What Does Baseball and PCUSA Have in Common? Transformation

You are one body and one spirit just as God also called you in one hope. (Ephesians 4.4)

I’m not a baseball fan – not because I don’t like baseball, but because I’m just not a sports fan in general. Having said that, on a flight back from Chicago, I watched the movie, Moneyball, about an Oakland A’s General Manager, Billy Beane, who used an unconventional method to turn around a team that lost their three best players to a team that pays the big bucks. His idea was to use numbers, statistics, and math to dictate what players he bought and how they were going to play the game. His method went against not only tradition, but the very heart and nature of baseball. Almost everyone turned on him; he was publicly mocked; and his faith in the method was tested every time they lost a game. In order to turn things around he had to work hands on, one by one with the players to teach them how to think, act, live, and see differently. In the midst of a winning streak, there’s a moment where Billy Beane says his goal is not to win the World Series, but to change the game of baseball, where teams with money do not dictate the way the game is played; where a player’s worth is not determined by how pretty or slick they are, but how they play the game and strengthen the team; and where the field between the haves and have nots is leveled a bit.

I just returned from a gathering that was initiated by Cindy Bolbach (219th GA Moderator) and Landon Whitsitt (219th GA Vice-Moderator). They gathered six of us – half teaching and ruling elders from different size churches and locations; different ages, theological views, and culture. The purpose of the gathering was to develop some type of PSA about our genuine hope for the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and where we see God doing exciting stuff in the midst of our reality where there are churches feeling unsettled and some even wanting to leave this denomination. It was a wonderful time of getting to know each other and share in our common hope. In that time, we constantly meditated on Ephesians 4. What stood out to me was verses 9 and 10, “What does the phrase ‘he climbed up’ mean if it doesn’t mean that he had first gone down into the lower regions, the earth? The one who went down is the same one who climbed up above all the heavens so that he might fill everything.” In the Common English Bible translation, it talks about Christ who has climbed up from the lower regions in order that we may be transformed into that one hope in body and spirit. I know that these are tough and challenging times for PCUSA – times of uncertainty, loss, and anxiety. But in my experience, it is in these times when amazing transformation can take place if we let go of ‘what was’ and open ourselves up to ‘what can be.’ This isn’t a time to be scared. This is a time to dream.

What resonated with me watching “Moneyball” was Billy Bean’s willingness to dream and risk ‘what was’ for ‘what could be’ – not to win the World Series but to transform the whole game of baseball. I am not a Presbyterian because it is or was a big and great denomination. In all honesty, I don’t recall or remember those days. I am Presbyterian because it is home to me – a place where I learned what it was to be a community of faith through the highs and lows of my life. We as Presbyterians have an opportunity to claim the exciting work that God is already doing and dream of a future that is the kind of transformation that will “change the game.” At the end of the season, the Oakland A’s didn’t win the World Series. And to Billy Beane’s surprise, he didn’t lose his job over it. In fact, he was offered a job with the Boston Red Sox with a salary package that would have made him the highest paid General Manager. Beane asked the owner of the Red Sox why he wanted him and he said that he shook up the game to the point where those with the money are paying attention. He managed to get more wins on a tiny budget than the Yankees on a dream budget. Beane ended up not taking the job saying that he would never make a decision based on money again (referring to an earlier regret when he gave up a Stanford scholarship to play for the Mets that did not end well.) In an ironic twist, the Red Sox ended up using his method and eventually won the World Series. Beane made a transformative mark on the game.

Although there are other reasons, I can’t help but think that some of the nervousness has to do with the larger steeple churches wanting to leave, which means a decrease in per capita. This not only affects General Assembly staff, but all churches and programs within the church. But I can’t help wondering if we should take heed to Bean’s words of not making decisions based on money. If we are in the business of conserving what is now and how we do things now, then yes, the loss in per capita is huge. But I see this as an opportunity to “change the game” and recapture a different way of doing things, where innovative ministries can foster, partnerships can grow, missions can thrive, racial ethnic congregations feel worthy, pastors can think outside and inside the box, and the presence of Christ can be overwhelmingly recognized. Change came from a little baseball team, considered to be a training pit stop on the way to the major leagues. Change can only come from the smaller churches – the churches that know struggle, that are faced with ‘what’s next’ everyday.

