It’s one of our favorite movies: the sports turnaround saga. If you’ve seen the recent Disney production MacFarland, USA, then you know the genre well. It has a predictable but well-beloved story arc: a team or school is in the depths of despair over its poor performance. Various dysfunctions are evident. Then, a new coach arrives, whips the team into shape, and makes the players believe that they can win. To motivate them, the coach connects with the players outside of normal practices, usually at the expense of his own family life. The team begins, against all expectations, to win and win and win. Then appears the predictable music montage of highlight plays and winning scoreboards that helps us zip through the season until the team has made it to the playoffs. Both team and coach begin to realize how their performance draws a wider community together, and this motivates them to succeed at the championship game, which comes down to a last-second point. The intrepid underdogs are victorious. Everyone rejoices, and the camera focuses on the miraculous turnaround coach who made it all happen.

Hooray! It’s a great story! In many ways it is one of the most enduring and powerful myths of our culture — the myth of the miraculous turnaround leader. Long after our workplaces have made the practical switch away from “lone wolf” leadership to collaboration and committee work, this myth still fires our imagination. We love to see this myth in our sports teams, of course, but we also want to see it in presidential candidates “making America great again” — and they desperately want us to see the myth in them. We want to see this myth in our businesses: the innovative, young CEO who can turn a market loser into a market winner. We want to see it in our churches: congregations experiencing despair over poor attendance numbers and dwindling energy can easily place this expectation on a new priest, begging him or her to see great potential in them, to overcome their powerful dysfunctions, to draw in new talent, and carefully to forge them into a winning church whose methods of success can be proudly displayed for years to come. They want to experience the excitement. They want the pastor to connect with them outside of church and discover the secret to motivating them, usually at the expense of his or her family life. And they expect the priest to do all this without really changing anything too significant, such as the worship style or the budget or the décor in the nursery.

Clergy often place this expectation upon themselves, hoping that they turn out to be the miraculous turnaround priest. Seminarians are taught not to express this desire, but most of them want, deep inside, to experience that beloved story arc from the coach’s side. Clergy are often willing to do the extra work it takes to win the people’s trust, even at the expense of their family lives. But most parish priests are not the “lone wolf” miraculous turnaround specialist: most are simply good, solid clergy whose salutary influence can work wonders over decades, if it is allowed to. As clergy learn this about themselves over the course of a decade or so of church service, misplaced expectations can lead to depression and burnout, to unfulfilled expectations between pastor and congregation, and therefore to conflict.

This story of hope and disappointment has been repeated so often in Episcopal churches over the last forty years that many Episcopal congregations, clergy, and bishops have consigned the miraculous turnaround itself wholly to the category of myth. Small churches can never grow, they insist. Clergy shouldn’t even be trying. Trust us, we tried it for you back in the 90’s, and it didn’t work so well then, so it won’t work now. Just preach nicely, be inclusive, and don’t rock the boat. The miraculous turnaround priest doesn’t exist. There is no solution for our poor performance, but we can avoid despair if we accept it and appreciate whatever time we have left.

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But God is not the God of the dead, but of the living! The myth of the miraculous turnaround coach is only tangentially related to sports — it’s a modern way of telling the story of resurrection; and all resurrection myths are themselves reflections of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. His is the one resurrection myth that is true, real, historical, and practical, complete with empty tomb. In C.S. Lewis’ terms, “Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” (“Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock [1944]). If our entire existence as churches is built around a miraculous turnaround myth that is also a fact, how can we not expect the myth to become fact for our particular congregation, our particular priest, once again? Wanting to see the turnaround myth in our real-world lives is itself a kind of faith.

As much as holding on to this myth can lead to disappointment and unfulfilled expectations, not holding on to it can be far worse! Letting go of the myth of the turnaround leaves us ignorant of what constitutes success and failure; it means we make peace with our despair and stop challenging it. It means we build churches where we are comfortable with our poor performance, and we resist efforts to rouse us from that comfortable sluggishness. It means we lose faith in God as a God of the turnaround, who makes dead people live. And when we no longer believe in the God of the turnaround, then we redefine success to look an awful lot like our previous definition of failure.

There is such a thing as a miraculous turnaround church — on the congregational level, it has happened before and it will happen again. But the mythic story has wider scope than that. We are part of the miraculous turnaround story of the whole world as it groans and yearns for the revealing of our Lord at his return. Because the turnaround story is God’s story, it is good and right that both congregations and clergy should hold themselves accountable to the myth of the miraculous turnaround. Whatever our faults, losing sight of the destination should not be one of them. Losing faith in a God who can save, deliver, heal, and bless should not be one of them. Giving in to despair should not be one of them. If the myth of the “miraculous turnaround priest” can keep us true to God’s goals for his kingdom, then it is worth keeping.

John Thorpe’s other posts may be found here. The featured image, “Basketball team gets pointers from the coach” (ca. 1937) is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

Fr. John Thorpe is a graduate student at St. Louis University and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.

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So, here’s my problem with this: I really like the metaphor. I think it is spot on. I had never thought of it that way before, but you are right that there is a similar spirit amongst parishioners in dying churches that the incoming priest will somehow be able to pull off a Mighty Ducks style victory and grow the church by a thousand percent without making any changes that require real sacrifice. And this helps to explain why so many small churches become so easily disillusioned with their clergy because either the clergy press them to make necessary changes… Read more »

I didn’t see this as a reversal, but as a “going behind”: – Don’t put your trust in people. – Remember that God is the turnaround One. – If you are tempted to forget that God can turn anything (even death) around, then at least remember that he has used people in the past to turn things around. – The myth of the turnaround priest then is better than no vision for turnaround at all. Biblically speaking, Jesus was better than Moses, so if you settle for Moses, you have settled for less. But if you don’t recognize that Moses… Read more »