Recently, I heard an interview with Lou Holtz legendary football coach. He told the following about his development as a leader. When he left as assistant coach of a nationally ranked program to become head coach for the first time at William and Mary University, he was full of certainty that the success his previous school had achieved would guarantee success in his new position. “Unfortunately, I failed to realize that William and Mary had more Marys than Williams,” he said laughingly. The team was a complete failure his first year.
He went on to say that in the off season he sat down and took stock about what had happened and what he had learned. From this he drew what he called “The Three Principles that have guided me all my life as a coach and leader of others.” What were these?
1. Always do the right thing. He shared that a leader can never compromise his or her integrity in either the pressures of success or failure.
2. Give the best you can of your gifts and abilities. At William and Mary he simply didn’t have the talent that his previous program had. He could not ask his players to be other people. He could ask them to give the best of what they had. He learned to know this about himself and his players.
3. Always show others that you genuinely care for them. He not only applied this to himself but to all the young people under his charge. He taught them to always show others respect and that they truly cared.
I could not help but apply these insights from Coach Holtz to our context as leaders of Christian communities. First, I thought about the number of situations where I had seen clergy fail because for some reason (or rationalization) they had lost their essential moral compass. “Act with integrity in the moment” is something we must always live by. Is there any better description of Jesus or the Saints than that they acted with integrity in the moment; they did the right thing. I would content that at no point in American history has our community more needed its religious leaders to model this truth.
Second, I have to admit that here have been many times in ministry that I have felt that I could be the right priest and leader if only I had the right congregation. I have had to learn, like Coach Holtz, that we only get the people God gives us. I believe that the shortening length of tenures of clergy in the past 30 years reflects this quest of many of us to find a geographical cure from our present lack luster people. We only need to look at the Twelve Apostles to be reminded that Jesus built his Church on fairly ordinary people. A friend of mine used to joke that “it is hard to fly with eagles when you work with turkeys!” Yet the truth is that we are given who we are given. In our theology, we believe that God has given to the local community the spiritual gifts and fruit to carry out what God wants in that place.
Third, as I often say to clergy at conferences and other occasions, “The ministry is about people, and people need to know that you, as a leader, genuinely care for them.” Today, I find many clergy who think ministry is about ideas, theology, or some cause. Some think it is about emails and blogs. Some apparently even think it is about our success and careers. Think about this for ourselves. We have all known people, maybe even leaders, who initially fool us into believing that they really care about us. However, we learn quickly and sometimes painfully the truth that they did not. Genuine care is long-lasting. This is why I think that the long-term pastor is often so effective at influencing a Church. John Maxwell is famous for saying, “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Amen to that!
Let me close by pointing out that Coach Holtz never described his success as vested in a system, a strategy, or a way of organizing his teams. He described it in being a model and in relationship to others.