Soccer and Sunday

General Conference seems to come and go so quickly now. This must have something to do with the ease of streaming it live into every home — 10 hours of Conference in one weekend is more than enough for most of us. Once upon a time getting the Conference Ensign was a treat. Not so much anymore. The Conference cycle seems to have been compressed into just a few days, like binge-watching a TV series on Netflix. That’s not really what I’m going to talk about, just something I have particularly noticed this Conference cycle. Anyone else feel this way?

So here is a short example from President Nelson’s talk Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into Our Lives that I feel strangely ambivalent about. On the one hand, I can’t help but admire any teenager who stands on principle and chooses a church commitment over a school activity or (the more ususal scenario) who chooses to skip a soccer game that is scheduled on Sunday. On the other hand, I don’t like that we have rather unquestioningly adopted the Jewish sabbath rule model as the way of celebrating Sunday, the Lord’s day, and that we sometimes pressure friends, neighbors, and our youth to conform to that model.

Here is the vignette in President Nelson’s talk.

Recently I learned of a fearless young Laurel. She was invited to participate in a statewide competition for her high school on the same evening she had committed to participate in a stake Relief Society meeting. When she realized the conflict and explained to competition officials that she would need to leave the competition early to attend an important meeting, she was told she would be disqualified if she did so.

What did this latter-day Laurel do? She kept her commitment to participate in the Relief Society meeting. As promised, she was disqualified from the statewide competition. When asked about her decision, she replied simply, “Well, the Church is more important, isn’t it?”

I know an LDS youth who was an outstanding high school wrestler, but never won the state championship. In the state tournaments, he never lost a match, but forfeited the final match because it was on Sunday. He is presently serving an LDS mission. I can be proud of the choices he made, but at the same time feel that he earned the right to compete for the title and should have had that chance, at least once.

Back in California, I somehow got drafted as a youth soccer coach for one year. The final game was on Sunday. Our block meeting started at 9 am and the match started at noon. As the coach, I felt that I had a commitment to support the players, so I went to sacrament meeting, then changed and went over to the field to be there an hour before the match started. My son was on the team. We let him make his own choice. He chose to go to all the meetings, then hustle over to the game (changed in the car, I think) and only miss a few minutes.

I’m sure every reader has a similar story.

15 comments for “Soccer and Sunday

  1. Dave, I remember this story, and the discussions we had at the time about the message it sends.

    In the story itself President Nelson never mentions Sunday once, which leads me to believe it was a midweek Relief Society meeting the Laurel missed her competition to participate in. It’s one thing missing a competition because it’s a Sunday and quite another when it’s not.

    In Scotland, where I’m from, ‘soccer’ is our national sport. When I was a teenager there were a few of us who were really quite good. Here all the youth football, except from school, is on a Sunday, and we made the decision not to play. We were all the only Mormons in our school, siblings excepted, and because we were good, making that decision isolated ourselves from our peers somewhat. Then, obviously, our lifestyle was different from theirs and by keeping the church’s standards we isolated ourselves some more. We did play for the school team, and we reached finals. Those finals were on a Tuesday or a Thursday. Mutual was on a Tuesday, and whenever the Stake General Priesthood Meeting, or some such thing rolled around, it was a Thursday.

    The subtext of this story is that our commitments to the church, regardless of the day of the week, outweigh our commitments anywhere else.

    There’s two immediate issues:

    1 – If we follow the subtext we isolate ourselves further by missing, in our case, the cup final. Putting to one side the social troubles that can cause a teen, if we are such isolationists how can we possibly fulfill the mandate to share the gospel?

    2 – The subtext becomes a new orthodoxy, and this story is used to shame kids who make ‘the wrong decision.’ We’re already losing up to 90% of our young folk between Primary and YSA, how does this possibly help reduce that number?

  2. It is interesting how we as listeners can each perceive the original situation differently. When I heard the talk given, I assumed, because he used the word “participate” rather than “attend”, that the girl in question had some kind of assignment such as maybe helping to present something at the meeting that she had previously committed to do.

