Why I Take Sports Illustrated

Not for the swimsuit issue. It came yesterday. Right now, it’s tied up inside a small grocery bag stuffed down inside the kitchen trash, to be set outside in garbage cans tomorrow morniing. Some images we just do not need in our home, and this is one of them.

I take Sports Illustrated for the same reason I subscribe to The New Yorker and TIME magazines: Once in a while a story, an insight, an incident, is so unforgettable it ends up becoming a part of how I think. And, often, it takes its place as the centerpiece in a sermon.

Case in point.

The February 13, 2012, issue of SI was devoted to the New York Giants’ Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots. Not having a favorite in that contest, I was only mildly interested, but did scan the articles.

In so doing, I found a keeper, a piece on the role debriefing played in changing the Giants from a 7-7 team, which is the very essence of average and was their record two weeks before the end of the season, into world champions.

Earlier in the season, Giants director of player personnel Charles Way brought in several fighter pilots from Afterburner, Inc., a corporate training company, to talk with the players on the value of debriefing sessions.

Pilots returning from missions build trust through sessions in whcih they sit in a room together, stripped of name and rank; each speaks openly about mistakes he made during the mission. Players also received a copy of a book by one of the pilots, James D. Murphy, the title of which expressed the ultimate goal, “Flawless Execution.”

As a result of this, quarterback Eli Manning and defensive end Justin Tuck began leading debriefing sessions for offensive and defensive teams, respectively, the day following games.

Meetings lasted from 20 minutes to an hour.

Eli Manning said, “I wasn’t coaching anybody. I was just coaching myself, looking at what I needed to do better and telling everybody. Then everybody would talk about what they needed to do to improve.”

Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said, “There was a time there when we needed every single minute of the debriefing. It wasn’t about calling people out. It was an opportunity to see everybody hold themselves accountable. The big part of why we’re here is that fingers don’t get pointed. These kind of teams don’t come along very often.”

The question is whether there is something there for leadership teams in churches.

And, I’m not sure I know the answer.

What I do know is that the story of the Giants’ debriefing sessions will not leave me alone, normally an indication the Holy Spirit is sending me something with a wider application than football.

Several thoughts….

1. Church staffs are not football teams.

We need to say that up front before someone dismisses all this for that reason.

However, there are enough similarities to warrant a comparison at what happens on the field and in the worship service.

Those 11 men on the field have to work as a unit, whether they are the defensive or offensive squad. They have one leader, a particular play in which each person has a specific assignment, and one goal. Ten men on offense work to make one man successful: the guy with the ball. Eleven men on defense work to stop the other team’s offense.

Are we able to say all members of the worship team are working to make one man effective (that would be the pastor when he preaches)? Yes and no. What a music minister does has validity and worth in its own right, regardless of what the preacher does when he comes to the pulpit.

In another sense, it should all work together as a unit. The student minister’s labors with the youth, the children’s leadership with the kids and their workers, everyone should be on the same page. When all are working in harmony–hitting on all cylinders we sometimes say–each person’s work will be enhanced, each one will be more effective than otherwise, and yes, when the preacher stands to open the Word and deliver the message, he will be far more likely to “put it in the end zone.”

2. There is great value to church leaders analyzing what they did on Sunday in order to improve.

I would hate to think that a football team is more driven to excellence than a God-called team of men and women assigned to lead a church for Jesus’ sake.

Monday morning analyses works best when the leadership team members are all full-time and show up in the church office each day. In the case of an all-volunteer (or mixed volunteer/part-time) leadership team, they have to get creative in finding a time and place to meet.

Two big questions dominate such a gathering: a) What did we do right/wrong yesterday? and b) how can we do better next week?

I can hear it now. You the reader are saying to yourself, “Not going to happen in my church. Too many egos. There’s no way we could sit in a session and tell the pastor what we found wrong in yesterday’s sermon.”

Correct. That’s why you’re not going to do that.

Go back and read the Sports Illustrated item. They did not sit in a circle and tell the QB what he did wrong yesterday. This did not degenerate into a blame session, what players refer to as “calling someone out.”

