Back in May of 2011, I had the opportunity to be part of a rare event. At halftime of the NCAA Division II lacrosse championship game, I walked onto the field of M&T Stadium in Baltimore, the stadium where the Baltimore Ravens play, along with twenty-one Roanoke College teammates and coaches. We were being honored by the NCAA for our 1978 national championship lacrosse team. We walked out in our matching maroon shirts, waving to the crowd (well, mostly to our families) as they played a short video on the jumbo screen describing our team.  

I hadn’t seen most of my teammates in over thirty years. Our college had honored us in previous years, but I had always missed those events for the most mundane of pastoral reasons: I had to do weddings on those weekends, and I knew it would be pastorally suicidal to pull out, especially when I was solo pastor of the church and I had committed a year ahead of time. So I jumped at the chance to relive past glories, even if my glory was as a rarely used freshman. 

As the event got closer, I was surprised at how much I was reminiscing and reflecting. I hadn’t really thought much about that championship season or team in a long time, but it wasn’t long before I was thinking about it all the time. I’m not all that sentimental, although I do tend to be sensitive—a valuable trait to have as a pastor, but not as an athlete where it can be confused with weakness. Still, I was surprised by how sappily sentimental I became as the event drew closer.  

As I reflected on what I learned being on that team, it dawned on me how much of what I do as a pastor I learned playing on that lacrosse team. Even though I was only a moderately talented, sparingly used freshman on that team, I was like a sponge, soaking up all that I could learn. And I learned a lot. 

Championship teams are very different from other teams, and not just because they win. They win because of what’s different about them. Great teams always have talent, but the ones that win championships aren’t always the most talented. They have good, and even great, coaching, but rarely so great that they can win every year based on coaching alone. What allows them to win championships are a set of factors that uniquely come together for one season.  

As a pastor, I rarely use sport metaphors in my ministry, including my preaching, because it turns off those who disdain sports. They have good reason to disdain sports. It dominates American thought to a ridiculous extent. Sports is entertainment, not life, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn life-lessons from sports. Playing on a championship team taught me lessons that have directly translated to successful ministry—lessons that I wish everyone had an opportunity to learn. At the risk of eliciting your disdain, I’d like to share some of those lessons: 

A Broad Vision Seen in the Smallest Details   

  What made my transition into college lacrosse hardest was a factor that made the team great. The team had a comprehensive vision—a system—that extended all the way down to the smallest details. In the church world, we talk a lot about vision, mission statements, purpose statements, and the like, but they don’t always translate into the smallest details of the church. In contrast, our team never had a pithy vision statement, but we had a really clear system of play that taught us what to do in any situation. It extended to how we played defense, how we played offense, and how we did everything in between. And the style that we played, while difficult, was also simple. It wasn’t hard to grasp once you had been exposed to it long enough. But being easy to grasp didn’t mean it was easy to do. It required coupling aggression with discipline and intelligence.   

This system wasn’t just an overall theory of how to play. There was consistency between the overall vision and how it extended to details. Without elaborating too much here, over time there were few situations where we didn’t know how to react. Was the ball rolling out of bounds, and we had to knock it back in? We knew when to knock it back in, what direction to knock it, and when to let it roll out of bounds. We played a controlled system based on knowing where we were at all times, and where others were. Before picking up a ball, which would initiate play immediately with a referee’s whistle, we were taught to survey the field and see where everyone was. We knew when to push a situation and when to slow things down. We knew what we were supposed to do, and learned the details to allow us do it.   

Churches are no different. Successful churches have a strong, simple vision—actually, a system—that extends to the details. A problem among too many churches, and the pastors that lead them, is that they may have a vision, but they don’t know how it extends to the smallest details in the church. Their vision may be too general and amorphous. It may be something like, “growing in Christ,” but they haven’t thought out the details of how to grow in Christ in church school, in meetings, in the youth group, in mission, in care of the church building, even in the cleanliness of the bathrooms.   

One of the things I did when I came to Calvin Presbyterian Church was to set a simple vision of “seeking God’s calling in all we do.” I don’t know that I always articulated my vision in this way, but it has influenced everything I do. In preaching I not only sought God’s calling about what I should say and how to say it, but I preached about how to do that in my sermons. I called on all committees and the church board to seek God’s calling. I pushed the idea that our church only does in mission and ministry what we are called to do, not what people think we “should” do. I pushed people on an individual level to seek God’s calling in their personal lives. We pushed this idea in budgeting and stewardship, asking “what are we called to do and to give?” This idea of seeking God’s calling even extended down to how we treat the church building: What level of cleanliness do we sense that God calls us to have? It led to a massive cleaning of the church soon after I started there 16 years ago in which we filled a tractor trailer dumpster with junk collected over 50 years prior to my coming.   