    We are in much the same situation with soccer right now with our teenage son. He lives for soccer and is quite talented. We live in an area of the US where church members are a tiny minority. While, thankfully, school soccer is almost never on Sunday (except for the occasional practice, which the coach has graciously allowed our son to miss without penalty), all of the club teams play on Sunday–not just once in awhile–every game is on Sunday. If it were an occasional thing, we could make it work–either by allowing him to play those occasional games or by being able to work with coaches to miss those rare games. But when it is every game, we really have had to make a choice and teach our son where priorities should lie. He has been patient in accepting our direction on this, and rarely complains, but I know it is hard for him. He feels that his skills aren’t where he would like because he is not able to play soccer year round like his friends. To his credit, he chooses to practice with the club team in the spring even though he is not able to play in a single game. I try to teach him that the Lord does bless us for our sacrifices, but down inside I hope that is true. He would love to pursue soccer in college, and I worry that he will miss his chance because he hasn’t had the playing time he needs to be able to compete. In our situation, it really is not an option to play on Sunday–the games would be during our church time, and there are no other church units he could attend. My husband and I carry heavy church responsibilities that we could not miss even if we did choose to allow soccer.

    With that said, we drew the line at other church leaders pressuring and guilting our son when he did choose to miss mid-week *activities* to play soccer or do other things. We had a YM president coming down hard on him for missing mid-week YM during soccer season. We support our son in this choice. The YM president got upset that our son would be missing a scout campout because school soccer practice had started. He asked my son, “Where are your priorities? What’s more important, soccer or church?” My son was livid–here he misses an entire spring season of soccer every year because our family is committed to attending church on Sundays, and the YM president has the nerve to imply that he’s not putting church first because he chooses not to go on a *campout*???

  3. There are no good answers to the Sunday sports conundrum. We praise, or at least respect, Danny Ainge and Steve Young. Neither served missions, and both competed on Sundays regularly. Both have remained highly active members, so their Sunday sports activities did not apparently impair their testimonies or commitments to the church. It is inspiring for me to see youth forego Sunday games for church. When they make a decision to miss a Sunday game or activity (if it is truly their decision) then they likely set a life-long pattern of commitment to the church. However, missing a play-off game, or a game with very high stakes also may impact the efforts and plans and expectations of teammates and coaches. They may be letting others down. It is one thing to miss one game of 15 during the season, but perhaps it is something different if a championship hangs in the balance. Neither Danny Ainge or Steve Young could have functioned as professional athletes if they chose to not compete on Sundays.

    In high school I had a good friend who was a very good hockey player. He came from an inactive Mormon family who supported and loved his sports prowess. He began to commit to the church and during his senior year he made the decision to not play on Sundays. He was a team leader and one of the captains. He explained his decision to the team and they all supported him. Despite missing about 20% of the games he was in the lead for high scorer in the league going into the last weekend. Before that weekend he told me that if he missed the last game of the season, on a Sunday, that he would likely forego the honor of being high scorer in the league. This was an honor he really wanted. He decided to miss the game, and indeed he was not the league leader in scoring, having been edged out by just one point. He was at peace with his decision. I never got the sense that his absence resulted in the team losing. He was mainly giving up a personal honor. He later served a mission and was a great example to me. That might have been the right decision for him. That doesn’t mean that such a decision is always the correct one.

    Such decisions need to be made on a case-by-base analysis. There may be times when competing on Sunday is the right thing to do. There are the competing values of keeping the Sabbath day holy and that of honoring your commitments to the team. Both are important.

  4. Everyone seems to have their own sabbath rules. We’ll go on drives up in the mountains (often just to get the kids away from mom so she can have some quiet and rest) I’ll admit that back in the day I used to watch sports on Sundays, but since having kids the opportunities to watch sports kind of dried up. I’m lucky if I can even see all the BYU games let alone follow the NFL.

    For my kids none of them really want to do sports, despite trying. But living in Provo means there’s not a lot of Sunday games. Most of my kids prefer dance, climbing, or gymnastics so it’s never been much of an issue. But I remember when I was young living back east that sports were frequently on Sunday. We just never participated. My brother’s gymnastics was always on Saturday and during the week.

  5. “if we are such isolationists how can we possibly fulfill the mandate to share the gospel?”

