May 7, 2023

Ryan, Rob, Wrexham, and Pastoral Ministry

If you haven’t already heard the football fairy-tale story of Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney purchasing a struggling Welsh football club and bringing it back into the professional English Football League, then are you really alive? Catch up for goodness sake!

And you can catch up. On Disney+. Reynolds and McElhenney pitched the idea of a documentary to the streaming giants, and well the rest is viewing history. The series Welcome to Wrexham is a hit. It’s the real-life version of Ted Lasso. And just as feel-good.

Wrexham FC, a struggling team in a small town, now has fans all over the world. US fans who call the world game “soccer” for some reason, are hooked. Tourism in the town has boomed. Sales of club kit – shirts, hoodies, beanies and the like – have gone through the roof.

My friend Pete G was on a UK trip a few months ago and snared tickets to a match. Tickets to Wrexham matches are like gold dust. He bartered a kidney for two tickets, or so I am told.

And it’s not just the Hollywood factor. It doesn’t hurt that Wrexham were on top of the league towards season end, locked in a do-or-die struggle with Notts County for the one automatic promotion spot to the professional league. The title race was going down to the wire. For my US readers, just to note that the British football system doesn’t reward poor performance with a first round draft pick, and a hot cuppa. It rewards it with relegation. You drop down a division, and with the loss of money and media coverage in the lesser leagues, that drop can become a spiral. Nekminnit you’re three divisions down and on the way to oblivion.

Which is what happened to Wrexham. Until Reynolds and McElhenney turned up and bought the club. But not just bought it. Invested in it. Emotionally. They decided that they would be hands-on owners. But not experts. They left that to the manager, Phil Parkinson. Parkinson made some cluey signings, including the genius move of securing the services of ex-England and Premier League goalkeeper, Ben Foster for the second half of the season following an injury to Wrexham’s regular keeper.

Now one signing of a forty-year-old fading star may not sound like much. But like all elite athletes, there’s a universe of difference between an ageing superstar and a solid semi-professional. Foster doesn’t so much occupy the goal square as fill it. He has big hands, superior skills, a football brain, and the right kind of ex-Premier League “scary” that puts doubt in the minds of any regular striker who is bearing down on goal. If he’s blocked shots by the likes of Wayne Rooney, he’s gonna eat up your feeble effort for breakfast, right? At least that’s what is going through your mind.

Anyway I digress. I digress as a fan. As someone emotionally invested. As someone who cares about the results to the point of anxiety towards the end of a football season. To the point of moving me away from a distracted enjoyment of the game, to riding on the results.

Which is what happened to Reynolds and McElhenney, and which is where pastoral ministry comes in. Well, no spoilers alert necessary, because it’s been all over the news, Wrexham won promotion! On the second last day of the season. And on the third last day of the season, that man Foster saved a last minute penalty against chief rivals Notts County, to secure a 3-2 win. And the fans went wild.

So did Reynolds, who we saw on screen, blood-drained from face, anxious eyes, beanie pulled tight over head, as County’s penalty taker stepped up. And then Foster saved it! Guessed the right way (a knowing dive to the right, as he’d done his homework on the striker who took the penalty and knew his preferred side). And the home ground crowd exploded! And Reynolds leapt into the air, punching it, and yelling and yelling and yelling. What he was yelling we couldn’t tell because there was no sound available. But the place – and he – went wild.

It looked like it meant everything to him

Which it did. Because here’s the point. When you move from financially-invested polite, wealthy owner who sees an opportunity to make a hit series and enjoy a new experience to boot, to being an emotionally-invested fan who rides the highs and lows, the pain and fears, the joy and tears, then enjoyment doesn’t come into it as much!

The season came right down to the wire and it could have gone either way, but right at the pointy end, Wrexham squeaked over the line. Small decisions. That last minute save. That goal that was off-side. The results in other matches that went their way. If your hearts not in your mouth then check – you probably don’t have a heart.

In fact, when a US reporter was interviewing them, he found out exactly how emotional investment drains the laissez-faire idea that it was fun at the final whistle of the match Wrexham won that guaranteed promotion.

