Persons, places and things: Keep an eye on the tennis ball


By Barb Arland-Fye


One-hundred or so colleagues in Catholic media formed a circle around our presenter, Kilian Schalk, to listen to instructions on how to play “the tennis ball game.” Schalk, of Purple Gray Consulting, guided America magazine through its transition to America Media and was now leading us through an energizing workshop June 18 with the tennis ball game as its finale.

Barb Arland-Fye.
Father Matt Malone, S.J, displays a tennis ball from an activity at a workshop during the Catholic Media Conference in St. Petersburg, Fla.

He stood near two cardboard boxes, one full of yellow tennis balls and the other, empty. Also in the room were Father Matt Malone, S.J., America Media’s president and editor in chief, and J.D. Long-Garcia, a senior editor at America Media. The three formed a panel for the workshop, “Navigating the Digital Revolution” on the first day of the Catholic Media Conference in St. Petersburg, Fla. Fr. Malone and Long-Garcia enjoyed their spectator role during the game, with the priest videotaping the craziness.


Schalk provided few instructions: pass a tennis ball to each participant before dropping it into the empty box in a limited amount of time. One person would be the first and last to drop it into the empty box. No one could pass the ball to the person next to them. Schalk gave us a short time to decide how to arrange ourselves. One of our colleagues waved his hands frantically in the air and shouted out directions to us. Stand on either side of the tables in the room and pass the ball across the table, he said.

We positioned ourselves at the tables and waited for Schalk to give us the signal to begin. Recorded rock ‘n roll music played as we tossed the ball to one another. The chatter in the room, combined with the music, made it more challenging to keep my eye on ball after ball. No one wanted to drop the ball because it was considered waste. Our colleague who started the toss practically dove to catch the ball at the end of its round before tossing it into the box.

After each round Schalk asked us to consider how we might improve our technique, our work flow. Our “catcher” told us he needed to move the boxes. Easy enough, but that also required us to rearrange ourselves. That left us short-handed in my line, which meant the guy who caught the ball from me had to handle it twice, which created a bottleneck. So we moved a person from a different line to ours. In the fourth and final round, someone suggested that we drop rather than toss the ball into the hand of the person across from us. Someone in the room didn’t want to change the way we were operating. I didn’t, either. Using two hands to catch the ball gave a greater sense of security. But we all went along with that suggestion and ended up successfully transferring 34 of the 36 tennis balls into the other box!

In a concrete way we engaged in change, making compromises and trusting one another in the process. The game culminated an inspiring and entertaining examination of streamlining work flow and bringing about a culture change in a rapidly evolving digital age that impacts our work as journalists serving the Catholic Church in a secular world.

Schalk, whose work with America Media was his first in a religious organization, learned the importance of prayer. Meetings started with prayer, as did our workshop. My hope is to remain grounded in prayer while keeping my eye on the tennis ball in a world that needs help focusing on the Good News of the Gospel.

(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at

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