Since 2001 roller derby has enjoyed a renaissance as an all-volunteer, do-it-yourself sport that has inspired women, men and children to throw caution to the wind and throw their bodies on the track. Derby has grown from a single league in Austin, Texas, to more than a thousand local leagues and tens of thousands of skaters around the world in the past 15 years.

I am an ELCA pastor and a roller derby announcer. I fell in love with roller derby in 2006 and began announcing in 2008, when it became my main hobby during my seminary internship year. Church work and derby have grown up together in me, and by now I can scarcely separate one from the other.

In my years as a pastor I’ve observed a few things the church could learn from roller derby.

  1. Clarify your purpose and watch your ministry grow.

The sport of roller derby has an obvious goal—to win games. Every effort serves that purpose. As volunteers in the organization, we recruit new skaters and volunteers, build community partnerships, participate in local parades and festivals, elect a leadership board, volunteer for off-track duties, manage our finances, promote our events, study the rules and practice—a lot. Our common purpose allows us to prioritize our use of time and money. With limited resources, we embrace changes and decline interesting opportunities based on one shared goal. Congregations could also benefit from a single purpose that is clear and shared by the members. Can members articulate the congregation’s purpose?

  1. To build community, meet people where they are.

Derby skaters come from every walk of life, and the leagues meet newcomers where they are. Never skated? Here are some skates, along with one-on-one instruction. Don’t want to skate? Here are some off-track volunteer opportunities. For many of my friends, the sport fills a need for community that the church might have filled for previous generations. Roller derby attracts more than its share of misfits and rebels, giving them an opportunity to contribute something meaningful and accepting people for who they are. So does the church, at its best. How does your congregation meet people where they are?

  1. Church isn’t confined to a building.

The roller derby community isn’t tied to a single building or location. Leagues practice in one location, play public games in another, hold meetings elsewhere and attend public events in communities. Sure, “home-track advantage” can help win a game, but derby leagues know that the work they put in everywhere else leads to success. Congregations sometimes forget that so much more of God’s work happens outside a church building than inside.  How does your congregation engage the world?

  1. Passion = participation.

Derby inspires high levels of commitment and generosity. Skaters attend two to four practices per week in addition to game days and weekend-long tournaments, along with off-track hours spent planning, setting up, studying, recruiting and promoting. League members pay dues to help pay for track time, travel, merchandise and promotional materials. They often pay out-of-pocket for gear, travel and lodging. Many skaters commit as much to derby as to their careers. There is no last row of pews in roller derby. Are there ways to inspire participation by igniting your members’ passions?

  1. Don’t be afraid to fail.

Roller derby teaches people how to fail. Every derby team loses games. Skaters face physical and mental limits, fears, self-doubt, injury and failure on a regular basis—the majority come out stronger for it. Participants know success is always built on a foundation of failure, followed by honest self-assessment, learning, hard work and the support of a loving community with a common goal. The church is founded in faith in a man who won by losing, who lived by dying. Yet so often churches are afraid of failure. What would happen if your congregation took a leap of faith?

Andrew Tengwall
Tengwall is pastor of Lutheran Church of the Savior in Kalamazoo, Mich., and announces for the Killamazoo Derby Darlins.

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