Church leaders seek to balance religion, Packers

Richard Ryman
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GREEN BAY – God and the Green Bay Packers have long been close. Vince Lombardi was famously faithful and counted football, family and religion as the constants in his life.

The Packers jokingly are referred to as a "religion" in Wisconsin, and church leaders get the joke, but they try to keep things in proper perspective and help parishioners do the same.

You have to meet parishioners where they are, said Rev. Andy Behrendt of Trinity Lutheran Church in Waupaca. That will be especially true Sunday, when the Packers play the Falcons at 2:05 p.m. in Atlanta for the NFC championship and a trip to Super Bowl LI.

"I'm ready with my sermon that starts out with the Packers and then tries to get the Gospel and Jesus in there," he said. "Just about everybody in there is going to have the Packers game on the brain."

In other words, Packers football cannot be ignored.

"If they had sailed the Titanic around the iceberg, it wouldn't have sunk, right?" said Rev. Dave Hatch of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Green Bay. "A Packers schedule is so enormous of a draw and interest that we are not moving it. We have to kind of work with it."

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Rev. Tom Willadsen of First Presbyterian Church of Oshkosh organizes an interfaith festival of gratitude around Thanksgiving, and the Packers' schedule is a major factor.

"Some days are better for some groups than others ... but the one thing Christians and Muslims in Wisconsin have in common is we are not going to schedule anything in conflict with Packers games," he said.

Hatch was not pleased with the Christmas Eve games scheduled this season by the NFL. Even though the Packers played at noon, it affected early Christmas Eve services, keeping away those fans who wanted to watch the game and volunteers who worked concessions at Lambeau Field. Behrendt said Christmas Eve in Waupaca was scrambled as well.

"Our 2 p.m. service was much less attended and it kind of impacted all the other services," he said.

Nonetheless, Rev. Ted Tromble of Christ Alone Church in Allouez counts the Packers as beneficial to the community.

"I think God gives us recreations to escape from all of the rigors that can really weigh us down," he said. "I want the Packers to do well because of the joy, the enthusiasm and energy we get in this grim month of January. I want them to go as long as they can."

Like Behrendt, Hatch recognizes the interest in football and strives to connect with the congregation. Recent sermons used the Heisman Trophy as an example.

"The player on the trophy is protecting the ball, he's expecting resistance and he's running for the goal," Hatch said, actions that apply to believers as well.

Willadsen would not pray for God to intervene in games, but he can pray for good sportsmanship and a fair contest. Tromble concurred.

"Even though I don't pray for the Packers to win, I sure thank God for the win," he said.

Church customs have changed dramatically over the years, with suits, ties and dresses often replaced by jeans, jerseys and sweatshirts.

"Every game day, and even sometimes when it's not a game day, you've got a lot of green and gold in the pews," Behrendt said.

Pastors are careful to delineate the difference between cheering for a team and worshiping idols. Behrendt did at least one sermon on the subject and talks about it with confirmation students studying the First Commandment.

"The first thing that comes to mind is the Packers," he said. "At the same time, I'm indicted by it. I have more football jerseys than clergy shirts."

Sometimes the message gets through.

Hatch recalled a Sunday some years ago when a couple of visitors wearing jackets from a sports bar sat in the back of the church. It was clear they were football fans. The service ended only minutes before the game and he asked them what they were doing there.

"They said this was more important," he said.

Contact and follow him on Twitter @RichRymanPG, onInstagram at rrymanpgor on Facebook at Richard Ryman-Press-Gazette. Or call him at (920) 431-8342.

Signs of support for the Packers at First United Church of Christ, 509 S. Webster Ave, in 2011.
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