    A question I have been asking myself for some years now. Let’s see, Sunday is the Sabbath, then Monday evening is family home evening, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings are variously given over to ward and stake PEC / Council meetings, youth activities, RS activities, home teaching and visiting teaching. Friday and or Saturday evenings to ward or stake activities, stake youth activities… Comes a point where the missionaries ask if we have any friends we can introduce them to and the answer is well no, all out discretionary time is spent fulfilling our callings, running programs, and attending the associated meetings, when the hell do we find to time to socialise outside church or the workplace? And on the very rare occasion that I do, it’s great to talk about something other than church stuff just for a change. I’ve taught my kids that they can say no to all these add-ons outside a Sunday. They don’t need to go to a seminary monthly meeting, they’re not obliged to attend every week night youth activity. And even still I find myself chafing at the bit because for years I’ve wanted to join the local concert band who rehearse on a Monday evening, and in spite of the current information on the church website that Mondays are set aside by the church for family home evenings but if that doesn’t work for you choose another evening the church make damned sure that any other evening certainly won’t work. In a couple of years, when our youngest heads off to university I might finally get to join that concert band, and hope my husband won’t take it as a personal slight that I’ve more than had had my fill of Monday FHE!

  6. There’s a lot of truth to that hedgehog. I swore up and down I’d not be one of those people who “disappear” after being married. But honestly it’s hard to just go on regular dates with my wife let alone socialize better even within my ward.

  7. I so agree hedgehog. And like any large organization the layers keep accumulating on the church onion with nothing ever eliminated. We recently had an introduction to the self reliance program now being done by the church. I sounds wonderful in theory but it has created a new layer of stake callings and ward callings, the self reliance courses are 12 weeks, 2 hours a class with additional outside work. Who has the time or the inclination to add that to everything already in place. I feel like saying, “OK, you want to do this new program? Fine, first hire a custodian and eliminate the Saturday building cleaning or bring back the activities committee so I don’t have to plan all ward activities along with my other duties and then we can talk about new programs.”

  8. I get skeptical anytime the phrase “The Church” is used. (Such as in E. Nelson’s talk or on our tithing slips.) The Savior is more important than a lot of things; “The Church,” not so much.

    Of course, it’s to President Nelson’s benefit to make the members think that The Church > all other things. But he gets benefits out of The Church that most of us can only dream of.

  9. “Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings are variously given over to ward and stake PEC / Council meetings, youth activities, RS activities, home teaching and visiting teaching. Friday and or Saturday evenings to ward or stake activities, stake youth activities…”

    That is not my experience. Every two or three months, there is a Friday or Saturday ward or stake activity that involves some of my family, usually not most of us. On Wednesday evenings, my teen-aged youth spend an hour and a half with the ward youth; I and my wife and the younger children stay home, or go whereever else we have a mind to. Of things demanding my family’s time in the evenings or Saturdays, the church is pretty minor compared to marching band or wrestling team. Fortunately, there are Sundays set aside from those things; we finish church services at noon and spend the afternoons and evenings at home. I give up more time in a month perusing Mormon blog comments than I do home teaching.

  10. Something I wrote a year ago comes to mind:

    The population within my ward’s boundaries is 1.1% LDS (number of people in the ward directory divided by census tract totals). Whenever I attend a school function some other LDS parent is there. Last night it was a meeting for high school marching band. The count of band members is 69. Two of the five parents running things are my home teacher and his wife. With myself, a high councilman, and a Primary music leader also present that made for five known LDS adults. Last month at a meeting to plan parents’ assignments for a middle school musical play, there were three LDS out of a dozen present. One of them was the director of the play, one was me, and the other was the wife of the neighboring ward’s bishop. At the show I spent a few minutes chatting with the choreographer, and then we surprised each other when we met again both singing second tenor at a stake choir rehearsal. Two years ago, we had a girl in my ward and another in the stake serving as senior class presidents of two high schools near one another.

    I will had to those examples the pleasure I have had this year attending high school orchestra concerts where my son is the cello section leader while a fellow member of his priests’ quorum sits across from him as the concertmaster.

