There are engineers and then there are engineers.

My friend Forest Jennings was one of the best practical engineers I have known. I met him when he was in his lats fifties or early sixties. He was the county engineer of Adams County, North Dakota. Forest didn’t gain most of his skills from his formal education. He learned to shoot a grade and determine level by following around an old surveyor who hired him to hold the stick while the surveyor operated the transit. He could figure the amount of gravel needed to improve a county road and estimate how much hot oil to order when paving. But Forest was also a good hand to have around for almost any project. He could set the first course of siding in place when the parsonage needed new siding. He set the first row of shingles when the church needed a new roof. He rebuilt a retaining wall in a location that was too close to use a skid steer loader. He could remodel a bathroom and repair a lawn mower. If there was something that needed fixing, he could figure out how to fix it without having the repair cost an arm and a leg.

Forest understood people, too. He was a first-rate moderator for our church and he could supervise a team of employees and keep them all working. No matter what the project, I enjoyed working with Forest and I learned something new each time we worked together. He taught me a lot of things about the practical side of running a church. Seminaries teach theology, but they don’t teach how to repair the sink in the church kitchen. It is amazing to me how often my career as a pastor landed me in the midst of a simple repair or a building maintenance problem that needed to be solved. Forest was an excellent teacher in my first parish who helped me become a better pastor.

Another engineer in my life took an entirely different route to his vocation. Phil Leahy was trained the best schools of the east. He earned his degrees before he was called to serve in a time of national crisis. The Second World War enlisted him as a professional engineer. When a top secret laboratory was needed to help explore nuclear weapons and later the use of nuclear power for submarines and ships, Phil was the first to be called. His official identification badge bore the number 0002. He designed roads and buildings and oversaw their construction. He developed protocols for keeping information secret and for getting the job done. When a communications tower was needed, he sighted the line to the top of a high hill and ran the bulldozer himself to put in the road. Like Forest, Phil was full of practical skills. He could fix all kinds of things that got broken. He knew enough about air conditioning systems to estimate the size and type of units to install in our church, but he could also caulk a bathroom. Phil seemed to have the tools for any job. When we moved into the first home that we purchased, we needed a six foot privacy fence as we had tiny children and there was an irrigation canal right behind our property. Phil showed up with the right shovels and post hole digger. He also had the proper drills and wrenches to install the hangers on the posts. He knew how to set them correctly and perfectly in line. He taught me how to use the tools and how to get the results needed.

But there have been some engineers I have known who were excellent at their work and probably designed important machines and systems. They, however, lacked practical skills. I know engineers who have had successful careers who can’t fix anything. Some of them understand their lack of practical skills. Others don’t ever admit any failings. They think that they can build things, but I’ve worked side by side with engineers on Habit for Humanity Houses who probably made the work go slower. One time we were preparing to set rafters when we discovered that the entire building was wracked and out of square. It took a couple of days’ work to get things squared up again. The cause of the problem was a volunteer who happened to be a professional engineer who kept saying, “close enough.” It wasn’t close enough. He could’t make an accurate measurement with a tape measure. A good carpenter can get within 1/16 of an inch with a tape measure. He couldn’t get within 1/4 inch and sometimes he was off by 3/8. Add those mistakes up and the entire wall was out of square and plumb. He neglected to crown the 2 x 4s when framing in interior wall. I went back through his layout and turned the boards so they were all in the same direction. He was impatient with my “pickiness.”

I’ve known other engineers who were short of practical skills. They might be capable of designing complex systems, but they couldn’t build anything.

I’m a minister and not an engineer, but I know how to use a framing square and a level. I can measure angles with a speed square and know how to measure diagonals. I can hammer a nail and use a power driver. I can set the lines for a fence and dig the post holes in the right places. I own a fair number of tools and know how to use them. But I also know when to call a plumber or an electrician and when to attempt a simple repair myself. I love working with people who are skilled builders and am constantly learning from them. I know I sometimes focus too much on the small details and fail to see the big picture in a project. When I am careful, I know when to stop and figure out a new solution when the current method isn’t working.

I’ll never be an engineer, but I am grateful for some of the engineers I have known. They have taught me many skills that I continue to use in my daily living.

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