A Lesson from the Coach

Tuesday, up to Nashville and back, via Southwest Airlines. Met with some of our best friends at Lifeway to discuss future support for our Baptist work here. Nothing to announce yet.

In the airport, standing in line to board for the return trip, Karen Campbell introduced herself. She and husband Kelly are NAMB missionaries to Appalachia in East Tennessee and Karen has been volunteering in the office of Operation NOAH Rebuild. She’ll be here for 10 days this time. Where are you staying? In an RV there at the office. How will you get there tonight? Steve and Dianne Gahagan are picking me up. Where is Kelly? Representing us at a church meeting in Columbia, TN.

And now a few words about the new New Orleans Saints.

It’s not so much that the team is 5-1 on the year so far. And it’s not just that the Saints beat big-time rival Atlanta on our first time back in the Dome and last Sunday, the powerhouse Philadelphia Eagles. The fact is the team was 5-1 just four years ago, in 2002 (before losing the final three games of the season and failing to make the playoffs). And in 1991, they started the season with a straight 7 wins (and, as I recall, got knocked out of the playoffs in the first game). But there’s something very special about the team this year.

Coach Sean Payton is not like any coach we’ve ever had. A front page article in Tuesday’s Times-Picayune elaborates on just how he is different. What this tells us about Coach Payton is a something I wish every pastor in America would take note of.


Less than 24 hours before the Philadelphia Eagles game, Payton was focused. And energized. And committed. But not about football. He had a young visitor and his family in his Metairie office. Eight-year-old Cameron Steib of Thibodaux has been diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular disease which breaks down the central nervous system. The prognosis is not good. The child is a big Saints fan. Through “A Child’s Wish” program, Cameron received tickets to Sunday’s game, got to visit the Saints on Saturday, and so on. But that was not enough for Coach Payton.

The coach picked Cameron up and took him into the locker room. There, the coach gave a speech to his players, then everyone knelt and prayed. They gave Cameron the game ball. Later, the coach retrieved several other footballs for Cameron’s siblings.

As the saying goes, we’ve never seen it like that around here before.

Observers call Coach Sean Payton the ambassador for this team. On the chartered plane before and after the games, he walks up and down the aisles meeting the corporate sponsors who were invited to ride along. A simple enough thing, but something no coach has ever done before.

Last Sunday when the game ended, Payton did not run off the field into the locker room. He walked over to the stands and went up and down shaking hands with the fans, thanking them for their support.

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis says, “I’ve never seen a coach go and high-five the fans. I’ve never seen that. Sean is excited for the city and our fans.”

After the sales staff sold out the Superdome for all home games this year, a first, we are told, Payton walked into the ticket offices to shake hands and congratulate everyone for a great job.

The personal touch. This city has been so used to coaches being remote and having time only for their team and resenting all intrusions that such a simple thing as stopping to shake hands is reaping big dividends in good will. Because…

Because, make no mistake about this–the team will not always begin 5-1. Even Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi had mediocre seasons. Sean Payton will, too, if the law of averages prevails. They will lose some games they were projected to win. And injuries will put a halt to a promising season. It’s the way life is. But Payton is building up deep reservoirs of support and loyalty to take the team through the rough spots ahead.

Have you ever known a pastor who did not know the names of his members? (Or anyone else for that matter.) I’ll not call any names here–pun intended–but I’ve known several. One in Tupelo called everyone “Brother.” One in South Alabama would pass you by on the sidewalk and not even speak. And yet, my personal observation is that these were two of the nicest guys on the planet. So what happened? They may have been laboring under the delusion that the only thing that mattered was what they did in the pulpit on Sundays. Bad, bad mistake.

“He (the shepherd) calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3)

The word “pastor” is the word “shepherd.” Not “like” the word shepherd, but the same word. The Spanish church where our pastors meet each Wednesday through October is El Buen Pastor Iglesia Bautista. The Good Shepherd Baptist Church.

