Posted on July 23rd, 2012
All pastors began as idealists. No one goes to seminary to be a role player, a cog in the machine, just as no baseball player while he’s playing high school ball dreams of someday being a minor league batting coach. When a young man goes to seminary, he goes to change the world. He really believes that his ministry is going to make a noticeable difference. He’s not just convinced that he’ll be better than his field work pastor or vicarage supervisor; no, make him District President, Synod President, or seminary professor, and he’d bring about a great reformation. He believes this.
When a young man goes to seminary, he goes to change the world.
You have to hold on to your ideals. Especially as a pastor, the “ideals” of pure doctrine can never be compromised.
But some of our ideals must meet up with the situation on the ground. The peril of the pastor is failing to realize he’s playing baseball, not football. Baseball is a long game, football short. Consider this:
Football is played with a clock. The clock can be stopped, but not for long. As time ticks off the clock, to be behind anything more than a touchdown makes victory increasingly improbable.
Baseball, however, has no clock. There are 27 outs for each side. While difficult, the game is never lost until the last out is recorded. A comeback is always possible.
But baseball is a longer game than football in more profound ways. At the highest levels, a baseball season is 162 games, football only 16. In baseball, you can lose ten in a row and not be out of it. In football, lose seven games and your chances are long for making the playoffs. Lose eight and you almost certainly are out.
The peril of the pastor is failing to realize he’s playing baseball, not football.
Football teams have a very small “development squad,” but no system of farm teams to allow young players to mature. (They use colleges instead, to the detriment of everybody.) In football, you must win now. Reinforcements are not coming.
Baseball has a large farm system of minor-league affiliates. Even the top prospects start at the bottom and work their way up. Consequently, a team that wisely cultivates its talent, developing players slowly, is preparing not just for this season, but getting ready for seasons five, even ten years in the future. Thus successful franchises cultivate their farm system.
Words like “farm” and “cultivate” suggest an agricultural metaphor. One plants the seed and waits. There is weeding and watering, but a lot of waiting, and praying. It’s no accident that Christ uses these images for the church in such places as the Parable of the Sower or the Parable of the Wheat and Tares. Likewise St. Paul describes the work of different pastors as sowing and reaping, while it is God who gives the growth.
The pastor trapped in his idealism—and this cuts across varying confessional and liturgical commitments—wants the harvest NOW. He has no patience. He will not wait.
I began thinking about these things anew when I read Mark Hemingway’s piece on the Libertarian Party’s convention in Las Vegas last month. Hemingway interviews Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson on these problems of idealism within the Libertarian Party.
In his hotel suite the next morning, Johnson is back to his eerily calm self. Regarding the intraparty tensions at the convention, he speaks quite freely about the challenges of being perceived as not radical enough. “Philosophy is one thing, party politics is another. So I think the party politics that goes on here is ‘no compromise’ in getting from A to Z. Well, I don’t view it as compromise to go from A to D to E to F to get to Z. I don’t see that as a compromise, I see that as movement in the right direction,” he says.
Johnson is also adamant that he’s not going to pander by adopting unrealistic approaches. He notes that it’s not just Wrights who wants to eliminate federal income taxes. “Ron Paul says we’re going to do away with the income tax and we’ll replace it with nothing. Well, when people hear that, and we’re running a $1.4 trillion deficit, I think for the majority of Americans that’s a collective eyeball roll. You can’t go from A to Z.”
Philosophy is one thing, politics is another. I think that’s a good way to look at the problems we face in the church. After a thorough examination of the best parishes in the Missouri Synod, I doubt any of us would say, “Everything is perfect here.” It will never be perfect, because there is a sinner in the pulpit and sinners in the pews. Somewhere in the Confessions it says that for harmony to prevail, pastors and congregations must overlook many things.
We are playing a long game.
Having been at Immanuel for eleven years, three recent events have caused me to look back over my time in this congregation, and also catch a glimpse into a window many years earlier. First, there was the wedding of one of our school teachers to a parishioner. I knew both of these fine Christians before they knew each other. I also realized how many people, staff and parishioners, have come and gone. Some, such as this couple, chose to stay and plant roots – another agricultural metaphor. Second, the burial of the 99 year old widow of my distant predecessor at Immanuel, a man who was the pastor here for 36 years. Third, the marriage of another of our school teachers to a man whose mother is our organist and whose father taught at our school for 40 years. These last two events became gatherings for our whole church along with people from our church’s past, in ways that rarely happen. And I realized anew how blessed I am by the labor of those who went before me, both pastors and laypeople. Some of the fruit was never seen by those who planted and those who watered.
We are playing a long game. Compromise is not always bad. Sometimes it is necessary, so as to not uproot the wheat while tending to the weeds. Sometimes it is necessary so we can move “from A to D to E to F to get to Z.” Movement in the right direction takes time. If you try to go from A to Z in one go, you will probably fail, and end up with movement in the wrong direction.
So, fellow Lutherans: Let’s play baseball. Plant. Water. Weed (carefully). Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Develop the farm system. The World Series championship dynasty is coming, though we will not see it until the resurrection.∗