by Eddie Pipkin

Every organization needs a LaMelo.  If you don’t know what a LaMelo is, read on, dear friend.  But believe me when I say that your life will be richer, your organization freshly empowered, the creative possibilities expanded, and the energy levels amped to 11 if you get some metaphorical LaMelo in your life.  Okay, okay, I hear you.  You’re all about keeping the trains running on time, guarding against unexpected surprises, and keeping everybody focused in a disciplined fashion on your 24-month master plan.  You’ve got the charts to prove it.  Fair enough.  But you’re missing out on the straight-up joy of life with a LaMelo.

In case you’re not a sports fan, LaMelo ball is the 22-year-old basketball phenomenon, playing his second year in the NBA with the Charlotte Hornets, after being selected number three in last year’s draft (despire never having played in college).  He’s the youngest member of a famous trio of basketball brothers (and their larger-than-life entrepeneur dad, LaVar Ball).  Although LaMelo rose to the pros through an unconventional route, he is fast becoming one of the marquee names in the league.  But beyond the stunning nature of his raw basketball skills, he is considered a genuinely nice guy, embraced by the community and loved by his teammates, and his enthusism and positivity brighten every room he’s in, from the tiny conference rooms to crowd-filled arenas.

I got focused on his story this week because of an article I stumbled onto in The Ringer, titled “Beyond Your Wildest Dreams.”  I am a sucker for great sports writing and fan of sports analogies as related to ministry (as you regular readers know).  But  what really caught my attention was the article’s subtitle:

It took one season for LaMelo Ball to prove his out-of-this-world potential, and to change the trajectory of the long-suffering Charlotte Hornets.  Now comes the challenge — and the thrill — of building a future around the 20-year-old’s boundless imagination.

I had to read it.  [Note to hard-working ministry pros and volunteers everywhere: if we could write copy like that for our social media posts, email blurbs, and informational flyers, people’d be eyeballing our offerings.  Just sayin’.]

Ball has a gift of insight on the basketball court that is rare — he just “sees things” — he’s creative in ways that are new for a league that has been around a long time.  He’s exciting to watch, because, beyond the sheer admiration fans have for his talent and hustle, you just never quite know what he’s liable to do next.  He’s full of surprises that make you sit up and gasp in amazement:

If Ball were only a flashy player or merely a very good one, none of this would be as notable as it is. The fact that he’s both already is what now gives the Hornets undeniable and unprecedented juice, the kind of renewable energy that could carry the franchise for years to come—provided, of course, that they can find the best way to channel a star whose game is as brilliant as it is wild. “My challenge,” Borrego says, “is how far do I let him go to test the limits and the boundaries of his feel? And how do we stay within the context of the team and what we need to be successful?” It’s the best kind of problem for an NBA team to have. Ball looks like an All-Star, and the Hornets, who are off to one of their best starts in franchise history, are making the leap. Now comes the thrill—and the uncertainty—of staring back down at the Earth from midair, working out just where they’ll land.

This is the LaMelo Effect. The way that Ball interacts with the game is inherently social. His instinct isn’t just to pass, but to empower. Every outlet he throws is a chance for someone else to make a play. That style has not only fostered LaMelo’s own stardom, but showcased the developmental successes throughout Charlotte’s roster as well.

His presence has reenergized a team that has perpetually struggled.  This is a team coached by James Borrego — more on that in a moment — and owned by . . . wait for it . . .  Michael Jordan.  The team, like all professional sports teams, has been working to craft a vision and carry it forward to championships, and now a dynamic, creative presence is providing the energy to give that vision direction.  Beyond the team’s budget, beyond the professional staffing, beyond the charts and plans for the next five years, the spark is coming from this unique seize-life-by-the-lapels, live-in-the-moment, led-by-the-spirit character.

Local churches need those kinds of characters.  They should be welcomed.  They should be empowered.  They should be championed.  They shold be celebrated.  And they should be resourced.

They should also be coached well.  That is an essential fact.  First, however, let’s just establish that we have all seen the power of a fiercely creative, larger-than-life presence to kickstart a ministry.  Thinking back on the places you’ve served, you won’t have any trouble recalling not only the serious spiritual sages in those communities, but also the spiritual ‘live wires,’ those ready-to-go-anywhere-do-anything independent spirits.  (Even if people at your church regularly rolled their eyes at these quirky larger-than-life personalities, it’s hard to imagine life at the church without  them.)

They are dynanic.  People swarm to the light they generate.  And churches need more of them.  (And as we often see, this is a biblically endorsed imperative — the Bible is nothing if not filled with a gallery of colorful characters.)

Of course, you are probably nodding your head and shaking your head simultaneously, mixed emotions welling up as you read those paragraphs.  Sure, colorful characters enhance ministry.  Colorful characters also can become a catalyst for chaos.

