Are Church Leaders Our Spiritual Referees?

Within 30 minutes, the home plate umpire had thrown out one player and both managers.  The player was thrown out for tossing his helmet in frustration over a call that day as well as the day before.   The home team manager was tossed for standing up for his player, angry that the player had been ejected from the game for something as simple as showing frustration.  Not long after, the visiting team’s manager was tossed for the first time in his two-decade long career as a player and manager.  He was angry that when the umpire at second base had shown uncertainty in his call, the home plate umpire had dismissed the opportunity for a replay.  Every manager has 30 seconds following a disputed play to request a video review of the call.  The ump said the 30 seconds had passed and that he had his back to the manager.  The manager said it hadn’t been 30 seconds and the ump wouldn’t admit his mistake.

Who was right and who was wrong?  Was the player wrong for showing outward frustration at the umpire?  Was the home team manager wrong for standing up for his ejected player?  Was the umpire wrong for being quick to toss both player and manager?  Should the ump have listened to the pleas of the visiting manager to be more reasonable in his enforcement of a new rule?  Or should the manager have said, “OK, it happens.  Move on. Let’s win the game anyway.”

The rules of baseball changed.  As they changed, uncertainty and frustration followed.  Standing in the middle of these changing rules are four men on a field of play, each wearing black uniforms and lots of padding to protect them from projectiles that can come from almost any direction with little to no warning.  Despite appearances, the umpires’ job isn’t to enforce the rules of the game, nor is it the umpire’s job to tell the teams how to play the game.   Their most important job on the field is managing the game in a just manner.

Recently, Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, hosted eight podcasts titled “Against the Rules.”    In it, he examined the worlds of customer service representatives, judges, stock traders on Wall Street, and a 9/11 reparations arbiter, among others.  Michael’s narrative is that referees in all arenas are under siege in American culture.  Whether by their own ineptitude and injustice or a seismic shift in the credibility of those entrusted to managing the game, the job of referee has become more difficult and more prone to unjust referees. What seems obvious when an MLB player scowls at a called third strike that replays show was clearly outside the strike zone is less obvious when customer service representatives are given financial incentives to keep their calls short.  Both of these scenarios are examples of the referees in our culture losing their credibility because of their inconsistency, or worse, their bias and therefore their complicity in injustice.

What does this mean for church leaders?

Are church leaders called to be vocational referees?

Is our culture treating them as referees, regardless of their calling? 

What should the response of churches and church leaders be to their declining credibility?

What does all this mean for how and where the Kin-dom of God is on the move?

Church leaders operate in a “sport” where rules are changing and the players aren’t sure what to do yet.  Church leaders bring their best every day to a profession that has been compromised by the hypocrisy of public leaders profiting from political influence and by the long-hidden evil of well-known churches.  They carry both the burdens of the non-profit director and the expectations of a pastor.  Every day, they balance fiscal responsibility, pastoral care, and leadership minus decision-making within their local congregation.

A recent study by the Barna group on the state of pastors was revealing.  Barna heard from the same group of men and women that they are among the most fulfilled employees in our economy.  Yet pastors are also among the more isolated people in our world and therefore more prone to burnout than other professions.  It may startle someone to see a pastor being both fulfilled yet also weary from the same circumstances, but that comes as no surprise to anyone who has served on the field of play known as church. 

Regardless of a felt calling to priest, prophet, or pastor, church leaders are experiencing treatment that is remarkably similar to other perceived gatekeepers in our culture.  Should they embrace that and redeem the concept of a referee?  Or should they resist it in favor of a specific identity that resists assumptions made by voices outside the vocational pastor’s profession?

I propose that despite our temptation to resist the expectations of becoming the referee, the faithful response is to embrace and redeem this culturally imposed role.  Church leaders have an opportunity to redeem the idea of leadership within a culture that has good reason to question the refs.  Whether by accident or intent, church leaders have been placed in circumstances that offer an opportunity for redemption and a unique place in which the Kin-dom of God can be advanced.

More to come…

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