In recent weeks disturbing reports have rocked two storied athletic programs. Joe Paterno has been fired as head football coach at Penn State after one of the longest, most successful coaching careers in college history. Several weeks later Syracuse University, considered a premier basketball program, was rocked by a similar scandal. Assistant Coach Bernie Fine was fired after what has been reported to be the longest continuous tenure as an assistant coach in the same program. These two storied programs have had their reputations changed for the foreseeable future. Despite all their accomplishments and their formerly stellar reputations, each man’s legacy will be indelibly tainted by the actions he took, or in Paterno’s case failed to take, in the latter part of his career.
These incidents are a stark reminder of how quickly everything we have worked toward can be changed. One stupid decision, one compromise of our integrity, one choice based on expediency rather than morality can undo an entire career. Which is why our goal should be to finish well.
Paul knew something of this. In his statement to the elders of the Ephesian church, he reportedly said, “But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24 NRSV). It appears that Paul had an eye on finishing well, even as he continued to minister in the present. I was fortunate to see one finish his course and ministry well.
In my first job as an associate, I was pleased to work with a senior pastor named Norm Schanck, for his final five years before retirement. His final year in the church was a celebration of a long, fruitful ministry. He didn’t become complacent though; he finished strong. He worked hard for the congregation until the day of his retirement, even preparing the “flock” for continued ministry with a new “shepherd.” In retirement he traveled some, continued to mentor me some, but mostly he continued to dabble in ministry – visiting for the church he attended, and doing pulpit supply all over the region. One of the last sermons he preached before his death was the Sunday following Easter. Knowing he had cancer, he used that message to teach his congregation what it meant to face death knowing about the resurrection.
The other day I moved one of my online email accounts into the software on my laptop. A folder appeared that had an alert next to it saying it contained an unread message. I clicked it and found an old email from Norm. In it he apologized for not having written sooner, explaining he had been in the hospital. Then he wrote: “I am sure much of my success [in the church we served together] was due to you and your leadership in the youth program—I can never thank you enough for the job you did. I think we made a pretty good team!” Even then he was still mentoring, still encouraging me in ministry. Little did he know, he was also teaching me a great lesson I will take to the end of my ministry.
Someday, I will be proud if I finish half as strong and well as he did.