By Eddie Pipkin

I generally tune in to the NBA only for the finals, and that was my routine again thisyear, so what a treat it was to watch 26-year-old phenomenon Giannis Antetokounmpo display his awesome talents as he led the underdog Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship since 1971.  The 6’11” Nigerian-Greek MVP’s story has a cinematic arc, but what really stood out for me was his commitment to winning at the same small market team that drafted him, welcomed him, and helped him develop his talent.  He rewarded their faith by becoming a player who – even through injury – carried the team on his shoulders to win it all.  In an age in which basketball superstars like LeBron James jump to cities which are willing to spend enormous sums to build ego-laden superteams, Antetokounmpo’s love for the people of Milwaukee had a sweet, old-fashioned ring to it.  Loyalty.  It still counts for something.

If you don’t follow basketball, let me just tell you that Giannis’s performance in the finals was amazing.  Even though he had suffered an injury that made it questionable that he would even start the Finals, he delivered a series of 40-points-plus games, blocked shots, and willed the team back from every deficit.  And he loved that he did it for the people of Milwaukee:

“Obviously I wanted to get the job done,” Antetokounmpo started. “That’s my stubborn side. It’s easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else. It’s easy. I could go to a superteam, and just do my part to win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it, and we did it.”

It was a pledge he had made to the people who took a chance on “a skinny kid from Greece by way of Nigeria,” as phrased by sportswriter Ricky O’Donnell.  After his first year of growing pains, he had publicly vowed, “I’ll never leave the team and city of Milwaukee till we build the team to a championship level team.”  He persevered to make good on that pledge:

Before the season, Antetokounmpo signed a five-year extension with the Bucks when it was widely speculated he would have to leave to win a championship as he approached his third contract. LeBron James left the team that drafted him for his third contract to form a superteam in Miami, where he finally won his first NBA championship. Kevin Durant did the same thing in Golden State. Anthony Davis chose to force his way out of a small market in New Orleans to eventually win a title with the Los Angeles Lakers. James Harden demanded a trade from the Houston Rockets to go to a superteam in Brooklyn.

Giannis could have followed that same path. He could have turned down the Bucks’ extension, tested free agency, and signed with a team that already had another superstar in place to give himself the best chance to win a championship. He didn’t do that. Instead, he stuck around and led the Bucks to a championship himself at 26 years old.

That kind of loyalty is inspirational in a world in which it seems everyone is seeking to maximize their profit and get what they can for themselves as quickly as possible.

Ministry is not professional sports (although it sure has a lot of metaphorical overlap, as we frequently note in this space).  But it is true that, if you think about ministry as having “coaches” and “owners” who are trying to build superteams, there can be a lot of recruitment, turnover, and switching out of pieces to find that winning combo.  Loyalty can be an afterthought in that process.

Likewise, ministry leadership and volunteers can feature highly talented superstars who insist on having things their way or jump ship to other teams where the grass looks greener or the payoff seems like it will come faster.  Plenty of regular people in the pews like to church shop, hopping from the next cool thing to the next cool thing.

Loyalty is a premium commodity in staff, leadership, volunteers, and those regular folks who are making ministry happen.

How do we as leaders honor and encourage loyalty?

  • Express your appreciation. Tell people on a regular basis that you appreciate their loyalty.  Let them know you see how hard they’re working, especially if it’s quiet work going on behind the scenes.
  • Give loyalty a voice. If people are working hard and supporting your vision (even if they don’t 100% agree with that vision), honor that by giving them a say in future decisions.  Listen to them – let them know your door is always open, and you are genuinely interested in their feedback and insights.
  • Honor their history. If people support you and your organization, especially if you are actively pushing for change and doing things differently, don’t just bulldoze over their traditions and routines.  Sincerely work to understand what matters to them and why – many times the core of what matters and why can be preserved even as logistics are adjusted.  If people feel passionate about “doing things the way they’ve always been done,” ask them to help you understand the core of that passion.  You can work together to preserve that core even while doing a shiny, new thing.
  • Don’t conflate loyalty with subservience. That’s the slippery path to autocratic leadership.  Disagreement is not the same as disloyalty.  Disloyalty is tied to a dishonest approach to disagreement in which a lack of support, sabotage, and backbiting undermine a vision.  “Yes men” and “yes women” will support your bad instincts as well as your good ones – that’s not loyalty – that’s the path to chaos.
  • Repay loyalty with loyalty. (“You’ve got my back: I’ve got yours.”)  Do not throw people under the bus when they stumble.  Yes, it will be harder to help someone through a rough patch.  It would be easier to abandon them and start fresh with someone new.  But this is not the biblical way.  And if you stick with someone even in tough times, the dividends down the road can be enormous.

