On the Mat & In the Church: Gauging Tradition

This past weekend, our wrestling team participated in the annual NWCA National Duals. Since its start in 2002, the program has placed 3rd or better every year, having won the tournament 5 times in that span. If you’ve been following this blog (or you can check it out in my About Me section), you have an idea that the Augsburg College wrestling program is used to success. There is a rich tradition of winning and excelling, something the program takes great pride in.

This past weekend, however, the team went 1-2 and was eliminated on the first day of the two-day tournament. The reaction from the team, and us as coaches was shock. There was a loss for words, for adequate explanations, because it was uncharted territory for the program. Never before had they been in this position, and the reality of our performance that weekend left a lot of questions and doubts.

Needless to say, as a coach, I’m searching for answers as well. And I’m finding there are some technical fixes to make, but the biggest changes are in our approach and culture – adaptive changes. As I reflect on the weekend a bit more, the question that comes up for me is, “What role should tradition play in programs and institutions?” I’m wondering that not only for our wrestling program at Augsburg, but also for the Church today, and the issues it faces.

Let me first start off by saying tradition isn’t a bad thing. Post-modern critique often holds that institutions are to be mistrusted precisely on the grounds that hold to rigid tradition. Tradition serves as a benchmark, a standard that efforts can be put toward – in short, tradition provides a vision for carrying out mission. Tradition is benefical because it helps communicate what we value and believe, and invites people into participating in that vision. It’s true for Augsburg College wrestling, and honestly, it’s true for the Church as well.  I would even argue that tradition is necessary for long-term sustainability.

But it seems there’s a point where tradition doesn’t serve the program or institution well, and that’s when tradition is actually mistaken for nostalgia. Peter Ward writes in his book, Liquid Church, about “nostalgic communities,”

“…this mutation [of the church] relates to the conception of itself rather than its reality.”

Nostalgia, in simpler terms, is being stuck in the past. It’s romantizing, lifting up, or emphasizing past accomplishments over the present, and taking a step further: this past is actually viewed as what is currently the present state of things.
And well, that can be dangerous. Dangerous in that innovation is shunned, new ideas are immediately rejected, work and effort are avoided in favor of relying on the “tradition,” critical reflection is avoided, unrealistic visions and goals are held on to, and a whole other host of things. When tradition becomes nostalgia, and it goes unchecked for a long period of time, the results can be disasterous and tragic for programs and institutions.

That said, I don’t think its that dire – it certainly isn’t at Augsburg College, and I think the Church isn’t on the brink of extinction as some people think it is. But, perhaps moments like this past weekend for our wrestling program, and the present-day realities facing the church serve as “wake-up calls.” And, to be honest, what I’m presenting here isn’t anything new. But those “wake up calls” serve as good reminders that gauging tradition is something we need to be doing on a more regular basis, and not simply when we get the wake up. I think that’s the first step: constant recognition. How to address it as a leader? Here’s some thoughts:

Integrity & Maturity of the Leader:  The first place to start?  Yourself as a leader.  Are you sound enough personally to take a good hard look at yourself and what you’re leading?  Do you have the courage to not only identify and say the hard things?  Do you have the kind of character where people receive your words as genuine – in other words, are you trustworthy?

Lead from the Front:  In short, lead by example, and be willing to work just as hard, get just as dirty as those you’re leading.  You can talk until you’re blue in the face, but if people percieve you aren’t willing to sacrifice and put in the time you’re asking them to, forget it.

External Voices: Do you have good external voices that can help you assess things?  I know for me, I’m always calling coaching collegues, talking to other pastors and leaders outside the organizations and congregations I’m a part of for advice and feedback.  Because they’re not emotionally invested, they can offer “nostalgia-free” opinions and assessments.

Come up with your own “tripwires”: When I served as a Navy Submariner, we had these things called “tripwires,” which were markers that we were entering into dangerous situations or environments.  For example, if we saw a contact at 10,000 yards, it raised a certain awareness and concern; at 2,000 yards, the situation was dire, and immedate action was required.  Develop your own “tripwires,” perhaps a set of questions or things that help you constantly assess.  They shouldn’t be large or time-consuming either – over assessment is a bad thing too. 

What other things would you include on this list? Perhaps you disagree altogether? I would love to hear ideas from other leaders – whether coaches or church leaders.  Thanks for what you do: leadership is so vital, so key in our world today….and good leaders are sorely needed in all parts of life today.



Filed under Missional Thinking & The Church, Wrestling Devotions & Reflections

2 responses to “On the Mat & In the Church: Gauging Tradition

  1. Kerri

    I think you make some good points, and the key is that tradition “helps communicate what we value and believe, and invites people into participating in that vision.” Too many people rigidly see tradition as ONLY these specific things we do, in this specific way. The thing about nostalgia, too, is that we get to put a rosy hue on things we look back on, so it’s not really an accurate picture. So, I think part of constant recognition is to ask, what ARE the things we value and believe? How do our actions communicate that, and where is there room for fluidity? Part of leading from the front is wrestling (see what I did there?) with these things alongside your people, and leading them to deeper understanding of what we do and why, being prepared to learn some new things yourself!

  2. Julie

    Interestingly, I was thinking that you were going to refer to external voices that would include the naysayers within a church community, but I understand now the advice you sought were from people outside of the community – sports or church community. However, Tradition in a church, for some people, is so valued and church leaders really need to recognize traditions and their specific values and then build anew from them.

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