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God is Not My Copilot
First Posted by on Sunday Apr. 15, 2018

    Whenever I am introduced for a speaking engagement, I am often referred to as a former “Air Force pilot.” The truth of the matter is that I failed the pilot screening program in college, so was sent to undergraduate navigator training, and subsequently to navigator-bombardier training. While I did earn my private pilot’s license and later an instrument rating, commercial pilot’s license, and a certified flight instructor license, in the Air Force I was a navigator (for four years) and a chaplain (for twenty-six years).

    The point of this article is not to correct a very minor error, it is to ponder the image of navigation in my life and ministry, for it was those brief years as a navigator that continue to serve as a symbol of the life of this priest. The pilot is the crewmember who is in charge of all the other people on a plane; the one responsible for its safe operation; the one who grades the performance of all the others; and the one who takes responsibility when something goes badly wrong. That, to me, in the rest of life, is the work of God, not of a priest.

    The navigator is the person charged with finding the way in, on, or across the land, sea, or air. The navigator maps the land, discerns the wind currents, observes the stars, determines the present position, and charts the safest altitude and route to the intended destination. The navigator does not accomplish anything on his own, but works with a crew of other people to accomplish all the goals of each member as they relate to the overall mission accomplishment. While the navigator tells the pilot where to go, how get there, and how high to fly en route, the pilot always has the ability to go in a different direction. When that happens, the navigator is charged with responding and re-charting the course.

    As a parish priest for forty years, I tried my best to be a good navigator. In the company of the “crew” (vestry, staff, etc.), I listened carefully to the Pilot’s intended destination, our mission and ministry. Together we sought to identify not only the Lord’s goal for us but the best route to accomplish it, taking into account our “weight and balance” (the congregation), the winds that could blow us off course (attitudes in parish and society), and obstacles in the way that needed to be circumnavigated (controversies and disagreements). Sometimes we had to fly through turbulence, but we always sought the least upsetting course. Sometimes the rough air was the boundary of a jet stream and once inside, we could go faster than we imagined.

    In the life of a parish, we experience the full range of flight: slow taxi, rapid take-off and a quick climb to high altitude, followed by cruising through both calm and turbulence. In all of that, congregations must strive to maintain a faithful move toward the destination. A strong parish focuses their efforts on high-quality education, generous care of those in distress, and joyful and uplifting worship and music. 

    Like the B-52 I flew as a young man, the church needs to refuel periodically in order to continue; and like that aircraft, it does it while proceeding with the mission. Every year a parish needs to take on more cash, the fuel that makes ministry happen, for both annual and capital needs. Each member has been given an abundance by Our Lord, and from that abundance they are asked to return some to Him to fuel the mission of the parish. The Pilot, not the navigator, is calling for the fuel. Each member must take time to learn the nature of the mission, pray about the resources God has given them, and respond to his call without hesitation.

    Remember, God is not the copilot – he is the pilot, the one who will keep the community of faith safe on the way and bring them safely to his home.

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