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Learning leadership lessons from the World Cup

For leaders and those seeking a more liberating vision of life abundant, the 2023 Women’s World Cup teaches us the importance of expanding the table, the power of investing in those who have historically been denied resources, and the pleasure of affirming joy.

In this 2023 World Cup played by women’s national teams, FIFA expanded the field from 24 to 32 nations (up again from 16 prior to 2015). With the 2023 expansion, many mainstream sports pundits tutted that the quality of play would decrease as less-talented teams were invited in. The 2019 World Cup saw major blowouts, like the 13-0 win of the U.S. over Thailand. Instead, the expanded 2023 tournament has seen far closer scorelines. The expanded field has set records for ticket sales and domestic viewership.

While some Americans treat this as a passing event, we experience it as a taste of heaven — a joyous celebration of multicultural life. The World Cup teaches us to get comfortable with the idea that even if it’s not about us, it’s still interesting. Even though the U.S. women’s national team lost in the round of 16, there are still compelling teams for whom to cheer.

The tournament also has lessons for leaders. Instead of clinging to an elitist mindset of limiting seats, we can learn that expanding the table has actually made for a better tournament, more interesting matches and a far more enjoyable experience. With expansion, the world has gotten exposed to young, dynamic talent from across the globe and clashes of styles.

When the table is expanded, we get introduced to brilliant and talented people. The world got a chance to meet the emerging Haitian star Melchie Dumornay and experience her high soccer IQ and skills against an ill-prepared England. Panama’s Marta Cox’s booming free kick against France launched a joyful last game in the group stage that had the group leaders on the edges of their seats.

At 18 years old, Colombia’s young phenom Linda Caicedo is not only the future of women’s football but the present.

With an expanded field of teams also comes increased awareness of the need for equality at the table. Global economic inequality applies to soccer too. First World nations have more economic resources for their teams and better chances of winning the tournament.

There is stark gender inequality as well. FIFA began the men’s World Cup in 1930, while the first Women’s World Cup was allowed only in 1991, 61 years later. The women’s teams have endured chronic underinvestment from their national federations in development, training, research, and physical and mental health support. And as in the church, in the places where we underinvest, sexual, racial, emotional and economic abuse festers.

Almost every team in the tournament has been in conflict with its national federation. After years of pay inequality, the U.S. team just settled the equal pay lawsuit against its federation. Spain’s team quit en masse over a work environment that harmed the players’ emotional and physical well-being. Canada’s team has been in a pay and labor dispute for over a year with its federation. Members of France’s team went on strike over an abusive coach. Some players on Zambia’s team accused their head coach of sexually assaulting his players. The Nigerian team is owed back pay for over two years from its federation. Jamaica’s players were denied training camps, pre-World Cup warmup matches and compensation by their federation and had to crowdfund support to compete in the tournament.

As SkyE’s Shea Butter Football Club podcast co-host, Sylvs, has said, “There is not a talent gap. There is an investment gap.” This is the Pentecostal reality of the Spirit that falls on all people. This tournament shows that all nations have talented players, even as there is unequal investment. Leaders would do well to remember to constantly cast our nets wider and trust that talent is everywhere.

Teams at this tournament show that when there is robust investment, there are also hopeful results. Morocco is a case study in what happens when a federation invests in both its men’s and its women’s teams. As a result of that investment, both have achieved historic success, including the women being the first Arab nation women’s team to make it to the round of 16.

Around the world, investment in women’s domestic leagues has allowed for explosive growth of the sport in home countries while increasing the quality of national teams. In this new landscape, multiple traditional powerhouses have met early exits in this tournament (the U.S., Canada, Germany and Brazil), a sign that the game is growing in a beautiful way. When we invest in development, not just senior leadership, we build strength across generations.

This World Cup teaches us the embodied joy of celebrating, rejoicing, cheering and being alive, especially after such a long, hard season post-COVID. It’s not lost on either of us that in a world that seeks particularly to control Black, queer and women’s bodies, soccer players and fans enact embodied joy. This itself is an act of resistance against powers and principalities.

The communal celebration of fans in the stands rejoicing along with players on the field in being alive feels like church at its best. Many of the Nigerian team’s songs are also worship songs. Colombia and Brazil dance as a team after goals. In the words of the gospel song, “This joy that we have, the world didn’t give it and the world can’t take it away.” Despite remaining inequality, this World Cup gives us an opportunity to cheer.

