By Eddie Pipkin

November 2, 2016

And now for one of my occasional blog entries in which I cite an example of the sports world in regards to leadership in ministry (and some readers love that, and some hate it, I know, but there are definite leadership lessons to be gleaned from people who do what they do in the brightest of glares under intense media and fan pressure).

By the time you read this, in all likelihood the 2016 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs will have been decided.  With two teams whose star-crossed histories have long featured epic disappointments and championship droughts (the Cubs even more so than the Indians), the storyline for this October’s championship games took on high-stake, mythical overtones. And at the center of the enormous expectations placed on the Cubs organization was manager Joe Maddon, a man with a distinctive low-key, fun loving style that has endeared him to fans and players alike.

You can link to one of the many profiles of him here from the The Washington Post: “The Relentless Positivity of Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon.”  He has become famous for running a stress-free, fun-loving clubhouse in which players work hard but don’t get overwrought about temporary setbacks.  So distinctively counter-intuitive has his management style been in a cutthroat sport, that business journals and leadership web sites have begun to take notice:

“That optimist’s approach has not only won him plaudits from baseball pundits, but from those who see lessons for managers beyond baseball’s fields. Crain’s Chicago Business cited how he “pumps the lineup with struggling hitters,” a way to show them he believes in their talent. A management professor at Northwestern University told Chicago Magazine “What Maddon wants to do is create a culture that rewards players for good work but doesn’t limit their inventiveness and individuality.”’

He has been known to host a petting zoo for players and family on field before a big game.  He has organized themed, costumed road trips, played pranks, and hired a magician.  A fundamental part of Maddon’s approach is his sense of humor.  At no point does he take himself, the fans, the management, or the game itself, too seriously.  He manages to keep it all in perspective (literally, that’s what he perceives as his job).  In fact, when asked ajoe-maddon-high-five-002 very serious question about who his management influences are, he responded by giving credit to Michael Scott (a joke that had the pop culture tuned-in folks chuckling and the rest of the room looking bemused).  Michael Scott is, of course, the office manager that Steve Carell played in seven seasons on The Office.  Joe Maddon has been known to quote the blundering but good-hearted Scott character in lines such as this: “Would I rather be feared or loved?  Easy.  Both.  I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”

Maddon’s most famous original homespun mantra is this phrase: “Try not to suck.”

It’s funny, and simultaneously insightful, and maybe a little sacrilegious for a ministry setting, but maybe right on point in not taking things too seriously.  This is, after all, a problem for ministry leaders.  Called by God to do what we’re doing, we find ourselves imbuing every decision and every event with high drama and emotional angst.  Perhaps it would serve us well to lighten up a little.  I love to tell the story of the first time I ever preached.  I was so nervous I really thought I might throw up, and I pulled aside a friend named Kent King in the choir room and said, “Brother, I really need you to pray for me right now.”  He had a Maddonesque approach to life, and he prayed what became one of my favorite prayers of all time:

“Oh, Lord.  Please remind us that no matter what happens, in a couple of hours we’re all going to go to lunch.  Amen.”

Amen, indeed.  Here are some ways we can take work to keep our ministries less stressful:

  • Don’t be afraid to be silly. The ability to keep things light and fun works in a positive way against the day-to-day grind that becomes disheartening in any demanding job.  Comical competitions and contests can really boost a team’s spirit during the slog of a difficult project or season.  A running gag, silly poster, costume, decorations, or a funny treat can lighten the mood.  Teams that are having fun do more creative work and experience less stress.
  • Delay critiques. Rather than always responding negatively in the moment to an issue of concern, it is often possible to wait and bring critiques up in the greater context of a time of post-event review (that gives an opportunity to acknowledge ways to do better in balance with the many things that went well).  Worship leaders, for instance, often struggle with the urge to do a running critique of a given worship service as it is happening.  Better to be fully engaged in worship (remembering why we are there in the first place) and do an appropriate debrief later.
  • Make fun of yourself. Self-deprecation is a formidable leadership tool.  You know you’re not perfect, and so does your team.  By poking fun at your own foibles, you can demonstrate a humility that is appreciated by those you lead.  This also communicates a clear message that you are not expecting them to be perfect either.  It makes you open and accessible, a relatable leader, and it makes it credible when you say, “Communication is a two-way street.”
  • Take every advantage of opportunities to celebrate.  Holidays.  Birthdays.  The completion of projects.  The culmination of events that took weeks of planning.  Never miss an opportunity to acknowledge happy occasions and successful endeavors.  The team that celebrates together moves on happily together to the next challenge.  And try not to get into a routine with your celebrations.  They don’t have to be anything elaborate, but they should be varied in tone.  You don’t want to fall into the “Oh, it’s third-week-of-the-month-discount-cupcake-mandatory-birthday-acknowledgement” slump.
  • Empower individuals to be themselves. Even as you are espousing the benefits of teamwork and the unity of vision that drives the work of your team, find ways to celebrate the quirky strengths of individuals.  Let their personalities shine through, encouraging the diversity of unique voices that are more powerful on a team than a non-inspired uniformity.

I will leave you with one more quote without telling you whether it’s from Joe Maddon or Michael Scott, but which is definitely a bit of word play to make a person go “hmmmmmm”:

“I swore to myself that if I ever got to walk around the room as manager, people would laugh when they saw me coming, and would applaud as I walked away.”

God bless, do good work, don’t take yourself (or the good work you do) too seriously, try not to suck, and if you have anything to add, we’d love to see your comments below.