By Eddie Pipkin

It’s Tour de France season, and if you’ve never watched a stage of the world’s most eminent bike race, I highly encourage you to check it out.  It is beautiful pageantry and astonishing athleticism all rolled into one, with plenty of pathos.  So far this year, it has been a crazy progression of unexpected twists, turns, and crashes – you may have seen the roadside fan who took out most of the peloton on day one.  But the fourth day’s sprint stage is the subject of our immediate attention, because out of the blue in an outcome that nobody anticipated, a supposedly washed-up has-been, former champion Mark Cavendish, burst from the pack in the final seconds and dramatically won the stage.  Sometimes in bike races and ministry that’s what happens – the person that everybody has given up on as a meaningful contributor is the one who unexpectedly shines through.

The reason Cavendish’s win was big news was because, although he is one of the winningest riders in the history of the Tour – a 21-day mega race, with each individual day functioning as an independent race within the race, known as a “stage” – Cavendish didn’t even make a competing team in the past couple of years.  He was considered too old, too injured, too faded to win at this level again.  In fact, when he was recruited to be on the Deceunick-Quick-Step team for the 2021 Tour, it was a controversial choice.  Naysayers argued that he was taking up a precious slot that could be better occupied by an up-and-comer.  But suddenly, there he was, looking like the formidable sprinter of old, beating the best on the planet.  Nobody had expected this outcome.  Cavendish, himself, after the finish, dismounted his bike and sat in the road, crying  tears of joy.  In the post-race interview, he had trouble speaking.

Cycling commentator David Walsh captured the spirit of the sports world’s astonishment in an article titled, “The Entire Tour de France Bows to the Greatness of Mark Cavendish”:

The story of Mark Cavendish’s heroic return can be told in many ways. In the brilliance of the sprint, mostly. His team-mates had done an outstanding job but right at the end, it was left to him. How many times had we seen him in this position deliver the win and yet, foolishly, we wondered if it could happen again. Five years had passed since his previous win at the Tour.

(And an addendum: By the time this blog was published on Friday, Cavendish had won again.  He’s two wins away from tying the all-time record.)

This is probably more than most of you ever wanted to know about bike racing.  So, what’s the connection to ministry?

One of our most profound opportunities to see grace in action are those occasions in which we are able to provide a path for redemption, renewal, and resurrection.  One of the biggest thrills we can get as a leader is when we empower people to pursue goals which seemed improbable to observers on the sidelines.

One aspect of this kind of leadership is to identify untapped talent:

  • We give young people a voice and a platform to follow their dreams and do good work.
  • We invite unlikely voices into the conversation about what’s next.
  • We expand our definition of who can lead a new thing, instead of always deferring to the exact same brand of experience and leadership for decision making and who’s in charge.
  • We are entrepreneurial in spirit: our culture is known for fearlessly trying our all sorts of ideas, and we encourage people to follow their passions. We embrace experimentation and variety, even for things that feel unfamiliar to us.

There are some other aspects to this kind of leadership, however, that are equally important and often overlooked:

  • Advanced age does not mean diminished usefulness. Of course, it is the pattern in many long-established churches that the senior statesmen and stateswomen control the levers of leadership, and the real problem is getting new voices into the mix.  That’s a different blog, and I’ve written about that extensively, because that approach is a direct path to stagnation.  But there is, on the flip side, a kind of ageism that makes assumptions about older folks that limits their ability to contribute meaningfully to the life of the church.  When leaders assume that older folks just want to take it easy or just do what they’ve always done or don’t have new ideas or unfinished passion projects, then we can miss out on accumulated wisdom, insight, and talents.  Not to mention a reservoir of astonishing energy from some Seniors who, having worked their whole lives faithfully grinding out the chores that needed to be done, finally find themselves with a chance to do what they really WANT to do.
  • Second acts can be powerful follow-ups. People who have seen their heydays in previous iterations of their ministry lives may not be the ones to lead that ministry area anymore, but they can have a second ministry career renaissance (like Moses!) or unexplored interests that can send them on exciting new trajectories.  We have a bad habit as leaders of seeing people through one-dimensional lenses: a person who famously worked with youth is always seen as a youth worker, etc.  But people have different stages of life and service, and we honor those people (and God’s holistic vision for them) by encouraging, equipping, and empowering  them in all their different stages.
  • Redemption and renewal are intertwined in powerful ways. People who have made mistakes can still have plenty to give.  People who have failed in previous endeavors can still lead successfully when the time is right for them to try again.  In both those cases, the very lessons learned amid the processes of healing, rebirth, and recalibration can bring something useful and even beautiful to the next new thing.  In the world of sports, entertainment, and politics, it might be a feel-good story of the day to successfully rehabilitate an old face, but for ministry leaders – ( for all disciples of Jesus) – it’s part of our mandate.  We should be actively seeking opportunities for offering bruised and broken people potential pathways to re-engagement and rebirth.  It can be easy to write people off as not worth the trouble, since reconciliation and healing are difficult and sometimes painful, but the rewards can be profound.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about deep listening and relationship building.  These are the habits that give us the eyes (and maybe more importantly, the heart) to see potential candidates for redemption, renewal, resurrection, and improbable heroics.  Mark Cavendish had plenty of doubters.  But somebody, somewhere, among all the coaches and sponsors, listened and looked with eyes and ears thoughtful enough to sense that he had something left to contribute – and, wow, was their faith rewarded.

Of course, the Bible – our ultimate handbook for leadership – brims with examples of unlikely heroes.  And quite a few of them are over-the-hill has-beens.  Abraham, the geriatric parent.  Moses, the fugitive in the wilderness, who became a second career insurrectionist.  Peter, who failed to stand by Christ when it counted, but played a key in establishing the worldwide church.  (Peter’s experience of failure and reinstatement is one of the best examples of the profound rewards that can germinate from the process of the difficult work of relational healing.  Peter’s lasting contribution to the trajectory of the early church was his passion for expanding the Gospel message to the Gentiles.  Is it any coincidence that he was tender-hearted towards those who had been deemed outcasts and unworthy of receiving God’s love?  He knew that pain and redemption first-hand.)

These are heartwarming narratives for sure, these tales of the washed-up has-beens who suddenly succeed or the unheralded and unlikely misfits surprising everyone with their accomplishments.  And it’s true that when we hear these stories, we hear the Hallmark versions, the times when everything clicked and the outcome was rainbows and hugs.  But for those of us who are governed by the rules of grace, even when things don’t go perfectly – even when the realities of this messy world in which we live interpose themselves and the outcome is less than perfect – good things still happen.  People grow.  We grow as leaders.  Our institutions learn to work with people in all stages of life, rather than being obsessed with the “cool kid of the day.”  Even the uncool and formerly fabulous have a role to play in the kingdom work.

What are your own stories of has-beens and second acts and unlikely heroes who suddenly shined through?  Have you experienced this kind of rebirth and re-engagement yourself?  Why are our institutions reluctant to take a second (or third, or fourth) chance on people?  What might change if we were more committed to the ideas expressed in this blog?