In the midst of the Oakland A’s losing terribly, Beane asked one of his staff, Peter, what is the question we need to be asking? Peter said, “Why are we losing? Who do we need to trade? What are we doing wrong? . . . ” Beane says, “No, we are asking the wrong question. The right question is “Do you believe in this method?” If we are fearful about the state of PCUSA, I believe we are asking the wrong question. The questions shouldn’t be “Why are we dying? What do we need to do to keep unity? How do we generate more membership or growing churches? . . . ” The right question should be “Do you believe God is doing transformative work in PCUSA?” If so, then how is God calling you to participate in that transformative work?

Whether a big or small church, we are all suffering from clinging to’what was.’ But for me, I have a hard time understanding what we are actually clinging to. As a young, racial ethnic clergywomen, this is an exciting time to transform PCUSA so that it is more inclusive of all diversity. We are all of value. So, how do we transform in a way that whether you come from a tall steeple or a tiny steeple; whether you are old or young or in-between; whether you are white, mostly white, or a person of color; whether you are straight or gay; whether you are a teaching or a ruling elder . . . you are valued and you are of worth.

I close with this . . . there was a moment after Beane returned from visiting the Red Sox and he was in a time of decision. Peter shows him a video of an overweight baseball player getting ready to bat. The player hits the ball and runs as fast as he can and slides into first base. He asked Beane if he knew why the crowd was laughing at him. Peter says that it isn’t because he slid into first, its because he hit a home run and didn’t realize it. That’s what the game is all about. Let’s not be blind to the good work that God is doing, to the homeruns that are being hit. Let’s be hopeful in the one God that has shown throughout our history how faithful God is if we just believe.

4 responses to “What Does Baseball and PCUSA Have in Common? Transformation

  1. I read “Moneyball” when it first came out, and I’ve struggled since to whittle down exactly what about it strikes me as resonant with the situation of mainline churches in North America. I haven’t nailed that yet. But you’re onto something here (as is Maryann McKibben Dana, who also blogged about the movie from the same perspective). It has to do with convention, right, and a class of people in the institution who know only one way of doing things and are threatened by “novelty?”

    The turn that Moneyball describes is a turn away from speculation and toward quantification, and that’s the part that keeps tripping me up. It’s about asking the right questions and measuring the right things (hint: it’s not batting average or membership stats), which means it’s about measurement, and I struggle with the imperative faith to walk on into an uncertain future. Billy Beane was trying to eliminate uncertainty as much as possible and spat in the face of the projection that a player with “tools” could be great if the data showed that he never had been. Past performance is the best predictor of future success.

    That said, I did quote the movie to Landon recently, the part where Red Sox owner John Henry says to Beane during their interview, “The first one through the wall always gets bloody.”
    Amen to that.

    • it’s true that one can’t make a straightforward comparison. I think I was just inspired because I was watching the movie flying home from a meeting talking about the state of PCUSA. I wrote 3/4 of the blog on the plane. On another note, I think Landon might like the blog more if I can find a soccer team to write a blog comparison about. 🙂

      • Don’t fret: You and Rock talk similar themes often.

        BTW: Rocky did inform me that Beane is now doing his moneyball routine with the San Jose Earthquakes – an MLS team… 🙂

  2. Helpful Theresa, thanks. Looking forward to kicking around what quantifiable questions might be with my session. One of the things that has really transformed my community is recognizing that we really value questions more than answers. I’m not sure that’s what Rock meant about imperative faith. I find more and more a quantifiable measurement might be – how do we find ourselves asking questions and discussing matter of faith together more than finding the right answers to age old questions of faith. ?

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