Last Sunday was “Jackie Robinson Day” throughout Major League baseball. For those of you who don’t know it, Jackie Robinson was the first African-American major league baseball player in the modern era. He is credited with being the man who single-handedly broke the color barrier in the major leagues when he began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But was he?
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to downplay Mr. Robinson’s accomplishments or imply that he was any less a hero than everyone says he was. By all accounts, he was a man of great personal courage and integrity and a marvelous baseball player. But nobody, not even Jackie Robinson, could single-handedly make something as momentous as the integration of the Major Leagues happen all by himself.
What about Branch Rickey? It was Rickey who, as the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, brought Robinson to the Major Leagues when he signed him in ’47. What about Leo Durocher? It was Leo the Lip who is credited with quelling a clubhouse mutiny with these words: “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a [expletive deleted] zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays.” What about Larry Doby and Bill Veeck? Robinson may have been the first African-American player in the modern era, but Doby, who played for Veeck’s Cleveland Indians, was the second, and only by a matter of weeks. And no matter how talented or courageous Robinson was, there would never have been a third African-American major leaguer player until there was a second. After Doby, there was Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin and Sam Jethroe and all the others who followed after. Very little of moment happens because of the efforts of a single human being, no matter how courageous or gifted he or she may be. Great results require great efforts, not just of one person, but of two or three or ten or ten thousand.
As it is in life, so it is in ministry. When I work cheap generic nexium with search committees, I hear a common refrain with distressing frequency. The words may vary slightly, but the melody is constant: “Find us a minister who will make it all better”. Well, the honest truth (dare I say God’s honest truth) is no minister can single-handedly cure an ailing church. Most churches in trouble didn’t get that way overnight or because of the bad intentions of only one or two people. Just as it takes the actions or inactions of an entire congregation over a period of years to put a healthy congregation on life support, it takes the efforts of an entire congregation over a period of years to revive it. Pastors can lead, but no leader succeeds alone.
When Jesus stood on the cusp of his journey to Jerusalem and the cross, he sent out a group of messengers to spread the word of his coming. It was this group, a collection of anonymous disciples known only as “the Seventy”, who went out “like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3) spreading the Word, working miracles and driving out evil spirits. When they returned, they returned with joy.
The Seventy aren’t a bad model for a congregation looking to turn itself around. If Jesus himself couldn’t make his journey to Jerusalem without help, what chance does a mere pastor have? Every successful congregation needs the Seventy (or the twenty or the thirty or the ten or the five) as much as it needs the pastor. So how about it? Are you one who Jesus has sent out like a lamb among wolves? Are you willing to do what it takes to return with joy?
Pastors don’t make healthy congregations any more than Jackie Robinson made baseball color blind. That’s a lesson well worth remembering.
Tony Stoik, Associate Conference Minister of Western Iowa