Piloting Church (Cameron Trimble) - - A Review

PILOTING CHURCH: Helping Your Congregation Take Flight. By Cameron Trimble. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019. 136 pages.  

I was ordained nearly thirty-five years ago and have been serving as pastor of small congregations for the past twenty years. Being small, the congregations I’ve served wrestle with sustainability, but perhaps more importantly, they struggle to find energy for ministry. These are congregations made up of good people, many of whom are senior citizens, who seek to be faithful in their service of God and participation in the church. They wonder why people aren't coming to church like they did in years past. Those of us who serve such congregations have read our share of church growth books. We’ve seen the proposed solutions. We may have tried to implement the proposed solutions. They may make some impact, but it’s clear there are no silver bullets. While this is true, we may learn something that could improve the situation. Many church growth books are written from a conservative theological perspective, and which can make the proposals problematic for many in the Mainline Protestant churches. This is especially true of old-style church growth books that recommended the use of the homogeneous principle of church growth—birds of a feather flock together. That principle, however, seems to have had its day, even in conservative circles. When it comes to church growth books, it is good to encounter a book that seeks to speak to where the church actually finds itself. Thus, we have Cameron Trimble’s Piloting Church.

Trimble is executive director of The Center for Progressive Renewal, an organization that provides coaching and guidance for progressive/liberal congregations. A look at her Linked In page, will lead to the conclusion that she is an entrepreneurial personality. That personality is present in this book. When it comes to the style of writing books, there are many ways of approaching the process. One way of presenting one’s message is to find a metaphor or analogy that can carry the message. That is what Trimble does here. Trimble the religious entrepreneur is also a pilot, and she chooses that metaphor to illustrate her message.

She became a pilot at a young age, and part of her longs to be an airline pilot. But, while she continues to fly, she ended up as a pastor and now consultant. The piloting image, however, serves as the defining image for the book. She tells us that every pilot goes through a checklist before taking off, making sure everything is in order. With that in mind, each chapter in the book begins with a checklist, just as one would use as a pilot to check out the plane and prepare for flight.

                The book is brief, and with ten chapters, you know that the chapters will be brief and thus easily digested by groups. She begins the conversation with a chapter on the decision to start flying. In this chapter she invites the reader to discern whether they want to be a leader and what that involves. So, since pilots have to check everything over before taking off, the same is true of church leadership. Know what it involves before beginning. Once you discern what it means to be a pilot, you will need to discern what kind of pilot you will be—will you be an amateur or professional. In other words, will you decide to put your entire being into the pursuit or not, whether that involves being a pilot or a church leader.

With these questions behind us, we can explore the "fundamentals of flight." This is an introduction to the process of discernment. From there she moves to the "flight crew" or the ministry team. Then we move to "Charting Your Course." Where do we intend to go? Pilots don't just get into a plane and start flying. The have a flight plan. They check the weather and the terrain. The same is true for the church. There is need for research, whether studying the congregation itself or the community demographics. What is the plan? The next chapter is titled "Preflight Checklist." After determining mission and goals, one must determine if the congregation’s programs are aligned with its mission and goals and theology. Being a pilot is not cheap. The same is true with being church. Even small churches have significant expenses. Thus, the need to address financial security. This is the subject of chapter seven, which explores various ways of funding, both traditional and non-traditional, the work of the church.  There is also chapter on managing our communication, including social media.

Pilots have to be prepared for emergencies and unexpected events, but are we as church prepared for them? She tells the story of a church that experienced the devastating effects when a tree branch fell on a child on the playground, eventually killing the child. When the parents sued, they discovered their insurance wouldn't cover the damages. Thus, they had to sell their building, give the funds to the family, and now meet in rented space in another church. Churches can suffer storm damage, embezzlement, sexual misconduct, and numerous other challenges. So, how do we prepare for them?

Chapter ten brings the book to a close, and appropriately she uses the image of a successful landing to bring things to close. This is essentially a summary chapter that reminds us that these are difficult times for the church, with declining attendance, aging members, and financial challenges. None of this is news, but the question is one of response. Do we run from the challenges, or stay engaged? She believes there is reason for hope, so her advice is to stand strong, face the challenges, and be open to new opportunities.  

Of course, being open to new things is easier for those who are young and energetic, and perhaps not as jaded as those of us at the other end of the ministry life span. There is much of value here. We can learn from her guidance. However, I will admit that I found some of the book a bit wearying. I wonder if there is staying power here. Trimble has the entrepreneurial spirit, and there is value in that, but not all of us are entrepreneurs. Besides, being entrepreneurial is a starting point, is it the final solution? That I can't answer. Having been at this work for more than three decades, I can be a bit jaded. I can also be a bit suspicious of the latest proposals. I've seen too many proposals come and go. She has pastoral experience and has been a consultant for congregations. That experience provides insight that can be valuable to churches who wonder if they have a future. 

When it comes to the piloting metaphor, it does provide a means of keeping the book moving forward. As with any analogy or illustration, it can become the message or perhaps a distraction. For me, after a while I began to feel as if we could dispense with the metaphor and get on with business. Thus, I began to skim over the airplane imagery. However, if you’re really into piloting and airplanes that might hold your attention. At the very least it is a creative way of approaching a topic that won’t go away. I expect that there is something to learn from Lyle Schaller (see I’m showing my age), but times do change and so must the messaging.  


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