The Passing of Power

George Steinbrenner died at 80.  This news brought to mind a flurry of memories and images.  When I was younger, I absolutely LOVED baseball.  I followed the Big Red Machine in the 1970s and memorized volumes of stats and stories.  There was something pure and fun and inspiring and simply American (in the best sense of the word) about baseball.  I grew up in the mystique of the American pastime.  It was great.  Then Steinbrenner changed everything.  Baseball stopped being a sport and became a business as Steinbrenner changed all the rules and paid exorbitant and obscene amounts of money to buy championships.  Rarely did I ever hear a good story about George Steinbrenner.  He obtained the status of baseball antiChrist — representing everything wrong with the “game.”  He opened to door to free-agency, the baseball strikes, and ended the possibility of multiple players spending an entire career with one team.

Power corrupts.  Absolute power etcetera, etcetera.  This week I have been reflecting on divisions within the church, and the fact that our greatest threats do not come from the outside, but from within.  This was certainly true of baseball.  Football and basketball were not the greatest threat to baseball.  Baseball did it to itself as greed, money, media, politics, and power plays became more important than competition, loyalty, and athletic performance.  Think of the influence that money, greed, politics and power plays have on our church today.  The parallels are a little scary, but they simply reflect the larger shifts in cultural values.

But when did church become about power, size, material possessions, popularity, and media savvy?  It kind of makes sense with baseball — an entertainment industry.  It is a for-profit pursuit.  But the church?  Why are we following this same set of values?  Yes, we have some “box store” style churches that crank out a pile of programs and products, and they do some good.  But is this what we’re really all about?  Sure, we have a few “franchise” pastors who call all the shots, but is this a good thing?  We certainly love to keep score and track stats — even though most of them reflect losing seasons.

I am currently attending and teaching at a School of Christian Mission in Wisconsin, and it is so wonderful to be with a large group of Christians whose focus is on doing good for others.  We’re not talking about growing the church, but living the gospel.  We’re not talking about the needs of the institution to receive financial support, but how we can give to the poor.  We’re not talking about how to get more people to come to us, but how to equip people to go and serve others.  We’re not talking about how to get bigger, but how to be better.  It is a refreshing meeting, and a reminder of what we’re really all about.

Steinbrenner represents for me the “win at any cost” mentality that is so destructive in our culture.  This may be very unfair — I never met the man and I base most of my impressions on what I have heard and read.  What really upsets me is when I see such values of materialism, manipulation, competition, conquest and condescension leech from the dominant culture into the church.  Instead of the church influencing culture for the better, the culture corrupts the church.  What’s up with that?

Neither baseball nor the church are likely to return to kinder, simpler states.  We’ve “grown up” for better or for worse into what we are today, but hopefully we can “mature” beyond our current limitations.  Perhaps we can emerge from our current infatuation with big churches and fancy technology and pop pastors and MORE, MORE, MORE and seek a sane alternative that aligns our greatest efforts with our deepest values.  It’s never too late, except for Steinbrenner.  I wonder if he ever questioned his materialist and imperialistic drive to win, or if he was happy and content all along the way.  Thankfully in the church there are those who question, and those who desire something better.

13 replies

  1. I can’t judge Steinbrenner as a person since I did not know him at all (and I know it is beside the point to what you are really pointing to in your post), but he has a very good reputation for being a good decent human being in the little midwestern town where I live. He has some connection to this town, and many people here have spoken of the mismatch between his gruff, hard-driving reputation and his real persona as a thoughtful and generous man.

