By Eddie Pipkin

March 19, 2017

What can ministry leaders learn from astronauts?  Although we don’t travel in their high adventure orbits (see what I did there?), it turns out there’s a lot we can learn from the insights of space pioneers.  When International Space Station crew member Scott Kelly returned last fall from a year in space, he brought back some revealing observations about life and work in an intense environment (something that ministry leaders can definitely relate to).Scott Kelly (002)

He has a new book out, Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery, and you can read about some of the reflections it contains in an article at Time Magazine here.  I love reading these articles on applied life lessons and sharing with you the ways in which they can help us reflect on our own ministry work.  So, here’s my summation of Kelly’s space-inspired wisdom, annotated for ministry applications.

Things Scott Kelly learned:

  • Small things can add up to a giant leap.

Accomplishment is most often the accumulation of many small things done well.  Even the biggest goal is reached by laying a foundation of seemingly insignificant actions that, done with excellence consistently and with purpose, can lead to great things.  We tend to want to jump straight to the big event, like running a marathon just because we got a new pair of shoes, but that’s not a recipe for success.  There is a lot of groundwork to be laid, and it should never be done grudgingly or haphazardly if we went to be blessed in the final outcome.

  • The value of showing up early (“whether to a job interview of a year in space”).

This is both a sure-fire de-stressor and an easy way to show other people that you respect their time.  Showing up early gives you space to take a deep breath, mentally prepare for what comes next, and be sure you have all of your ducks in a row.  Back in my youth director days, I used to wheel in with 30 seconds to spare—a guaranteed way to produce stress—but eventually learned to budget my time to show up early (so that I then had time for my patented parking lot pre-youth prayer: “Oh Lord, I have prepared for everything I can think of.  Please give me the patience for the thing that’s going to happen tonight that I couldn’t possibly anticipate.”

  • How important it is to sit and eat with people.

This, of course, is downright biblical.  It speaks to the incalculable value of table fellowship, which always implies “quality time” and a commitment to relationships that go beyond what can happen in meetings or other more structured interactions.  It is very important to create opportunities for this kind of table fellowship, getting people together so that they can peel back the layers and develop greater intimacy in a non-threatening environment.  This is good stuff for teams, good stuff for congregations, good stuff for community outreach.

  • Most problems aren’t rocket science, but when they are rocket science, you should ask a rocket scientist.

This is my favorite of Kelly’s insights!  Too often, ministry leaders over-complicate issues, ramping up the drama when none is necessary.  But Kelly reminds us that it is also possible to under-complicate problems, in the sense that we don’t acknowledge the existence of superior knowledge to our own that can make quick work of specific issues.  This is actually a great way to utilize people with unheralded talents who are waiting for opportunities to serve within our congregations: accountants, tech geeks, carpenters, and more who would be glad to make short work of things we aren’t good at or don’t understand.

  • It’s important to compartmentalize.

Kelly acknowledges that this is a balance—it’s important not to be unhealthy in pushing issues to the backburner that should be dealt with, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and ministry leaders could learn from astronauts that accomplishing the critical task at hand sometimes means focusing on what you can control in the moment, and leaving frustration and disappointments to be resolved later.

  • Russian has a more complex vocabulary for cursing than English does (and more words for friendship, too).

That one was good for a laugh, but it got me thinking about the deeper truth about the power of nuanced communication.  We are very often guilty in ministry leadership of saying things one time and/or one way and assuming that the job is done.  We miss a lot of opportunities to engage the hearts and minds of those we would have follow our vision (and then complain when are unengaged).  There are many ways to tell a story, many ways to explain a concept.  We should utilize a variety of creative approaches and celebrate the resulting depth of engagement.

  • Most everything that seems like the achievement of one person is actually the result of the efforts of many.

This is a shout-out to the value of teamwork and role of every part of the body of Christ to contribute important elements to the goal at hand.  As team leaders, we have a responsibility to make sure that each team member understands the importance of their contribution (even the less glamorous roles), and we should celebrate those contributions in multiple ways.

  • Chicken consommé works better for a fluid loading protocol than water and salt pills.

That’s a pretty technical observation!  But for us civilians, the takeaway is that the path to a goal is not always straightforward and obvious.  And if you’re creative about it, it can sometimes be more fun (and enjoyable) than you anticipated.  Think of all the “boring” tasks that are involved in ministry (cleaning up after an event, collecting attendance data, etc.) and then brainstorm some ways you could turn those drudgefests into opportunities for joy-filled teambuilding times.

  • To appreciate the people in your life.

Several of Kelly’s insights involve the value of relationships.  This, too, is profoundly biblical.  There are many distractions in the work of ministry that not only cause us to neglect this truth, but sometimes actively drive wedges in the very relationships we should be most carefully nurturing.  The gospels are filled with examples of Jesus’ focus on relationships.  Not strategic planning, not event execution, not the establishment and defense of institutional infrastructure.  All of those things are essential and useful at the appropriate time, but Jesus’ focus is always on relationships, and relationships should always be our priority.

  • The value of empathy for other people, including people you don’t know, people you don’t like, and people you disagree with.

Ministry leaders are no different from other human beings in gravitating towards those who are like us and whom we like (our interests, our shared vision, our shared backgrounds), but we open up whole new avenues of possibilities when we are intentional about reaching out to people on the other side of the ministry street.  Within the context of our work, we can gain profound insights to which we would be otherwise blind, and within the context of the hospitality we offer to the community, we are living out the true call to discipleship.

  • Gratitude for the too often taken-for-granted.

So many of Kelly’s insights are tied back to a basic sense of gratitude.  Most entertaining are his observations on missing the simple pleasures of planet Earth.  He writes:

Personally, I’ve learned that nothing feels as amazing as water. The night my plane landed in Houston and I finally got to go home, I did exactly what I’d been saying all along I would do: I walked in the front door, walked out the back door and jumped into the swimming pool, still in my flight suit. (Here’s a video of that moment!)

  • That a year in space contains a lot of contradictions.

As does life.  As does ministry.  We should lean into those contradictions, exploring them honestly (as the Bible does) and using them as the jumping off point to understand more about the God who made us and our relationship to the world we are here to serve.

Do you have your own favorite astronaut insights or other heroes whose wisdom has provided guidance for you in your ministry endeavors?  Here’s the place to share your thoughts.  And if you want to explore more tools for ministry leadership, including past blog entries, check out our website at