A pastor needs to know people’s names, to call them by name, and to take time for them. My longtime friends Bill and Carolyn Self of Atlanta once wrote a book about pastoral hospitality in the church. They say when you have a banquet at the church, the pastor should not be seated at a head table like some kind of potentate. He ought to don an apron and spend the evening circulating among the guests, serving, pouring tea, greeting people, welcoming them, making them feel at home. You’re the host. It’s your job.

“Well, Joe, that’s easy for you to say. You’re good at names. I’m not.”

Yeah, right. Let me tell you a story.

Late in 1967, I went from South Louisiana to pastor Emmanuel Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi. A seminary classmate-turned-evangelist, James Denton Watson, had just preached a revival at Emmanuel that was so well received, I invited him back for the next Fall. Twelve months after the first meeting, he walked into our church and began calling people by name. I was stunned.

I said, “James, how many revivals have you held since you were here last?” The answer was around 35 or more. I said, “How can you remember our people’s names?” All he would say was, “I work at it.”

Not long after, Pastor Gene Brock–another classmate–invited me down to FBC of Edison, Georgia, for a revival meeting. Toward the end of the week, I was addressing every person in the church by their names. Gene was impressed. “How do you do that?” I just smiled and said, “I work at it.” Which I did, spurred on by my friend James Watson.

That’s how it’s done. You have to work at it. That’s the very reason no lazy pastor will ever attempt it. (Sorry, guys, but it’s the truth.)

When you first meet people, learn their names. Ask them to repeat it, twice if necessary. Say it after them. Remember it when you get home. Go over your church directory and pray for the members. When you’re sitting in a committee, while someone else is speaking, silently go around the room calling everyone’s names to yourself. Then in the meeting, call them by name. While you’re sitting on the platform, scan the congregation and call people’s names to yourself. At the exits as they come by to tell you what a magnificent sermon you preached today, call them by name. And expect…

Expect that sometimes you will get a name wrong. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s the price of trying to call everyone by name. Think of it as a test to see how much you really want to connect with people. The faint-hearted will think only of themselves and after an embarrassment or two, will revert to calling others “brother” or “hi there.” Anything to save the fragile ego.

Last Wednesday at our pastors meeting, I introduced Professor Doctor Asa Sphar. And I called it “sfar.” Just the way it’s written and exactly the way I’ve called it for the past five years. As he stood to speak, he said, “It’s Spar. The ‘h’ is silent.” I said, “The ‘h’ is silent? I’ve been mispronouncing your name for all this time?” I started to say, half-seriously, “Would you like to change the pronunciation to ‘Sfar’ just so I won’t be embarrassed?” But I didn’t. He is a class act and went on with his address to our group.

That’s what you do. You get it wrong sometimes. But it’s worth it.

Learn names, pastor. Shake hands. Take time. Do not be put off by some calloused preacher who has lost his focus calling it “drinking pink tea with the little old ladies.” It’s doing the work of a shepherd. And if God called you as a pastor, He intends that you spend time with the flock and got to know them.

The congregation is having a picnic at a local park and they get up a softball game? All the bells should be going off, pastor. This is for you. It has your name written all over it. Get out there. Enjoy the fun. Call to the batter, “Come on, Erin–get a hit.” Brag on the pitcher. Call “good catch” to the outfield. And when a batter comes up you do not know, ask someone near you for her name, then call encouragement to her.

The back of my neck is still sunburned from last Saturday’s game at the Delta Playground, and I’m not even the pastor. But these are my friends and besides, my son and grandchildren were playing.

A football coach could teach a lot of preachers about human relations.

(I invite you to scroll down to the end of this article at www.joemckeever.com and leave your own techniques for learning and remembering names. You could help a lot of the rest of us.)

Speaking of football coaches, my friend Richard Leach at NAMB has asked twice if I’ve read Holtz’ new book, “Wins, Losses, and Lessons.” I’m now about halfway through.

