It was the year 1934, and the United States of America had a huge problem. Exposed corruption around contracts for the Postal Service led the Air Corps, who hoped to become a whole military branch, to take on the duty of delivering mail. While the corps pilots were willing to take on this task with bravery, the harsh winter storms of that year caused numerous problems. These challenges were so severe that after the ninth pilot died on March 10, the current president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, demanded that something be done about it.
The military was unsure of how to proceed. They had a training regimen that they felt confident about. Hopeful aviators were put through a series of tests to determine if they were pilot material. They were required to have several weeks of ground school before being gradually allowed to control the planes. However, the results were not so great. Fatality rates in some schools were as high as twenty-five percent. While plane technologies had changed over the years, the way pilots were trained had not.
Enter Edwin Albert Link, Jr., the son of an organ maker from New York. Though he had spent much of his life working in his father’s factory, Link was fascinated with flying. He decided to take a $50 lesson, miming the style of air training at the time: sitting in the plane while the pilot made loops to test if the student’s stomach was strong enough to handle being a pilot.
Realizing this was a foolish “lesson” technique, Link felt cheated out of the $50. Frustrated with Link’s newfound hobby, his father temporarily fired him from the factory.
Link was stubborn, however. He eventually saved up enough money to buy a Cessna, a small four-seater plane that he used to improve his flying skills. In 1927, several years after his first lesson, Link assembled different parts from his father’s organ factory into a strange box slightly bigger than a bathtub. This box mirrored the inner workings of a plane, with a small light on the nose that would illuminate when the pilot made an error.
Link proceeded to open his own aviation academy, aiming to train pilots to fly faster, cleaner, and more efficiently than the competition. However, no one showed up. To make matters worse, no one wanted his device, either. The academic and flying school communities clung to their beloved system and viewed Link’s creation as a strange toy for children. Hilariously enough, Link did manage to sell fifty of his contraptions to penny arcades and amusement parks. But the overall failure left Link lugging his boxes by hand and charging for rides to cover his costs.
Fast forward to 1934. Pilots are dying from winter storms, and one of the veteran air corp pilots remembered the tenacious inventor’s strange contraption. So, they decided to put Link to the test. Link was asked to fly from his home to Newark to demonstrate how his device worked. The catch? He was asked to fly in heavy rains, strong winds, and zero visibility. Air Corps leaders knew there was little to no chance a pilot could make it through those conditions. Yet, just as they were walking away, Link’s plane flew in with a perfect landing.
The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod finds itself at a similar crossroads today. With hundreds of churches without pastors and many pastors within fifteen years of retirement, many questions about what the church is going to do loom on the horizon. Barna reports that this past year, forty-two percent of pastors have considered quitting ministry entirely.
The question that sits in front of us is simple: Are we, like the Air Corps, willing to run tests to see if there is a better way to help prepare and train more pastors? Are we willing to measure and test whether or not there are more effective methods of equipping and supporting pastors in their ministry? There are limitations and challenges to be found in our current system, and it is important to explore alternative approaches that can address the pressing need for pastoral leadership.
To navigate this crossroads, we must be open to new ideas and willing to challenge traditional norms. Just as Edwin Link Jr. challenged the conventional training methods for pilots, we must be willing to think outside the box and explore innovation. This may involve creating new training programs, leveraging technology, or adopting mentoring and coaching models that prioritize holistic development.
At the same time, we must also recognize the skepticism and resistance that may emerge in response to change. Just as Link faced opposition when he introduced his aviation training device, this new system will receive pushback. There will be questions about it. But these things are all necessary for the church moving forward.
I want to close this blog out by sharing some of my context and why I’m so
passionate about pastoral development. I serve a small congregation in Northern LA County. LA County is a small piece of land with a population greater than forty other states in the U.S. (The states in blue all have a smaller population than LA County.)
Due to this density and high cost of living, pastors are really hard to come by for most churches out here. They simply have problems affording a full-time pastor. In my own circuit, only one of the nine churches are actually able to support a full-time pastor from tithes alone. Three of the others have supplemental income from schools or property to help them afford a pastor, and five of the churches do not have a called pastor, with some not having any ordained person around to preach the Word and administer the sacraments.
Just like the Air Corps in World War II needed pilots, we desperately need pastors out here. While there are fine programs, such as the Specific Ministry Program, designed to meet these needs, for many of the churches and individuals, the $30,000 cost of the program is prohibitive. So the question remains. Are we willing to run an experiment and try something new? For the sake of the church, I hope so.
In the end, the Air Corp’s gamble on Link paid off. While Link’s blue box may not seem impressive on the outside, it allowed the Air Corp to better scale both their pilots and their training.
With World War II only six years away, Link’s training was essential for American aviation success. In the end, Link’s device made thousands of unskilled youths into pilots. By the end of the war, over half a million men had spent over one million hours in the blue box, allowing them to help serve the war effort with confidence.
One could easily imagine a world where Link was continually dismissed because his box was strange, his program didn’t seem as rigorous as previous procedures, and it felt radically different than any training that had come before it. Who knows how much worse battles would have been in World War II if we weren’t able to properly train our men? Who knows how many pilots wouldn’t have made it to the front lines?
Similarly, today, if we do not consider new routes to ministry and new training techniques, who knows how many more churches will be without someone to lead them in Word and Sacrament ministry? At the Unite Leadership Collective, we believe that we may be building something like Link. We have a solution that could bless the church in the difficult days ahead with competency-based theological education. All we’re asking is that we be put to the test.