By Eddie Pipkin

If you’re like my friend, Gregg, you might be so caught up in the nonstop news that you missed the fact that there was a World Series this past week.  I love a little post-season baseball, and I’m a fan of those ever-plucky Tampa Bay Rays, so I watched and enjoyed the sense of near normalcy of the Fall Classic.  And even though the Rays lost in six, it’s astonishing and inspirational they made it that far if you consider their $28.2 million payroll versus the Dodgers’ $107.9 million.  David vs. Goliath (to quote a familiar text), with David coming up just short this time around.  It’s a reminder for you small church leaders (which are most of you reading this) that you don’t have to be a megachurch with a megabudget to be a ministry winner.

It’s not uncommon to hear from local church leaders that they love the ideas we write about, and they would be happy to implement them if they had bigger budgets and bigger staffs.  It’s definitely true if you just fire up your laptop and start googling resources, training, and programs, that you’ll see an avalanche of offerings designed by big churches for consumption by other big churches.  But here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching, we are mindful that most of the churches in America are small to mid-size churches, and we try to focus on principles and strategies that are adaptable and scalable – no matter what your size and budget, the principles and strategies should be useful.

After all, you have a plucky team with a lot of heart, just like those Tampa Bay Rays!

As for the Rays and this year’s journey to the World Series and how they made it happen, seemingly against the odds, the Washington Post does a good job of briefly laying out the spending strategies and management attitudes that applied: “This World Series Offers Financial Lessons Gleaned from Both the Dodgers and the Rays”:

“You want to see teams find success in different ways,” Rays General Manager Erik Neander said before the series began. “That’s part of what makes the game what it is. I don’t think you ever want to see there be one particular cookie-cutter form of success in anything. That’s not what makes it fun.”

But it’s worth looking at how the Rays cut their cookies — and have for years. The last Tampa Bay team to reach the World Series was built, of course, by Friedman, then Tampa Bay’s GM, now finishing his sixth year with the Dodgers. What Friedman has done on the West Coast is based in the principles he instilled when he was back east — building deep, flexible rosters and concentrating on analytics and player development.

“A lot of it stems from really valuing guys who can do a lot of different things on a baseball field,” Friedman said before the series started. “And adding value on defense, on the bases, in the batter’s box.”

I’m going to pull some details out of that quote from the article and focus on four ideas that we talk about in this space on a regular basis.  It is exciting for me to see these ideas pop up as an example in the real world outside of ministry and then think yet again about how powerfully they can work within ministry.

1.  No “one particular cookie-cutter form of success.”

Know your context.

Local churches have special strengths, unique contexts, opportunities to connect with their communities, and reputations to build from.  They have unique cultures they can embrace and grow to pursue their ministry objectives.  Therefore, they should focus on understanding and embracing that context, not trying to take on cool sounding initiatives just because it’s the latest big church fad.

One aspect of this that we haven’t written about as much is understanding the context of the other religious communities in the neighborhood. If there is a church that is effectively engaging a ministry need, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to duplicate that same approach.  We should perhaps focus our efforts elsewhere, or — here’s a radical idea — consider some opportunities for ecumenical cooperation!

2. “Building deep, flexible rosters.”

Part one – The strength of the bench.

Local churches have bad habits of relying on a core group of the same, high visibility folks.  Just recently I have written about the importance of a pipeline of leaders.  We can’t be content to sit on our holy laurels once we’ve got that blank space filled on the leadership list.  All leaders should be identifying future leaders (and future facilitators / helpers / supporters, for they too are vital to ministry success).

These tiers of leadership and expertise are one of the hallmarks of a healthy congregation.  One of the surest signs of a robust and growing ministry is that many, many people are involved in useful roles, large and small, in which they feel engaged and essential.  Each individual feels his or her role is a good fit, and they feel valued in that role, and they feel that the work they are doing has meaning.

3.  “Building deep, flexible rosters.”

Part two – The impact of talent.

It is impossible to underestimate the impact of talented, gifted individuals to overall success.  A few passionate people — leaders or standouts with unique and admirable skills — can create excitement and ministry momentum.  Pastors often have an innate sense of recruiting such people.  It’s natural, especially when these potential recruits are larger-than-life personalities or have already demonstrated their leadership value by success in the wider world.

But the thing that sets the Rays apart is identifying talent that other teams have overlooked.  This means looking beyond the usual glowing neon signs of success to people who are perhaps more quiet, less flashy or vocal, or perhaps just need a little shot of confidence to get them over the hump from good to great.  This is a gratifying role for ministry leaders to fulfill!  Sometimes, we also have profound (and biblical) opportunities to give people a second chance — perhaps they have struggled with issues in previous ministry roles that they have now faithfully worked to resolve — such people not only have talent that may be going to waste, but they have deep soul wisdom about the kind of redemption story that is a powerful part of our gospel message.

Talent that may have been overlooked, once it is given an opportunity, works from a position of gratitude and enthusiasm that delivers powerful results.  An overlooked, undervalued talent given a chance to shine is among the most biblical of stories.

4.  “Concentrating on analytics.”

Intentionality is strategy.

Baseball in the past couple of decades – since the advent of Billy Beane and the “Moneyball” approach to team management – has relied heavily on understanding the subtle statistical nuances of how to best use players in specific game situations.  It’s an intentional strategy that takes a close look at every single aspect of the game.  From a ministry perspective, it’s very easy for local churches to keep doing what they’re doing because of tradition or a perceived lack of resources.  But that’s not thoughtful strategy.

“Why are we doing what we’re doing?” should be a question that permeates all ministry strategy discussions – and we should be having ministry strategy discussions on an ongoing, consistent basis.  If people can’t identify our strategy – if they can’t articulate our vision and some basic points about how we plan to get there – we’re in trouble.

5.  “Player development.”

Recruitment is wasted without training.

Even when we are good at spotting talent and recruiting people, we can miss the mark on giving them proper training and support.  Training begets training: it’s an attitude and a commitment to excellence that should be part of our organizational cultural identity.  For leaders that we have identified (volunteer or staff) in given areas, we should be offering regular training opportunities, large and small, for those leaders, and part of that process is that we are actively and regularly encouraging those leaders to be training the people who are helping them make ministry happen.  Training – which can take many forms and doesn’t have to be some formal time-consuming class: it can be in short blasts and brief breakouts during regular planning sessions, for instance – helps build confidence and competence.  It helps people see how all the parts fit together and how they can support the greater vision of the organization.  It helps people anticipate what can go wrong and lean into the things that are going right.

Good training and opportunities for regular feedback are tied to the idea of untapped talent that I was writing about earlier.  For innate God-given talent to be fully realized, we have to give people real, meaningful work to do.  Training, coaching, mentoring and feedback can open the doors to such work.


If you’re a small church, do you sometimes feel like the underdog?  Do you sometimes feel like all these ideas you read about sound great but seem out of reach?  How are you implementing the management principles discussed above?  Which one of them seems most accessible and exciting?  How can we at EMC3 write about topics to help you on your journey?  What specific ideas mentioned here would you like to see us explore more fully?