By Eddie Pipkin

Image by Schorsch from Pixabay

We can’t close out March without me composing a riff on the basketball paradise that is March Madness.  It’s been an amazing tournament this year, with ESPN announcing after the first day of play for the opening round of 64 teams that all 24 million ‘predict the winners’ brackets submitted to their website had already been busted.  I spent this past Sunday evening watching a classic nailbiter between improbable competitors Creighton and San Diego State for a berth to the Final Four.  It seemed like ‘another Cinderella story’ for those two teams, but the truth is that great coaching had laid the foundations of success long before the first game of the season had ever played way back in the fall.  As it goes with basketball, so it goes with ministry; so it goes with life.

For a team to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament, some key factors have to come into play:

  • Great coaching.
  • An emphasis on doing the fundamentals well.
  • Recruiting talented players.
  • Letting those players play to their strengths.
  • Coaching the team to work together, understanding each other’s roles.
  • Making adjustments as needed; adapting to a different context (way to solve a new opponent) for each distinct game.
  • Good clock management and staying cool under pressure.
  • Not getting distracted.

That’s a pretty long list, but you’ll note that, although I’ve broken the process down into eight different categories, which we’ll explore further category by category, these categories overlap and are developed in tandem over the course of a season.  A team gels together and becomes single-minded and organically connected through the crucible of games they play throughout the year.  But for any team that is going to rise to the highest heights during the March tournament, that gelling has to start well before regular season games begin.  Given a solid foundation of skill development, focus on the fundamentals, and an understanding of strategy (offense and defensive plays that will be deployed), a team can enter competition loaded with possibility.  But once the season begins in earnest, particularly once conference play begins—the games that really matter for college teams—an interesting thing happens: some teams fold, and some teams rise to the occasion.  Some teams are unable to adjust and overcome their weaknesses.  On the other hand, some teams adjust and thrive, revealing the hearts of champions.  NCAA championships are all about stubborn grace under pressure.

But the undeniable reality is that no team ever has a shot unless they have had solid, persistent, encouraging coaching of the fundamentals of the game in the months preceding the start of the season.

That being said, these basketball truths offer a great insight as to why we are constantly lamenting the failure of ministry initiatives to “score”!  It is surprisingly unusual for local churches to do fundamental training for ministry leaders and volunteers.  We might do a training connected to a specific initiative or ministry program, but generalized training in areas such as small group leadership, developing future leaders, how to facilitate a discussion, how to build relationships, how to welcome and integrate visitors, how to manage conflict resolution, how to do the administrative and communication tasks related to ministry, and other generalized but highly important basic skills are rarely taught.  There is a sense that if we recruit natural leaders—which generally means gregarious extroverts—they will already be gifted with these skill sets.  An honest look at any local church’s history will reveal that this is, sadly, not a reliable assumption.

There are two approaches we could take to turn the tide concerning this lack of coaching and training.  The first is to integrate fundamental skills training into all the regular organizational meetings that already compose so much of our institutional lives.  In that scenario, working ministry groups would train together as part of their “specialty” area (or ministry silo area).  A more interesting and far-reaching idea would be to regularly offer skills training as a standalone option, open to anyone who would like to participate.  Specific ministry leaders could incentivize (or require) their team members to participate, if needed.  An example would be developing a training on Conflict Resolution and opening that up to anyone in the congregation (or even the community!) who would like to attend, while encouraging key ministry people to add this merit badge to their skills arsenal.  A different approach would be to develop this training in such a form that it could be integrated seamlessly into the regular organizational meetings mentioned above.  As a principle, regular organizational meetings (day-to-day business and planning sessions) should always include some training time.

As for the eight categories of successfully coached teams in the March Madness tournament listed above, the preparation is anything but random.  Although there are different approaches, some traditional and some pushing creative boundaries, every coach at every level has invested themselves and their team in mindfully developing the strategy that will build their identity on the court.

