By Eddie Pipkin
I love inspirational sports stories and the lessons they offer us for leadership and perseverance. And if sports metaphors aren’t your thing, you can start rolling your eyes now, but it is hard to ignore the abundant examples of team spirit, shared focus, overcoming expectations, second chances, and straight-up hard work that resulted in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ win at the Super Bowl this past Sunday. Set in motion by an audacious, risky vision from team management, the individual players worked through volatility and uncertainty to achieve an epic goal. Their story and some of the specific parallels it offers are an inspiration for ministry leaders as we assemble and inspire teams that have to navigate challenges even more daunting than an NFL season.
The Bucs had been floundering for more than a decade – as a Florida-based fan of the franchise, I realized my now-grown children were just starting elementary school when they last won a Super Bowl. Current management had made a steady series of moves the past few years to position the moribund Bucs for success, but the wildest move was recruiting Tom Brady to come and join them for a flirtation with sports immortality once the New England Patriots had cut him loose to bet on a younger quarterback.
Was Brady over the hill? He was still good, everybody knew, even at an age when most quarterbacks reached the sunset of their careers, and he’d already proved himself the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) as a QB, but here was a challenge that would set him apart as the GOAT of GOATS if he could pull it off. And he did! But how he did, and how the team worked together to support one another in making multiple dreams come true is where the lesson lies for ministry players.
- Even an old dog can learn new tricks.
It takes determination, discipline, and a fearless attitude, but even at age 43 (as the oldest player at any position to ever play in a Super Bowl), a leader can still win the MVP. This does not happen by chance. Tom Brady is known for one of the most intense work ethics of anyone to ever play the game. His dedication to maintaining his overall fitness and healthy eating regimen are legendary. He’s one of those guys who is always first on and last off the practice field every day. His study of the game is detailed, and his preparation is always meticulous. All of that shows up when he takes the field. His preparation makes him relevant and ready. Still, he’s not perfect. Other QBs have gaudier statistics, and his highlight reel is perhaps not as glamorous as those from the new era of young, scrambling quarterbacks, but he knows his strengths, and he plays to those strengths. All he does is work the game and win. Even when he throws an interception, he plugs ahead without losing heart – he doesn’t let mistakes get him down.
Many of us ministry leaders (especially those of us who are long past our rookie seasons) could take hope from this example. We have a tendency to settle into the habits of long service and the deferences afforded to us by our titles and our top-of-the-leadership-pyramid status, but we should always stay hungry for the possibilities of what God is calling us to next. (Keep in mind the many amazing things the biblical elders accomplished in their golden years.) That means, rather than phoning it in, we lean into a productive routine to keep us focused. That means we keep learning new things. We look for ways to understand the world in new ways (even though we are perfectly comfortable with the old ways – we stay relevant by staying eager and engaged). That means that we are undaunted by trying new things and possibly floundering, because we’ve been around enough to know that failure is a temporary condition that is often the jumping off point to greater glories.
- Recruit a great team.
The individual contributors on any team can combine their talents to make it great in ways that surpass the shiny gifts of any one individual. As soon as Tom Brady decided to put on a Bucs uniform, he was an immediate magnet for other players of rare talent. The best inevitably want to be surrounded by the best, so out of retirement came one of Brady’s favorite targets, the inimitable physical force, Ron Gronkowski. Others followed, and their influx and intensity not only inspired each other, but breathed a new sense of purpose into the already talented players who were on the roster before they arrived.
As ministry leaders we know that so much depends upon the teams with which we surround ourselves and entrust the vision God has given us – both staff members and volunteer leadership. Like a great football coach, recruiting gifted talent and empowering them to be their best is one of our most important jobs. We should constantly be on the lookout for gifted and passionate people, and we should invest ourselves in conversations in which we explore the desires of these people to serve with excellence. And we shouldn’t stop there! Once we have recruited and empowered great leaders, we should build a culture in which they are also always on the lookout for gifted talent. Talent is not a limited resource. It can grow exponentially with the right cultural attitude in an organization.
- Give people a chance where others don’t see the upside.
One of the curious things about the Bucs is the way in which, once Brady proclaimed his vision for the 2020 season, they became a safe spot to settle for several pros who had burned out, washed up, self-sabotaged, or been given up on by their teams. Leonard Fournette, who had struggled to fit in with the Jacksonville Jaguars and earned a reputation as a disgruntled player, found new life and new purpose once he moved to the Bucs. Even riskier, the Bucs gave bad boy Antonio Brown a second chance – actually, more like a third or fourth chance. While firmly establishing clear parameters for Brown’s behavior – and a clear line being drawn of zero tolerance for any new failures of character – they gave him a chance to rehabilitate his reputation. He settled down, focused on his game, kept his off-field life in balance, and caught a Super Bowl touchdown.
In so doing, the Bucs, arguably, practiced biblical principles of mercy (not that they did it for some higher moral purpose). But they gave a shot at redemption to players other people had written off as not worth the effort. They did it with clearly established behavioral expectations and an insistence on humility and a required commitment to unglamorous work – anything required to support the team effort – but it was a policy that bore abundant fruit.
We too, as ministry leaders, have just such an opportunity to provide a landing place and a shot at redemption for people that other ministries have cast aside. Not all of us are cut out for such ministry within ministry – it is a risk, and it’s a risk that can only succeed with stringent requirements and close supervision. But it’s also biblical in scope and beautiful when it happens. A person who failed in some earlier ministry iteration can find themselves restored and serving with purpose. Such a restored heart frequently works from a place of humility, gratitude, and wisdom that can inspire a whole team.
- Let people do their thing – give them an open field and let them run.
One of the things that sportswriters picked up on was the difference in how Brady’s former coach, Bill Belichick, and current coach, Bruce Arians, handled the future Hall of Fame quarterback differently. Belichick famously kept very tight control of Brady’s role on the team. Although Brady, at this point in his career, desired to function as a kind of coach and mentor to the players who surrounded him, Belichick discouraged this impulse. Arians, on the other hand, allowed Brady to lean into his desire to share his experience and wisdom to motivate the teammates around him, and the results were hugely positive.
As ministry leaders, our desire to maintain control can cause us to restrict the creative impulses of key players on our team. When we hold hem back from doing fully what God has called them to do, we not only deprive our organizations of the blessings that might have resulted, but we trigger frustration in unfulfilled leaders.
We would do better to loosen the reins and let people follow their passions.
- Even when you’re the MVP, practice humility and be true to your values (maybe that’s why you’re the MVP).
One last note from a news story I came across on ESPN a couple of days after the big game. There was an ugly moment during the Super Bowl in which Tom Brady and Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu got into a shouting match. Penalties ensued. What caught my eye about the story was that, apparently, even as the post-game celebration was unfolding, champagne corks were being popped and trophies awarded, Brady took time to send an apology text to Mathieu. Not days later, but in the middle of his triumph, he directly expressed his regret for his words and actions.
How is your team doing? Would you describe yourselves as Super Bowl MVPs or as struggling to make the playoffs? Do you have a culture of recruiting and empowering great talent? Do you provide a haven for wayward ministry folk to have a second chance? Do you allow folks full freedom to do what God has gifted and called them to do? What are your secrets for building a super team? Feel free to share! We love it when you share.