It popped across my newsfeed as the snow was falling outside. The first significant snowfall of 2018 had arrived here in Virginia, and I was sitting at my desk in the church office, space heater on full blast, working on a list of goals and missions for the new year when a friend posted an article from the Washington Post. It wasn’t a recent article about Bomb-Cyclone snow event that was hitting the east coast like I expected or really anything recent at all.
As I was reading, what caught my attention in the midst of writing my ministry mission for the coming year, was a story of a mission that took place 82 years ago.
Looking Back to 1936
The year was 1936 and the place was Crisfield, Maryland—a town on the peninsula of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. There was a ferocious blizzard that February and the island-town of Smith Island, located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, was running out of provisions.
A rescue team of 16 men, composed of four from the Maryland State Police, two Coast Guard crew members, and 10 civilians, packed two sleds with 1,000 pounds of food apiece. They set out across the frozen Bay towards a Coast Guard Ship that was waiting in a clear channel several miles away. The plan was to use the sleds to get to the ship, which would get as close as possible to Smith Island, and then the sleds would take to the ice once again to make it ashore. It seemed like a great idea and a valiant rescue effort. These guys would be heroes.
Or so they thought.
Night Falls and Ice Breaks
Night approached as half the men pushed the sleds and the other half pulled. But of course, the snow on top of the ice made it much more difficult than imagined. And then, the sleds got stuck. Realizing this effort wasn’t going anywhere, half the men decided to walk back to Crisfield, while the rest pushed on. And then, it happened. One man, then another, and then two more fell through the ice. The first turned back, while the second man heroically trudged onward, finally facing death due to hypothermia.
Sadly, the rescue mission never delivered the supplies to Smith Island.
The state investigation concluded that the mission was not necessary and was really quite foolish. It noted that an airplane successfully dropped off 800 pounds of food on Smith Island soon after the blizzard. As for the 2,000 pounds of food left on the ice, it was spotted slowly sinking into the Chesapeake the following week, never to be delivered to Smith Island.
How Will I Load My Sled
I sat back in my chair, my eyes glancing towards the tab on my computer screen that revealed those lofty goals of increasing attendance, having a perfectly planned method of discipleship, and organizing outreach events. Perhaps the Spirit initiated a necessary pause before I would hit the ground running, or “load my sled,” with well-thought-out plans and goals that would allow me to help Jesus save the world. I began to wonder if those of us making new year ministry resolutions and designing our own lofty “rescue missions” to our neighborhoods and communities might examine ourselves with some important questions initiated by the story of that failed rescue mission that happened 82 years ago in the Chesapeake Bay.
Four Questions to Ask Before You Plan This Year’s Mission
Do you know what is needed or do you assume you know what is needed?
Launching out on a mission and risking one’s life to bring aid to people stranded on an island in a snowstorm seems like a wonderful and caring, though risky thing to do. But was it the best thing—and a necessary thing—for the people of Smith Island? Of course hindsight is always 20/20, but since the rescue mission had not been commissioned by the governor or even the Red Cross, one might be led to wonder who saw this expedition as the only means of helping?
In life and in ministry, it’s easy to both assume a need and assume we have all we need. We assume that partnering in the mission of God means doing good things—in our own interpretation and experience of what is “good.” And then, whether it’s what our spouse needs for their birthday, what children in other countries need for Christmas, or what the non-Christian people down the street need from the church, we make a daring (and often expensive) attempt to fill that need. A result of this effort is often becoming disappointed or disillusioned when we’ve assumed wrong, our attempt goes to waste, or we’ve risked our necks trying to make it happen. We often bring others along with us who we know can pull ropes and push sleds, but who also forget that a body of water frozen solid does not repel snow.
It was mindboggling to me that Jesus, the Son of God, always asked people who approached him questions about what they needed and wanted from him. Some scholars say that he had limited his own omniscience. But whatever the case, perhaps the questions were a means of Jesus partnering with people to fulfill their needs through God’s power, rather than dumping a miracle at their feet. Making assumptions based on our zeal to do something for somebody without asking the right questions to the right parties is often a recipe for disaster.
Are you willing to adjust your plans?
First being stuck in the snow. Then thin ice. Then losing the ship. The state troopers with the sleds encountered not just tough obstacles but roadblocks that put the group’s lives in danger. The first thin ice experience was an opportunity to reevaluate the mission and adjust plans, but half the crew did not take heed and pressed onward.
There are times when we set out on a mission—especially one that is right and helpful and doing God’s work—and we encounter unexpected obstacles that threaten achieving our goal. There are times to press onward, but there are also times to step back and redraw the map. Acts 16 reports that the Holy Spirit stopped Paul and company from preaching in the province of Asia. Then when they decided to evangelize the province of Bithynia along the Black Sea, the Spirit again prevented their preaching efforts there. We’re not told exactly how the Spirit operated—whether through a bad “gut feeling,” direct communication, people in opposition, or road obstructions. We don’t know if the Spirit’s presence was nailed down through 20/20 hindsight. We’re only told of Paul’s response: that he was not afraid to change his plans of entering Asia and adjust his route.
Obstacles—whether in finances, relationships, timing, or literal roadblocks—can be the warning signs of a dead end up ahead that can be avoided by adjusting your route.
Is your quest to be the hero going to kill you?
Sgt. Wilber Hunter was the only man who fell through the ice and did not turn back to Crisfield for help. Subsequently, he became the only casualty of the mission. We don’t know why on earth he decided to continue in a hypothermic state or what was running through his mind. But those of us who have started new ministries, churches, and initiatives do know what it’s like to want to be the hero. We see the glossy videos at conferences where we’re told to be the hero and how to be the hero. While we know Jesus is the Savior of the world, we, less overtly than James and John, deeply desire to be Jesus’ right-hand man or woman. Then we wind up chasing the approval of denominational officials and senior pastors hoping that somebody will do a glossy video story on us. It’s all quite intoxicating, even if our bodies and relationships are becoming hypothermic beneath the surface. It comes at the expense of our souls. One of my professors in seminary had warned us students from his own experience: “never choose to sacrifice your family or your own relationship with Christ on the altar of ministry.” From my own experience, his words are true.
Is there a better approach—from above?
The irony of the story of the rescue mission on the Chesapeake Bay is not just that the whole thing was unnecessary. The mission that wound up providing the food for Smith Island and turned out to be successful was the one that waited and approached the situation from above, rather than through the men’s own strength on the ground.
As leaders, we read statistics and churn out strategies and lay well thought out plans. We put in long hours and inspire others on our team to do the same. In our efforts to push ahead on the ground, in the natural, it slips from our minds that there is a supernatural level to what we—and God—are doing. It’s not a mission of flesh and blood, rounding up people to increase attendance and best strategies to talk to unchurched people about Jesus. It’s easy to attempt to do God’s work for him. In the words of the classic Christian writer and minister Oswald Chambers, “Many today are spending and being spent in work for Jesus Christ, but they do not walk with Him.”
But what if your first approach was not to gut it out on the ground, but rather to take a bird’s eye view and see what God is already? When was the last time you witnessed God pull off something you did not orchestrate or have a file for? What if you intentionally gave God margin in your plans?
Blizzards are Inevitable, Unsuccessful Mission is Not
The resurrected news story of the failed Smith Island mission of 1936 has allowed me to revisit my own goals, my own plans, and God’s direction for the new year.
While blizzards are inevitable, an unsuccessful mission is not.
Kris Beckert is Coordinator of Operations for Fresh Expressions US. She serves as Associate Pastor of The Vine, A United Methodist Congregation in Falls Church, Virginia.