By Eddie Pipkin

As we mark the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first steps on the moon, it is a great time to reflect on the power of an unambiguous vision.  Although the U.S. space program had been actively pushing the boundaries of exploration for more than half a decade, when John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “moon shot” challenge on a college campus in Texas in 1962, Americans had been struggling to match the Russians in the space race.  Kennedy’s audacious goal, stated in concise, exhilarating language, framed an enormously complicated and expensive task in simple terms: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade.”  And thus began a quest that involved the best efforts of an entire nation.  It resulted in one of the standout accomplishments in human history, and it is an important reminder of what a big, clearly-stated goal can inspire.

Kennedy’s speech achieved multiple objectives:

  • It changed the narrative. The space program (and its inherent Cold War implications) had been a hit-and-miss series of setbacks and successes.  Kennedy had sent Vice President Lyndon Johnson to have conversations with scientists, military leaders, and industry heads to identify potential goals for the space race, and lesser goals than the moon had been estimated to result in the Russians beating us again – for instance, planning to put astronauts only in orbit around the moon would have probably meant that the Russians would get their first – only the boldest goal held the promise of American triumph, so that’s what they chose.
  • It embodied the Kennedy administration’s mantra to “dream big.”  Kennedy wanted to move the country into a future of bold initiatives and new perspectives.  The goal of the moon landings captured that spirit in a way that few initiatives could have.  It was the stuff of soaring language and heroes.  Here’s the famous paragraph from the speech at Rice:

But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? [On a side note, this joke was handwritten by Kennedy into the speech shortly before he gave it — a great example of a public speaker’s ability to provide context to a local audience.]

We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too. [You can watch that part of the speech here.]

  • It was a goal that required cooperation and collaboration. So audacious was the goal that it was going to require the best efforts across a wide spectrum of American know-how: not only scientists, but the military, private industry, politicians, and public support.
  • It was a chance to celebrate and support core values. All of the above bullet points highlight the ways that the goal celebrated uniquely American values: the ideas of exploration, can-do-attitude, faith in progress and collaboration, and hard work in pursuit of a worthy goal.

It is rare that we, as ministry leaders, articulate our goals with such style and clarity, but it’s a great model:

  • We can develop a deeper understanding of what we want (or need or are called to) the narrative of our ministry to be. We can select a goal that embodies that narrative.
  • We can select a goal that calls on our congregation or ministry partners to “dream big.” The Bible, of course, is full of big dreams.  And big dreams require folks to put their best efforts forward, to test themselves against the possible, drawing on their reserves of creativity and resilience to see what’s possible in transformative ways.
  • We can develop goals that require us to be collaborative and cooperative, getting people out of their silos, working with one another in new and interesting ways.
  • We can develop a clear picture of our core values and develop goals that lean into those values, living them out in a practical way that calls on us to reinforce them at very turn as we are helping people find their own personalized ways to embrace them.

Of course, audacious goals require audacious resources.  The space program — to the consternation of many social justice warriors — required vast sums of money.  For ministry leaders, an audacious goal will mean budget decisions and the allocation of precious staffing resources and volunteer bandwidth, but the hard conversations involved in reallocating resources (financial and human) keep us from meandering along with the same-old-same-old plans year after year.  They are clarifying debates, and if they lead to conversation, prayer, research, and experimentation, then in most settings these processes will have value in and of themselves.

In retrospect, of course, looking back at the space program, beyond the rah-rah value of American flags on the moon and the grand narrative of human accomplishment, the technology of making the thing happen required solutions so transformative that the spin-offs have had dramatic, far-reaching impacts.  The Internet, anyone?

Similarly, for ministry, audacious goals not only result in the achievement of the goal itself.  Their pursuit can result in all manner of spin-offs that produce positive, unanticipated outcomes:

  • They require us to bring forth our best efforts.
  • They require us to work together in new ways.
  • They require us to have clarity about who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish.
  • They require us to get out of our comfort zones and dream bigger than we might have otherwise.
  • They require accountability to publicly-stated objectives.

That’s all good stuff.

One of the other interesting articles I came across this week (of the dozens of retrospective articles and documentaries) was from National Public Radio: an article about how Smithsonian curators have worked to preserve Neil Amrstrong’s space suit — the one in which he took that first, historic step.  It required four years and $700,000!  They want to keep it in stellar condition for future generations to gaze upon, reflect and dream (the lower legs are still coated in moon dust — how cool is that?)

For local congregations, however, this could be an all-too-uncomfortable metaphor.  Particularly in long-established congregations that are now struggling with ministry drift and declining attendance, how much of our resources are directed towards preserving the hallowed past versus dreaming big about the future?  Are we trying to protect history in airtight, climate-controlled cases so people can admire it (but not so much touch it) or directing our efforts towards audacious goals that look to the skies?

What do you think?  Share your comments below.