When I was in my early sixties, my mother moved into an adult retirement community not far from our home. There she took up the game of pool. Every afternoon, she and a group of women played doubles. She became a reasonably good player and enjoyed the game so much that on her 90th birthday we gave her a cue stick with her name engraved on it. She called it her “magic stick.” She is gone now. I still have that cue stick.
But there is more to the story. Frequently, after a day at the office or in visitation or study, I would stop by the pool room of my mother’s retirement community and play a few games of pool with the women, who were pleased to have a male, even if he couldn’t shoot pool very well, to join them.
After a while, through their connections, I met a group of men who also played in that same room. They were as kind and patient as the women had been and took me under their wing — teaching me by example how to play the game. Over a period of three or four years, I developed my game to the point I was competitive. As retirement came, I spent many hours playing with them.
Then I began a second career of intentional interim ministry. It was then I realized the power of pool for ministry, especially if one takes the time and effort to become a proficient player.
Here’s the deal: Many of us male ministers have a difficult time forming relationships with other men. Men gravitate to those who share some activity in common — sports, golf, hunting, fishing. Billiards is one of those activities. It’s one a person can enjoy as long as he can stand up and see well enough to wield a cue. The women I mentioned earlier were in their nineties (one was centenarian) and the men nearly so. When the word gets around that the pastor is a proficient pool player, men will come out of the woodwork to challenge him. And he will grow in their esteem when he gives them a good go of it.
“I just want you folks to know where the search committee found this preacher — in a pool hall!”
One morning in the early worship service of a church I was serving, a prominent businessman and member of the congregation stood up and said with a twinkle in his eye, “I just want you folks to know where the search committee found this preacher — in a pool hall!” (The previous night I had defeated him on his own pool table.) The congregation had a good laugh and the word spread quickly to other men with whom I developed good relationships around the pool tables in their homes or in my retirement village.
Over the years I have played pool with, and in many cases, mentored dozens of men with whom I had little else in common — doctors, a lumber yard owner, a service station owner, salesmen, retired football coaches, public administrators, those who have suffered strokes, those experiencing the onset of dementia, and even right-wing Republicans who consider me a flaming liberal. I have organized pool tournaments both within our retirement community and in friendly competition with men from a neighboring retirement community. I have a wider circle of male friends than at any other time in my life.
Around the tables in such settings, the pastor has the opportunity of listening and learning information about men’s lives they never would come to the study to confess. He has an opportunity to exhibit gracious behavior when things get a bit heated. As he learns of the needs and struggles of his fellow players, he can offer words of encouragement, pass on helpful literature, make lunch appointments for one-on-one conversation and, most importantly, discern better how to pray for them.
One of the most satisfying experiences I have had involves a fellow who lost his wife about the same time my spouse of 50 years died. Although we had that experience in common, we barely had contact with each other until we began to play pool together. At first, he was impatient with himself and frequently displayed poor sportsmanship. He was not just a grumpy old man; he was angry and depressed.
Over a period of several years, I often heard his confessions, encouraged him, provided carefully selected books to read and coached him both in pool and in life issues. The change in him was gradual but visible. He became more self-aware, less angry and more engaged in relationships in our community than before. At times he beat me in pool, something he never could do in the beginning, and that was OK. In the process we became friends.
In conclusion, I am aware that every pastor reading this article will not rush out to buy his or her own pool cue. (Mine, by the way, was given to me by a parishioner who is a “trick shot” specialist. It came in a case on which he had placed the label +Pastor Tom+. I use it with great pleasure and gratitude.)
Billiards, as any other sporting activity, is no substitute for a solid biblically based ministry of preaching, teaching and pastoral care. But I ask you to consider, what better way can you imagine to reach out, in a relaxed and pleasant pastime, to build friendly relationships with a group of men — or women — in your congregation? If you will take the time to learn the game and learn to play it well, you will find yourself affirmed and appreciated, and your ministry will be more effective for it.
Two words of warning: Play well, but don’t take it too seriously; have fun and never, ever compete for money. That would ruin everything you hope to accomplish.
Tom Reynolds is a retired pastor who lives in the Bridgewater Retirement Community in Bridgewater, Va. He served as pastor of Harrisonburg Baptist Church for 19 years and then served several churches as an intentional interim minister over the span of 10 years. In addition to playing pool, meditating, reading, writing, watercolor painting and playing Rook, he remains active in community ministries and made two trips abroad last year — to Eastern Europe and to England, where he walked on the Cornwall coastal path.