The point is that the vision, whether articulated or not, has to be able to be simply grasped, yet extend to the smallest details. It needs to be more of a system than a vision. In fact, I’ve noticed that the churches that seem most successful have a simple vision that extends to details throughout the church so that it becomes a system. Does your church have a vision that becomes a system? Is it simple enough to be grasped easily? Is it carried down to the details of the church.     

Stressing Fundamentals, Especially When Under Stress     

  No matter how good a team is, it always has several games where it stinks. As Bob Johnson, the coach of the 1991 Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins, once said, “You’re going to lose 10 games no matter what you do, and you’re going to win 10 games no matter what you do. What matters is what you do in the other 62 games.” Similarly, I learned that no matter how good you are, you’re going to lose some games, but it’s what you practice afterwards that matters. In our championship season, we lost two games against teams I know we were better than. Those lessons taught me about the importance of fundamentals.    

My experience, both as an athlete and as a sports fan, was that when teams lose games they should have won, lesser coaches yell at them, run them to death in the next practice, and then think the problem is fixed. The practice after those losses taught me what really good teams do. They don’t get yelled at. They don’t get run to death. They go back to fundamentals.    

The next practice after one loss in particular was a long, 2 and 1/2 hour practice that entailed nothing more than the basics: catching and throwing, picking the ball up, working on footwork and one-on-one play, and basically being reminded of how to do the simple things well. And it worked. We got back on track.   

In a church, we can easily forget what the fundamentals are. One reason is that in seminaries we aren’t necessarily schooled in fundamentals. We are exposed to so many complex thoughts and ideas, theological explorations we love to dig into, that we forget what really matters. The fundamentals in a church are the basics of worship, and the quality of our relationships. The fundamentals are the factors that go into forging a strong connection with God and with each other.    

As senior pastor, my role is somewhat similar to that of a coach. I’m not responsible for barking out orders from the sidelines, but I am responsible for making an ongoing assessment of how we are doing from week-to-week. As part of my assessment I have to determine how our fundamentals are doing. It’s easy to mistake a church’s fundamentals with its bottom line—it’s numbers. The fundamentals of church aren’t how well the offering did, or how many attended. The fundamentals have to do with quality—to what extent did people encounter Christ in worship and how much did we show that we cared about people.   

It’s surprisingly easy to take both for granted in the overwhelming crush to do everything else that needs to be done in a church. Still, each time I sense that things aren’t going as well as I think they should, I focus on those two areas, even if it’s not apparent that the problem is worship and compassion. My sense is that if giving is down, the question we need to ask is how our worship and caring are, not “how do we get people to give more.” If people aren’t showing up for our programs, the question is how we can improve our worship and caring, not “how do we get people to show up.”    

I also focus on my own fundamentals. How’s the quality of my preaching and overall presence in worship? What do I need to do to improve them? I’ll also make a greater effort to visit people, chat with people on Sunday morning, connect with people who might be struggling and so forth. In sports, a failure to score or prevent someone from scoring generally doesn’t come from a lack of desire or effort. More often it results from a lack of attention to the details that go into scoring or preventing a score. I’ve played sports on some pretty crappy teams with coaches that yell. All they do is make things more confusing to an already confused team, making things worse. For us, focusing on the little things made us better.     

Building with Baby Steps Rather than Giant Leaps      

Not only during that championship season, but every season after that, we had a definite rhythm to how we progressed from the beginning of the season to the end. We took a series of baby steps that accumulated into great transformation, but we rarely took giant leaps. In early season practices we spent most of our time working on fundamentals and getting into shape. Then we progressed to one-on-one drills between offensive and defensive players. Days later we moved on to two-on-twos, three-on-threes, until we were doing well enough to start working on plays. It was really only after we had mastered these that we started doing regular full-field scrimmages. And even as we got to that level, our daily practices had a similar rhythm in which we moved from individual drills in the beginning to team drills at the end.   