Here’s what McElhenney said:

“People kept asking me ‘Did you have fun?’ It seemed like it was so much fun. How much fun did you have?’ I don’t remember having any fun! It was not fun. I think that’s the magic of the sport. Its much more like an addiction. You crave it. I had a lot more fun at the previous game when the pressure wasn’t as high. It was more relief than anything else.

Leaving aside the addiction language, McElhenney nails what it means to love something so much that your emotions ride the rollercoaster with the results. And that’s where pastoral ministry comes in (I told you there’d be a link).

In some ways in pastoral ministry in the modern world, they key to survival is detachment. Leaders are leaders, and they’re told to be slightly aloof, slightly distinct from what happens in the congregation. True leadership is about 30,000 feet right? Not getting caught up in the trenches. I mean that’s the only way you’re not going to get depressed or anxious about it, right?

Perhaps in our zeal to ensure longevity in ministry, it’s easy to surround ourselves with an almost-detached approach, as if that is a firewall from pain or anguish. The pain or anguish of a “fan”! Well, perhaps there’s wisdom to that, at some level. But at another level – and one that the Apostle Paul demonstrates so clearly in his letters – , ministry is more Welcome to Wrexham than it is sitting in the corporate box at Manchester United.

We read his words to the Corinthian church (a church locked a relegation struggle in the Christian league):

Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (1Corinthians 11:28-29).

Or check out his deep love in this litany of phrases towards the Thessalonians:

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children,  so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well… For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. (1Thessalonians 2:7-12)

And then this banger:

But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?  Indeed, you are our glory and joy. (1Thessalonians2:17-20)

And then there’s that relief that McElhenney talks about:

 So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens…But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. (1Thessalonians 3:1&6)

That sounds like the sweet relief of a fan, right? Riding the emotional wave with his people. Sharing the joys and sorrows. And yes, as we see with Corinth, the despair at failure and desire for success. And of course there’s the weeping of the Ephesian elders as they kneel on the beach at Miletus, farewelling this rather intense, sometimes obstreperous, missionary as he leaves them, never to return again (Acts 20).

To many of his current day revisionist detractors, Paul was seen as the problem in Christianity, derailing the relational-intensity and concern of Jesus. These passages, and others like them, blow that idea out of the water. Paul was a fan. A season ticket-holder who rode the waves with his teams.

But even some of my evangelical stable tends to pitch a version of ministry that is more aloof, that is about identifying and spending time with the “influential young men”, or the people who have the means and money to realise the (FILL-IN-BLANK) vision. In an effort to be seen to be professional, to be a leader, and perhaps to ensure a long-term emotional viability for oneself, being a fan is almost too dangerous. Besides, fans are fickle. They can turn on you if results don’t go their way.

I’m constantly heartened by meeting pastors who are “fans”. Who aren’t so aloof from the “club” that it becomes about the fun of ownership or leadership or whatever. And Pastors who make it a point to “burn” at the sin that draws their people away from the love of Jesus. And pastors who take the time to know their flock well enough to weep at bedsides of the sick, and dining tables of the broken. Who hurt when “fans” walk away and ghost them, and who rejoice with them when, right in the final minute of added time, they have a victory over sin that seemed nigh on impossible.

And I’m heartened that I’ve met many who are not simply “non-league” pastors in Wrexham-level clubs, but who are leaders of significant sized “Manchester United” teams. Club size” isn’t an excuse to be an aloof owner” in the green-room after the service. I know a local senior pastor of a large church that had never done funerals who when he took the role, decided that that’s what the under-shepherd should do.

How can we preach to the people we don’t know, who we aren’t available to marry, to dedicate (or baptise!) their children, to bury their cherished mothers? Of course there are layers of leadership that pick up the bulk of so many of these things in larger churches, but leaders lead by example. Your senior staff won’t do – with any real conviction – what the senior leader won’t do themselves.

When it comes to pastoral ministry, it’s not about “Is it fun?” Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. It’s about the stance we take, whether we’re leading Wrexham or Manchester United. The fan doesn’t always have fun. And often it feels like relief. But the pastoral goal is always promotion. Not promotion to the next league, but promotion to glory. And that’s when the joyful celebrations will truly kick in.

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stephenmcalpine

Written by

stephenmcalpine
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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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