The Winter Olympics and Public Ministry
From the Gettysburg Seminary President's Office
by Michael L. Cooper-White
Winter sports have never held great fascination for me, although I did enjoy sledding down our neighbor’s cow pasture hillside as a youngster. And although we never owned our own, I do recall some thrilling rides on relatives’ snowmobiles. My one adult foray into skiing was assessed curtly by my teenage-daughter after observing me inadvertently wipe out a fellow traveler on the beginner’s slope, “Dad, you’re a menace!”
Despite my mediocre-at-best interest in and prowess at winter athletic events, like almost everyone else, I’ve been drawn into some aspects of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Who can avoid a measure of awe and marvel at the accomplishments of some of the world’s greatest on the rinks, slopes and tracks of the Olympiad?
Among the various winter sports (which is likewise the case in the summer games), there are some basic types. Some are team sports where a high level of collaboration and a spirit of togetherness are essential to successful performance. Other events, like figure skating, field solo performers, where the whole enchilada depends on a young woman’s or man’s skill, concentration and dogged determination to go for the gold. Another basic differentiation in type is between those sports where the outcome is measureable and beyond dispute, and those where the winner is declared by somewhat subjective decisions on the part of a handful of judges. In races on the track or the ice, you either have the fastest time or you don’t; you cross the finish line first, second, third or last. But in figure skating or a dive off the high board, judges determine style, form and overall excellence of performance.
Most of what we do in ministry, it seems to me, falls into the categories of “team” and “adjudicated” activities. While a sermon may appear to be a “solo performance,” even in preaching we depend upon the insights, encouragement and assistance of others; indeed, ultimately we depend on the “teamwork” of the Holy Spirit! While some believe it possible to assess effectiveness and even faithfulness by “the numbers game,” most of us are humble enough to recognize that matters are usually far more complex. Achieving 10% membership growth is more readily achievable in a booming suburban community than a declining rural village. Significant budget growth may not even require all that much effort in an affluent setting, whereas staying even or going down only slightly may be the result of herculean work in an economically depressed urban area.
The timeframe in which the fruits of our labors become evident is also often far more extended than in the Olympics arenas. You skate, you wait a few moments, and then the scores appear and you know how you did. In ministry, as St. Paul articulated so well, you plant, another waters, and God gives the growth—but only in God’s own good time. As Moses never did enter the Promised Land and enjoy the final flourishing of his long-held dreams, so we may seldom see the ultimate effects of our words and labors. As a colleague seminary president observed a few years ago about the work we do encouraging generous stewards to include our schools in their wills, “we’re always working for our successors.” The gifts that come this year were often solicited decades ago by one of my predecessors or a long-departed development officer.
As much as we all are drawn to watch the winners during the just-concluded or any other Olympics, even more may be learned listening carefully to those whose performance fell short of a medal. So often, amidst their disappointment, they speak of the true and lasting joy that comes from just being in the arena. And a satisfaction no less profound than that experienced by the winners belongs to the runners-up who head home from Vancouver knowing deep down they did their best. They were faithful to their callings. They were privileged to be in a place where few are granted entrance. So it is for us engaged in or aspiring to serve in public ministry. I never approach a pulpit, stand at an altar, set foot in a classroom or engage in a holy conversation with a student or colleague without the same sense of awe and wonder expressed by so many athletes in Vancouver. What a privilege to be in the arena of public ministry with so many hugely gifted and enormously committed colleagues, all striving for the same goal of faithful service to the Gospel!