Pastoral Coaching
January 6, 2021

I’m tempted to answer Jordan Haddad’s good-naturedly critical response to my article on Alabama football by pointing to Saturday’s scoreboard.

Pointing to the score should quiet any doubts – if such exist – about Alabama’s Augustinian appreciation of the ends of football, though that gesture might reinforce Haddad’s worries about triumphalism and consequentialism, not to mention Tide fans’ reputation for arrogance.

I’m tempted also to suggest Haddad’s wishes were granted on Saturday, when Notre Dame demonstrated, once again, its commitment to Vatican II and its fidelity to the suffering God. But that would be mean-spirited.

No, best to leave Saturday’s score unmentioned.

Haddad gives me the opportunity to correct/clarify an ambiguity at the heart of my original essay. I said Nick Saban’s catechetical and liturgical coaching is rooted ultimately in his Catholic convictions. It would have been more accurate for me to say that Saban’s coaching has a formal resemblance to Catholicism. Haddad may well be right that the Catholic form is filled with a Stoic or (horror of horrors!) a Protestant ethos.

I love watching sports, perhaps more than I should. But my interest in Alabama football goes beyond fandom and pride in my home state. I’m intrigued by leadership and success, especially leadership and success that endures through time.

What kind of magic do coaches like Saban, or John Wooden, or Red Auerbach, or Mike Krzyzewski, or Vince Lombardi have? How do they train and motivate players to reach and apparently exceed their potential? How do they sustain success year after year?

Haddad is right that one key is learning how to handle defeat. How do you recover when you give everything you have, and the other team is just better, or when you give everything and a few things break against you?

I like the way Tony Bennett – another of my favorite coaches – put it after his UVA Cavaliers were humiliated by Gonzaga recently: “We needed that.” The bitterest medicine is often the most salubrious.

I’m curious about coaching partly because I think some of what coaches do transfers to church leadership. Like coaches, pastors coordinate a group of people toward accomplishing a mission.

To do that, pastors need to set clear aims, train and motivate members, persuade them they will be victorious, deploy members to particular ministries, and teach them how to mature through loss and defeat.

Of course, coaching and pastoral care aren’t identical. You can’t cut or bench church members, though plenty are bench-riders all on their own. Life doesn’t take place within the measured confines of a 100-yard field. There aren’t officials at the ready to make sure everyone plays fair.

But the analogies are worth contemplating. Pastoral care has been evacuated and emasculated by its drift into therapy. Churches will be far healthier when pastors begin to think of themselves as coaches, and learn what they can from those who coach well.

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