The story of three bricklayers is a multi-faceted parable with many different variations, but is rooted in an authentic story. After the great fire of 1666 that leveled London, the world’s most famous architect, Christopher Wren, was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral.
One day in 1671, Christopher Wren observed three bricklayers on a scaffold, one crouched, one half-standing and one standing tall, working very hard and fast. To the first bricklayer, Christopher Wren asked the question, “What are you doing?” to which the bricklayer replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.” The second bricklayer, responded, “I’m a builder. I’m building a wall.” But the third brick layer, the most productive of the three and the future leader of the group, when asked the question, “What are you doing?” replied with a gleam in his eye, “I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral to The Almighty.”
Online you will find many variations of this story, but each version tells of three people working on the same wall, doing the same work, but with totally different perspectives. From this story, many analogies and applications can be drawn. Some of these include the importance of:
Big Picture Thinking – Being able to see the end result and how your work contributes to that end.
Attitude – A positive attitude and pride in what you are doing will show up in your work and your motivation.
Connection to the Organization’s Mission – Employees who are rightly connected to the organization’s mission, vision, values, and goals are happier, more engaged, and more productive employees.
While these applications are true and insightful, I find this story has another potential application.
The Power of Purpose
The story of the three bricklayers is also a metaphor on the power of purpose, where the “cathedral builder,” demonstrates a personal expression of purpose that transforms his attitude and gives a higher meaning to his work. Another term for purpose we use in ministry circles is “calling.” For the first bricklayer, building the wall was a job. For the second bricklayer it was an occupation. For the third bricklayer, it was a calling.
A calling reflects our universal need to matter, to influence, and make a difference in the world around us. Victor Frankel made this clear in his book, The Meaning of Life. He wrote about how some people survived the holocaust, but so many didn’t. One of the things he identified was those who had a purpose or reason to continue to live that was beyond themselves tended to survive, while those who were focused primarily on themselves did not. Those who survived found some meaning in their painful circumstances. The meaning they found was in caring for and helping others in this horrible experience.
The story of the three bricklayers can also be used to illustrate the responsibility of leaders to encourage others to find their “cathedral,” and to help and support others in pursuing and building their “cathedral.” We are uniquely created by God for a specific purpose at a particular time in history that no one else can fulfill but us. As church leaders, we need to wrestle with the questions, how do I move people from where they are to cathedral builders? How do I help people discover their God given purpose at each juncture in life’s journey, and resource them to live it out?
We need to recognize that God didn’t make anybody to just be a bricklayer. Don’t hear me wrong, nothing is wrong with being a bricklayer. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “If a man is “called” to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
Posted on April 9, 2019