By now you’ve likely heard the story of the ill-fated OceanGate submersible that imploded on an expedition to the site of the Titanic. I’m not going to take time to excoriate the choices of those who took part in the trip. To be fair, lots of people embark on adventures with various levels of risk—climbing Everest, skydiving, space flight, white water rafting, etc. So I can’t knock OceanGate for wanting to facilitate exploration. But I can critique the unwillingness to heed warnings from the chorus of voices seeing the dangers.
The Titan’s composite hull was fine for a few dives. But, unlike a solid construction, the repeated stress threatened the structural integrity of the carbon fiber. The small cracks caused by delamination could result in a catastrophic loss. The CEO, Stockton Rush, was warned this could happen. Cautions were given repeatedly and by multiple individuals. In a multitude of counselors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14). But, this was a project he was passionate about. He dedicated time, energy, and effort into this, and when you are deeply invested in something, it’s difficult to see the forest from the trees.
I get it. It’s hard to absorb criticism involving something you care deeply about. Whether it’s a creative project, an academic endeavor, a relationship, an entrepreneurial idea, it’s a part of you. Heck, even when I write, I have to steel myself for feedback from editors. It might not feel great in the moment, but getting the perspective of someone else can help point out things I can’t see. No matter how competent or skilled we are, we all need someone willing to be objective and truthful. “That doesn’t look right.” “This doesn’t sound good.” “That may not be a good idea.” “You may want to rethink this.” “Be careful.” “It’s probably time to course correct.” Those aren’t things you’d like to hear, but sometimes they are necessary.
Of course, these messages aren’t always welcomed. OceanGate fired one of their engineers, David Lochridge, because they didn’t want to heed his cautions. It may have made Rush upset to hear the harsh truth. Nevertheless, I’m sure it is preferable to be upset and alive rather than recalcitrant and dead. He was so sure and confident in his assessment that it caused this tragedy. I’m sure David Lochridge wasn’t the only one who had doubts. But punishing those who give honest critiques creates a chilling effect.
It’s a tale as old as antiquity. Cassandra of Greek mythology continually foretold of danger but was never believed, to the detriment of her doubters. The fabled emperor wore no clothes because he had cultivated an environment where he was insulated from criticism and left only with yes men. Rehoboam bristled at the advisers who told him things he didn’t like, so he created a council of co-signers and it led to a divided Israel. The messengers often get shot—or ignored.
We all need feedback sometimes. It doesn’t diminish us. It just means we recognize that we aren’t omniscient. The same is true for organizations. Often aspersions are cast at those who love this church but who dare to hold leaders accountable. Many have left professional church employment because they’ve been pushed out or simply had their voices squelched. Wanting to make change from the inside is difficult when others actively resist change. Publications like Adventist Today and Spectrum have often been dismissed as simply hating on the Church. And while it’s true that the pieces written aren’t always complimentary to the denomination, the wide variety of authors and contributors in these publications represent a multitude of perspectives to give a broad range of ideas—in other words, a multitude of counselors. I’m not a prophet, but I do sometimes empathize with Cassandra, as I’m sure many others from my generation do. For decades, we’ve warned about practices that would inevitably result in the decline of the church. But these warnings have often been cast aside. And now, with the next wave of pastors about to retire, there aren’t enough people to replace them. Constant focusing on trivial matters—like what instruments to play, or if jewelry is okay—has made people tired of the legalism. Not giving people the opportunities to lead before the age of 55 has turned away young people. Not weeding out headship theology and patriarchy has suppressed the talent of generations of women leaders. Not standing up against injustice and discrimination has made our church irrelevant to the wider community. These small cracks have created stresses all throughout our church, and continual warnings about them have been ignored and dismissed by those upset that anyone dares to criticize the church they love.
Our church is literally dying. It’s probably (past) time to course correct. I know it upsets folks to hear. Better upset than dead.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.
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