by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Football season is right around the corner, and I can’t wait.  I love football, pro and college (go Knights!), and I will spend waaaaay too much time watching games between now and Christmas.  Of course, I’m not so big a football nerd as to watch preseason games, because that’s a bridge too far, but I do read a little about the drama of the run-up to the opening day kickoffs.  It’s all about practice – guys trying to prove themselves, some getting hurt, unfortunately, others surprising the coaches with unexpected performances – everybody fully engaging in the gritty grind of training camp, doing all they can to unify as a team to face the challenges and opportunities ahead.  Ministry tends to be in “game day mentality” all the time.  It could use a little more “training camp mentality” to keep people healthier, happier, and better prepared.

A few focused weeks of training camp is a tradition for college and professional sports at all levels.  Teams don’t just train independently with individual coaches (although they do that as well – the best athletes take seriously their work with personal trainers and specialized instructors – in fact, the phrase they use to describe their dedication takes its sense of discipline and devotion from the spiritual realm – they are said to “train religiously”).  Teams also could show up on day one and start competing against other teams, working out their strategies and game performance relationships as they face off in real time.  Nobody wants to do that, because the results would obviously be sloppy and sub-optimal (and sports is entertainment after all – many have noted the parallel in that sense with worship).

Training camp brings it all together, establishing focus, shared vision, skills development, relationship-building, problem solving, assessment of strengths and weaknesses, and the establishment of an organizational culture.  It brings to life to the aphorism, “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

All the disparate players, trainers, and coaches gather in one location and (hopefully – this is true for the eventually triumphant teams at least) in the pursuit of a unified purpose.

When you think about it, it’s a pretty great model for ministry leadership.  Of course, sports have the advantage of a defined season, which makes the training camp model practical and efficient.  Ministry has ‘seasons,’ but it never has an ‘off-season’ (although sometimes to our detriment, we conduct ourselves as if it does – in ministry, rather than thinking of an ‘off’ season, we do better to think of seasons has having different characteristics or personalities, seasons of intense festivals, followed by seasons of reflection and renewal, for instance).

Of course, Jesus didn’t institute a training camp model.  His approach was more OTJ (‘on the job’ training).  Most churches emulate this approach, throwing people into the mix and letting them learn as they go, so there’s a biblical argument to be made for this approach, although we embrace the OTJ part without embracing Jesus’ meticulous leadership discipline, which included a powerful investment in mentoring, constant feedback, hands-on skill building, and the development of deep, authentic relationships.  In the spirit of training camp, Jesus’ team lived and worked together, sharing every aspect of their lives.

It is the shared environment of space and time, focusing exclusively on the goals and mission of the organization that produces a unique result.  That’s why football training camp and baseball preseason often involves gathering a team in a novel location.  Shared living space and shared meals, lots of together time as a team.  It’s a swankier experience than it was a generation ago, but these are multi-millionaires after all (and, after all, aren’t all the church camps where we hold our leadership and training retreats less rustic and more plush than they used to be? – am I the only one who has noticed  that trend?).  A few NFL coaches have held out for a time-honored approach: let’s all bunk at an upstate small college campus and live and work together for a few weeks.  Here’s an entertaining analysis of such an old school attitude, written by Nate Taylor for The Athletic: “Why Chiefs coach Andy Reid runs NFL’s hardest training camp: ‘He’s not going to change his ways’.”

Lessons to Learn from the Spirit of Training Camp

Training Matters

To do what you do well is to constantly juggle a complex set of skills and strategies.  You must navigate a great number of intricate, often complicated, relationships, balancing the competing needs of many different constituencies.  You must do all this while navigating constant changes, adjusting on the fly to real-time conditions.

Training makes us better equipped to face all of these challenges.

Training can take multiple forms.

  • Skills development. Learning and improving upon specific competencies from leadership strategies to how to use technology to greater effect.  The Leadership Skill Builders units from Excellence in Ministry Coaching is a great tool for such training, for instance.
  • Coaching and mentoring. Working with experienced and wisdom-imparting individuals one-to-one who can guide us through our personal approaches to getting the job done.
  • Independent study. We can provide resources and individualized plans for helping our leaders become stronger.  Never has it been easier to connect people with resources to pursue strategic growth.
  • Group learning and inspiration. Vision development and reinforcement, inspirational talks, and development of shared skills and goals (communications is a robust example) mean that the team will grow and excel together, learning from each other, and comparing notes on their progress in a way that energizes the whole crew.

Getting Away Together Has Impact

Leadership and staff retreats yield outsized results.  It does not seem like organizations do as many of these kinds of dedicated getaways as they used to – perhaps this is the product of an increasingly busy and always connected lifestyle, but congregating in an unusual setting and focusing solely on the team for a day or a weekend produces a synergy and focus that is hard to replicate by other means.

All Aspects of Training are Important

Sometimes we are very good at one element of training (maybe the academic approach in which we assign leadership books to our teams and then discuss them), but having checked that box, we ignore other essential elements such as building individual management, administrative, technical, or communication skills.  A healthy balance of approaches leads to . . . well, a healthy balance of execution.  One of the ways to achieve a variety of different training approaches is to keep in mind the interests and strengths of different people on your team and then let those individuals design and lead different kinds of training.  It’s a win-win.

Reps Increase the Odds of Success

One of the things that sports teams do, especially football, which is a strategically complex game, is to get in repetitions in which they run designed plays.  Every player on the field has a specialized role in every play, and there are thousands of potential combinations of plays.  The only way to achieve flawless execution of these plays under pressure is to practice, practice, practice.

Ministry teams should practice more.  They should run more simulations, get in more practical reps.  You may be reading this and thinking that sounds bizarre, but think about the difference it would make during ‘game time.’

For instance, you’re thinking, “Our worship teams get in tons of practice time!”  But you are probably thinking exclusively about the musicians and singers.  Readers may practice at home.  Preachers may (or may not) practice from the stage when no one is around.  But it is mostly unheard of for all of these groups to get together and practice a run-through, working on the ways these elements will all connect with one another.  And the transition between the sequences is where worship stalls out or breaks down or becomes painfully awkward.  Obviously, most churches couldn’t do a complete run-through like this every week, but doing it once in a while would bear fruit (and a better kind of fruit than the post-critique back-and-forth that is the solution of most worship teams to problems that crop up).

We could simulate leading a small group, one-on-one counseling sessions, running an event, or greeting visitors.  And we should.  Training camp can come in all sorts of productive flavors!

How’s it going at your ministry organization (or whatever organization where you are invested and about which you are passionate)?  Do you sponsor anything that could be described as a training camp?  How seriously do you take training in general?  How do you think your organization might be different if you engaged training more thoughtfully?  Share your stories.