    • I didn’t know Steinbrenner, though I did know two people who worked for him (and eventually despised him) who said he was one of the most spiteful, petty, and unyielding people they had ever known… He always brings to mind the man I had in my first church who coached little league, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity, was very active in the church, but who was a tyrant of a boss and was abusive at home. After the third time he sent his wife to the hospital I told him he could no longer serve as a laity leader in the church unless he was willing to get help with his anger and other problems. He chose to leave the church, and to this day I am the villain in the story for being so unfair to this kind, generous man. For me, it isn’t acceptable to compartmentalize — acting kind and generous in one arena, then acting the opposite in others. Decency isn’t conditional, or at least, I don’t think it should be. I know Steinbrenner did a lot of good. Bobby Knight did a lot of good. Michael Vick did a lot of good. It is the ill they caused that I lament. In Steinbrenner’s case, he changed an entire industry, and I don’t think for the better (unless you’re a Yankees fan…)

  2. Jeff,

    Thank you for your perspective. I sometimes write without filling in the gaps in between my frustrations. I am an Elder working in a less than full time appointment. I’ve been at that status for a while now. I wouldn’t change the experience for anything–it’s been a blessing in the form of better insight into the workings of our system (and failings of our system).

    I am frustrated with our appointment process and disappointed that so often our episcopacy fails to connect with the experiences that you mentioned in your post. This is not right. And we give tacit approval to them if we fail to hold them accountable. We must challenge the entire structure of our conferences to remember that we are all in the same boat.

    I remain critical of my colleagues who have grown comfortable with generous salaries and take their benefits for granted. I remain critical of our conference leadership for doing likewise. At the same time, I try to invest my energy in serving the beautiful people of my current appointment–it is beyond my words to describe the excitement of seeing a neglected church discover new life in Christ.

    I pray these comments temper my previous post and serve toward something constructive.

    Thank you for your perspective. It reminded me that I am anything but alone in my struggles.

  3. Fly on the Wall…
    Do you mean to say that no “part time” pastors are elders, that no elders serve mulitple point charges, that we only want our security, pricey seminars, etc. if we are elders in full connection? I hope not. There are too many examples that this just is not so.

    If you mean to say that you’ve seen more licensed local pastors serving effectively and giving more than what some of the elders in full connection are giving, there may be some examples that add validity, but I still would find this hard to swallow as a general rule.

    I have, however, witnessed churches that wanted to “hire” their own pastor rather than receive one the Bishop sent. I have experienced congregations with money get rid of a pastor they don’t like.

    I also find “Would we… be willing to literally stand with people who don’t have jobs, don’t have health benefits, who lost their pensions and are trying to figure out how to hold it together” interesting.

    My wife has worked most of our married life. Because of my job as an elder in full connection, she has lost her pensions, job stablity, even the ability to find a new job in her field when we’ve been moved to areas that did not have such jobs. For my family, that meant that we lost over half of the family income at any given time. It meant that we qualified for food stamps. It meant that we had to make arrangements to pay our medical bills when the insurance we had at the time didn’t come close to covering.

    We have always had a house to live in – although the condition of some of those houses has been appalling. Some of them would not qualify as rental property. We have always had some income, although comparing to others with simliar educations, no where near what they were making. And I haven’t been to a “pricey seminar” in years since the congregations I’ve served struggle to make ends meet. Continuing education funds, while existing as a line item in the budget, haven’t been available.

    Yes, I believe our system needs a major overhaul. I believe if we truly want to be missional in our appointment process, we should have churches pay percentages into the conference like we do with apportionments, and the clergy paid via the conference based on effectiveness, years of service and other valid methods. And I, for one, have been standing alongside my licensed colleagues working to gain full rights as any other clergy serving in our churches.

  4. Lets not just pick on “pop pastors.” Lets be clear and sober about our system. We pick and choose every time we label a pastor “full time” and another “part time.” I worked with “part time” pastors who poured their whole self into multiple point charges. They were not recognized, not appreciated and did not receive a single visit, much less a phone call, from their Bishop. Enough with the rhetoric about “rock star pastors.” They are a convenient scapegoat, especially for Elders in Full Connection who are comfortably entrenched in a system that preserves their security via benefits, attendance to pricey seminars, pension and salary. Would we (we meaning the insider pastors who are called) be willing to literally stand with people who don’t have jobs, don’t have health benefits, who lost their pensions and are trying to figure out how to hold it together?

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