In my work as a counselor, spiritual director, and mentor to pastors, I’ve been consistently disturbed by how often pastors demand that their churches make giant leaps to mastering ministries and missions that they are poorly prepared for. The pastors become frustrated and disappointed with their churches because of their lack of progress. But the real problem is that they ask too much of their members too soon. They ask them to take giant leaps instead of helping them take baby steps. They forget that these     

people haven’t gone to seminary, nor to all of those seminars and conferences that they have. Successful teams move on to complexity only after proper preparation. And when teams are overwhelmed, then the coaches simplify the game for them because they know that’s where success lies. Healthy churches are very similar. They don’t push people beyond their abilities, but move them at a level at which they can grow in confidence and ability. They help them take baby steps that turn into giant leaps.   

Leaders Who Lift Others Up     

Championship teams always have exceptional leadership. I’m not just talking about the leadership of the stars, but also the leadership of the older players who aren’t stars and may barely get into the games. The seniors on our team were exceptional in their ability to lift up others around them to a greater level of play. They set a standard in the way they played, and in how they expected others to play. But they didn’t generally criticize others to get them to that standard. They praised teammates when necessary, but they also taught other players to be better. They wanted to share their knowledge. They wanted to make the players around them better. They even helped those who might take their positions because they cared more about being on a great team than being great on a lousy team.  

I have been on plenty of other teams, in a variety of sports, that had great talent, but poor leadership. Instead of praising or teaching, they criticized and tried to intimidate. They were more focused on their own statistics, playing time, and status. They didn’t make the players around them better. Instead, they robbed them of confidence. The teams themselves were cliquey, dividing up into factions. That’s what caused these teams to underachieve. What made this championship team exceptional was the willingness of the older leaders to lift up their teammates. The factions or cliques were minimized. It wasn’t a “kum bah yah” camp by any means, but it was a group that led each other to be greater than they were as individuals.  

There is a similar dynamic in exceptional churches. The leadership works to lift up each other. They recognize that when the different staff members, committees, and teams do well, and when everyone’s quality of work is high, it reflects on all of them. When my sermons are good, it reflects on the musicians, the choir, and the band. When their music is good, it reflects on me. When each committee does well, it reflects on other committees. I’ve noticed time and again in our church that when it comes to budgeting there are times when one committee will cut their budget without being prompted, just so another committee can have more for their ministry.   

This kind of leadership begins with pastors who care less about their own acclaim, and much more about the acclaim given the whole church. I’ve seen far too many pastors who are threatened by the success of others. A friend of mine (a music director) told me how in her church, after the choir sang a particularly thrilling piece, the pastor said to her, “You need to tone the choir down. When they sing like that it diminishes my sermon. Remember, it’s the sermon that matters, not the anthem.” That’s poor leadership. Good leadership creates chemistry that makes everyone better collectively than they are individually, even if they are great individually.     

Championship Churches      

One of the main differences between churches and championship teams is that churches aren’t, or at least don’t have to be, in competition with each other. There’s no real championship to win. Some think that to be a champion, a church has to have a large membership, lots of programs, and an impressive building. One of the things that made our championship team unique was that we were representing a college of about 1250 students. We had few resources compared to other teams. Our locker rooms were dark and dank, there was only a sparse budget for practice gear (we had to provide much of it ourselves), and when we travelled we had to sleep four to a hotel room that slept two. But we were beating teams from schools with 2,000, 5,000, 20,000, and even 50,000 students.    

What matters wasn’t our size, but how simple yet comprehensive our vision was, how well we did the fundamentals, how clear the steps were to doing well, and how uplifting the leadership was. The same is true of churches. They size of the church really doesn’t matter all that much. No matter what our size is, how good or bad our talent is, or how many or few our resources are, we can do well if we imitate what good teams do.   

Discussion Questions:   

What is the vision of your congregation, and can it be expressed in a simple idea?   

  To what extent can this vision
be turned into a system that is carried out throughout your church’s operations?

What do you consider the fundamentals of being church to be?    

When things aren’t going well in the church, in what ways does your church (or could your church) get back to stressing the fundamentals of being church?   

Look at the programs, ministries, and mission of the church. Would you say they’ve been introduced as giant leaps or as baby steps leading collectively to large leaps?   

If needed, how could your church scale back to taking smaller steps toward moving forward?   

To what extent would you say that your leadership lifts others up or pushes people down?   

What changes would need to be made to help your church leaders become more uplifting?