Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Parable of the Astronaut Release

One of the temptations members face in the church is the tendency to perceive leadership callings as more important than other types of callings.  We even tend to think of those callings as “higher callings.”   Members released from leadership callings may have a hard time upon release and may have difficulty adjusting to less visible callings.

I ran across a bit from An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield that helped me gain some extra perspective on this issue, but from an unexpected direction—NASA.

Astronauts who’ve just returned from space get a lot of help from NASA with the “moving on” part.  When you report back to the Astronaut Office at JSC, there’s no hero’s welcome. Rather, you get a brisk acknowledgement—“Good job”—before being unceremoniously booted off the top rung of the organizational ladder, at least in terms of visibility and prestige. Astronauts fresh off the Soyuz are reabsorbed back into the support team as middle-of-the-pack players, essential but not glorified.

In most lines of work there’s a steady, linear ascent up a well-defined career ladder, but astronauts continuously move up and down, rotating through different roles and ranks. From an organizational standpoint, this makes sense: it keeps the space program strong at all levels and also reinforces everyone’s commitment to teamwork in pursuit of a common goal—pushing the envelope of human knowledge and capability—that’s much bigger than we are as individuals. For astronauts, too, it makes sense, because it helps us come right back down to Earth and focus on our job, which is to support and promote human space exploration. Any inclination we might have to preen is nipped in the bud, because our status has changed overnight and we are expected to deliver in a new, less visible role, not sit around reminiscing about the good old days when we were in space.

At NASA it’s just a given that today’s star will be tomorrow’s stagehand, toiling behind the scenes in relative obscurity. For instance, Peggy Whitson, who was Chief Astronaut and ran the office in Houston for three years, is now back in the regular pool of astronauts, supporting other astronauts in orbit and hoping for an assignment with no better chances of being selected than anyone else has. One thing that makes this kind of transition easier is that the line between being a member of a crew and a member of the office is already more blurry than might be readily evident to outsiders. A CAPCOM, for instance, does some training and goes to sims with a crew, then supports them or is on call every day of their flight, and afterward, also attends debriefs. In a very real way, then, the CAPCOM is integral to that crew—as is the entire cast of people who directly support any mission.  (pp268-269)

It’s kind of astonishing how similar NASA’s methods are to the church’s in this respect.  We can recognize the blessings of the approach too.

·      Rotating through different roles and ranks does keep the church strong at all levels and reinforces everyone’s commitment to God and His kingdom more than commitment to any one individual. (Yes, we have a prophet, but the church continues beyond his death. Yes, we have apostles, but we have 15 of them!)
·      The goal is to push the envelope of human knowledge and capability in building the kingdom of God, and that is bigger than any individual.
·      It is an excellent antidote to pride to have that change happen so quickly upon release.
·      Behind-the-scenes roles are no less important to the church’s success than the visible roles.

I’m thankful for all the callings that I’ve had for the growth that I’ve experienced during them.  I’ve learned a lot of skills that I don’t think I would have learned otherwise because of them.  They’ve given me opportunities to serve in ways that it would be difficult to find outside the church.  They’ve helped me feel the Lord’s love in new ways and express that love to others.