Learning from the greatest coaches

20138793One place few pastors look for leadership wisdom is in the realm of coaching. I love reading books by coaches. Books by John Wooden, Pete Carroll, Phil Jackson, Joe Torre and others are a part of my library. Some of the best leadership lesson I’ve gleaned over the years have been from coaches — my own, and the great ones of sports.

Great coaches, like great church leaders, understand how to mobilize people toward a common objective, putting the common good above their own personal aggrandizement. Great coaches do more than that, though: They are able to create a culture in which all sorts of people can thrive — year after year.

They do it by creating a culture — a habitat that grows a particular set of habits and mentality. Phil Jackson could coach Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan at the same time. That’s because they bought into the culture Phil Jackson cultivated and played within that system rather than their straining against it. Thus, what could have been a cacophony became a symphony.


Your church has a culture cultivated and curated by a head coach. It might be a senior pastor. It might be an elder board. However, I would venture to say an elder board really can’t do this particular task effectively. Nevertheless, someone is leading — or at least occupying the coach’s office. They are setting the habits, philosophy, speed and temperament of the church. If it’s you, take responsibility for it. Own it. Embrace it, and learn from people who know how to lead people.

The coaches immortalized on film tend to be “no-nonsense” or “my-way-or-the-highway” types. But, historically, the legendary coaches aren’t really feared by their players; they are respected and liked. They are liked because they understand their players to the max, and help them learn how to play their best — for the team. The team — well, they are playing for the Prize.

That’s why players will play hard through injury, take pay cuts, put in extra time, and hit levels of performance they never thought they could. They don’t do it for a coach; they do so because they “get it.” They get it, because the coach helped them get it. So, they respect and love the coach for that.

The coach’s job is know what it is the players must “get,” and to create an environment in which they will get — and perfect — “it” with each day. In the pastoral sphere, it’s a philosophy of ministry that advances the Kingdom through the gifts of the church.


Our job as leaders isn’t to make people play their best. They don’t play for us. It’s to help them “get it,” so they play for the mission harder than they ever could for us. They play as a team for the applause of One. That’s the Prize.

Great coaches, like great leaders, rarely crack whips. They are always creating cultures. That doesn’t mean there is no discipline; it simply recognizes the difference between leadership and management.

Leadership is influence. Management is … management. There is going to be some management involved with leadership. But, one can manage something without a drop of leadership. Churches that simply manage people will be stuck year after year. Churches well-coached will advance.

TimSpivey-blogTim Spivey is lead planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, CA. Tim is also an adjunct professor of religion at Pepperdine University and purveyor of New Vintage Leadership, a blog offering cutting-edge insights on leadership and theology. He is the author of numerous articles and the book Jesus, the Powerful Servant.



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