Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ground Control, A Pastoral Pneumetaphor

Once I heard Len Sweet speak about pneumanauts, I was hooked. In the last ten months I have becomes fascinated by the notion of being a “sailor of the spirit”, and have begun to invest myself in articles and information about the exploration of space. Ultimately, it was my wife Carmel who recognized the parallels between a pastor and a ground controller, as she and I were involved in a conversation lamenting the absence of a Canadian version of NASA. Like all pneumetaphors, ground controller has a breakdown point – in this case, pastors are never seen as exploring space themselves – but it functions as a new way of seeing something very crucial.

The Greek word, poimen, literally means “herdsman” or “shepherd.” That is an important point to note because it tells us that “shepherd” and “pastor” didn’t have a metaphorical relationship, but that they were synonyms. In fact, poimen is only translated as pastor once in the New Testament[1]. It was only after the New Testament period that Christians began to commonly refer to local ministers as pastors, rather than simply as shepherds.

Jesus sets up the role of the shepherd by referring to Himself as the Good Shepherd[2], and to His followers as sheep. He also instructs Peter to “feed my sheep[3].” Acts 20.28 instructs leaders to “feed the church of God” and Peter exhorts similarly, telling us to “feed the flock of God[4].” The pastor’s responsibility is for care and vigilance, guiding, training, and nurturing like a herdsman who leads, feeds, waters and guards sheep. St. Paul, demonstrating this kind of personal commitment to individuals as well as communities, even goes so far as to list more than twenty-seven people at the end of his letter to the Romans[5].

Because of the number of enemies to the sheep, Jesus also instructs that the “Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep[6]”, demonstrating the kind of commitment and protective outlook that pastors ought to have. Shepherds have to be wary of strangers, thieves, robbers [violent thieves], hirelings [who run at the first sign of trouble], and wolves in order to protect the lives of the sheep.[7] In churches, pastors must be wary of people with no convictions, crafty folk, manipulators and dominant personalities, vocational ministers just earning a living, and any number of false teachers or pretenders who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Paul further identified his pastor’s heart, rooted in his understanding of the good news and how it brought people into fellowship with God, by outlining the progression of faith he hoped every believer would follow in the churches he started. Paul’s own obedience to Christ was evident in his willingness to be the apostle to the Gentiles[8], an obedience he commended to other believers[9] which he felt would help them become one in Christ[10]. This oneness was seen as a membership in the body of Christ[11] – literally as body parts of Christ – and ultimately resulted in the unity and security offered as members of God’s family[12].

"He will bring back the lost, heal the wounded; but, He will judge the fat and the strong that hurt each other.
For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.
12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.
13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land.
14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD .
16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
In the Old Testament, Ezekiel prophecies that the Lord would raise up pastors according to His own heart[13]"

...and lists the following actions as attributed to the Shepherd.

He will search out His sheep shepherd them.
He will deliver them on a dark day.
He will bring them to their own land, feed them and pasture them.

This passage gives marked insight into both the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of pastors in local churches. Jeremiah also adds that the shepherd will bring the sheep into folds, or local congregations, and that the sheep will trust the shepherd and neither fear or be dismayed[14].
There are also other terms in the New Testament that refer to the pastor. In fact, there is general acknowledgement that “in the Early Church the titles Pastor, Elder, and Bishop all referred to the ministry of the same person.[15]” An Elder, referring to the man himself, was seen to hold an office in the church; a Bishop, referring to this office held, was seen to preside over a congregation; and a Pastor, referring to the work/function, was seen to shepherd the flock of God.[16] Of course, it is also taken for granted that the pastor will be a sheep his/herself, as well as a pastor – having come in through the door of the sheep pen[17] and being one to whom the Porter, or Holy Spirit, will open the way[18].

Every pastor must consider his/her own spiritual formation and relationship to God a foremost priority and give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.[19]
It is also important to note the tremendous strain, due to misinformation, placed upon local church pastors in our present context. Whereas the Bible clearly denotes a five-fold ministry of sacred leadership, often in churches there is simply one pastor appointed to oversee the life of a congregation. This forces the people to expect the pastor to be an all-around “one many ministry[20]” and frequently results in burn out or mental/emotional/spiritual break down.

There is wisdom in the New Testament model of five Ascension ministries, and local pastors are well advised to pursue lay leadership and denominational support and involvement in order to bring the sacred equation back to balance. The Apostle Paul modeled this by surrounding himself with “colleagues who could share in the pastoral task.[21]” Such support was gleaned from Timothy by sending him to help pastor in Corinth[22], and later Titus[23], and Paul also took companions with him on his missionary journeys – most notably Silas, Barnabas, and Timothy, showing us the value of shared leadership and community in oversight.