In churches where the leadership has worked to keep the more colorful characters confined to a back room in the farthest annex, the drama might be confined to the level of a stage whisper, but it’s a little like painting a great new party space . . . beige.  Here are some of the concerns that compel leaders to avoid colorful, headstrong, vision-oriented, color-outside-the-existing-lines characters:

  • They pose a threat to leaders — and let’s be candid here: pastoral leadership is very sensitive to people who appear to be more popular or admired than they are.  It’s uncomfortable for leaders when someone has more talent or style or cleverness or ease of working a crowd than they do.  But as leaders, we should be relentlessly committed to the proposition that we INTENTIONALLY SEEK to surround ourselves with people who are more talented than we are!  Or at least equally talented in different areas than the areas in which our natural talents lie.  That’s how we buld strong, diverse, selfless teams that get things done.
  • They require more work from us as leaders.  They can be less than the easiest people to deal with.  They require more time and attention, always brimming with ideas, always rocking the carefully balanced boat.  They can create a sense of diverting us from our carefully laid plans.

But let us not forget:

  • Unique energy makes a place memorable.  The nuts and bolts of discipleship should always be done well.  The basics of ministry are the foundation on which we build our spiritual house and the good works we live out in our community.  But the style with which those things happen is what people will rememember as unique to that season of their lives.
  • Distinct personalities make an impression.  They inspire us and provoke us to get involved.  They help us see something beyond our normal landscape.

Sometimes we work so hard at sanding the rough edges and eliminating all hints of chaos that we end up with an anodyne atmosphere.  Bland by design.  And, sure, we don’t want to court chaos and conflict, but any level of creativity or spontonaeity is going to inevitably result in lack of careful control (see: the Gospels).  It’s worth it!  It’s worth it because of the quirky, unique spirit with which it eventually ednows a place, and it’s worth it because managing it successfully and productively keeps us on our toes as leaders.  Good coaching is a requisite.

I noted earlier that James Borrego is the coach of the Hornets.  He’s part of a new cadre of coaches with a new approach for a new generation of players.  LaMelo Ball is going to need a lot of careful nurturing to reach his full potential.  He will have to learn the fundamentals of the game at the pro level and the responsibilities of team leadership — it’s hard work, not just fun on the court — if the team is to be the best in the league.  And he needs a coach who does not feel threatened by LaMelo’s intuitive leaps mid-game, even if it varies from the carefully drawn graphs of the game plan.  LaMelo will also need a coach who can gently reign in his most impulsive instincts — the ones they may seem fun in the moment, but don’t contribute to winning the game — LaMelo famously throws crazy, no-look passes, so instinctive and unlikely, that sometimes his teammates don’t even sense they are about to come, and a turnover results.  The coaching required here is not the classic, old-school Bobby Knight throwing a chair variety, but a steady and confident direction that lets LaMelo be LaMelo while helping him understand that more disciipline and more study will make him an even better version of himself (and as a result, the strongest possible team player).

Effective care and feeding of larger-than-life personalties includes . . .

  • Someone to watch over them.  Larger-than-life types, particularly creative types, often need a ‘handler’ (official or unofficial) — someone to help them stay focused and on track and firmly established in the leadership vision for the church at all times.
  • Clear instructions and clear parameters.  If you have a wild-eyed and enthusiastic volunteer, help them maintain that focus by giving them clarity.  Write it down.  Keep the communication constant and consistent.  The wilder their unique individual vision, the more communication and clarity is essential.
  • A team that brings them balance.  Despite their urge to go it alone, reinforce the importance of teams and teamwork as a biblical model of service.
  • A voice that’s not too loud.  Give them a voice to express themselves and their wild dreams, but be clear about the venues and times in which it is appropriate for them to use it.  Set boundaries.  Stress the importance of listening as well as speaking.
  • A variety of assignments.  Don’t let them get tunnel vision about their preferred projects.  Yes, they will bring their passion to their One Great Cause.  But also they should spend some time in supportive roles for other great causes, and they should be encouraged to bring their unique expertise to selflessly help other ministry areas from time to time.  Humility is necessary and productive even for larger-than-life legends.
  • A course of study tailored to their unique gifts.  Don’t let them insist that their high energy and unique vision is enough.  Give them strong resources to study more, be mentored by someone further along the same road than they are, and grow their spiritual roots.

And having done all that, celebrate their presence and enjoy the fruits of their wacky, off-the-beaten-path productivity.

What are some of your memories of dynamic, larger-than-life presences that have defined the spirit of places where you have served?  How might the trajectory of ministry projects have been different without the dynamic presence of gifted, high-energy leadership?  How can we be more open to celebrating that type of dynamic leadership while also avoiding a scenario in which the train shoots off the rails?  Think about your own ministry context.  What is the one area of ministry right now that you would love to recruit a LaMelo-Ball-type personality to lead?  What is one step you could take to push that idea toward reality?

And just in case you’re interested, here are some LaMelo Ball highlights.