Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Coaches and Pastors

I have mentioned previously the important insight I gained about myself during my sophomore year in high school. There is a story behind that discovery. My sophomore algebra teacher was Coach L., our school’s basketball coach. We had a very fine basketball team, and Coach L. led our team to the state tournament my senior year. I wasn’t on the basketball team, however; my specialty was track. Coach L. was called “Coach” by everyone, but to me he was primarily my math teacher.

A standardized test that I took my sophomore year revealed that I had a very high aptitude in mathematics, but I found that out the hard way. Even then, standardized tests were scored with a check for potential cheating. When the test scores came back, Coach L. called me and one of my friends to meet with him in the hall. He asked us directly if we had shared answers on the achievement test. My friend, who happened to sit on the row to my right and one seat behind me, immediately confessed that he had copied my answers. I had no clue. Coach L. dealt with the situation well. He commended me for my outstanding score on the test and then sent me back to the classroom. I don’t really know what he did to my friend.

Something positive happens to your self-esteem when you discover that you have a particular competency that sets you apart from others. I had considered myself pretty ordinary in all respects, but suddenly I discovered that I had something very special about me. That discovery gave me a sense of competence and achievement that I had lacked up to that point.

When I went to my 40th High School reunion a few years ago, I spotted Coach L. sitting at a table with two empty chairs to one side of him. My wife and I went to sit with him. My intention was to express my appreciation to him for what he had taught me and for the valuable sense of self-confidence he had instilled in me as one of his math students. I started re-introducing myself to him, but we were immediately interrupted by former basketball players who came up to greet him. He got up and sat back down a few times as more players came by. Finally he just got up and walked off with a group of his basketball players, leaving me with my unspoken words of appreciation. I suddenly realized that a coach develops a special relationship with his team that far surpasses the relationship he has with his regular students. He had made a distinct contribution to my life; but his perceived contributions had been made on the basketball court, not in the classroom.

What is true of coaches also can be true for pastors. I have known pastors of large congregations who focused their ministries on a select group of influential families in the church. While many in the congregation where touched by the pastors’ sermons and may have made life-changing decisions under the pastors’ ministries, the pastors often viewed the significance of their ministries as what was achieved in their close relationships with key leaders. This is not necessarily an intentional exclusiveness; it is a realistic limitation fixed by the complexity of ministry to large bodies of people. The people in whom the pastor invests time, energy, and personal ministry often are viewed as the primary criteria for measuring ministerial success.

Several years after I had left Crothersville and a five-and-a-half-year ministry there, I was invited by the current pastor (who had been one of my students at Campbell University) to return. Following the morning worship service, a young woman with two children in tow came up and excitedly greeted me. I had ministered to her and her family when a pregnancy led her to a hasty marriage to her boy friend and when her first child developed meningitis. In those days, doctor’s had to wait several days for tests to reveal whether the meningitis was bacterial or viral. Because my wife and I also had small children at that time, this young woman and her parents were reluctant for me to visit her and her baby in the hospital and possibly expose myself to meningitis that might be passed on to my children. I felt that, as a minister, I should give them all the ministry that I could, including robing and masking up and visiting in the quarantined hospital room. We all were thankful when the test results later revealed that the meningitis was the less dangerous type; but my willingness to minister in a potentially risky situation cemented a close bond with this family.

The youngest child in this family was a boy who had played on my Little League team. He and I had developed a close bond during the summer when I was his coach and our team came together so well in challenging the top team in the championship game. When this young woman and her children approached me at church that Sunday, my first thought was, “This is the sister of my former Little League player!” Because of my investment of time and energy in that baseball team, at that moment I forgot the pastoral role I had played and the ministerial bond that I had formed with this women and her family. I spent my few moments visiting with her probing for information about her brother. Only later did I sense that I had shown the same insensitivity to her that my coach-math teacher would show for me years later. I had communicated to her that my coach relationship with her brother was more significant to me than my pastoral relationship with her, her children, and her parents.

Maybe if pastors saw their roles more like coaches, they would sense a deeper bond with their parishioners as they invest time and energy in the ministries of team building, skill development, life coaching, play calling, sacrificing to advance players to the next base, overcoming obstacles, and fighting to the finish to avoid defeat. I’m afraid I made this connection too late in my ministry; but maybe others will learn that pastoring and coaching share a lot in common.

1 comment:

  1. I have reconnected with the young woman mentioned in this post to express my concern about the way I allowed the coach in me to over-ride the pastor in me. We had a wonderful chat catching up on all that has happened in the 30+ years since we last met. She did correct one aspect of my recollection. The baby with meningitis actually was her sister, a late arrival for her parents. The sister actually was younger than her oldest child. It still was a ministry opportunity within the family, but I had forgotten about this late child of her mother.