Over the weekend, I heard a story that fascinated me. Silly as it sounds, it is a true story:
A small school district has four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. For decades, the high school mascot has been the Dolphins.* The school board decided to promote unity among students at the high school level, hoping to quell any factions, sub-groups, or cliques (for the record, I have never known of a high school without these). So how did they go about this? They declared that every school in their district will have same mascot as the high school. From now on, every school and every student will be a Dolphin.
K-12, all Dolphins, all the time.
While I suppose it might be nice to be on one big team. . . I’m a bit curious how this works with elementary school sports. Can anyone accurately commentate an event? Do players sometimes accidentally throw the ball to the wrong team? Do the cheerleaders shout, “Goooooooo, [insert particular school name] Dolphins!” as a qualifier? I find all of this to be funny.
But I also recognize that this decision had real costs. The school board spent a great deal of money to renovate all elementary and middle school gyms. Coaches had to reorder team uniforms. The district even painted the fire hydrants Dolphin blue. Old mascots were painted over, and previous school colors were banned. In the name of unity, the school district imposed uniformity.
Teachers, principals, and parents were largely not consulted. They had to comply, all in the hopes that someday, kindergartners from the future class of 2029 would never form cliques. Because they’ve been Dolphins all along. This was a lot of money spent on non-problem.
But here’s the real kicker: In the process of chasing a “magic fix,” the school district and its board diverted a great deal of funds away its primary mandate and vision – Education. I find some of the particulars of the situation to be comedic, but the broader issue is concerning.
Since I am an ordained minister, after hearing this story, I began to make connections to church life as well. These days, religious demographics and patterns of congregational affiliation are shifting, and in the midst of these changes, churches are pondering how to adapt. Some congregations long for ‘the good ol’ days’ when they knew what to expect before these shifts were underway. Others are doing all they can to preserve their congregational life well into the future. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when it becomes the primary mindset and goal of the congregation, weird, magic fixes are easily born.
They usually take an attractional form. What can we do to attract more people into our building, and then what can we do to get them to pledge? Perhaps more people will come if we have a fog machine. . . or a drum set in worship. . . or a snazzy set of newspaper ads (that nobody reads). . .
These survival fears genuinely deserve compassion, but when they take center stage, they can derail the primary mandate and vision of what it means to live and act as the Church. This is especially true when it comes to money.
Last week, Carol Howard Merritt published an excellent article in the Christian Century entitled Money Can’t Buy Me Life. She writes about churches that become so obsessed with growing an endowment, that they stop doing actual ministry. It’s an important read. I’ll close with one of her quotes:
“Our future does not depend on our bank balance; it depends on whether we are making a difference in the world. Stewardship doesn’t mean we stockpile cash until we all die; it means that we look for ways to use our resources to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, and tell the good news.”
In other words, we can acknowledge our fears but abandon weird, magic fixes. Ministry for its own sake is always more life-giving.
*This school district will go unnamed, and I have changed the name of the mascot.