As leaders, how do we decide what to fix and what to toss? Or put another way, what to mend and what to replace?

Over the past few years, I’ve taken up textile mending as both a spiritual practice and a practical skill to waste less in a sinfully disposable economy. In mending, I’ve found an embodied knowledge that has been missing from much of my life.

Christianity offers the promise of repair. My ministry is devoted to repairing broken relationships and repairing the wounds in the body of Christ. But some days, I have no idea whether I’ve done anything to aid in the repair. And some days, I fear I may be making things worse.

By contrast, when darning a sock, I can see and feel what I’ve done. Mending holds out the possibility of both utility and beauty, without the idolatry of the new or the wasteful disposal of the old. Mending appeals to our desire for visible results: Can we make this work again? Can we make this beautiful?

I recently ran across a guide for textile repair from the University of Kentucky. I love it because it walks me through a series of questions to discern whether to mend or not to mend. I see a clear connection to my work at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, where I serve as the executive director.

Whether I’m dealing with the unraveling of a well-worn sweater or the unraveling of our council’s governance structure, these questions serve me well.

The first one is crucial: How extensive is the damage? Before I can repair anything, I have to acknowledge that it is broken.

At the council, I knew that our current governance structure wasn’t working, but I had been slow to respond to the signs of deterioration. We were struggling to gather a full board. We were straining to do the work. We had already suspended our constitution, piloted a nimbler structure and then made a massive constitutional change. Barely two years later, it was hard to admit that things were falling apart again.

The mending guide’s second question calls for self-evaluation: Do I have the knowledge and skill to repair the garment, or do I need to take it to someone else?

At the council, I struggled to see how frayed we were. It was only when I met with my board president and another trusted outside adviser that I could really see the extent of the damage. I kept thinking that if I just emailed more, or emailed less, or asked the question differently, or scheduled the meeting sooner or later, we would be able to make it work. I needed other eyes to see that we had already tried those changes and we needed to find another way forward.

The third question calls for evaluation of the item to be mended: Is it worth repairing? This is a tough one to answer honestly.

My years of stitching up moth-eaten sweaters have taught me that mending is an affirmation of worth. We mend what we value and what we cannot afford to replace.

For now, the council has decided that our current governance structure is worthy of repair — worth the time, skill and attention required to fix it.

My mending has taught me also that things we use fall apart. Things we love wear out, and there’s no shame in that.

This winter, for example, I repaired a jacket for my wife. It wasn’t her occasionally worn, formal coat that needed repair but her most loved, everyday hoodie. Because she puts on this hoodie every day after school, the cuffs were frayed and the elbows had worn thin. Moths had eaten some bits on the front, nibbling at spilled food.

The more I mend, the more predictable the places of repair become. Not surprisingly, seams and places of movement and strain are often the spots that first need fixing.

This is true of our churches and the structures within them as well. If they are in need of repair, it may be because they are often used. And that need isn’t something shameful. It’s natural, in the same way that our jeans wear out at the knees, not because they are bad, but because they are well-loved and useful.

To be sure, it is true that things sometimes fall apart because they were poorly constructed or made of cheap materials.

For those invested in leading historic institutions in matters of equity, inclusion and diversity, there is honest work to be done in examining how our institutions were exclusively and poorly constructed in the first place. If an institution was initially created to serve only certain people, a patch here and there will not be enough.

Working ecumenically gifts me with experiences of many different Christian communities. And even in my limited view, almost no part of American Christianity feels particularly stable right now.

Indeed, almost no institution in American life feels steady these days. Everything is fraying. God is still very present and, I believe, in control, but there is much that is unraveling and coming undone. It is not yet clear what is being remade.

I had a revelation a few weeks ago reading a 1960s-era mending guide. I stumbled on directions on how to strengthen the seams of a newly purchased garment. The guide anticipated that the garment would wear out and so was planning for repairs even before it was worn.

What if I prepared my heart and my organization for the need to repair again soon, without shame?

In our case, the repair for our governance model is a patch for now. As we’ve intentionally sought to make the racial, generational, gender, denominational and economic diversity on our board reflect more accurately the diversity of the church, we have more leaders with less free time for long, in-person meetings. And we’re all under increased strain.

So we’ve narrowed the board job description to a scope that’s achievable, moving more of the big-picture work back onto our small staff team. I’m not certain this is the right fix, but it’s the repair we’re trying for now.

We likely will need to patch again soon. That is the nature of a well-loved, often-used garment in a season of high friction.