Backwards to Go Forward

Jul 01 2013 Published by under Church, Leadership, Life, Ministry

By Pastor Rob Ketterling

Rob Ketterling

Analogies about sports have helped me learn almost as much about leadership as any book I’ve read on the subject. Examples relating to sports provide simple insights that help us all, provided we are somewhat familiar with the sport and it doesn’t matter if we’re good at it or not! Through many years of leading ministries, staff, and churches, I’d like to add one of my own. As much as I love football more than soccer, leadership is more like soccer than we realize and a lot less like football. Let me explain.

In soccer, sometimes it actually is advantageous to kick the ball back toward your end of the field, rather than moving forward toward the goal. For example, if your strikers are locked in a holding pattern with defenders from the other team, they cannot advance, so what do they do? Plow ahead anyhow? No, a better option is to pass the ball backwards to an available midfielder and free themselves to move to another location. They go backwards to move forward with less resistance. What looks like a loss actually provides a space for future gain. Backwards to go forward!

Conversely, we never celebrate a loss of yardage in American football unless we’re the defensive team.  This is always a negative for the team with the ball. Yardage gained is good, yardage lost is bad. Period. As leaders, we don’t have the luxury of being so black and white and always thinking ‘move forward now’. Sometimes we need to move backwards to move forward.

An example of this recently happened at our church. As a multisite church, we are always looking for ways to do things better and to expand to new locations. We launched a new campus (our sixth) in a high school, which meant being portable, unlike our other campuses. There are so many successful ways to do portable church, and we were excited to try something new and thought it was a great way to “advance the ball”. The campus was centrally located in our area and well-staffed with qualified, high capacity leaders. We supplied it with state of the art technology and resourced it with deacons and faithful attendees from other campuses. The stage was clearly set for success!

We then spent six months learning. We hadn’t been portable as a church in over a decade and we quickly discovered what our congregation loved and didn’t love about our new campus. Since the high school was only available during weekends, midweek activities were always held at another campus and therefore, there was no sense of identity. The local congregation was not growing and we found that people were more willing to drive an additional 10-20 minutes and worship at one of our “brick and mortar” campuses.

Despite many efforts to grow, our people and the local community were resistant.  After six months of efforts, we made the choice to close our new campus and move backwards. On the surface, that looked like a loss! I challenged our church and staff to look deeper and look ahead. The staff from that campus has been repurposed in amazing ways, and they are adding so much value to our organization. The portable equipment has been added and outfitted to existing locations as improved technology. The people have joined one of our other campuses and brought new momentum to them and the atmosphere feels “full speed ahead”. I couldn’t be more exited and yet we closed a location.

Through closing that campus, we eliminated a point of resistance, took a small step backwards, and now we’re ready to move forward again. We’re more streamlined, we’re more experienced, and we have a clearer picture of who we are and what stands in our way. A small step backwards has allowed us to get a clearer picture of the field, and move forward like never before!

So today, take a look at where you’re going and ask yourself, “Do we need to go backwards to go forward?”  Instead of thinking football, it might be time to think soccer and regroup towards your goal!


Rob Ketterling is the founder and Lead Pastor of River Valley Church (, a multi-site church started in Minnesota in 1995. It has since grown into a thriving church with over 5,000 in attendance across five U.S. campuses and two international campus (Valencia, Spain and Mbekelweni, Swaziland) with further expansion plans in its future. You can follow Rob on Twitter (@robketterling), Facebook (robketterling), Instagram (robketterling) and through his blog (

One response so far

  • Thanks, Rob, for your blog!

    Recognizing the need to “step backward” and choosing to close your new campus gave you the impetus to move forward. I commend you and your leadership for such insight!