It is an annual rite of spring. Every March since 1829 the best athletes from Britain’s oldest universities have met on the icy waters of the Thames in London to contest The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race® (Sponsored by Xchanging. I’m not kidding, it has a corporate sponsor now).
Generations ago, when the British empire spanned the globe and it was true that the sun never set upon it, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge could reasonably claim to have collected the very best minds in the world on their faculties and in their classrooms. The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race was a way of testing those minds in athletic competition of the most rigorous sort. (Anyone who has worked a rowing machine for more than 10 minutes knows how strenuous it is.)
Outside of the Olympic Games I don’t give much thought or attention to competitive rowing. I know that the athletes are in superb condition. Rowing requires aerobic stamina as well as tremendous strength. Rowers are extremely fit and dedicated to their sport. I also know that rowing requires precise teamwork. If the eight rowers seated at the oars are not perfectly synchronized, if they are not in and out of the water, pulling the boat down the course in perfect harmony, the result is clattering chaos, broken oars, and possibly a capsized vessel. Keeping the eight rowers together and guiding the boat down course is the job of the ninth member of the crew, the coxswain.
The coxswain does not row, but the crew cannot win without an expert coxswain in the stern of its boat. The coxswain shouts encouragement, keeps up the tempo, and guides the boat through the currents and twists of the river. “At Hammersmith Bridge,” Oxford/Cambridge wisdom has it, “Coxes aim for the second lamp-post from the left which marks the deepest part of the river and therefore the fastest line. 80%-85% of boats ahead at Hammersmith Bridge have won.”
That’s all I know about rowing, but it is enough.
Like a crew rowing rapidly down stream the church is a community working together in harmony to reach a common goal. We have a finish line in sight toward which we are striving — the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. Reaching that goal is hard work — it requires training and discipline. We were not born fully-formed Christian disciples. Living the life of Christian faith in the midst of this world, defined by professions, and politics, by media and commerce, is not instinctive; it has to be learned and practiced. The prosperity of the church’s mission depends upon everyone in our boat being in top condition. We rely on everyone being well-trained, devoted Christian believers willing and able to make a compelling Christian witness in a hostile and alienated culture.
In contrast to the tall, taut, lithe, well-conditioned bodies that man the oars, the coxswain is runt. No one would mistake the coxswain for one of the rowers. In 2008 Cambridge was coxed by Rebecca Dowbiggin (a Ph. D. candidate in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic) who tips the scales at a slight 102 pounds and stands 5’4” tall. Her teammates were all a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier.
Rebecca is not capable of making a meaningful contribution to the speed of the boat through the water by pulling on an oar. But then, that’s not what she’s in the boat to do. She has a different purpose. The rowers sit in the boat, oars in their hands, with their backs to the finish line. The cox sits in the stern and faces forward, the only member of the team who can see where the boat is going, who can adjust for wind or current or course. The cox shouts encouragement, and coordinates tempo and teamwork. She can’t win without strong oarsmen, but they can’t win without her either. Without mutual trust and respect the team will surely lose, if not drown.
Pastoral authority and leadership function in many similar ways to the role of the coxswain on the rowing crew. Pastors can no more do the jobs of their congregants than a coxswain could effectively pull an oar. The hard work of Christian witness is done beyond the boundaries of ministerial presence, in board rooms and classrooms, at little league games and council meetings. Making an effective Christian witness in the context within which members live and work is what they do best. Compared to their expertise at sharing the love of Christ with those with whom they live and work, a pastor is a 102-pound weakling. The members are well trained and prepared to live lives that testify to the goodness and mercy of God.
Still, to win the race, they do need a good coxswain. They need someone to shout encouragement when they’re fatigued and don’t want to row anymore; someone who can see the finish line and describe it when efforts seem aimless; someone who can keep the community on task, working together as a team; someone who can make the best use of the work being put into our common journey; someone to coordinate mission and ministry, overcome headwinds, chart a course forward that will advance the cause of Christ among us.
The rowers count on the guidance of a pastor they trust and respect, a pastor who trusts and respects them as well, to form the kind of community, the kind of team, that can give its all to the mission entrusted to the church by Jesus the Christ.
Doug Key is pastor of Clover Church, Clover, S.C.