Last evening was a rainy Friday night, perfect for an in-home movie and popcorn. Our movie choice for the evening was “Sully”, the story of the miracle landing by Captain Chesley Sullenberger of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January 2009. I was once again fascinated as I watched two experienced pilots, thrust into the middle of an unprecedented crisis with no procedural plan, make second-by-second decisions to do something that had never been done before, in a manner that saved all 155 souls on board.
Following the incident, an investigation was conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board to determine if Captain Sully had made the right decision to land in the Hudson or if he had put lives at risk by not attempting to return to the airport. All the pre-calculated simulator tests indicated that Captain Sully had indeed made the wrong decision and should have returned to the airport rather than attempt a dangerous river landing. After hearing this conclusion, Captain Sully gently reminded the NTSB board that they had left out “the human factor” in the simulations – the time delay required for him to realize what had happened and decide a course of action. After adding 35 seconds to the simulations, it became evident to everyone in the room that the plane would have experienced a devastating crash had they attempted a return to the airport.
I couldn’t help but see the similarities between Flight 1549 and the current flood of crises today, particularly for the church. My husband has served in pastoral roles in local churches for 33 years. As with any profession, there have been challenges along the way that have provided wisdom and experiences to draw from. But, much like Flight 1549, the current unprecedented crises of a pandemic, along with political turmoil, racial inequality and more, has placed many pastors in the cockpit without a flight plan. Pastors are piloting their churches through an uncharted catastrophe, making minute-by-minute decisions, hoping more than anything to keep their church on course and to save all souls on board.
Much like the NTSB investigation based on science, statistics and simulations, it seems to be assumed there is only one correct decision for a pastor to make. However, we have forgotten “the human factor” – the intangible part of a pastor’s ministry that comes from the heart. The understanding he has of his community. The direction he has from God. And the love he has for his people.
Captain Sully has been hailed a hero, as he rightly should be. My pastor, your pastor, probably do not care whether they are ever seen as a hero. Most likely they care more than anything about you – and they are praying desperately that, when this crisis has ended, we will still be standing together, all safely on shore.