By Joe McKeever
“Now, team, this is a football!” (Said to have been an opening statement from legendary coach Vince Lombardi after his team’s devastating loss the previous day.)
Coach Dabo Sweeney sits in the catbird seat. As his team, the Clemson University Tigers, sits atop the latest football poll–making them number one in the nation–they are preparing to face the tough Miami Hurricanes this weekend. Survive that, as they probably will, and Clemson will be set for the championship playoff, two games to decide the final ranking of the 2017 season.
This morning on ESPN’s “Golic and Wingo,” Sweeney was asked how he gets players not long out of high school ready to face these tough challenges. He said two things worth our consideration:
“I start over every year.” “I try to get buy-in.”
A college coach trains his leadership just the way he wants them. Finally, about the time they are functioning at peak level, they graduate. A new group of freshmen comes in and the coach has to start over.
A coach does, however, have a sizeable cluster of sophomores and juniors who have heard all this before. Presumably, they are already on board with the coach’s lessons and will need little prepping.
But “I start over every year,” said Coach Sweeney.
He doesn’t assume anything. He presumes nothing.
At some point, after working with the athletes, fresh newcomers and seasoned veterans, Coach Sweeney “tries to get buy-in.” Which is to say, he asks each one to commit to this system, to do things the Clemson way, to trust their coaches, to run the plays they are given, to follow the regimen prescribed. Hold-outs, those reserving the right to pass judgment on every decision of the coach, are obstacles and of no help to any team.
What does this ‘buy-in’ look like? No coach will be extending an altar call, asking people to “make a decision” or sign a commitment card. It’s stronger than that.
The coach is looking for results. For effectiveness on the field and proper behavior off it. That’s how he and his team of assistant coaches know whether they have gotten their message across and the players are on board.
Getting buy-in. A big, big deal.
“For this purpose I wrote to you,” said the Apostle to the church at Corinth, “that I might know the proof of you, whether you are obedient to all things” (2 Corinthians 2:9).
A good coach knows in a few minutes whether the team has bought into his system.
But how would “Starting Over and Buying In” work in the church?
How does one “start over” with a congregation every year? The pastor has been there a dozen years, perhaps. He knows his people. They understand how he operates. They’ve settled down into a comfortable co-existence. And they assume things about each other.
There’s the problem, of course–assuming things about the congregation, assuming things about the pastor.
–As with the college coach, the pastor has new people on his team every year. They have not heard his story, do not know his philosophy, have no understanding of “how things get done around here.”
–And as with the coach, some of those who were on the team last year need to be shown again that “this way is the right way.” They need to be won over again. (And not RUN over. They need no strong-arm tactics, no “my way or the highway.”)
What we teach each new incoming class (and the rest of the church)…
Which all raises a question, pastor. Exactly what is your way? What is it you want all the new people to know and understand? What rock-solid principles do you want to keep before the veterans and seasoned workers? What exactly are you asking them to buy into?
Every pastor has core values and beliefs and standards and “ways.” And we are not talking about gospel verities, kingdom values, or essential doctrines. We are not talking about “saved by grace” and “the integrity of Scripture.” Those should be eternal principles that do not vary from pastor to pastor.
The pastor’s system is what the church got when he came as pastor. The pastor’s system is how he believes church should be done and how he plans to be leading the congregation. Sitting down and thinking through how he operates and how he wants things done can be a refreshing few hours for a pastor who has never given thought to this before. He might come up with things such as…
–“We’re all going to be servants. There will be no big-shots in this church, not one person who sits behind the desk and issues orders. We are followers of the One who said ‘I am among you as One who serves.’ So, look for every to be a laborer in the Lord’s vineyard.” He wants the staff ministers out of the office and into the community.
–“We’re going to be accountable to one another.” No one gets a free pass.
–“We believe in transparency. We do not make decisions in secret and have plans and procedures no one knows about. We will have periodic meetings in which the congregation can ask anything of any of us. Our Lord Jesus said, ‘Everything I had to say, I said in the open. You may ask anyone who heard me what I teach.’” (That’s the gist of John 18:20-21.)
–“If you want a question answered, ask it.” We will have no rumor mills in this church. We will strive to be open and honest in all we do.
–“No pastor likes surprises. So, staff members should always stay close to their leadership.”
That’s the idea. I can think of fifty more “things” to add to this list, but that’s not the point. The point is for you the pastor to figure out the dozen or so most important principles by which you believe God’s church should be functioning. These you keep before the staff (ministerial staff, office staff, etc) and constantly teach and reinforce with the congregation.
Why a dozen? Because any more and the list becomes cumbersome, unmanageable, hard to remember. If you can boil the list down further, that’s even better.
In order to sell them to the workers, the wise pastor finds ways to illustrate them, and reminds the team of the list occasionally. He makes opportunities for the staff to discuss the points openly, and does not assume acquiescence because of their silence. Only faithfulness indicates buy-in to his program and his methodologies.
And holdouts are not helping the program!
By holdouts in the church, we mean people who sit in judgement on everything the pastor does, criticize every decision he makes, and hold themselves up as some kind of super-spiritual inspectors whose job it is to keep the preacher honest.
They think they’re being faithful, I expect. But they are an albatross around the pastor’s neck.
Yes, there is indeed a function of godly people to “examine the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11). But there is a limit to this. Once a pastor is found to be faithful and his teachings in line with the Word, that he can be trusted with doctrine and people and finances, we should sit at his feet and learn all we can. We should get behind him and follow his leadership without second-guessing his every decision.
No Monday-morning quarterbacking allowed either. Give him some slack–room to succeed and room to err–without the “alumni” threatening to withdraw funds from the program or fans cancelling their season tickets.
Personally, I say to anyone who will listen, my pastor is going to get all I can give him. I do this for Jesus’ sake.
And what if you are the new pastor?
If you are new with this congregation, the membership is like the incoming freshman class and completely in the dark on how you do things. The most foolish thing you could ever do, the most destructive to the church and least helpful to your ministry, would be to start issuing pronouncements on “how we’re going to be doing things around here from now on.” Do that and your ministry will go south quickly and may not survive the trip.
You have to start fresh with your new congregation. They want to know who you are and how you do things. You must not assume the pastor search committee, as faithful as they were, took care of this for you. This is your job. So, you will be informing the church through sermons and conversations, in committees and deacons and in print, on core values (see above for examples) on “how I believe God wants His church to operate.”
Your job is to win them over, pastor.
They will show their buy-in by their response.
Thanks to the Clemson coach for a great lesson.
Joe McKeever is a retired pastor and former director of missions for New Orleans Baptist Association. This editorial first appeared in Joe McKeever’s blog, which can be accessed here.