They could have moved on. They could have decided to commit to somewhere else. They could have decided that the disgrace of Penn State football was no longer for them, or not for them even in the first place. They could have found other high-profile programs which were safer and with much greater opportunities for reward.
But they didn’t.
The Penn State child sex abuse scandal is well known and has drawn much deserved disgust and consternation. I’ve already used it here a couple times in my writings to draw parallels to other issues and circumstances in the church and/or life. It was an obviously terrible and reprehensible situation. Those who continued on and/or joined the football program have had to deal with much of the fallout.
When the NCAA came down with their sanctions and penalties onto Penn State and its football program less than 5 years ago, many prognosticators thought it would take a minimum of 10 years for the football program to even have a chance to get back to its previous level of success. The significant loss of football scholarships, the ban from bowl games, and other penalties in addition to the big black mark on its reputation would be a crater of a hole out of which to crawl. This was going to be a long and arduous and likely painful process.
The players on the team when the sanctions came down were given abnormally liberal transfer rules, making it very easy for them to go somewhere else if they so chose. They had much incentive to do so. Their legendary coach who had brought them into the program had been fired and was now dead.
Joe Paterno was Penn State football.
The notoriety of what made the football program as a whole had suffered a huge blow. The NCAA penalties would make it very hard, if not impossible in some aspects, to achieve team success on the football field. The future looked bleak.
Some players transferred. Some high school seniors who had committed to the school decommitted and went elsewhere. Other possible recruits decided that Penn State was no longer worthy of their time and attention and instead placed their focus on other programs. Yet other players decided to stay. Some committed recruits decided to stick with their commitment. Other recruits decided to still give Penn State a listen and some ultimately ended up attending the university and playing on the team.
These players decided that Penn State football was more than just Joe Paterno. That it was more than its previously-prestigious-and-now-blown-to-smithereens reputation of always doing things the right way. That it was more than the egregious sins committed by a former assistant coach and the corresponding failure to deal with them by those in power and in the know. They decided that they, themselves, were in fact Penn State football. Or for the newcomers, that they were going to join and become part of what is Penn State football. They determined that Penn State football was about much more than what they may have previously realized.
On Monday, Penn State football displayed its return to national prominence by playing in one of the most epic Rose Bowls in the more than 100 year history of the famed bowl. Yes, they came up just short of winning, but they returned to the scene this year by displaying power and potential to challenge for national championships. And they did this just 5 years after the University was rocked by scandal and the football team’s world was turned upside down. Some of the seniors who played their last collegiate game in Monday’s Rose Bowl had just enrolled at the school when the sanctions were announced.
The fall of pastors is a common conversation here on this blog. News is reported on fallings, most frequently when it involves high profile pastors and churches…….. the Joe Paterno’s and Penn State’s of the church world.
When the pastor falls, how does the church move forward? Now the details and circumstances may be different to at least some degree in each and every one of these situations, but in each one the brethren have to deal with the fall of their most visible spiritual leader. Is the church never the same (in a negative fashion) because their leader has fallen? Is the church permanently damaged and hindered because of the blow it received? Does the church even survive or does it eventually dissipate?
The pastor or priest or bishop, etc. is a very important part of the church. But you know what, so is every other member of the church. And that goes for the local church and the Church universal. When any member falls, there are bound to be hurts and pains and repercussions. But due to at least the nature of position, these things are further reaching within the church when a pastor falls. So how does the church body respond?
As we saw with Penn State, the players decided that there was much more to Penn State football than just the coach or the prestige of the program name. They saw that each and every one of them was integral to the program and decided to band together as a group and collectively work toward the same high ambitions. They ended up achieving more than just about anyone thought they could have.
In the church, we are not trying to achieve many of the same successes as a football team. But when our most prominent leaders fall, do we recognize that each and every one of us is just as needed in what we do and can bring to the body? That we suffer together and rejoice together? That we can’t have a good functioning body if we think one part is far more important than all the rest, and if that part goes bad, well then, we’re done for.
The church ultimately has one Leader onto whom we are truly dependent. That Leader never will fall. All of our members are prone to fall from time to time. But in those fallen times, if we keep our attention on our true Leader and what he calls us to do and be, just maybe the happenings of our church bodies and Church universal will be much greater than anything we would have ever expected….. in a good way.