You may have noticed: we stay far away from sports metaphors in these pieces. Quotes about winning and training and teamwork have a limited shelf life, as well as being narrow in their appeal. So today we are making up for it by piling four sports-related resources into one article. (At this rate, you can expect our next sports-themed post around 2027.)
The first bit of sports wisdom, from Wayne Gretzky, may be familiar to you: Skate to where the puck is going. What’s most interesting about this is not the saying itself so much as the pushback it has received from leadership consultants like Dan Oshinsky.
There’s a Wayne Gretzky quote that’s been repeated in a thousand PowerPoint presentations, and I’ll repeat it here: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” It’s a wonderful thought: Instead of chasing what’s already happened, try to get a step ahead! And hey: Wayne Gretzky once scored 92 goals in an 80-game season, so he must know something about success.
But there’s a flip side to Gretzky’s mantra, and I think it’s just as interesting: Everyone’s trying to skate to where the puck is going, and when they make their move, they usually move in packs.
We’re pretty sure that boards and pastors right now are familiar with ‘pack moves.’ Examples abound in the marketing emails churches receive daily, offering a quick fix to the uncertainty we are all experiencing: “5 steps toward a better prayer life…7 most important enhancements to improve your worship…40 days to a better youth group…Top 10 ways to attract young families….” None of these pack moves offer meaningful respite from the uncertainty of the moment. Simply having the conviction to skate forward with the pack won’t save the church, especially when none of us knows exactly what God’s tomorrow is going to look like.
So, let’s turn now to the basketball court, starting with an observation about Kobe Bryant that was made recently by fellow basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:
Many other tributes will discuss Kobe Bryant’s impressive list of basketball accolades, awards, and statistics. There’s only one Kobe statistic that fascinates me. Kobe twice led the NBA in scoring and in 2006 he scored 81 points in a single game, putting him right behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game.
But those aren’t the stats I’m interested in.
This is: Kobe Bryant missed the most career field goals in NBA history. He missed 14,481 times. To some that’s a bad thing. To me, it means he wasn’t intimidated by missing, by losing, by failure. He didn’t hesitate by worrying, “What if I miss? What will the coaches think? The team? The fans?” He acted like the ultimate competitor: he took the shot.
Leading a church and its ministries is not exactly like playing a game. It is much bigger; it engages us in life’s deepest and most complex challenges. But right now, in this season of dwindling resources, there are a lot of churches – and church boards – that are reluctant to move in some direction out of fear of getting it wrong and looking foolish or irresponsible. (It is true that the New Testament has some pointed things to say about foolishness…)
So what, then, is the way forward, if it is not to follow the pack or stand still?
The legendary Bill Russell died on July 31. For several days, it was impossible to read any media stream – far beyond sports – without finding a tribute to his life. Across all these tributes, one thing stood out: Bill Russell hated signing autographs. He considered it a brief, impersonal, and transactional way of encountering another human being. Instead, he often invited fans to sit with him and have a conversation. According to those who knew him, he was endlessly curious about human beings and life itself.
What does this have to do with your church board? (We doubt you are being asked for autographs after your monthly vestry or council meeting.) If there was ever a time to sit and have conversations with the folks you serve, now is that time. It’s time for us to talk together in church about our regrets, wonderings, weariness, anxiety, and longing. Ministries that follow where others think the puck is going are failing their faith communities. If you want to go where the puck will be – and not just follow the pack – listen so intently to your faith community that you may well do nothing else between now and Thanksgiving. Listen to the voices of those whose needs you are seeking to meet, along with the voice of God.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples:
I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:14-16)
Listen intently, as a board together, for the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Listen intently to the people you are called to serve and lead.
Avoid the pack mentality that rushes toward techniques and quick fixes.
And working together with God’s guidance, do things for God, foolish or not.
And finally, in the following miraculous poem, American poet Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947) writes of basketball in a way that suggests that, at their best, the game and the church have more in common than we thought.
Slam, Dunk, & Hook
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury’s
Insignia on our sneakers,
We outmaneuvered the footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
A high note hung there
A long second. Off
The rim. We’d corkscrew
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good
Intention. Lanky, all hands
& feet…sprung rhythm.
We were metaphysical when girls
Cheered on the sidelines.
Tangled up in a falling,
Muscles were a bright motor
Double-flashing to the metal hoop
Nailed to our oak.
When Sonny Boy’s mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat,
We rolled the ball off
Our fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn’t know
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.
What images stand out to you in Komunyakaa’s poem? What do they convey about the people and the game he describes?
How is your church, at its best, like the game in the poem? When have you, as a congregation, had moves you didn’t know you had?
What are the “swivels of bone and faith” that can help your church spin “through a lyric slipknot of joy,” even in this uncertain time?