What Pastors Can Learn from Football Coaches

upshot of football coach at goalpost looking upPhoto Credit: ©Getty Images/Mike Powell

Jim Mora was the popular coach of the New Orleans Saints NFL team from 1986 to 1996. On one occasion, as he and I shared an elevator, I introduced myself. I said, “Preachers can appreciate what coaches have to put up with. We both work hard all week and everything comes down to a couple of hours on Sunday. It’ll make or break you.”

He flashed that smile that charmed every fan, calmed many a sportswriter, and drove a few referees nuts. “But,” he said, “they don’t call radio stations the next week criticizing every little decision you made, do they?”

No, I guess not. A friend said, “If they’d pay me the zillion bucks these guys get, I could stand that.”

Now, football coaches and pastors probably have more that differentiates us than we have in common. A coach tends a small flock, usually no more than 50 players and a few assistants. At the upper echelon, he gets paid astronomical bucks, is answerable only to one or two bosses, and his actual season lasts just a few months. The typical pastor may have a flock numbering in the hundreds or more, while receiving a salary barely sufficient to keep the house heated and the children clothed and fed. Pastors are answerable to everyone and his brother, it seems, and work year-round without a letup.

The coach’s job description can be summed up in a sentence or two: Win games and try not to embarrass the company. But pastors, God bless ’em, labor under multiple layers of expectations, demands, and requirements.

Coaches can be profane and possess huge character defects, but if they win games, fans are going to support them. This cannot be said of a preacher.

That said, here are a few lessons a successful coach could impart to us preachers if given the chance…

1. The future is uncertain. Work to win now. You don’t have time for a 20-year program.

2. If you must rebuild, win some victories while doing it.

3. No coach or pastor can do it all. You will need help. Assemble a great staff around you and people will think you are a winner. Encourage them to do their job. Support them privately and defend them publicly. Pay them well.

4. Try to keep your equilibrium—even though the fan-base may adore you or slam you—dousing you with Gatorade one day and raining down criticism the next. Work at being the same yesterday today and tomorrow. Don’t let either group–the adoring groupies or the caustic critics–get to you.

5. Even though people will dissect what you do on Sunday, don’t resent them for it. It goes with the territory. Consider that they buy the tickets and have a right to their opinions. Try not to let it get to you.

6. Be glad, preacher, they don’t make your sermons the subject of call-in radio shows all day Monday.

7. You are always recruiting. For pastors, this means you’re always evangelizing and ever-alert for leaders to fill key positions.

8. Even the best leaders make mistakes. Learn from them and go forward. Do not obsess over your errors, even if some in the cheap seats will refuse to let them go.

9. Learn to value the people around you—even though you are calling the plays and constantly making assessments on the skills of your players. The day you start treating your assistant coaches and players as pawns to make you look good is the day you begin going downhill. Value your people.

10. There will always be some in the stadium who knows more than you do and are glad to announce it to the world. But they’ve never coached or suited up for a game. Every church has its share of know-it-alls and loud-mouths.  Try to ignore them. They go with the territory.

11. Master fundamentals. In a ball game, a trick play occasionally is fun, but the basics—blocking, tackling, and moving the ball—are what wins games. What are the basics in ministry? A winning pastor will be strong in preaching, staff leadership, vision-casting for the congregation, and personal ministry. Go for excellence.

12. Remember no coach is here forever. Everyone moves on, and another comes in to take over. A wise pastor will constantly work to build the people, establish sound principles for the operation of the church, and leave it stronger than how he found it.

13. Be quick to praise, slow to criticize, and always supportive of your people.

14. Last year’s championship is quickly forgotten. You should be winning victories this season, too.

When I tossed out this question to Facebook friends—“What can football coaches teach pastors?”—a hundred comments were quickly posted. Clearly, there are a lot of thoughts on this subject. Some were facetious. As in: get a huge contract with a strong buy-out clause, never unpack your bags, go for two points more often. But most were variations of the 14 points made above.

More pastors should emulate coaches in staying focused on the end result: winning the game. 

For ministers, that means glorifying Christ and making disciples. To do that, we must discipline ourselves, work with the leadership team, preach the Word, stay close to the people, and be humble on our knees before God—that we may be mighty on our feet before men.

Oh—by the way, I hope you get a raise for the great year you’ve had!

Joe McKeever has been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He blogs at www.joemckeever.com.



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