In the past we have, by biblical default, looked to the pastor as a shepherd who cares for the sheep. This is an excellent metaphor! Having never seen a sheep, however, I am more inclined to think of a pastor as a solid metaphor for shepherding than I am to think of shepherding as a workable metaphor for pastoring. Should I ever find myself surrounded by actual sheep, though, I do believe I could tend them using the very same skill set that I have cultivated as a minister in a local church caring for my congregation. To be fair, I have never been a part of the ground control of a space expedition, but the pneumetaphor holds because of the familiarity through films and pop cultural references.

There are five crossover points for the pastor and the ground controller.

A pastor/ground controller sends others into the heavens
In the Ron Howard film Apollo 13 Ed Harris plays the Flight Controller – the head of the ground control crew – Gene Kranz. When things go very, very wrong for the men aboard the space shuttle, Kranz takes definitive action and changes the mission from one of lunar landing to one of safe earth return. As I went back watched the film again, I was struck by the similarities between the flight controller and the local church pastor. Both send others into the heavens, trying to advance the human experience in space and history, trying to understand what is “out there” and answer some of the fundamental questions of human existence: namely, “are we alone?” “how did this all begin?” and “what mysteries await us on the other side of space?”
The Greek world kosmos, which Ken Wilber rightly defines as “the patterned whole of all existence, including the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realms[24]”, is the root for our transliterated “cosmos” from which we get “cosmonaut” or “sailor of the stars.” It is into this kosmos that we send our parishioners as their pastors/ground controllers to investigate and discover first-hand what resides in heaven. “This is really pure exploration” says Tim Appenzeller on space travel.

“This is sending the Nina and Pinta out to see how many dragons there are on your way to India.[25]” And so it is with spirituality. We release our people into a world – setting up all cautions and protection we can – and try and help them navigate the unforeseen, the unknown, and the mystery that reveals us all to be “part of a continuum of life in the cosmos… life [that is] common.[26]

A pastor/ground controller ensures safety and recovery of crew
It is into this wonderful context of post-Cold War cosmonautical fantasy that free enterprise and privatization have most recently emerged. Men like Richard Branson, CEO of the 9 billion dollar Virgin Group and Virgin Galactic[29], Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of and now Blue Origin[30], Burt Ratan[31] who won the $10 million X prize for breaking the space barrier with his SpaceShipOne, and Buzz Aldrin are just a few of the many entrepreneurs who are venturing into commercial space flight.[32]

And they are all consumed with safety.

“Affordable space travel opens a new era in human history[33]” says Branson, but he also goes on to speak of the potential disaster shareholders may observe if something bad happens. “We’re taking every precaution. Safety is not an afterthought.[34]” At $200,000[35] per 2 hour flight, all concerned with intergalactic commercial travel are certain that safety is the primary concern, because just one incident and millions of dollars could be lost forever.

Safety in space is the task of the ground control.

Safety in spiritual experience is the task of the pastor.

In space, pastors are forced to ask themselves questions with elusive answers, such as “What variables are there in having a guest come to speak? Will their theology and teaching be biblically based and bear good fruit in the lives of our people?, “What must we do to further the connection with God that our people experience in worship without pushing them so far past their comfort zone that they resent the encounter?”, “How will this kind of expression affect those whose faith is sincere, but either steeped in tradition and/or cutting its teeth on a creative rind?” These, and many thousands of others, are questions of spiritual safety, and pastors are often blessed and obsessed with getting the perspective they need to protect the people of God.

A pastor/ground controller controls much of the navigation of the journey
In space, astronauts have limited control over the destination of the space craft. Side boost thrusters are employed to correct pitch and yaw, measured by a kind of gyroscope, and they are able to control lunar modules and smaller maintenance crafts outside the ship, but larger navigational issues are all controlled by ground control.

In church, people come and go and are given very little control over what happens. Regardless of how they feel or respond, in most Evangelical churches they are going to participate or not in whatever has been prepared. The pastor or service/design team put together a liturgy or order-of-service, and the parishioner is left to control their personal navigation through this space by way of emotional and spiritual side thrust boosts.

This is an awesome responsibility for pastors, and extends far beyond service design and into an understanding of spiritual formation, as in discipleship, and eccelesiology, as in the choice of model or understanding of church function. The key for any leader faced with such a task is to “focus on what’s important to you and where you want to end up, no matter how difficult things seem[36]”, a reminder that may just serve the constituents as well as the clergy.