  11. John M. I don’t know where you are, but the LDS population is a lot less here. There is one ward in this British city, combined from two a couple of years or so ago, and we still can’t get reliable regular teachers to man the primary classes!
    As it happens, my daughter does participate in school music, and we do skip church meetings etc to attend concerts. In fact, I have myself been participating with the school band for last 2 years – that’s a lunchtime thing, and have even resumed music lessons. My church participation has consequently seen a decline over that time period, I am seeing more people outside of a church context than before as a consequence though. It was the feelings of frustration building that pretty drove me to do that, combined with the children being older making it possible.
    I’ll admit my frustration was spilling over in my initial comment because it was only a week or so ago I was asked had I ever thought of joining a local band, because there’s a local concert band that’s really quite good. Enter the hollow laugh! It’s taking a while for me to rebury the intense frustration I still feel over that. It wouldn’t be so bad if the church appreciated the music we do, and had a use for us there, but since my daughter and I are brass players… I am the primary pianist though!
    However so far as Monday evenings go, it is the only evening consistently free for FHE. My husband is mostly out doing church stuff Tuesday-Thursday evenings. It’s been that way for years. But he’ll make an exception for school concerts or meetings held on an evening. So sure, we’re there for those, but it’s not a weekly commitment.

  12. I thought it was fairly clear in that talk a few back, “what sign am I sending to the Lord”?

    Missing church to play in a championship might not be apostasy, but I know that my spirit would give me guilt over it. I can miss some Wednesday night activity without caring, because those strike me as auxiliary to church things.

    I’m not sure its even so much an issue as “the church gobbles up all my time” (it certainly doesn’t for me, and you’re allowed to say ‘no’ to callings), but probably more an issue of how many exceptions we’re willing to make for ourselves from God. Missing a Sunday may not ruin my soul, but a lifetime of consistently choosing things other than God sends a pretty clear sign to him.

    It is probably this way with most obedience-based principles. “I left sacrament early because I didn’t get enough sleep” can very easily become “I leave sacrament early because I don’t get enough sleep”. A similar conference talk deals with this issue in “The Three Rs of Choice”:

    “That fateful, difficult decision was made more than 30 years ago. Brother Christensen has said that as time has passed, he considers it one of the most important decisions he ever made. It would have been very easy to have said, “You know, in general, keeping the Sabbath day holy is the right commandment, but in my particular extenuating circumstance, it’s okay, just this once, if I don’t do it.” However, he says his entire life has turned out to be an unending stream of extenuating circumstances, and had he crossed the line just that once, then the next time something came up that was so demanding and critical, it would have been so much easier to cross the line again. The lesson he learned is that it is easier to keep the commandments 100 percent of the time than it is 98 percent of the time.13”

  13. Why can’t we focus on making the Sabbath a delight, instead of a pharasitical hedge around a guess about what the Lord would be happy with us doing.

  14. Due to my calling, I’m usually in the clerk’s office during third hour, and have tangential knowledge of what is discussed third hour in priest’s quorum, since they meet in the Bishop’s office next door. I would say they have an actual gospel lesson with a purpose about once a month, at best. So, if my kids grow up and want to leave after Sacrament meeting to attend an event that matters to them, I will probably let them. Going to church just for the sake of going to church is not that important to me. That being said, I also get the privilege of being a substitute seminary teacher. I will encourage my kids to attend seminary over early morning activities because it’s been my experience that those serving in this calling really make a tremendous effort to love and serve these kids.

    I’m a CPA and from time to time things come up that require me to work on a Sunday. I decided several years into my career to be a team player as long as I get to attend my church meetings and it is communicated very clearly to the client that this is a real burden on the whole team and this behavior cannot become commonplace. I personally have found that being fair in this regard has helped me build much better relationships with colleagues not of my faith than if I simply stranded my clients and teams to observe the Sabbath. Because the above scenario happens maybe 4 times a year at most, I’ve made my peace with it. Also, because I give up part of my week to conduct temple recommend interviews, visit families, home teach, and give last minute blessings at the hospital near our house, I also think the occasional Sunday work requirement balances itself out. God may differ on this point, and I suppose he and I will have to discuss it some day. Like I said, I’m at peace with that.

  15. The Church’s stand on sports and the sabbath is difficult to parse.
    On one hand, BYU is adamantly against Sunday play, and it has cost them dearly. The rugby team forfeited their national championship over it, and it’s the primary reason the football team is locked out of the major conferences.

    On the other hand, the Church hierarchy “promotes” professional athletes (who have played on Sunday virtually their entire career) to prominent positions. Gifford Neilsen is a 70, Peter Vidmar and Dale Murphy served as mission presidents.

    Maybe BYU’s Sunday play rule is like their stand on caffeinated soda: looking beyond the mark.

    Or, perhaps the difference is that college/amateur play is considered recreation, and in the professional arena, it’s just another job that requires working on Sunday.

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