Did you see it? It was one of the most heartbreaking moments of the Olympics for U.S. track and field. Last Thursday the preliminaries of the men’s and women’s 4 x 100 relay were held, with the U.S. teams expected to medal. To our horror, the last handoff between Darvis Patton and Tyson Gay was botched, automatically eliminating the team. Then, 30 minutes later, Torri Edwards and Lauryn Williams missed the last handoff in the women’s relay, scratching their team as well.
Knowing that failed handoffs have plagued the American teams for years, one commentator asked Gay and Patton, “Did you practice handoffs?” The response was a weak, “Yeah, we practiced a few days ago.” I am no expert in relay running, but it seems to me that if 4 of the fastest sprinters in the world don’t make it a priority to practice together the trickiest part of a relay race, it can spell disaster. After all, a relay is a team effort, not an individual event. Teams don’t just happen: it takes time, hard work and relationship-building to create effective teams.
It reminded me of a guy at the health club where I work out who has a crazy car. He paper maches pictures and sayings all over his car and changes them regularly. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not too long ago he paper mached a huge Michigan State football helmet on the roof of the car!
Last month I noticed one of his sayings, “The best team will always beat the best players.” How true it is in sports. One superstar cannot carry a team. Think about the Olympic team events you watched over the past 2 weeks. The team with players who work seamlessly together will almost always edge out the team with one great player who hogs the ball.
Did you see Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor win gold in beach volleyball? They’ve now won 108 matches in a row! People constantly try to figure out who is the better player, but when asked, Walsh and May-Treanor always reply that they are a team. Their gifts complement each other, so they never even think about who is better.
How about the U.S. men’s basketball team? When they failed to win gold in Athens 4 years ago, many claimed that the squad was filled with superstars who were more concerned with individual performance than playing as a team. This time it was different, wasn’t it?
Even Michael Phelps, who won 8 gold medals, is a consummate team player. I suspect his greatest moment was at the 4 x 100 freestyle final, when the American swimmer Jason Lezak edged out French swimming star Alain Bernard by a fingertip. Phelps said afterward, “Going up there with 4 guys, we were really one. We all had to swim the perfect race, and we swam that perfect race today… We had to do everything as a team to win that race, and we did.” “The best team will always beat the best players.”
As our children were going through middle school and high school, I noticed that they did an awful lot of work in teams. So many of their projects had to be accomplished by learning how to work with others: by forming community, if you will. I never worked in teams when I was in school. Our kids complained at times when some students didn’t pull their weight, and it dragged everyone else down. But they also realized how much more they could accomplish by giving up their own glory, so to say, and working as a team. It’s called synergy: the sum of the whole of greater than the individual parts. Young people (and us old folks) will not get very far in today’s work world if they cannot work in teams. “The best team will always beat the best players.”
“Knows how to play well with others.” It should be listed on every performance review in the church, not just on our kindergarten report card. Imagine how the United Methodist Church could transform our world if pastors, staff members, lay leaders and church members functioned as a team, with a common vision, mission and goals. Imagine how your church could make a difference in your community:
- If there were a high level of trust between pastor and congregation
- If the Lay Leadership (Nominating) Committee had a unified purpose: to help people identify their gifts, then train and empower them for leadership
- If all those responsible for worship met on a regular basis to plan together, without seeking to promote their own particular area
- If members of the church council covenanted to work together for the common good of the congregation
- If the baton of ministry were passed effortlessly between committees and groups through effective communication, cheerful cooperation, a willingness to engage in honest dialogue, and supporting rather than undermining
- If no one cared who got the credit for a particular program or outreach ministry
- If everyone stood together through thick and thin
- If teams intentionally included young and old, newcomers and old-timers, Caucasians and those of different ethnic backgrounds, rich and poor, gay and straight, gifted and special needs people
As the pastor, you are the captain of the team, even though The Book of Discipline calls you the “administrative officer.” You also function as coach, mentor, teacher, trainer and chief cheerleader. But the power of the team does not come from you. It’s the Holy Spirit who knits us together into one body of Christ, it’s prayer that unites our hearts, and it’s the sacrament of holy communion which serves as the team meal.
I was sad for the U.S. 4 x 100 relay teams. But hope was kindled, seeing Lauryn Williams run back to pick up the dropped baton and finish the race, even if she was dead last. Her only comment afterward was, “I had to finish the race.”
The race of another program year is upon us. No doubt the year will be filled with highs and lows, seamless execution and dropped batons, incredible Holy Spirit synergy and amazing human dysfunction. Next spring, may Phelps’ and William’s words become part of your mantra, “Going out into the world with an entire congregation, we were really one. We had to finish the race.”