by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Marisa Sias from Pixabay

I’ve been following the Major League Baseball number one performance by the Tampa Bay Rays this season (always the underdogs, those underfunded and underloved Rays, so always fun to watch).  They started the year on a torrid pace, winning game after game, but as we head toward the midpoint of the season, they’re slumping a bit.  That’s why it was a jaw-dropper to see that they benched their wunderkind shortstop, team superstar Wander Franco.  Due to some troubling behavior, they gave the best player on the team – and this almost never happens in modern, professional sports – a timeout!  It hardly ever happens in ministry either, but we could probably all benefit from being temporarily set aside to get our heads straight from time to time.

We won’t get into the details of Wander Franco’s transgressions in this space.  Suffice it to say that he had displayed recurrent flares of attitude, outbursts of temper, and exhibitions of petulance unbecoming a professional athlete.  He’s only 22, and one of the hottest players in the game. It’s a tough transition from high school superstar to well-mannered, multimillionaire pro, the kind of hardworking guy who consistently conducts himself with a diffident equilibrium every single day in every high-stakes game that makes up the monthslong grind that is the MLB season.  The coaches on the team are hopeful he can get the hang of it before he gets into the habit of bad habits.  That’s why they have taken this decisive action.

Learn your lesson now, painful and embarrassing though that lesson may be, and reap the rewards for a lifetime.  (Meanwhile, the institution – in this case, the team – will reap the rewards for championship seasons to come.)

In the ministry game, the stakes are different.  There are not millions of people tuning in, nor millions of dollars at stake (usually), but in the communities in which our leadership stories play out, the impact and outcomes can be just as dramatic.  For individuals, for teams, for institutions, picking up the habit of bad habits can have unfavorable impacts and do real and lasting damage.

Imagine if we built institutional cultures that – like in baseball – recognized the value of benching even key players from time to time, for the good of the organization.  Sometimes players get benched for substandard performance, thereby giving someone else the chance to step up and contribute.  Sometimes players get benched for unacceptable behavior, giving them a chance to reevaluate their motives and priorities, maybe even take space to tend to their mental health.

In a church setting, any of these approaches can be a healthy opportunity to promote healing and change the trajectory of a challenging situation before it spins out of control.

Ministry leaders should be prepared to bench players if necessary.  And in a super-healthy environment, players should be prepared to bench themselves if they are not feeling up the task of leadership.  It would be a beautiful world if we created an environment in which leaders and volunteers were given permission to pull back when they become overwhelmed, to state clearly that they feel like they’re losing their grip on a situation and need help or a change.  This is not the standard model in most local churches (and to be fair, it’s not the standard model in most organizations anywhere).  The usual approach is to pressure staff members, leaders, or volunteers to “get it together” even as they continue to be deeply involved in the situation that is pushing them well past their comfort level.

To be clear, self-selection for withdrawing from the melee, or being formally benched by a supervisor, should be done with explicitly clear objectives and guidelines:

  • There should be a clear statement of the concerning behavior that is leading to the benching. For those who are self-benching, they should formally communicate the specifics of their struggles and their fears for what may happen if they do not pull back.
  • The benching should be for a limited period of time, unless all parties agree that a permanent realignment of responsibilities or reporting structure is the healthiest direction forward.
  • Resources and support should be provided for the person being benched. Structure should be provided for addressing the issues that have arisen, preferably experts in areas of conflict management or mental health, as appropriate.  The benchee should not be ridiculed or critiqued for their “time out,” but this period should be seen by all involved as a strategy for promoting healing and wholeness.
  • Clear expectations should be set for the benchee as to what their revised behavior will look like upon their return to the playing field. An appropriate, scheduled follow-up should be provided to discuss progress (which will hopefully be celebratory in nature).

The most dramatic use of these techniques would be in scenarios of conflict, employed for those who lose their tempers, abuse their teammates or those in the chain of command, or are disrespectful to those they are called to serve.  Intervention early in such cases has the best chance of success.  Ministry leaders are often reluctant to intervene early, because it may seem like a lot of drama they would rather forestall or avoid altogether.  They prefer to let offenses accumulate until they become elephants in rooms, but this avoidance process becomes a painful tallying of mistakes that is added up prior to lowering the hammer on the offender (often permanently).  Early intervention, by contrast, done with love, respect, compassion, and professional coaching, can lead to powerful changes that benefit the individuals involved and the greater institutions they serve.