It’s about analyzing your own performance: How did I do, what did I do right/wrong, and what am I trying to improve? It’s about admitting such before your peers and committing yourself to do better with them as your witnesses. And, it’s about them doing likewise.

Let’s be honest. Most church leadership teams are not going to do this. The typical worship service involves two people doing all the “front” work, the music leader and the preacher. Everyone else works in support–running the sound, playing the keyboard, making an announcement, leading a prayer. Asking a support player, “What did you do wrong yesterday? And how are you trying to improve?” would draw blank stares. After all, I ran the sound perfectly, there was nothing wrong with my prayer, the announcement was delivered as well as it can be done. From there, it moves to a discussion of the choice of those particular hymns/choruses, the effectiveness of the preacher’s message on Jonah, and whether more people should aid the minister during the invitation time.

As we say, this is probably not going to happen in most churches. It can happen only in those rare instances where the staff is extremely highly motivated to make an everlasting difference for Jesus’ sake and to build a church that will touch the world for the Savior.

3. How would a debriefing session work in a church leadership team?

Specifics would vary according to each situation, but here are a few non-negotiables:

a) All rank and egos must be left outside.

If you can’t pull that off, if your staff insists that its hierarchy must be honored at all times, forget debriefing. This is only for the humble and Christlike who want to improve, not for those driven by ambition and egos who love the status quo.

How plain is that?

b) Each must elevate the standards for his own performance. “I can do it better.”

I will tell you categorically that pulpit prayers can be offered more effectively than what you did yesterday, announcements made better and sharper, hymns introduced more warmly and led more inspiringly, and sermons delivered more interestingly and powerfully.

Each has to decide whether “good enough” is good enough.

c) This may require the pastor to gradually build the kind of team that is willing subject itself to such an activity in order to improve.

New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton has an interesting philosophy about the kind of player he wants on his team. He will have no show-boater, no matter how effective he is on the field. Payton looks for players of great character who thrive on teamsmanship, rather than on their own individual statistics and reputations.

Pastors have to do this. Gradually, as staffers come and go, the wise leader builds his team according to his vision for the church and his plans for how to lead them. When interviewing possible staffers, he will end up rejecting some talented people, even godly men and women, who would not fit his vision.

d) A church staff trying to improve its Sunday contributions (I’m bending over backward not to say “performances”) will always need to be fluid, constantly trying new approaches, looking for keys of elevating their effectiveness. One hears a story and relates it, one discovers a principle and share it, and yes, one finds a book with some good points and buys copies for everyone on the team.

This means someone decides to go online to amazon.com or alibris.com and order “Flawless Execution” by James D. Murphy.

I know I am.

5 thoughts on “Why I Take Sports Illustrated

  1. This is very interesting and I intend to read it several times. I want to use it in our Sunday School Class as I believe it will help us to understand we all have specific responsibilities and the outcome depends on the way we all carry out those responsibilies. Thank you Bro. Joe

  2. Thanks for this article. I will be the one to buy the book and also suggest the reading of your article. I found one of your articles on crosswalk.com which prompted me to look up your website. I really enjoyed your point of view. I’m part of the worship team in my church & in my desire to truly worship, I overlook my shortfalls & do notice other’s lack. I know God is working with me. More than ever I’m overwhelmed with the studying on leadership, especifically from a biblical perspective. As a police detective I oversee 2 different youth programs and I sensed God has led me to this assignment to prepare me for something greater in ministry. With 2 years left until retirement, I sense an urgency on getting more preparation on leadership. Please, can you suggest good materials to read and study. I have no human mentor…But do have the Holy Spirit. Thank you

  3. Exceptional article, Dr. McKeever! Thanks for sharing this valuable church leadership principle with us. As a lead pastor, for the past eight years, my mantra has been “we can do better and we will do better.” Implementing the debriefing session will be one more tool which God can use to accomplish His vision for our leadership and our church. Many blessings and great grace to you, my dear friend!

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