The church of the visitor’s bullpen

When Citizen’s Bank first opened, it took up the “old-time” feel of many of the ballparks constructed during the 90’s and early 2000’s. Open sight-lines, different areas to gather with other fans, and close proximity to the action were all high points for the park. Nowhere was this more readily seen than with the way the bullpens are laid out.

At the park, the bullpens are place directly under the main congregating area known as “Ashburn Alley,” in honor of the great Phillies’ outfielder. The two pens are in a two-tiered format, one directly on the level of the field, and the other open to the Alley above. The initial idea was to put the home bullpen directly in view of the fan, helping to form a deeper bond between the fans and the team.

Visitor's Bullpen

Whoever came up with this idea didn’t know the city all the well, and the Phillies wisely nixed the idea. Instead, they opted for the visiting team to be subjected to the Phillies’ fans as they warm up. “Reliever heckling” has become a favorite attraction among a number of fans – most of it good natured. My favorite videoed exchange happened between some fans and Billy Wagner the year after he departed the Phils for the Mets. The fan shouted down the Billy as he stood watching warm-ups, “Hey Billy, we missed the playoffs last year by half a game and it was your faul!” A nearby teammate of Billy’s apparently found this shocking and turned to see the source of the taunt. He caught the eye of the heckler, who responded, “And yours too!” That’s the way playing in a visiting ball-park should be.

Seeing this image of the visiting bullpen in my flickr feed today, however, got me reflecting. You see, there’s a lot of pastors out there who feel like they are trying to warm up in the visiting Bullpen at Citizen’s Bank Park. They feel as through there a lot of people trying to bait them into a misstep, and quite a few more actually hoping they’ll fail. Pastors, at least in Anglo churches, often have not had any contact with the churches they pastor prior to pursuing a call. Even those who do will often feel like they’ve made the jump “to management” and no longer have the same freedom in relationships they had before. And so they get pummeled with criticism, and heckled incessantly. As for those poor pitchers in the visitor’s bullpen, the message is clear, “You’re not wanted here, you’re just a visitor in our space.”

Now, this isn’t all the fault of congregations, though there some out there who keep churning through pastors while insisting they are “nice people.” Pastors contribute to the “visitor’s bullpen syndrome” in the language we use. It took me years, for example, to refrain from referring to the Central Baptist community as “them.” Now, this was partly due to the way human relationships form. Most people do not instantly form deep bonds of friendship, and being a pastor doesn’t change that 1. I’m also an introvert, so I tend form relationships slowly. Over my years, however, I noticed that I was using “them” in order to protect myself from some of the negative aspects of the community. By subtly undermining “we,” I could convince myself, “I’m not part of that.”

Here’s the thing, in Baptist circles, we are. Baptist clergy are not members of a diocese, or religious order, or presbytery. We are actually members of the congregations we serve. In fact, this membership isn’t automatic – we have to deliberately transfer our membership to the congregation we serve. So, even if pastors might sometimes wish otherwise, there is no “them.” A congregation should not treat their pastor as through they were in the visitor’s bullpen, and pastor’s shouldn’t embrace that designation to justify a mental, spiritual, and social division between themselves and the congregations they pastor. It might take a church time to warm up to their pastor, and vice verse, and that’s perfectly fine. Just as long as we remember, that is, it’s all the home team.

  1. As much as many people seem to think it should, it’s just not the case.