Who are the Victors, Anyway?

It’s exciting even for someone who is not hard core. Imagine sitting in a stadium of 106,000 rabid football fans, a part of something bigger than yourself, everyone united in a common mission and cheering on your favorite college football team by singing, “Hail! to the victors valiant; Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes; Hail! Hail! to Michigan; The leaders and best!”


Gary and I, our son Garth and a friend went to the University of Michigan football game last Saturday. I “took one” for the family but not because I love young men risking their future brain health by smashing into each other for several hours. I wanted to spend time with my son but was also curious to observe how new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has brought renewed energy and hope to Michigan football. Plus, I’m interested in how the church can learn from America’s fascination with football, especially as it relates to stewardship.

Observation #1
College football fans are obsessive and totally committed to their team. I think I was the only one not decked out in maize and blue. Every Saturday in the fall, millions of fans take an entire day to drive many miles to the stadium, sit in traffic, tailgate, experience the electrifying atmosphere of a stadium, yell themselves hoarse, walk back to their car, eat dinner somewhere and arrive home late in the evening. And they love every minute of it!

Would that disciples of Jesus Christ poured into worship with that same sense of excitement and anticipation! Would that worship was so electrifying and inspiring that the movement of the Holy Spirit would be obvious. Would that everyone would leave as pumped and energized as football fans to live out their faith every day and change the world.

Observation #2:
Everyone wants to be on a winning team. Jim Harbaugh replaced Brady Hoke as Michigan’s coach on Dec. 30, 2014. Hoke was affable, good-natured and related well to his players, but he did not produce. In Hoke’s four seasons, wins went down rather up. Last year the team was plagued by turnovers, distractions and consequent disgruntlement, which, if not addressed promptly, could have led to the withholding of financial support from donors.


Needing to be responsive to its constituency and supporters, who ultimately care only for the bottom line of winning, the powers that be hired former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who guaranteed and delivered a victory over Ohio State and led the Wolverines to the 1987 Rose Bowl. Intense and quirky, Harbaugh has the pedigree, personal passion and energy to return Michigan to the elite programs of college football.

In the same way church members want to be proud of their ministries and their pastors and know that lives are being transformed. Giving always increases when people feel good about where their church is headed. On the other hand, if they observe declining programs, poor decision-making or compromised excellence, they may scale back their giving or even leave.

Observation #3
Universities make a huge amount of money by selling tickets and marketing concessions, including food, drink and logowear. In 2012-2013, the roughly one hundred students and twenty coaches and staff in the Michigan football program brought in $82 million, among the most profitable businesses in college sports. This amount did not include revenues such as sponsorship, licensing and advertising agreements, which totaled $22.5 million.

Likewise, the efforts of our ministries depend on the response of congregations financially. We receive no support other than that of our members and friends. We don’t charge tuition, and we no longer have pew rentals. Anyone is free to participate as much as they want without being sent a bill.

Equally important as marketing to raise revenue is the marketing of team spirit. It’s really fun to watch 100,000 people do the Wave. Then to do it again in slow motion and finally in double time galvanizes the crowd and gets them cheering.


How many local churches have marketing professionals on their staff or ever think about the importance of congregational morale? How many congregations are constantly discovering innovative ways to reach out to their neighborhoods in order to grow? How do we inspire the community of faith to move beyond “playing it safe” to do the Wave together, to boldly reach out beyond the walls of our buildings to be the hands, voice, feet and heart of Jesus?

Observation #4
Alumni giving is big business at all colleges and universities. The University of Michigan received two pledges in 2013 that were among the nation’s largest donations given by U.S. philanthropists that year. Stephen M. Ross pledged $200 million to U-M’s athletic department and business school, and Charles Munger pledged $110 million toward a graduate student dorm and fellowship program. Major gifts enable universities to focus on providing an affordable, top-notch education to a diverse student body.

Major gifts professionals understand why and how people give, are adept at identifying potential large givers and don’t hesitate in making the ask. Unfortunately, the church has too often lagged behind in understanding the motivation and psychology of major gifts and bequests.

Endowed funds can be invaluable for congregation if used wisely. They can jumpstart new ministries, provide seed money for staff or building campaigns and free the congregation to dream. On the other hand, congregations that rely on endowed funds merely to survive often have little incentive to reach outside their walls with invitational and transformative ministry. Do you have a planned giving ministry which enables faithful givers to leave a legacy that will last forever?

Observation #5
Understanding motivation for giving is critical. Colleges and universities are excellent at tugging on the heartstrings of loyal alumni, who want to see their alma mater continue to flourish. In the church, stewardship at its best is a free response of gratitude for God’s love and presence in our life. However, motivation for giving is more complex because it compels us to face conflicting values around money.

Some Christians practice the biblical standard of tithing and give 10% of their income to the church every year. For them, giving is a spiritual discipline and a fruit of the spirit, unrelated to the actual operating budget of their congregation. Others give proportionally of their income and are moving in the direction of tithing.

Some Christians give in direct response to the fruitfulness of the ministries of the church and/or the effectiveness of the pastor. Others may threaten to withhold money when they don’t like the direction the church is going. Still others hold back money to protest a specific decision they feel is unwise. There is a reason why Jesus spoke so much about money. Money represents the best and worst of human nature.

Observation #6
The best way for any organization, including the church, to communicate with its constituency and achieve financial health is by telling stories. The story told by the press and social media last Saturday is that Michigan defeated UNLV 28-7and is hitting its stride.

What if you and I told the story of how Covenant Bible Study completely changed Joe’s life; or how the church provided round the clock volunteers to help Sue and Dan through the first months after their triplets were born; or how Miss Kathy’s Sunday school class inspired Ken to go into the ministry; or how our inner city tutoring program kept Craig off the streets and gave him the opportunity to attend college? How might our congregations thrive if only we knew how many lives have been transformed by our ministries, how much hope has been restored, how much love has been shared and how the energy of the Holy Spirit has revived flagging spirits?

Observation #7
There is one significant difference between football and the church. In football, boosters and donors give money so that their team can win games, but in the church we win by losing. We invite people to give away their resources and their very lives so that the church can give itself away to the world through suffering love. Who are the victors, anyway?


6 thoughts on “Who are the Victors, Anyway?

  1. Laurie, this is great! I am a huge sports fan and I think about this a lot. I know many people who don’t attend church training events in the fall because of football schedules. Your observations are spot on. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Another home run, or should I say touchdown, Laurie. One marvelous difference between victors and love, is a loser and the lack of a loser. It is difficult to imagine a football team gaining a win without another team registering a loss. It is difficult for us to think of FUMC as anything other than an embodiment of Christian Love and Faith. We have received such warmth and support since we first visited the church. The opportunities for outreach experience have broadened our faith. The professionalism and cohesiveness of the entire staff is something to be admired. We have no trouble sharing our experience with others.

  3. An Emmaus walk gets the Spirit moving no pun intended. Mine was excitement from beginning to end. Took a week to come down off the “High”. Steph

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