Holtz–a legendary football coach at Arkansas, Notre Dame, South Carolina, and other places, now a television broadcaster and motivational speaker, and a character if God ever invented one–quotes the golfer Ben Hogan. “Playing a tournament is almost an anticlimax. Tournaments are won and lost in preparation. Playing them is just going through the motions.”

I circled that in my book and made a mental note. It’s a good thing for us ministers to remember about preachng and doing the work of preparation–the study, the prayer, the hard thinking, the practicing.

Then, a night or two after finding that great line, I picked up my bedtime reading, “The Eagle and The Rising Sun,” about the Japanese-American war 1941-45, and ran across this quote from Admiral Chester Nimitz. During the late 1930s, Nimitz would lead in war games at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He later recalled that in these battle practices, Japan was always the enemy. “And the courses were so thorough, that after the start of World War II, nothing that happened in the Pacific was strange or unexpected.”

Coming at me from two vastly different sources like that, one might think that Someone is sending me a message about preparation.

I know how to recognize a Holy Spirit nudge when I get one.

(A funny note. Years ago, my dad paid ten bucks or so for one of these printouts of the McKeever coat of arms or whatever they call it. It showed a boar’s head and a motto. We laughed at the boar’s head thinking of all those hogs we had slaughtered and dressed and consumed on the farm and how appropriate that was. But it was the motto that caused the most conversation: “Never unprepared.” We decided that our family must have been Boy Scouts in the distant past. Either that, or God knew this Irish clan needed a special nudge toward preparedness and inserted the instructions in the crest.)

You can learn a lot about life from some coaches and the occasional admiral. But mostly the believer learns from the Holy Spirit, the One who calls these lessons to mind in the first place.

5 thoughts on “A Lesson from the Coach

  1. Joe

    Steve and I have been trying our best to recall names of the people that we interact with. A few months ago, the captain of a Burmese ship invited us to have dinner with him. A couple of days later he called again to request transportation for his crew and I was able to ask him if this was Captain Sol Bein? He was amazed that I remembered his name and was so grateful. It stressed to me so much the fact that people feel honored when you take the time to remember their names.

  2. Joe, great observation about Coach Payton! He clearly demonstrates what Jim Collins calls “Level 5 Leadership”. In the groundbreaking leadership book, “Good To Great”, Jim Collins defines the Level 5 CEO in this way: The Level 5 Leader builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. In the book, Good To Great, leading every GREAT company he identified, was a Level 5 Leader. Sure looks like you have one there in Coach Payton. BTW, the greatest Level 5 Leader there ever was, of course, was The Lord Jesus.

    Sure wish my team (the Buffalo Bills)had a “Sean Payton”!

  3. Joe,

    Thanks for the post. I try hard to remember names, but as our church has grown from 1,200 to 1,700 members in seven years, it gets harder. But I still try. It helps that I call all of the visitors from Sunday on Monday night and try to set up appointments for visitation. People are amazed that the pastor called. Then later when they join the church, it’s easier to remember their names.

  4. Thanks for the reminder about the imnportance of remembering names. I’m still working at it! I tell people whose name I am trying to learn that if they will tell me their name the first three times we meet I promise never to forget it! That puts it “on me” to remember. I also find that if I will say my name when shakig someone’s hand that they usually give me theirs back. Then I create one of those mental files for that person. A story: I was preachig in one of our churches yesterdeay (22 October) and since I didn’t know many of the people, I used my hand saking routine in hopes they would share their name with me. I must have shaken a dozen hands and shared my name, my wife’s name as I introduced them to her, and you know what? Not one of them reciprocated by sharing their name!This church doesn’t reach many people! Now I know why!

  5. From Readers Digest: A waitress was assigned a table of sixteen, all of whom requested individual checks. To make it easier, she wrote a short description in pencil at the top of each check. At the end of the meal prior to handing out the checks she carefully erased each desription prior to handing each person their check. Being shorthanded, she also ended up at the cashiers station checking people out as they left . Things were going great until the last guy who handed her his chech with a smile and said ,” hi, I’m fat man”.