There’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.
The first episode of Parks & Recreation aired on April 9, 2009. The internet was flooded with thoughtful posts and reminiscences on the 10th anniversary as people shared funny and sweet stories about why the show remains so much fun to watch.
(I’m currently watching it for the third time, and I’m not the only one on our Team who’s rewatched the show. Plus we explored the show on an episode of our podcast, Pop Culture Coffee Hour, a couple years ago.)
As I enjoy Parks & Rec again, I find myself really connecting with the character of Leslie Knope. Leslie is a hard working, energetic, and dedicated public servant. She begins the series as Deputy Director of Pawnee’s Parks & Recreation Department, and during the series finale, we learn that she eventually goes on to serve as governor of Indiana (and maybe even president of the United States).
Leslie is a flawed yet well-meaning person who works in a difficult (often dysfunctional) system that doesn’t always appreciate her. She’s a person who often feels like she’s swimming upstream against the current; yet despite the mistakes she makes along the way, she keeps working to help the people about whom she cares so deeply.
In short, she reminds me of a lot of the dedicated ministry workers (both clergy and laity, both paid and volunteer) that I’ve met across the Church.
Working in ministry can be tough. And it can help to draw strength from characters that somehow thrive despite setbacks and complications.
So here are four things I’ve learned from Leslie Knope--not just about how to survive as we serve the Church, but about how to thrive as we do so.
No one would ever doubt Leslie’s love of Pawnee. Yet she doesn’t view her hometown through rose-colored glasses. She loves Pawnee while being very honest about the town’s many problems.
Leslie doesn’t close her eyes to Pawnee’s serious challenges. She knows that the government can be, not just inept, but downright corrupt. She knows that the people of Pawnee don’t always make the best choices. And when it comes to the town’s vermin problem, she’s very blunt:
The raccoon problem is under control. They have their part of the town and we have ours.
How great can a town be if it’s overrun by raccoons?
But Leslie’s honesty isn’t designed to tear down; it’s meant to build up. She’s honest about Pawnee’s flaws because she wants to work hard to make things better. It might be easier to pretend her town is perfect, but that won’t make Pawnee the place Leslie knows it can be.
And this honesty isn’t directed outwards: both the show and Leslie are honest about her own shortcomings.
Leslie is clearly one of the good guys in Parks & Rec. Yet she’s also deeply flawed. Her strong vision for the future of Pawnee can sometimes make her steamroll her friends. Leslie is so confident in her convictions that she can sometimes forget to listen to others.
Yet Leslie matures as a person thanks to the people around her and her relationships with them. When Lesie says goodbye to her best friend, Ann Perkins, in season 6, Leslie thanks her for helping her grow as a person. While it may not always be her first instinct, Leslie often (eventually) listens to the constructive feedback of those she loves.
And her friends stick by Leslie even despite that initial friction. Because the truth is that Leslie, despite (including!) her flaws, is pretty great. Take this exchange between Ann and Leslie’s husband, Ben Wyatt:
Ann: Listen, I know she can be strong-willed and difficult, ok. She once made me eat an entire cheesecake at a potluck so she didn’t look bad. But I really think she is ready to listen.
Ben: You ate an entire cheesecake? Why didn’t you just throw it away?
Ann: Because with everything she’s done for me I would eat ten cheesecakes for her. Also because it was delicious and amazing, like everything she does.
Leslie is honest about the ways Pawnee can be better. And, thanks to her friends, she can be honest about the ways she needs to improve as a person.
Our communities and dioceses face real challenges. And we as Church workers bring plenty of sins and shortcomings to the table. But repentance is impossible without honesty, and repentance should be our constant goal (both individually and collectively). Whether personally or organizationally, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
And we won’t be able to work towards that unless we (together) can be honest about it.
Which leads us to our next point:
Leslie is an absolute dynamo. Her vision, drive, and relentless energy fuel many of the Department’s successes.
Yet, as Leslie herself realizes, she can’t do it alone. She needs a great team.
Everyone in the Parks Department brings unique talents to the Team. Tom Haverford is the smooth-talking salesman who can make deals when people are put off by Leslie. Ron Swanson is the serious realistic who keeps the Team grounded when Leslie’s idealism runs a bit too far (more on him in point 3 below). And Ann, Leslie’s best friend, is a constant source of kindness and encouragement when Leslie’s energy runs out and she needs a reminder that she, too, needs some love.
This surprising group of people, so different in so many ways, come together to do important work. For instance, in season 4 Leslie faces an ethics investigation. Everyone on the Team is ready to defend Leslie and help clear her name. She has a particularly sweet job for Ann:
I need you to text me every 30 seconds saying that everything is gonna be okay.
It’s this Team, working together, that pulls off incredible projects like the Harvest Festival and Unity Concert.
Yet, as great as Leslie’s Team is, it could always get better. Even the writers of Parks & Rec appeared to see the need to change things early in the show’s run. So they made some changes to the cast.
Mark Brendanawicz was a main character for the first two seasons. While he was involved in some pretty important plot points, and gave us some memorable moments, most people agree that the show (and Leslie’s Team) was stronger after his departure.
Brendanawicz was a solid character, but he wasn’t the right fit for Leslie (thank God) nor for Parks & Rec.
Late in season 2, the show introduces two new characters that would prove indispensable to its success: Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger. Chris is the relentlessly positive, health-obsessed City Manager who helps leads Pawnee through budget turmoil and eventually settles down to raise a family with Ann in season 6. Ben is Chris’s perfect partner, a quirky, nerdy accountant with a penchant for details, who eventually becomes Leslie’s perfect partner; the two get married in season 5.
