Bill Russell and the Role of the Pastor

Dear colleagues,

The incredible professional basketball player Bill Russell died this summer at the age of 88. Russell has a claim to be the greatest player of all time. In a 13-year playing career with the Boston Celtics, they won the championship 11 times. Russell also won an Olympic gold medal and two college-level championships. Not for nothing did the National Basketball Association retire his number across the league in his honour.

The reason that Russell-led teams were so successful was not because of any gaudy statistics Russell himself put up. Yes, he scored plenty of points, blocked many shots, and hauled in more rebounds than any other basketball player not named Wilt Chamberlain. But there are many players whose stats line is better than his.

What made Russell-led teams so successful was that he was an incredible teammate. It was said of him that he made everyone around him a better basketball player. He knew how to play to the strengths of his teammates. Working together, the team was stronger than the sum of any of its parts, including Russell.

This is not a bad metaphor for Christian pastoral ministry. The role of the pastoral leader is not to charge to the front and have everyone stand in awe of you. Neither is the role to metaphorically lift the community onto your shoulders and singlehandedly carry them to new achievements and new success. Nor is the role to work so sacrificially that you burn yourself out before you realize it.

Instead, the role of the pastor is be the player on the team that is constantly working to release the gifts of others. It is fundamental to the New Testament’s understanding of the Christian community that no person can follow Christ on their own. We are all in need of the gifts that others have. The trouble is that we can often blind ourselves to this fact or think that our own gifts are so significant that using them is the most important task. That’s why it’s so important to have someone on the team—the pastor—who can see the whole team, recognize the gifts of others, and see that they are set free.

The result may not be an NBA championship. But it might be one step towards a flourishing church.

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink

This message was written by Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.