Death of an Umpire

My umpire uniform laid out before a game.

I’ve been debating on whether or not I was going to write about this but I’ve decided that I need to. The reasons are varied but the biggest is this: I want to blow the lid off of something that, frankly, is ridiculous and needs to stop. I swore I would never become a statistic but that’s what I’ve done.

I was a sports official and quit.

I began participating in organized officiating while living in Kentucky. Previously, I had done a little here and there but nothing very organized. A friend of mine is a high school baseball umpire in Kentucky and got me connected with the association that covers the region I was living in. I took the test, bought the gear, started training, started umpiring games, and fell in love. I was hooked. I even did a year of high school football and enjoyed that immensely as well. Due to school and pastoring, I did not have a ton of time but I did what I could. I even was able to umpire several college baseball scrimmage games while in Kentucky. When I returned to Mississippi, I wanted to continue so I signed up to umpire here. Unfortunately, this is where things started to turn sour.

During my time, I had endured my share of heckling and arguing but typically it was nothing that could not be taken care of with something along the lines of saying, “that’s enough.” The one time I had some major issues, me and a partner had a coach and player taken care of and a game administrator was taking care of spectators before I even had to say anything. While in Kentucky, heckling happened but it was nothing major and certainly did not cross any lines except that one time.

Unfortunately, that changed.

The final game I officiated in Mississippi was a nightmare. I won’t go into the deep details of what happened or which schools were involved but this was a baseball game between two schools with good teams. Both teams expected to win and both teams and their spectators expected every call to go their way. When they didn’t, the umpire was the target of their attacks. Things escalated and by the time we reached the end, both head coaches were restricted to the dugout for arguing balls and strikes with me, something that is a big no-no, and spectators were hurling insults at me where they were calling me names, making comments about my weight, and more. It was ridiculous and a poor example for the kids on both teams who had to witness this behavior by adults.

Looking back, at least one of the coaches should have been ejected and the stands emptied with the spectators sent down the foul lines and away from the field. Why didn’t I take this action? I had been warned to only do these things as an absolute last resort because, as this person told me, “You don’t want to make too many people mad and make enemies.” I was also mindful that I could very well be appointed to a church in either school’s area someday.

The rest of the weekend, I was not right and barely made it through even preaching the next day. Because of the outright bullying I had to endure, my anxiety disorder was triggered in a major way. I decided that enough was enough and something had to change. It was then that I came to the realization that the best thing for me would be to leave officiating. I became a statistic. I left the field because of bad behavior by coaches and spectators.

It’s amazing to me that grown people can act in such ways over a ballgame. Full disclosure: I’ve done my share of heckling officials in my day but especially now that I’ve worn the stripes and gear, I realize that I was very wrong in doing this. Officials are human. Yes, in many cases, they are paid to be there but (1) often they have spent more money than they will make in a season, especially if they are just starting and (2) they will make mistakes. Often, officials are blamed when a team does not play well and loses a game (this is rarely, if ever, anything to do with officiating). Spectators and a lot of coaches feel entitled and when calls made by officials don’t go their way, they become angry. This is unnecessary and counterproductive.

Let’s also remember this: Officials are people with feelings and souls. No official sets out to screw over a team or to intentionally make as many bad calls as they can just to see how many kids they can mess with. When they know they realize that a call wasn’t made correctly, an official learns from the mistake and does better the next time. And when people make inappropriate comments to and about them, officials take this personally. Eventually, however, even officials reach their breaking point and decide enough is enough, especially when the abuse is extreme. This is when officials leave the field.

In virtually all states, there is a shortage of sports officials. Some states are even seeing games canceled or postponed because there are not enough officials available. The National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) has studied the issue of why officials leave and the number one reason always has been abusive language by spectators and coaches. Officials must be truly empowered to take action without having to endure consequences for doing so. Schools must hold their spectators accountable for mistreatment of officials. State athletic associations must hold schools accountable for the behavior of their coaches and spectators with fines, probation, and other punishment. Until these things take place, the shortage of officials is only going to continue to grow worse.

Jesus had some interesting thoughts on murder. “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone,[d] you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot,[e] you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone,[f] you are in danger of the fires of hell” (Matthes 5:21-22 NLT). In other words, even with our words, we can kill. When we hurl insults at someone, we kill a bit of their soul and give them wounds that take a lot longer to heal than physical ones, if they even heal at all.

The umpire in me has been murdered and it’s doubtful that he will ever live again.

All Are Welcome

widetableThis Sunday, as many other congregations do on the first Sunday of the month, I will preside over Holy Communion at Shiloh. There are a lot of things I really enjoy about being a pastor but Eucharist near the top of the list. I count as a huge blessing to be able to present the body and blood of Christ to all who have gathered to worship as a way to proclaim the risen Christ and to draw us closer to him. We also have a common sacrament that unites us not only with one another but with the entire worldwide church. Holy Communion is a beautiful expression of our faith.

Just prior to inviting all to receive the elements, I give a reminder that the table does not belong to us as a congregation or as a denomination. It’s not called “Christ’s table” just as a pretty catchphrase; the table truly belongs to him. As Christ invited all to commune with him during his days here, so we invite all to his table. I remind everyone that one does not have to be a member of Shiloh, another congregation within the UMC or a congregation anywhere else for that matter. The only qualification is a desire to have an encounter with Jesus or even to not be sure why one wants to come to the table. The point us, we are not to put up barriers to the table when it does not belong to us.

“The Church used to be a lifeboat rescuing the perishing. Now she is a cruise ship recruiting the promising.”

The above quote is by Leonard Ravenhill and was shared by a friend on Facebook. He and I both shared some thoughts about the church’s intent was to be open to all. So many people have had experiences that made them feel anything but accepted in churches and I am deeply grieved by this. How did the church get to the point where “all are welcome” meant “all are welcome as long as they meet our standards?”

Unfortunately we have all seen churches that tend to only want certain people as part of their congregation. I know of a church which was seeking to grow and decided to do some marketing in the form of direct mailings, signs near the main roads, things like that. My friend who was part of the church at the time was on the team who was in charge of this marketing campaign and became disillusioned when he realized that the mailings were being sent only to certain ZIP codes and the signs being put up in certain neighborhoods. When his concerns were not resolved within the committee, my friend went to talk to the pastor. Much to his (and my) shock, the pastor said “we have to make sure we get the right people into this church.” My friend is no longer part of the church and I really can’t blame him.

When Jesus came as a man and was ministering in this world, he put no restrictions on who could come to him. His apostles were not made up of the richest or the “most worthy” people in the land. His very inner circle was made up of what the society of the day considered some of the lowest people. These would have been the blue collar guys living in the poor ZIP codes, they were not wealthy nor did they hold any kind of real power. Jesus himself was a carpenter by trade and was not some well-to-do guy living in the best neighborhood. When people sought him out, he didn’t care where they lived. They only had to come as they were, find healing for their lives, bodies, souls, and experience transformation. He hindered no one.

Why is the church hindering people today?

Churches have expressed a desire to grow and ended up closing because the people they attracted were not just like those already there so the new people were driven out. I find this to be among the saddest reasons for a house of worship to close its doors. May God forgive our exclusionary practices and give all his people welcoming hearts which truly extends to all people. No one should be hindered from Jesus and therefore should not be hindered from worshiping him. Who are we to decide who’s worthy and who isn’t?

If you think about it, none of us are.