As I was working on this blog about loyalty, an interesting sidebar presented itself as the news dropped that superwoman American gymnast Simone Biles was withdrawing from the team and all-around individual competitions at the Tokyo Olympics.

Many people praised her decision to publicly put her mental health first, but there was pushback as some questioned her toughness or loyalty to the team.  I confess, my first thought when I saw the headline was disappointment and maybe a little judginess, but my eyes were opened by an excellent essay in the NY Times, “Simone Biles Just Demonstrated a True Champion Mind-Set” – it’s worth a read.

The facepalm moment for me was realizing just how often ministry pushes people past the limits of good mental health.  I’m planning to explore this idea more fully next week.  But for the moment, think about how this issue of performance and balancing mental health is directly linked to the idea of loyalty.

We have enormous expectations of how hard people will work to support our ministry and how loyal they will be to our ministry vision, but when they falter, burn out, blow up, or collapse, we may or not may not offer them support to pick up the pieces and get a fresh start.  It is too easy to cut them loose and move on to the next person who is eager to join our project.

If we want to honor people’s loyalty by taking their mental and spiritual health seriously, we can proactively protect them:

  • Promote healthy practices. Learn more about best mental health practices, particularly in the context of the pressure-filled crucible of ministry work.  Get expert advice.  Make good practices part of your leadership agenda.
  • Remove the stigma. Talk about mental health as a regular part of the team routine.  Make it a regular part of volunteer and staff meetings.  Let people know – and let them know often – that it’s okay if they are struggling, and it’s okay and healthy to get help with those struggles.  Make sure there is a clear path for people to get support when they need it.
  • Have clear lines of communication. A mantra of “it’s okay to ask for help” is only as effective as an actual plan in place for how people will get that help.  ** If, as in too many local churches, the only plan in place is for people to ask for help directly from the Lead Pastor in Charge, your plan is insufficient. **  Of course, pastoral leadership is important, but it is not uncommon that the source of the stress lies in the relationship between pastor and staff or pastor and volunteers, so there should be a pathway for seeking help that is neutral or even an independent advocate, and everyone in the process should know that seeking help via a channel other than through the Lead Pastor is not a sign of disloyalty.  It’s a healthy option.
  • Insist on mental health breaks. Everybody needs time away.  This should be policy.  Regularly scheduled sabbaticals, procedures for taking “mental health days,” ways to step back from overly stressful projects: these should all be in your tool kit.  Resist the urge to think that people might take advantage of such options.  Educate your congregation as to the importance of safety valve breaks (and make your volunteers take them, too).  Build a culture in which mental health walks hand-in-hand with spiritual health.
  • Ask people how they’re doing. Make it a regular practice just to sincerely ask people how they are, what’s going on, what their stress level is, and what they’re doing to manage that stress level.  Respond helpfully.
  • Practice what you preach. Leading others in these positive mental health approaches is only as effective as practicing them yourself in ways that other people can directly observe.  That way they know you mean what you say – that it truly is a priority – and they feel much more comfortable being authentic about their own status.

What are your thoughts on loyalty?  Do you value it in real and practical ways?  Do the institutions you help to lead clearly hold it as a high value?  What are some new ways you can reward and encourage loyalty?  What are the long-term positive effects of loyal servant-leaders to a thriving organization?