less concrete situations. Root cause is the lowest level on which you can act. Consider these questions as you try to understand your problem:

  • Are you examining the cause of the problem or its symptoms?
  • Are you being proactive or reactive? Are you getting ahead of the issue and looking for the lowest level on which you can act?
  • Are you addressing the actual problem or applying quick fixes and remaining stuck with the status quo?

Consider asking several questions or diagramming the problem to eliminate false causes. Again, don't try to solve every problem at once or by yourself.

It's frustrating to waste time working on the wrong problem. We burn a lot of valuable time and energy by addressing symptoms rather than issues. Firefighters both fight the flames and work to discover the source of the blaze in order to prevent future fires.

Step 4: Develop solutions

Now that you've considered your problem from every angle, how do you solve it?

Start by brainstorming solutions. Turn off the reality filters and start throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Get creative.

Involve people with different perspectives. Good leaders ask for help. Flexibility is key when tackling problems. We must be able to ask for and integrate multiple viewpoints.

Some solutions can be difficult to accept. Church leaders must recognize when to end a ministry or when to replace volunteers. It's tough, but remember John 15:1-17: God teaches us to prune for growth, so that our efforts will be multiplied.

So, how did Frank Crowe solve the problem of the heat from the curing concrete? He had his team install nearly 600 miles of one-inch pipe throughout the dam. They filled the pipes with ice cold water from the problematic Colorado River, and the concrete hardened rapidly. It was a new, previously unthought of solution.

Step 5: Implement and measure solutions

We have to be able to vet potential solutions and pilot our teams through their implementation. Start with whatever solution offers the biggest potential benefit yet requires the lowest effort to try.

As you turn squishy ministry goals into clear measures, track your progress. Some leaders resist trying to quantify ministry success. How do you measure spiritual transformation by tracking attendance? You can't, but there are several other positive reasons for measuring church metrics.

The more effective a solution, the less time you will need to spend making sure it sticks and the less money you'll spend monitoring or worrying that the problem will recur. Crowe's cold water pipes were error proof and inspired future engineering feats that continue today.

A legacy of solving problems

The more influence we have, the more problems we will have to deal with; the more adept we are at solving them, the more influence we'll gain.

The first concrete was poured at the Hoover Dam site on June 6, 1933. The last was poured less than two years later, ahead of schedule by a couple years. Building a dam to tame the fifth largest river in the United States provided water and hydroelectric power for the developing Southwest and created Lake Mead, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.

As did those builders, we face a lot of hard thought and work as we create our best. In the end, we have an opportunity to leave a beautiful legacy that future generations will appreciate and enjoy.

Let United Methodist Communications help you find solutions! We offer free to low-cost church web hosting, communications training and a church marketing plan tool to help you grow your ministry!  

Clay Morgan

Clay Morgan is an author from Dallas, Texas who spent a decade teaching college courses in the social sciences before becoming a consultant in communications and organizational strategy. Clay enjoys writing at the intersection of culture and spirituality. He has done ministry with college students for years and loves finding creative ways to engage millennials.