You probably heard about the recent mishap with Alaska Airlines flight 1282. Shortly after it departed Portland, a door plug blew out of the aircraft’s hull which caused the immediate and uncontrolled decompression of the cabin. The pilots quickly descended to an altitude at which the air was breathable and subsequently brought the plane and all its passengers safely to the ground. Thankfully, no one was killed or seriously injured in the incident.
The incident quickly garnered international coverage and many experts offered their comments on what it might mean for the airline and for the plane’s manufacturer. Patrick Smith, who writes at Ask the Pilot, provided an interesting perspective on all the attention the story garnered. “The amount of coverage we’re seeing serves to remind us of just how safe flying has become.” The story was so big simply because flying is so safe.
His comment got me thinking about the way Christian media and social media cover pastors who make shipwreck of their ministry through immorality or apostasy. Certainly this happens with some regularity and certainly it is never less than tragic. When it does happen, there are always victims, whether it is people the pastor has harmed through his unrestrained lust or people who have become confused about their own faith as they’ve witnessed the destruction of the pastor’s. Any time a pastor falls it is a major incident to those who are closely involved, and rightly so.
And yet just as flight 1282 can be a reminder of how safe flying has become and how the vast majority of flights reach their destination without incident, the fall of a pastor can remind us of all the faithful pastors God has raised up and how the vast majority of them serve their ministry selflessly, dutifully, and successfully. We pay attention to incidents in the air because they are so rare and there is a sense in which we pay attention to pastoral malfeasance for the same reason. If it was common, we would be accustomed to it and pay it little heed. It is its rarity that makes it especially shocking and noteworthy.
Of course, we expect that every incident in the skies will be carefully investigated and that it will lead to actions to further improve an industry that is already very safe. Every airline, not just the one involved, becomes safer as the result of an incident or accident. And in the same way, we expect that the downfall of a pastor will cause individuals, churches, and denominations to reaffirm their commitment to godly character, sound doctrine, and safe practices. We expect that it will lead to both individual and corporate soul-searching and that it will lead to appropriate consequences and future protections.
Smith says that incidents like Alaska 1282 “and our focus on them, keep us on our toes. … It’s a way of being proactive and careful, so that we maintain the levels of safety we’ve achieved.” And may the same be true when we learn of a pastor who has rejected the faith he once professed or been found to have caused harm through an unrestrained lust for sex or power. May it cause us to be proactive and careful. But may it also cause us to better appreciate the great majority of the pastors we have known—pastors who serve us faithfully and well. And just as the actions following an incident in the air are meant to increase our confidence in flying, let the actions following an incident within Christianity increase our confidence in the local church.
Sometimes the news can make it seem that every plane is likely to fall out of the sky and sometimes it can make it seem that every pastor is likely to fall. But while the attention that is given to such circumstances is often appropriate, we should not allow it to make us think that it points to a problem that is universal. It should not even make us think it points to a problem that is more common than it actually is. Rather, it should reaffirm that God cares for us by giving us pastors who love us, who serve us, and who live to be a blessing to us.
(I wrote this article several weeks ago and scheduled it for today. Please don’t consider it a passive-aggressive response to any specific situation. By design, I was not thinking of any person in particular.)