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Handing Over

On Check Pilots and Mission Trips

I was once a Check Pilot for an aerial mission organization operating in remote parts of the world. It was an immensely rewarding and challenging role, serving fledgeling Aboriginal churches in the Arnhem Land region of Australia’s ‘Top End’.

One of the tasks required of a Check Pilot was to introduce new pilots to the areas, the airstrips and the people that they were about to serve. Some of these airstrips were barely much more than tracks in the bush. They were not very long, had numerous obstacles and were fraught with issues that required a certain amount of ‘local knowledge’.

The most heart-stopping moment on a check flight was when, in accordance with standard operating procedures, the Check Pilot says “Handing Over” and allows the pilot being checked to complete the often tricky approach and landing. On such occasions, I would sit in the seat beside the pilot being checked with my hands off the controls—somewhat nervous and in a heightened state of readiness just in case I needed to take over.

Why did I feel that way? After all, the pilot being checked was already a licensed pilot. He or she would only need to be made aware of the particular issues relating to that airstrip or route being flown.

Since then, it has occurred to me that well-meaning Christians also have difficulty ‘handing over’ when they undertake mission trips to Aboriginal churches. It is easier to ‘do’ than to train. It is more comfortable to be in control than to relinquish control and it is more satisfying to be in the spotlight than to be in the shadows.

Why is it that we have so much difficulty investing in the future of Aboriginal churches? Put simply: It is difficult and time-consuming work!

Learning With Locals

As a new missionary in Arnhem Land, I was thrilled to be part of a church with an Aboriginal pastor. I had finally made it as the Base Manager of my own operation in an iconic former mission community.

I soon found that the minister would ask me to speak after he delivered his sermon on Sundays. What an honour! What a privilege! No... What a trap!

The trap was Rookie Error #1: Undermining the ministry of local church leaders even though it was they who'd asked me to speak. 

Thankfully I had good mentors who helped me think through the implications of my actions as a new missionary and I politely declined. Nevertheless, I did ask my pastor why he felt it was necessary to ask me to speak after he preached and the answer was simple—he was not confident of his ability as a preacher and wanted me to correct what was wrong, add what was missing, and generally improve his sermon.

Why? Here was an ordained pastor who had trained at a Bible college and had been duly authorised to be the minister in charge of that church. He preached in the language of the people, he knew and loved the Lord and had been a Bible translator as well. What could I possibly add to that?

Notwithstanding that a sermon, as westerners are accustomed to, is probably not the best form of communication for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, I suspected there could be a better way forward and so I asked my pastor if we could meet for Bible study early in the week and review the passage of scripture he would be expounding on Sunday.

After a simple inductive Bible study asking questions of the passage and looking for its redemptive-historical context, the outline of a sermon emerged. My pastor took his notes home and during the week and completed his sermon. Over a period of around six week this process was repeated and I was never ever asked to preach again.

It was a mixed blessing for a new missionary. I was thrilled but didn’t have a nice story for my next newsletter of me standing in front of an indigenous congregation, Bible in hand, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. Thankfully, there are people who get this. However, sadly, there are also still those who don’t.


Aboriginal 01

Indigenous pastors, like Jerry Jangala OAM, are best placed to minister to their people in a culturally appropriate way. However, they need peer support and access to ministry resources. Servant-hearted people living in Aboriginal communities can provide valuable support without taking over the local church.




Resisting the Temptation to ‘Take Over’

There were many other instances where I had to ‘hand over’ the ministry to the local church leaders; not that it was mine to give! But the temptation to ‘take over’ is one we must resist if we want to see any ministry grow, let alone when we are ministering cross-culturally.

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:2)

A good Check Pilot brings out the best in the pilot they are checking. They instil confidence, impart any knowledge that may be lacking in the person they are training and, most importantly, they know when to let go!

Letting go is not the same as ignoring. It is not an abrogation of the responsibility to ensure all churches have access to the foundation of faith; the Word of God. It is not a mere sentimentality that is relieved at not having to brave hot humid weather and a lack of good coffee, accepting a lower standard of education for one’s children, or being away from family and friends. Rather, it is a willingness to play a part in standing alongside Aboriginal Christians, supporting and encouraging them to develop their forms of worship in a culturally-appropriate way. It is taking the time to learn an Aboriginal language, learn the culture and submit to local leadership.

My greatest reward from serving an Aboriginal church was not what I did that was obvious, but what I did that was hidden. It was those things that strengthened the church to continue functioning well after I left.

I am still in contact with that church. It has struggled to grow with just seven books of the Bible available in the language of its people. However, now the whole New Testament has been translated and is undergoing final checks before printing.

How good it would be if more people would join the Aboriginal church as true ‘partners’ in ministry. Partners who are secure enough not to need ‘the praise of men’ in order to leave a lasting legacy?


PS If you have a professional or trade qualification, you can work in an Aboriginal community and be a valuable support person to the Christians there. Check online for vacancies or talk to such organisations as the Church Missionary Society or Bush Church Aid Society.

Image: lightstock

Phil Zamagias is a husband, father and former missionary pilot in Arnhem Land with a passion for people to come to know Christ. He is the Rector of Fred's Pass Anglican Parish in the Northern Territory which covers 29,000 sq kms extending from just outside of Darwin, including Litchfield National Park, parts of Kakadu National Park and borders with Arnhem Land.


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