On the ABC political drama Scandal, DC fixer Olivia Pope leads a team of “gladiators in suits” who make the problems of Washington’s rich and powerful disappear discretely. As the series progresses, we learn the backstory of how she assembled Pope and Associates and why the group works together so effectively.
Watching Scandal has reminded me of two important lessons from my time on the teaching team of a year-long, parish-based catechumenal formation program for adults.
Every week, Pope and Associates divide and conquer the work of their current investigation or cover-up. Each member of the team has specialized skills, and Pope deploys her troops according to those gifts: computer hacking, undercover reconnaissance, legal machinations, leveraging of relationships, smooth-talking charm, etc. But the roles aren’t rigid. The other gladiators are willing and usually able to fill in when the go-to person is putting out another fire—or starting one.
A good faith formation ministry team works the same way. As St. Paul would be quick to remind us, some of us have gifts for teaching, others for discernment, others for administration, others for encouragement, others for hospitality.
On the team I was a part of, my specialty was teaching the more academic subjects, because as a seminarian this content was particularly fresh in my mind. But some weeks I filled in as timekeeper, as food and logistics coordinator, or as teacher of the more spiritual or liturgical topics that others usually handled. A highly diverse team can function at a high level because of the “variety of gifts” (1 Cor 12:4) its members bring to bear on a variety of challenges.
The more subtle but ultimately important lesson about Pope’s sharp-dressing fixers has to do with why they serve. At some point in the series, they all admit that Pope effectively “saved” them: from legal trouble, from an abusive relationship, from hopelessness and homelessness, from assassination. This makes them loyal, yes, but it also makes them vulnerable to each other and helps determine the arc of their development as characters.
We do well to remember that not only our diversity of gifts but also our diversity of challenges and burdens make being on a team so rewarding. The redemption songs of each of Pope’s gladiators are still being written. When one of the Associates flashes back to past trauma, another is there as a friend and companion. Their individual gifts complement each other; their unique weaknesses find reinforcement in the others’ strengths.
In my year on the teaching team, some of my rough edges were smoothed out by my partners in ministry, and some of the more glaring gaps in my abilities partially filled in. The arc of my own character development—as a minister, a disciple, and a human being—was partially determined by the people I served with.
The teamwork of Pope and Associates reminds me that my associates and I weren’t just forming the catechumens. As a team, we were forming each other.
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