The Racetrack and the Church

by Paul Seefeldt

The better show horses I was around as a kid came from the racetrack, and they intrigued me. They had traceable pedigrees full of history, and they were beautiful. I always loved the rich history of the racetrack, racehorse heroes, and figures of days gone by.

My first job at ‘the track’ was working for Glen L. Ballenger, who was an older traditional Virginia gentleman full of history, and brother to the manager of Blue Ridge Farm at Bowie, Maryland where Cyane, Quadrangle, and other great stallions were stabled in a barn that was built in the 1920s. History was everywhere.

Grooming and exercising a horse, and all the things that went with racing horses, seemed to have stayed the same for centuries. Working seven days a week was difficult but it certainly lent some stability to my life — a kid who had moved every four years, necessary or not. With this job I knew what the next day would bring: racing and caring for horses.

At that time in 1977, thoroughbred racing was the only game in town as far as legal gambling went. If one wanted to wager legally, the racetrack was your only option. An average weekday attendance at the races was between five and ten thousand patrons a day at the Bowie ‘no thrills’ grandstand. While I did not consciously look for stability, I think I was comforted by my perception of generations of tradition at the racetrack.

Church ministry is like racing: full of history and tradition, and like racing it is also changing, not all of it is because of the pandemic, but from the changing society and culture around us.

Yet if I had only opened my eyes, I would have seen the changes that had already affected racing. In order to park in the horsemen’s parking lot at Bowie, one had to cross over the jarring railroad tracks that once brought patrons and horses to the races. It had been many years since a train had run on those tracks. Certainly not during my lifetime. Society had switched to automobiles as the favored means of transportation and trains were out.

Then, racing began to change before me. Other forms of gambling became legal, starting with the lottery and advancing to off-track-betting. Toward the end of my career casinos were built next to racetracks and eventually standing alone. Since I have been away from the racetrack, gambling has become endemic to our society. One can now place bets on a cell phone anywhere and anytime. I see current “win photos” with no patrons in the background. Pandemic or not — in my day the background of any “win photo” included many patrons.

Long and short is this: racing changed. Drastically. Certainly, some of the rhythms of caring for and racing horses has not changed. I am certain stalls still need to be mucked. Regardless, the industry did change during my 25 years at the track and continued to change drastically in the 19 years I have been away.

Now, I find myself in another ‘industry’ deep in the midst of change: Church ministry. Church ministry is like racing: full of history and tradition, and like racing it is also changing, and not all of it is because of the pandemic. The changes affecting the church are coming from the changing society and culture around us. The majority of Americans who responded to a survey now claim to be “spiritual but not religious” and are not part of a church or other religious group. Evidently, their spirituality is not linked to, or fostered by, the church.

Occasionally, I will encounter another race-tracker from my era who has also been away from the track. We generally agree that we left at the right time. Now that I am facing the change of church ministry, I am committed to staying. Yet facing the change and discerning what to do or not do, is trying and difficult. Not knowing the future is difficult, too.

Interestingly, I still consider myself a race-tracker, though it has been maybe 10 years since I have been to a track and twenty since I had a license. The same will pertain to my current situation. I am a Christian and committed to ministry whether or not the church changes, fades away, or dies.

Unlike racing, which in my opinion may eventually disappear, faith will not disappear even if society and church drastically change.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Paul

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All I could think about the rest of the trip was this: If Jesus is real, he must be so frustrated right now. He’s probably thinking, “I gave you the burning bush. What more proof do you need?!”