Kermit Moss: Leadership lessons from a rugby field

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Christian institutions must recruit more widely, train in different disciplines and equip emerging leaders to thrive, writes the pastor of Manhattan Bible Church.

My first exposure to rugby was five years ago, when I moved into a second-floor apartment in a prewar building near Manhattan College in the Bronx. On sunny days, I often peered out my high, narrow kitchen window, which faced a plush turf athletic field.

The Manhattan College men’s and women’s soccer teams played home games on this field. Yet it wasn’t just for soccer; it had two goal posts, similar to those used in American football but with different dimensions.

On Saturday afternoons during part of the year, the soccer field was transformed into a rugby field, to the delight of the crowds I could hear cheering from my apartment. Interestingly, the rugby club did not practice there during the week. Instead, they practiced on a different field, down the street at nearby Van Cortlandt Park.

On weekdays, rugby players and a mosaic of neighborhood people from different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds shared a turf American football field in the community park. The two fields were vastly different -- the one down the block reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood, the one outside my apartment reflecting homogeneity. The neighborhood field brought together the leadership ability, creativity, intellect and elite skills of the best athletes in different sports for the good of the others. The one outside my home did not.

Years later, I had a lengthy conversation with a former professional soccer player from New Zealand whose son played on my son’s travel soccer team in New Jersey. I had played high school football (and was recruited by Duke University), and we talked about our different sports and experiences living in different regions of the United States. The intensity of our conversation deepened when the gentleman began to talk about the popularity of rugby in New Zealand, the haka dance and the All Blacks (New Zealand’s national rugby team).

He told me the story of an exceptional rugby player. This young athlete had been a good Division II college football player and track athlete. However, on a different field, his exceptional speed, quickness, determination and ability to adapt helped make him a rugby star.

The conversation brought back memories of the different fields in my old neighborhood and made me wonder: How could Christian leaders think differently about the fields of ministry in an era of declining attendance and demographic shifts? How could I think differently about my own context, a church in a mostly Latino/a neighborhood in upper Manhattan? The following three principles offer a good place to start.

We must broaden the playing field. Christian institutions have both formal feeder programs (such as affiliated seminaries and denominational networks) and informal feeder systems they rely upon to identify pastoral leadership. These feeders, however, yield a limited pool of people who may think homogeneously. The unconscious bias that results from dependency on narrow feeders can cause Christian institutions to overlook or misevaluate potential pastoral leaders. Restricting the playing field is a recipe for mediocrity. But when Christian institutions develop strategies to identify and give leadership opportunities to people from “different playing fields,” they help to level the playing field, and the church benefits from the leadership of exceptional people.

We must train on different fields. The exceptional rugby player was trained in American football, track and rugby. He continues to train with a track coach to maintain proper running form and with rugby coaches to develop techniques for the pitch. Similarly, pastoral leadership -- with the rapidity of today’s technological, cultural and philosophical shifts -- necessitates a diversification of training to sustain effective leadership.

Theological education trains leaders to think critically, communicate effectively and provide compassionate pastoral care. However, this foundational training does not supply the contextualized skills a pastoral leader needs. A pastor in a rural setting may need to acquire an understanding of farming methods or environmental sustainability; a pastor in an urban environment may need training in community organizing or nonprofit development. A solo pastor may need to take continuing education classes in event planning, while a multi-staff pastor may need to hire people with exceptional skills from another vocation to meet the current needs of the church. Some of the most effective people in pastoral ministry have acquired skills in vocations outside the church.

We must give them the ball and be patient. Former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson was frustrated about not getting the ball enough early in his tenure with the New York Jets. He is credited with telling Coach Bill Parcells, “Just give me the $%!# ball.”

It is important to give new leaders agency, particularly if they come from different playing fields. When churches do not afford opportunities to lead, leadership development is stunted. Although the young rugby player was new to the sport, his coaches and teammates gave him the opportunity to be on the field and gave him the ball. He scored often and eventually made the U.S. national rugby team. We must give emerging leaders from different generations and backgrounds the ball and let them run.This way of thinking has strengthened our congregation, where we have seen increased participation among young adults, new levels of creativity and the emergence of new leaders.