What Nolan Ryan taught me about ministry

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What Nolan Ryan taught me about ministry

November 8, 2022 -

FILE - Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan is carried off the field by his teammates after throwing his seventh no-hitter against the the Toronto Blue Jays in Arlington, Texas, May 1, 1991. Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan is the subject of a new documentary. (AP Photo/Bill Janscha, File)

Nolan Ryan Texas Rangers 7th no hitter Facing Nolan

FILE - Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan is carried off the field by his teammates after throwing his seventh no-hitter against the the Toronto Blue Jays in Arlington, Texas, May 1, 1991. Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan is the subject of a new documentary. (AP Photo/Bill Janscha, File)

The baseball world—and especially Houston Astros fans—are energized these days.

The Astros beat the Phillies 4–2 in the best-of-seven games to win the 2022 World Series on Saturday. The two teams were somewhat unexpected, or at least the Phillies were. Many expected the Dodgers or the Yankees to be in the series again.

Like many people and pastors, I like sports. I don’t worship them as some do. I am a fan of many sports, but no sport is my religion.

And yes, as a pastor I was repeatedly irritated by how some members seemed to value almost any sporting event from the opening of deer season to a pickleball match above spiritual opportunities like Sunday morning worship.

Baseball is my first love, probably because it was the first and only team sport I ever played. Additionally, the first major league sporting event I ever saw was a baseball game at the Astrodome that my sister Kay took me to see when I was ten.

In the ’70s, the Astrodome was called “the eighth wonder of the world.” I watched the Astros play the Cincinnati Reds, known in those days as “The Big Red Machine.” These were the days of Johnny Bench and Pete Rose. Rose was known as “Mr. Hustle” and didn’t disappoint. I can still see his face-forward dive into second base during that game.

Why do I bring this up?

Facing Nolan

During a recent long flight, I watched a sports documentary about another great ball player. Everyone who loves baseball—and especially baseball in Texas—knows the name Nolan Ryan.

Raised in the tiny coastal town of Alvin, Texas, Ryan became known for his ferocious fastball. He achieved some of the most prestigious records in baseball through his record-setting twenty-seven-year career with the Mets, Angels, Astros, and Rangers.

He is perhaps most known for his 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters, the last of which came when he was forty-four years old. The name of the film that tells his story is Facing Nolan and was released earlier this year. It is a true Texas tale worthy of your time even if you don’t like baseball or sports.

But here’s what stuck with me from that airplane entertainment: Ryan’s career almost didn’t happen.

Ministry is a team sport

Everyone in baseball, Texas, and sports knows the name and legend of Nolan Ryan. Almost no one knows the name Tom Morgan.

Morgan was Ryan’s pitching coach when he was traded to the Angels. Ryan would later credit Morgan with teaching him pitching mechanics, including how to throw a curveball and control his ferocious fastball.

When Ryan entered the major leagues, he could throw hard, but he was erratic and inconsistent. It’s likely that Ryan would never have become the legend he is without Morgan’s contribution.

Every player and every pastor need coaching and a team. Faith and ministry is a team sport. Nolan Ryan pitched seven no-hitters with the crucial support of eight other players who completed outs from balls off the bats of hitters Ryan was throwing to.

The temptation for reputation

Henri Nouwen makes this point in his book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.

Written in 1989, this book feels like it just came from the printer. Nouwen writes, “I was educated in a seminary that made me believe ministry was essentially an individual affair.”

He continues:

When you look at today’s church, it is easy to see the prevalence of individualism among ministers and priests. Not too many of us have a vast repertoire of skills to be proud of, but most of us still feel that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo. You could say that many of us feel like failed tightrope walkers who discovered that we did not have the power to draw thousands of people, that we could not make many conversions, that we did not have the talents to create beautiful liturgies, that we were not as popular with the youth, the young adults, or the elderly as we had hoped, and that we were not as able to respond to the needs of our people as we had expected. But most of us still feel that, ideally, we should have been able to do it all and do it successfully. Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the church. There too the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone.

Drawing from the second temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness, Nouwen warns about the dangers of seeking to be singularly spectacular in the practice of ministry.

That hit home for me.

I’m an applause and affirmation addict. Many ministers secretly harbor the same thought that the disciples argued about more than once, “Which of us is the greatest?” (Luke 22:24).

We must beware the temptation for reputation that fuels isolation in ministry.

The necessity of teamwork

In the spirit of John Claypool, Nouwen advises that we develop ministry with others that is both communal and mutual.

Jesus didn’t have to send out his disciples in pairs, but he did (Luke 10). The early church didn’t have to send missionaries in teams but they did (Acts 13).

I had the blessing of helping plant a church in a Dallas suburb twenty-five years ago. In the last decade of ministry there, we were privileged to play a small part in planting four other churches. Because of my experience, the first question I wanted to know among these church starts was: Who is the pastor’s partner? I’ve come to appreciate that shared ministry is nonnegotiable.

Nouwen remarks, “You might already have discovered for yourself how radically different traveling alone is from traveling together. I have found over and over again how hard it is to be truly faithful to Jesus when I am alone.”

Never minister alone

Years ago, John Maxwell closed a church leadership conference in Houston with the same idea. He offered this as the key to ministry success: “Never, never, never minister alone.”

Nolan Ryan learned it. He found help, strength, insight, and confidence through his coach and his teammates. At a critical point in his early career when he wanted to quit and go back to ranching in Texas, his wife Ruth encouraged and challenged him to stick with it.

So who are you sharing ministry with?

Will you confess your struggle with the desire to have attention and applause and to be spectacular?

Who will you give your accountability to?

As Cleopas and his friend found out on the road to Emmaus that first Easter, traveling together is way better than going it alone.

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