Coach ’em Up

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“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart I have overcome the world” (Jesus in John 16:33).

“For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God” (Paul in 1 Thess. 2:11-12a).

The two best coaches I had as a kid were a Little League and Babe Ruth baseball coach, and my Junior Varsity basketball coach. Both coaches were winners and both built up their players. The first was my Dad. During the six years he coached, we won the league at least four of those years (Can you believe that I don’t remember for sure? I mostly remember only the wins). If you played for my Dad, you played every game. No one sat the bench for an entire game. Each player learned the game and each player played.

Dennis Sharon was my JV basketball coach. I’ll never forget the game, early in the season, in which I went one for ten shooting. I was terrible! I thought Coach Sharon would bench me. But after the game he said, “Randy, don’t worry about your shot. It looks good. Keep shooting and they’ll start falling.” What a relief! And a great encouragement! The next game was one of the best I ever played and it set up a good season for me.

Great leaders build people up. They encourage. They instruct. They motivate. They always look for opportunities to give a “that a boy!” for a good performance. Great leaders reward what they want to see more of, understanding that most people thrive under a leader who builds people up far more than they do under a leader who creates a spirit of fear and an atmosphere of criticism. The great football coach Vince Lombardi said that love is a stronger motivator than fear. Both can work, he said, but love is stronger and lasts longer as a motivator.

As ministry leaders, our job and responsibility is to help each person in our charge to serve God well. In this regard, we are responsible to help both the strong and the weak. In a church, there are those who are strong in the Lord. They are people of prayer and faith. Others in our charge are weak. They live by sight rather than faith, and they seldom seek God in His Word and in prayer. But pastors and ministry leaders are called to help both of these to grow in Christ and serve Him. We do this, in part, by helping each person know that, in Christ, they are adequate to the task of serving God well.

Ministry leaders have an advantage over other leaders. As we seek to build people up, we do not call them to live up to their own adequacy. Rather, we build our people by helping them know that “Christ in them” is the key to living and serving well. Jesus did not encourage His disciples by telling them that they were adequate to overcome the world, but that He had overcome the world. When we direct people to the resources within them, we speak of the indwelling Holy Spirit who convicts and gifts and matures the believer, even as He joins us as our intercessor in prayer.

Much happiness is found in leadership when God uses us to bring out the best in others. There is true joy in seeing a person thrive in life and service, knowing that you were one of God’s tools to help them do so. Indeed, you will be a better leader if you evaluate yourself, in part, by the growth of those you lead.

The Leadership Moment

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This fall I will teach a class on Ministry Leadership for Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary’s Pacific Northwest campus. This is the first time to teach such a class and it’s forced me to reflect on my leadership experiences and core convictions. Over the next couple of months I plan to write about some of these, beginning with something I call “the leadership moment.”

Leadership moments can be huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, or they can come at times which seem less momentous, appearing to be less significant, yet providing opportunities for large and lasting impact. For example, when a disaster strikes your community, or strikes a family in your church or community, what a leader does in that moment will leave a lasting impact. Near the town of Oso, Washington in March, 2014 a mudslide killed 43 people, devastating the small towns of Oso and Darrington. Pastors Gary Ray and Michael Duncan will be forever remembered in those towns for their ministry in the days and months following the tragedy. Carrying great grief of their own, they served their people through God’s enablement in ways that will never be forgotten.

But not everyone understands the significance of a leadership moment. One pastor I know left town at the approach of a devastating storm. It was not a hurricane or tornado that must be fled, but it was a type of storm that “shut the town down” for several days. Though his church was a “safe place” for families without electrical power or in need of food, this pastor left the care of the community in the hands of others in the church and remained absent himself. He did not understand that this was a leadership moment that would forever be remembered by the people he was called to serve.

I was reminded of a moment in my life when I was speaking at a missionary retreat in South Asia. I had a conversation with a young short-term missionary, in which he said that he knew he needed theological training in order to pursue a missionary career, but that he feared attending seminary because his college degree was in geology. He thought this would leave him ill-prepared for seminary. I told him not to fear attending seminary, that my degree was in engineering, and that he would do fine and would enjoy the experience of studying something that he was passionate about, namely the Bible and theology. The conversation lasted maybe ten minutes. Then, seven years later, I was speaking at another missionary retreat and this same man was there. He reminded me of the conversation years prior (which I had forgotten), told me that it was a turning point for him and that he did attend and graduate from a seminary, and for the past few years had been serving as a missionary in an Islamic nation where he was being greatly blessed by God.

Every leader faces leadership moments. Some are obvious because they present large and unique opportunities, often stemming from a tragedy or disaster. For an American president it may be a 9/11 attack or a huge domestic concern. For a parent it could stem from rebellion in a child or a devastating medical diagnosis for a spouse. Ministry leaders confront leadership moments, large and small, with some frequency, and it is our decisions and actions during these moments that often define us for those we serve. As you develop your own leadership skills, it is helpful to understand organizational leadership and the details of developing and communicating vision. But don’t forget those moments, which are often unplanned and unanticipated, but which will define your true leadership for those you serve.