Flight 3411 and the Church

By Scott Armstrong

April 2017 has not been the best of months for United Airlines.  You may have heard about passenger David Dao who was bloodied and dragged down the aisle of a plane by security after refusing to give up his seat on April 9, 2017 (he has now reached a settlement with the airline).  The video left us all aghast and United received justifiably terrible press after the ordeal.

I am a frequent flier with United Airlines and today I received an email from Oscar Muñoz, its CEO (incidentally, I did not know that we were such close friends, but I digress).  He offered apologies for the notorious incident and also acknowledged “meaningful actions will speak louder than words.”

I know that PR firms and lawyers are all involved in the sculpting of these apologies, so I am not naïve enough to think this is our pal Oscar sharing his heart late at night at the computer.  However, in my opinion the entire letter is excellently written.  It offers no excuses and elaborates on new policies that have been put in place to assure that customer service is the highest priority.

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At one point, Muñoz states: 

“For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again? It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”

Those last two sentences are echoing in my brain.  Did you catch them?

Policies were placed ahead of values.

Procedures were more important than “what is right”.

I fly United, but I care minimally about airline customer service compared to our Church’s mission to make Christlike disciples in the nations.  So why am I writing about all this?

I believe the way United is handling this now has a lot to say to the Church.  I hope that we as ministers of the gospel will discover what they have found out after much introspection, communication, and tension – sooner as opposed to later.

You see, in our worst moments as a Church, we also have slowly allowed policies to replace values.  Procedures put in place originally to serve “what is right” gradually become slave-masters that cause core priorities like mission and character to submit under a gradual drip-torture of dogmatic adherence to rules.

We say we value grace, but newcomers have to jump through so many moralistic hoops before they have proven they are worthy to serve or lead.

We say we value holiness, but we hold grudges and every board meeting is a passive-aggressive power struggle.

We say we value children, but wait until those neighborhood kids dirty the carpet and talk all through service.

We say we value mission, but we almost always hope that “they” come to “us” instead of vice versa.

Do I need to go on?

May it not take a United-Airlines level fiasco to get us as a Church to engage in an introspective evaluation of our practices.  It will hurt.  We won’t like what we see at times.

But it is necessary.  In fact, it is biblical.  Jesus speaks of this process in terms of pruning, and producing fruit:

“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any.  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9).

We must always evaluate our effectiveness by asking: Are we bearing fruit as a congregation? To paraphrase Oscar Muñoz: how can we do our best to ensure that any action that does not reflect Christ’s image and will for us never happen again?

This self-examination will be worth it!  We will start to see our community again as Jesus sees it.  We will be known again for the way we serve and love one another.  We will get to the point of acknowledging that meaningful actions speak much louder than words.

In that moment, our values will dictate our policies and not vice versa.

That, my friends, is a Church I want to be a part of.

That is a glimpse of the kingdom.