Flying the Millennium Falcon: Church leadership, post-pandemic
Here’s how I describe the challenge many churches face in these early decades of the 21st century. Christian leaders are being called upon to take a set of inherited resources — buildings, traditions, relationships, and money — that are tied to a particular moment in time and transform them to make them serve the proclamation of the gospel in a quite different moment. The pandemic, combined with the existential questions many churches were already confronting, have meant that this transformation has to be done with speed and skill under a great deal of pressure.
In other words, church leadership these days is a lot like flying the Millennium Falcon.
During the pandemic, I’ve found myself leading not only my theological college, I’ve also been involved in significant structural change. In the last year, a United Church theological college has moved in to our building, I’ve come to function as principal of both colleges, and we’ve launched a planning process to explore a combined future. I’ve learned what a great inheritance our two colleges have: buildings and endowments; a relationship with one of Canada’s leading universities; deep-rooted habits of ecumenism that make such structural change seem possible. But I’ve also realized that it’s not so easy to transform this inheritance to meet the needs of this moment. I’ve learned more than I ever thought possible about restricted endowments, for instance, or relationships between denominations and their theological colleges. At every turn, I see opportunity but I also see constraint.
This is where the Star Wars movies have continually come to mind. It’s not so much a particular scene but a general sense about one aspect: the Millennium Falcon, the battered jalopy of a spaceship piloted by Han Solo. It’s the image of Han and his crew flying this rickety old thing through one obstacle after another, whether that be an asteroid belt or through the Death Star itself. Kind of like this:
What’s striking about this is how frequently — and how suddenly — the Falcon shifts on its axis. Quick, on the side! No, upside down! Wait, back to flat! Hang on, a complete rotation! All this in the service of squeezing through one narrow passage or another. It’s not unlike the kind of wrenching changes and transitions many churches are being called to make in quite sudden and abrupt fashion. Quick, all worship needs to be online! Let’s merge these three (or four or ten) churches into one regional ministry — tomorrow! In the inevitable bumps and crashes that happen along the way, certain pieces of the spaceship get knocked off. Either it turns out they weren’t — hopefully! — essential or someone needs to jerry-rig something and make a repair on the fly.
As if this isn’t enough, there are always external forces that are trying to bring down the Falcon. For the Falcon, it’s characteristically the TIE fighters. For the church, it might be deferred maintenance, accumulated debt, or a bullying congregant. But the true enemy is the Empire, of which those TIE fighters are just the most proximate manifestation. Because of its message, mission, and goals, the context in which the Falcon, and the church, finds itself, is one of constant opposition and harassment from the powers-that-be.
But the real strength of the Falcon isn’t the ship itself. It’s those on board, who aren’t unlike the kind of people you find in church. Somewhere in the church, someone is pretty nervous about what’s going on and will frequently, and occasionally annoyingly, start questioning what you’re doing. Let’s call him C3P0. Invariably in churches I know, there’s someone who doesn’t quite fit in, who you can’t really understand, but who will make a decisive contribution at some point along the way. We’ll call her Chewbacca.
Meanwhile, in a lot of the churches I know today, people are looking to the pilot (or minister, pastor, lay leaders, principal, whatever ) to give a clear steer on where we’re headed. There’s often an expectation that this person look cool, confident, and collected. On the inside, though, that person is just as full of self-doubt as everyone else. Hello, Han Solo! For the pilot to really succeed, he needs to listen to those he would rather disregard — but only after he’s tried everything else. That’s why it’s so important for Princess Leia be around. And sometimes, for the thing to really be flown properly, you need to turn it back over to its original owner and trust him to fly it right. Welcome back, Lando Calrissian.
Most of all, because this is Hollywood and Han Solo and his crew are the “good guys,” you can be sure that no matter how steep the obstacles or how insurmountable the odds, the Falcon will come out the other side. To get there, the crew will have to try things they’ve never done before and push the Falcon in ways it has never been pushed before. But they will, in the end, make it.
Likewise, Christians live in the sure and certain hope that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church. But in the daily slog that is ministry in a changing, pandemic-pressured church, it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes it’s simply too daunting or overwhelming to be engaged in day-to-day leadership alongside such a motley crew.
The call to church leadership at this time and place, then, is not the call to over-burden oneself with too much work or responsibilities. It’s not a call to despondency and despair. It’s a call to look at a church that is changing more quickly than many of us could have ever imagined and say to one another, in Han Solo’s memorable phrase, “Never tell me the odds.”
Like the Millennium Falcon, the church is twisting, turning, zooming, bumping, and flipping through the moment we are in now. We are sure to come out the other side — we just might look a bit different than we thought.
Jesse Zink is principal of Montreal Dio, an Anglican theological college affiliated with McGill University, and canon theologian in the Anglican Diocese of Montreal.