During the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration,” in the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century, sixteen expeditions were launched into Antarctica. Valuable lessons can be learned from these brave, determined people, especially from the first two expeditions to reach the South Pole as well as from a leader who, though he never made it to the South Pole, led his men to safety despite incredible challenges. Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott both headed for the South Pole in 1911. Amundsen arrived at the South Pole first on December 14, 1911. Scott reached the pole on January 17, 1912, only to find that Amundsen had arrived five weeks earlier. Amundsen safely returned to civilization with all his men. Scott and his men froze to death in their return trip. Scott’s last journal entry reads, “We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last… Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Falcon_Scott). Scott blamed his failure on misfortune, which destroyed his expedition, despite his (and his men’s) efforts to do their best.
Amundsen wrote in his journal, “I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roald_Amundsen). Amundsen credited his success to careful preparation.
Contemporary analysts tend to criticize Scott for his impulsiveness and lack of preparation while they laud Amundsen for his careful planning and extensive research. In Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen make it clear that the difference between Scott’s failure and Amundsen’s success was Amundsen’s diligent preparation. “Amundsen’s philosophy: You don’t wait until you’re in an unexpected storm to discover you need more strength and endurance….You prepare with intensity all the time, so that when conditions turn against you, you can draw from a deep reservoir of strength” (Great by Choice, Chapter 2). There is certainly a lesson to be learned here. Preparation does matter. Confidence without extensive preparation (especially in extreme conditions) does often mean disaster. How can one not agree with this assessment? Undoubtedly preparation is extremely important. The fact that Amundsen took along four thermometers to make key altitude measurements and Scott only brought one (which broke), does make a difference. The fact that Amundsen brought along much more food and other supplies than he needed and placed more caches of food than Scott (who had brought along and cached much less and needed to get to each cache at exactly the right time in order to succeed) also matters. Amundsen’s study of the ways of the Eskimo people to learn how they survived in extreme cold (and Scott’s failure to do this) was important. Nevertheless, in some ways it is how we meet the completely unexpected situations that matters even more. Amundsen was a great leader, and he anticipated every hardship his team encountered. Although they worked very, very hard and faced extreme conditions, his team accomplished their goal on schedule and with what appeared to be relative ease. Perhaps that is one reason why, for many years, the story of Scott’s failed expedition got much more attention than Amundsen and his successful expedition.
Jim Collins and Morten Hansen learn from the contrast between Scott and Amundsen. They suggest that careful planning and preparation often make the difference between life and death not only for Antarctic explorers but also for companies in the rapidly changing and very challenging times in which we live. Certainly, all organizations, including congregations, can learn from this. We should be prepared for the worst and be ready to meet challenges by planning ahead and making sure we have sufficient resources to face many situations. But what happens when that is not enough? This is where the lessons of Ernest Shackleton apply. Shackleton had planned to cross the entire continent of Antarctica (traveling right over the South Pole) since Amundsen and Scott had already reached the Pole. As you may remember, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was trapped in the sea ice north of Antarctica for over a year before the ice finally crushed it, leaving Shackleton and his men stranded on an ice floe with a few tents and several open life boats. Before heading out across the treacherous ice to try to get to open water, Shackleton had his men leave behind everything that would not be useful on the trip. Money, gold, personal valuables, even the Bible that the Queen had given Shackleton for the journey – all of these things got left behind. The only thing that mattered to Shackleton was getting his men home alive. He had a higher purpose, and he was determined to accomplish it, no matter what.
Shackleton could not have planned for the arduous trip over the ice nor for the long, incredibly difficult voyage in open boats to Elephant Island, nor the trip that he and five other men made in one of the twenty-foot lifeboats from Elephant Island to the nearest human habitation on South Georgia 800 miles away. One doesn’t plan to take a twenty-foot life boat across 800 miles of the stormy South Atlantic. But Shackleton managed to do these things because he was driven to save the lives of his men. He recognized that, as important as his goal of traveling across Antarctica was, as soon as the Endurance sank, his primary goal changed. The primary goal became helping his men survive. All twenty-seven of Shackleton’s men lived and returned home – an incredible feat. The crew had left South Georgia on December 5, 1914. They did not stand on land again until 497 days later when they made it to Elephant Island on April 14, 1916. It was not until August 30, 1916 that the twenty-two men Shackleton had left behind on Elephant Island were rescued.
Although I appreciate the lessons learned from comparing Scott and Amundsen, something tells me that Shackleton’s ability to recognize when a huge shift in thinking was necessary and that incredible determination was required to meet the challenges ahead probably fits our context more closely. One doesn’t plan for a massive change in the cultural and religious landscape of the United States. No one woke up one day in 1970 and predicted that people claiming “no religious affiliation” would be the fastest growing “religious group” in the United States in the early twenty-first century. But that is what is happening. Simply trying to be better prepared for the challenges ahead probably isn’t going to be enough. Building a better Sunday School is not going to guarantee that the young adults will “come back” once they have children. (More and more of those young adults were never part of a congregation when they were children.) No matter how well you’ve planned for the trip across the Antarctic continent, with numerous caches of food and supplies along the way, those supplies won’t do you any good when your ship sinks far off the coast.
Faith communities in the United States are in a situation that resembles Shackleton’s situation more than Scott’s and Amundsen’s. Focusing on doing what we’ve always done “just better than we’ve done it before” is not going to lead to healthy congregations. The congregations that seem to be in a position similar to Amundsen’s (with lots of resources and plans that seem well-suited to making the organizations continue to survive and even grow), are few and far between. We have the option of acting like Scott (let’s just keep going, even as it becomes clear that, even if we achieve some important goals, we’re not likely to survive in the end), but that doesn’t seem very fruitful. We have another option. If we are going to be faithful to God’s call to us, to follow Christ and to “make disciples,” we are going to need to think more deeply and more radically about what that means. We’re going to need to do some things differently to help people know Jesus more. We can learn from the early church (which also faced many challenges) and from Christians in other places. Most importantly, we can listen to Jesus. We’re out on the stormy Southern Ocean in lifeboats, and we’ve got Someone better than Shackleton to lead us. Jesus promised that he would be with us “always” and that he would build his Church. Our task is to follow Christ and invite others to follow Christ, too. As we listen to Jesus’ voice, that trip across the stormy South Atlantic doesn’t seem quite so scary. It will involve some hard work. It will not always be comfortable. But it is possible with Christ. Most of us have probably never thought of church life as an adventure, but it can be, maybe it was even meant to be. Let’s go.
I originally wrote this article for the January 2012 Trinity Tower. It seems that it is even more applicable today than it was then. Even before COVID, many churches were struggling, and now many more are. We have done some things to adapt to the new reality. We have reunited our two congregations after 140 years of separation. We have effectively used technology to keep worship and other activities happening during the pandemic. We have continued to serve the poor and vulnerable locally and globally. But we haven’t made it to Elephant Island yet. There is much more work to do and more challenges to overcome. Together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can follow Jesus into the good future into which God has called us.