Parks & Rec certainly wasn’t bad in the first two seasons, but it also got significantly better with the addition of Ben and Chris (and the subtraction of Brendanawicz).
And the show’s creative team didn’t stop there. We continue to meet new characters who play important, though minor, roles right up until the finale. Perhaps there’s no better example than Billy Eichner’s hilariously high-strung Craig Middlebrooks, the only character who can plausibly claim to care more than Leslie--or at least more vocally.
The success of both the Pawnee Parks Department and Parks & Rec itself is due, not just to Leslie, but to the amazing Team that surrounds her. They complement her weaknesses and even build on some of her strengths.
The Church is the Body of Christ. And just as a body has a variety of different parts, each designed to do particular things, we should never feel like we’re alone in the work God has called us to do.
The Church is full of talented and committed people. Find them and work with them.
But that doesn’t mean you have to work with just anyone.
There are times when you’ll have to make tough decision about who you work with. When we hold fast to a vision of the Kingdom (more on that in point 4), we realize that not every project is worth completing and not every person should be partnered with. There may be times when you have a Brendanawicz but need a Traeger and/or a Wyatt.
Sometimes building a healthy team is also about saying “no.”
But there are some people that we should definitely team up with. Which takes us to our next lesson:
Leslie is a confident and principled person who has a vision for Pawnee and works hard to actualize it. While she’s right about a lot of things, she also has a lot to learn.
And she does so from a very unlikely source.
Ron Swanson is perhaps the most out-of-place person on the Team. Ron is the head of Pawnee’s Park Department. He’s also a libertarian who took a job in city government with aspirations of “taking it down from the inside.” As you can imagine, he’s a fantastically enjoyable character. And while Ron certainly doesn’t share Leslie’s vision for Pawnee’s government, he does possess moral clarity that helps Leslie make sense of the many setbacks she endures.
For example, as we already mentioned, Leslie is the subject of an ethics investigation in season 4. It turns out that Leslie isn’t innocent; she bribed someone to keep her blossoming relationship with Ben (her supervisor at work) a secret.
This was a no-no intended to cover up another no-no.
Leslie was deeply disappointed in herself for this moral lapse. Yet, while not condoning her mistake, Ron gives Leslie the advice she needs to keep moving forward:
Leslie: I’m a bad person.
Ron: It’s not that simple. You know what makes a good person good? When a good person does something bad, they own up to it. They try to learn something from it and they move on.
Ron gives Leslie the grace to admit her mistake and the strength to learn from it.
Perhaps Leslie’s most difficult challenge comes in season 6 when, after being elected to the City Council, she faces a recall vote. In the season premiere, Leslie is in London to accept an award from the International Coalition of Women in Government. As the recall campaign intensifies, she is disappointed to learn how much support her fellow honorees receive from their hometowns. What a contrast with the way Pawnee is treating her! Yet, tired and beaten down, Leslie is lifted up by Ron’s wise observation:
You choose a thankless job, you can’t be upset when nobody thanks you.
Ron’s words are convicting yet encouraging. Leslie realized what she was up against and emerges from the disappointment ready to get back to work.
When Leslie stumbles, Ron is always there to lift her up again. Ron is a guide and mentor that helps Leslie take her first steps in a career that does a lot of good for the people of Pawnee.
We often talk about the importance of spiritual fathers in the Church. But we also need mentors, especially if we’re involved in ministry work. We need people who can help bring out the best in us and help us do the work that God has called us to do.
This is especially true in the Church, which is a unique target of the evil one. If Leslie’s work in city government faced challenges, how much more opposition will we face in the Church when our goal is the salvation of souls? Ministry work demands a particular form of resolve and a particular form of guidance and grace.
Which takes us to the final lesson:
Leslie’s career in government wasn’t fair. The recall vote in season 6 is perhaps the best example of this. Right after being elected to the City Council, fulfilling her lifelong dream, the people of Pawnee turn on Leslie: not on corrupt Jeremy Jamm or perpetual pervert Bill Dexhart, but on Leslie Knope.
This could have crushed her (and it almost did).
Yet Leslie bounces back from this setback, and every setback she faces in her long career of public service. And there are two things that were always there for Lesie during times of trouble; two things that consistently give her the courage to keep going: her Team and her vision.
People like Ben and Ron and Ann, her friends and coworkers in the important work of building a better Pawnee, are always there to help Leslie remember who she is and what she was called to do. As Leslie herself reflected:
In times of stress or moments of transition sometimes it can feel like the whole world is closing in on you. When that happens you should close your eyes, take a deep breath, listen to the people who love you when they give you advice, and remember what really matters.
Lean on the people who love you, and let them remind you of the vision.
We will encounter difficult times as Church workers; it’s inevitable. No matter how daunting the challenges ahead may seem, we will always have brothers and sisters in Christ that we can turn to.
And we can remember why we work: not for personal success or glory but for the upbuilding of the Church and the coming of the Lord’s Kingdom.
This is what really matters.
In the series finale of Parks & Rec, we take a look into the future to see where our favorite characters end up. In one scene, we see Leslie address an auditorium full of graduates. Her words are a fitting way to end this reflection:
I started work more than 30 years ago in the Parks and Recreation department here in Pawnee, Indiana. I’ve had a lot of different jobs, including two terms as your governor, and soon a new unknown challenge awaits me, which to me even now is thrilling because I love the work. Not to say that public service isn’t sexy because it definitely is, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because we get the chance to work hard at work worth doing, alongside a team of people you love. So I thank those people who’ve walked with me, and I thank you for this honour. Now, go find your team and get to work.
Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM. He and his Team are working on a new ministry training course, Effective Christian Ministry, which will help Church workers develop a Christ-centered vision for ministry and implement it with the core practices of formative and transformational ministry.