Benching techniques can also be employed in matters of competence.  Sometimes a person who has been assigned a task is just not qualified to take on that task.  Ministry leaders tend to think of responsibilities in terms of calendar year assignments, but it makes no sense to let an assignment go woefully unfulfilled or badly executed just to run out a clock.  In that case, a forthright discussion is required in which we say, “This needs to be accomplished in this manner by this date, or we’re going to bench you and give someone else an opportunity.”  Thus have some overlooked workers found their chance to shine.

As far as the inevitable outburst of conflict that is bound to visit any organization is concerned, it can be of a group nature – two opposing groups fighting it out with one another – or primarily the product of a discontented individual.  The snarly individual will be the one who needs to be benched.  It’s tough (though not impossible) to bench a group, but because there will always be tension and disagreement in any group that is made up of more than one human being, local churches should have established formal practices for conflict resolution.  Few do.  But those who do continually reap the rewards of a biblical approach to solving differences.

Matthew 18:15-35 provides the time-honored template for Jesus-directed conflict management:

“If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” (The Message)

But the nuts and bolts of even that holy advice require some agreement among leadership about exactly how the biblical principles will be employed in the localized setting.

The ‘benching principle’ lends itself to great flexibility in application.

Sometimes a person who is struggling to play nicely with others needs clarity on understanding for themselves exactly what the bee is that gets under his or her bonnet.  Once the source of the friction is understood, with a little help from one’s friends or an insightful supervisor or counselor, a partial benching can be a great solution:

  • A person may just have tension with one other person, and leadership can work to reduce the amount of work those two individuals are responsible for together.
  • A person may have tension with a particular type of meeting or topic, and leadership can work with that person to not be forced to be the player who must participate in those types of meetings.
  • A person may have anxiety and tension connected to very specific variations of responsibilities, settings, or environments, and leadership can work with that person to limit their exposure to those very specific triggers.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have to play nice with everybody.  I’m not saying that we should be spared from anything we consider hard.  I am definitely not saying that we should be exempt from working to gain command of ourselves in even the above bullet-pointed scenarios.  BUT I am saying that in an environment that exists to invite grace and promote compassion and understanding, it is possible to make space to understand the true nature of individual challenges and needs and to make room for people to grow and improve in a way that does not harm others, themselves, or the institution.  Such an attitude feels Gospel-infused, like its achievement would reflect the very best of who we are as followers of Jesus.

We should all, at all times and in all settings, be cheering for one another and doing everything we can to help one another grow to our greatest, God-created potential.  In one of those glorious confluences of purpose, it turns out that doing so is not only miraculously nurturing for the individuals who are granted such grace and support; it’s also highly beneficial for the institution they serve!  Such communities are thriving and growing, conspicuous zones of love.

I have two additional thoughts this topic, one concerning mental health in ministry and one on one of the best strategies for helping staff and volunteers avoid burnout.

On the topic of mental health, there is a distinct overlap between a person who might find themselves due for a benching and a person who needs love, support, and direction as they come to grips with a mental health issue.  I have written about that in relation to ministry in the blogs titled “The Twisties” and “The Twisties Part 2” (with Part 2 being closely related to the topic of this “Benched” blog).  It is a subject close to my heart because I, myself, have struggled with mental health issues that in the past have negatively affected my work and the people with whom I served.  I would very much have benefitted at various moments from being temporarily benched (either of the self-imposed or coach-imposed variety).  Sad to say – and a reason this topic is heartfelt to me – I did not have the good fortune to serve in settings where there were focused resources to help staff or leadership address their mental health challenges.  There was compassion, yes, but not a coherent effort to assist in meaningful ways.  Churches can provide such responses.

Churches can also do a much better job of requiring everybody – staff, leadership, and volunteers – to step back from the pressure of their responsibilities on a regular basis.  Scheduled benchings!  These pre-planned breaks are also known as sabbaticals, and we need more of them in ministry, not just for pastors, but for everyone who serves day-in-and-day-out.  Even the Sunday School teacher who never wants to take a break and the youth counselor or praise team member who are convinced that everything will fall apart without them should be required to take some time off.  If nothing else, it will provide them with perspective and a fresh view of the ministry.  It may also give someone else a chance to step up and be noticed.

Good luck to Wander Franco!  Good luck to you all in your pursuit of stellar seasons of baseball or ministry or whatever you find yourself challenged to take on with excellence this summer and beyond.  You are all All-Stars in my book!  Can’t wait to see what you do next!