Playing To Win
On my basketball team in high school we had a shooting guard who was heads and tails better than anyone on our team. He was certain to become an all-league pick when he moved up to varsity. The problem was he wouldn’t run the plays the coach designed for us, but instead would shoot the ball any time he got hold of it.
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—for him. He scored a lot of points. He received the adoration of fans, and quite honestly, the girls loved him. But it stunk for our team. As a whole, we were losing games.
That’s when the coach did something astonishing. He benched him. Whenever Ted started hogging the ball, the coach would pull him out of the game. And you know what? We scored more points without him than we did with him.
That’s the magic of team sports. It’s not how good you are as an individual or even how many highly skilled players you have on your team, it’s how you play together that quite literally counts. You can see it in your score!
This dynamic isn’t only true in sports, of course. It is true with any group of people who want to accomplish great things together. Whether you are a family, an orchestra, or a business, what sets you apart is how well you perform as a team, not merely as a collection of individuals. Nothing else is going to make a greater difference to a group’s success or fruitfulness than this one quality of communal life.
The Apostle Paul makes this point on a spiritual plane when he writes about the Church: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” and in another place, “The gifts God gave were…for building up the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:7, Eph. 4:11-12, respectively). The purpose of individual gifting, therefore, is not for the sake of the individual but for the experience or witness of the whole. That sounds like teamwork to me!
But here’s the catch. It involves great humility to pull off. It’s hard putting the needs of others in front of one’s own. It sounds Christ-like for sure, but the actual “doing of it” requires no small measure of spiritual strength and faith. Individuals are stretched to believe that God will provide for their needs even as they put those needs beneath the goals of the whole. That’s no small task!
This is as true for congregations as it is for orchestras, businesses, and sports teams. It is also true for presbyteries, as each congregation offers unique strengths and abilities to the witness of the whole. The key is to identify and celebrate our various gifts and then offer them humbly and generously to the glory of God. That is what Christ desires of us.
As I reflect on where we are as a Presbytery right now, I see us in a time of “re-visioning” our future. We are in a different place than we were a year ago. We are dusting off our “playbook” and discerning what still fits for us today and what we feel called to be and do in the years ahead. This work of re-visioning, I believe, will take every emotional, spiritual, and material resource we have. It will require great faith. It will also challenge us to work as a team as we have never worked before.
To this end, our presbytery is entering into a “season of biblical listening,” the first step of which will be listening to God’s story as it is revealed in every congregation. The goal is to become crystal clear on what we feel called to accomplish together as a larger community of faith, and what each of us—sessions, congregations, and presbytery leaders—can contribute to take us there.
Teamwork is not rocket science, but it is difficult to accomplish. That is why at every turn we need to ask to God to fill us with the Holy Spirit, so we may be empowered “to do abundantly more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).
In an age and culture that challenge us to eliminate practices that no longer connect with those outside the church—and take on new practices that do—learning how to function as high-performing teams is more important than ever. As disciples and as congregations, I pray that we may grow in our ability to celebrate our God-given gifts and roles, and then offer them freely for the sake of our common witness to Jesus Christ. To me, that’s what it means to play to win.