A pastor/ground controller has a broader perspective than those in space
Visually, an astronaut is going to see much more of actual outer space than anyone in ground control; yet, the ground controller has access to information and data that controls where the space craft is headed, what calculations need to be made in order for a safe landing, orbital debris and possible planetary concerns like the atmosphere and weather back on Earth. In fact, many of the Russian cosmonauts recalling their days of Soviet exploration claim that space can be dull due to days spent in complete darkness.[37]

It is this broader perspective of the pastor/ground controller that allows the astronaut to appreciate space with diminished concern for details and worries and greater concern for mystery. It is a better way to learn[38], it provides the freedom to enhance our spiritual experience with the unknown and the opportunity to see that there is “an eros to the kosmos…a subtle, slow, relentless evolutionary drift, that unfolds higher and deeper connections.[39]
A pastor/ground controller works long hours and absorbs the stress of those in space
Apollo 13 depicts Gene Kranz and his ground crew working round the clock to find solution after solution to problem after problem on the Apollo 13 space craft. Says Kranz:
We wrote two more words into our vocabulary in mission control after the accident, he said, “tough and competent. Tough because we will never again shirk from our responsibilities because we’re forever accountable for what we do, or what we fail to do. Competent, because we will never again take anything for granted, we will never stop learning. From now on the teams in mission control will be perfect… As a team, we must never fail.[40]

Consistent with any article or record of the Apollo 13 miracle, Ron Howard uses the medium of film to show how Kranz brought the crew home safely because he believed “failure was not an option.[41]

So it is with pastors. Knowing the danger is not theirs, knowing that the stresses and difficult times in life are actually the province of those who live the lives that are affected, still countless pastors with the heart of a shepherd/ground controlled work tirelessly to bring new peace to families and lost souls. There are dangers to the pastors inherent to this level of concern and good will, and the issue quickly becomes whether or not pastors can fulfill their calling to ensure that a “holy presence can be received, imagined, and practiced.[42]

[1] Ephesians 4.11
[2] John 10.11
[3] John 21.16, 18
[4] 1 Peter 5.2
[5] Romans 1.1-16
[6] John 10.11
[7] John 10.1-13
[8] Romans 15.8,18
[9] 1 Corinthians 11.1
[10] Galatians 3.26-28
[11] 1 Corinthians 12.12-27
[12] Galatians 6.10.
[13] as noted in Kevin J. Connor, The Church in the New Testament. (Kent, 1982), 184 and also in Ezekiel 34.11-16.
[14] Jeremiah 23.3,4; Jeremiah 3.15, 17.16, 6.2-3
[15] Kevin J. Connor, The Church in the New Testament. (Kent, 1982), 181.
[16] Connor explores this in more detail in Kevin J. Connor, The Church in the New Testament. (Kent, 1982), 181.
[17] Cf. John 10.1,9; John 14.6.
[18] John 10.3
[19] Acts 6.2-4, see also Jeremiah 2.5-8, Acts 20.28, and 1 Timothy 12-16 where Paul instructs Timothy to stay spiritually vibrant.
[20] Kevin J. Connor, The Church in the New Testament. (Kent, 1982), 175.
[21] P. Beasely-Murray, “Paul as Pastor” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarstiy Press, 1993, 657.
[22] 1 Corinthians 4.17
[23] 2 Corinthians 8.6
[24] Ken Wilbur, A Theory of Everything. (Boston: Shambala, 2000), xi.
[25]Tim Appenzeller, “Search for Other Earths.” National Geographic, December 2004, Vol. 206, no. 6, 91.
[26] Tim Appenzeller, “Search for Other Earths.” National Geographic, December 2004, Vol. 206, no. 6, 75.
[27] Patrick Di Justo, “Mysteries of the Cosmos.” Wired, December 2004.

[28] Patrick Di Justo, “Mysteries of the Cosmos.” Wired, December 2004.

[29] Xeni Jardin, “Richard Branson's space tourism foray – ‘Virgin Galactic’"
[30] By Alan Boyle, “Amazon founder unveils space center plans”,
[31] By Alan Boyle, “Private rocket ship breaks space barrier: History-making pilot copes with serious control problem”
[32] There has also formed a multi-nation corporation concerned with intergalactic commercial transport, called “The Personal SplaceFlight Federation.” Cf. By Alan Boyle “Space racers unite in federation
Industry group will follow up on new law”,
[33] Richard Branson as quoted in Spencer Reiss, “Rocket Man.” Wired, January 2005, 140.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Spencer Reiss, “Rocket Man.” Wired, January 2005, 140.
[36] Kevin Cashman, Leadership from the Inside Out. (Minneaplois: Leader Source, 1998), 94.
[37] Cf.
[38] Cf. Len Sweet, Summoned to Lead. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 162.
[39] Ken Wilbur, A Theory of Everything. (Boston: Shambala, 2000), 130.
[40] Jeff Foust “We must never fail”: Gene Kranz, Apollo 13, and the future.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home. (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 1997), 9.

No comments:

Post a Comment