  • Great coaching. Every team needs a leader and assistant leaders who have a unified vision and a clear direction for how to achieve that vision.  There is a consistent, constant message, emphasizing and reinforcing the team’s core identity.
  • An emphasis on doing the fundamentals well. The basic skills needed to “play the game” well are practiced again and again and again.  The team talks through solid technique, brings in experts to demonstrate how to do things correctly, then practices scenarios.  Ministry can emulate this approach—imagine the impact if we did more ‘practice’ with each other before jumping into the real deal.
  • Recruiting talented players. The team is only going to be as good as the individual players who are carrying the load, so the coaches must do everything in their power to sell potential team members on their vision, so that players will want to be a part of what’s ahead.  Also, the coach’s job is to help each player understand how they can grow and prosper as part of this team in this moment.  Likewise for ministry: help people see how they will be valued and critical to the mission.
  • Letting those players play to their strengths. Teams with a seven-and-a-half foot center toss the ball to that player on play after play, so that he can take short shots for easy baskets.  Teams with shorter players emphasis ball movement, speed, and quick decisions.  You play to the personality of your team, and you let everyone shine by doing what they do best.
  • Coaching the team to work together, understanding each other’s roles. Once the coach understand the individual strengths of individual players, they must help the players learn to trust and encourage one another.  Everyone has strengths, and everyone has weaknesses.  On the court, in the middle of the action, team members need to be able to defer to one another to compensate for struggles where needed and let talent shine where possible.  Everyone should learn to think as a unit, rejoicing in the achievements of one another as the path to flourishing for the group.
  • Making adjustments as needed; adapting to a different context (a way to solve the puzzle of each new opponent for each distinct game). Often in the NCAA tournament, teams face opponents whom they have never before played.  A team must be confident in its identity but able to tweak their normal strategies to account for changing circumstances.  (This is why “one trick pony” teams normally don’t make it too far into the competition.)  Ministry needs to be flexible, too.  And even when one person is normally the strong leader, sometimes circumstances will dictate that they may need to step back and let someone else step up.
  • Good clock management and staying cool under pressure. If you’ve ever watched a high-stakes basketball game, you’ll know that what looks like the last five minutes on the clock in a close game can take 20 minutes to play in reality.  Micro-management of the clock becomes critical.  Effective ministry leaders understand the ways in which time needs to be allocated for team management.  Sometimes things can move slowly—sometimes things need to move slowly, whether it’s a season of recuperation and recharge or a time to let ideas percolate.  Sometimes things need to move quickly.  The correct timing will depend on the stage of a project, as well as on the mood and mindset of individuals.  Above all, leaders can’t afford to panic, and not panicking is a function of good preparation, working a clearly established plan, and pausing in critical moments to take a deep breath and recalibrate.
  • Not getting distracted. There is a lot of hype involved in playing in a prestigious national tournament.  Players and coaching staffs are in an intense media spotlight in an unfamiliar setting, and they are treated to all sorts of entertainment and pampering.  It’s easy to lose track of what’s important.  For ministry leaders, sometimes a big change or a high-stakes project comes with a lot of hoopla or controversy, and it’s easy to lose concentration and drift off course.  It’s good to have processes and accountability partners to keep one on track.

One additional thought that I was reminded of in a group session this week: You can be mentored in anything!

Whatever challenge we face, whether trying to pick up a specific skill or trying to become a better ‘coach’ in general, thanks to technology, we now live in the golden age of getting better.  With a few clicks of a keyboard we can get expert assistance from articles, podcasts, and videos.  Quite literally on anything.  (As an absurdist example, I paused in the kitchen this week to pull up videos on peeling those little grocery store stickers off tomatoes and creative methods for slicing mangoes.)  Whatever frustration we are facing, it’s easier than ever to get some help.

How is your team doing in the tournament of ministry?  Are you achieving consistent success by sticking to the golden rules of coaching?  Or do you find yourself routinely flaming out in early stages of the season?  Are you training your teams in the fundamentals so that they might flourish at game time?  Or are you tackling challenges without a plan?  As always, share your stories!