If Your Church’s Leadership Was a Sports Team

In Larry Osborne’s book, Sticky Teams, he used one of the greatest illustrations regarding ministry teams I have ever read. He equated ministry teams to different types of sports. The thought-provoking idea is how some ministry teams grow in size but never change to maintain effectiveness.

Here is a snippet from his excellent book.

I liken them to sports. As your church or ministry team grows, your game changes. Here’s what you can expect at each stage.

Track Star

The solo pastor can be compared to a track and field star. That’s where most of us start out, and many choose to stay. On the up side, the single-staff pastorate offers tremendous freedom. On the down side, it can be overwhelming and lonely.

Like the sprinter, the solo pastor may work out with others, but he performs alone—often without fanfare and usually before a small crowd peppered with family and friends.

Independent types love it. Sometimes the highly relational do, too, because the smaller church provides opportunity for deeper personal relationships.

The opposite can also happen, especially in a small church with a long history of ingrown relationships. The new pastor can be shut out, viewed by the members as an outsider.

Most solo leaders I’ve known want to be part of a team. They often pull together a group of lay leaders or close friends within the church to create a team.

Clubhouse Buddies

With growth comes the inevitable addition of a team member or two. Key leaders may be paid staff or lay members. Either way, the small leadership team of two to four resembles players on the golf course.

Golf is a highly relational game. So are these teams. Golf is most enjoyable when played with friends. And while it’s preferable that players have similar skills, a stroke a hole is no big deal among pals. The leisurely pace allows for extended conversation and camaraderie. It’s a major part of the game. Afterward, everyone is expected to hang around for a snack and a drink while debriefing that round and planning the next one.

For the highly relational pastor, a golf-size leadership team is the most enjoyable stage. The relationships are often deep, the sharing genuine, and the concern for one another goes far beyond the course. Doing what you like with people you like is hard to beat.

Playmakers and Scorers

As the team grows beyond a foursome, its relationships begin to resemble those found in basketball. More a team sport than a friendship sport, basketball depends upon working together, trusting one another, and sharing the ball.

No one expects everyone on a basketball team to be best friends. There are too many players for that. Some are stars and some are role players. It’s also played before a larger crowd.

The ministry team of five to twelve key leaders (whether paid or volunteer) is similar. Everyone is in the loop. They all know what the others are doing and are supposed to do. When the coach addresses the team, he speaks to everyone at once. There are few surprises.

During a basketball game, those who aren’t in the game watch those who are. Offense and defense involve everyone. Most players can play multiple positions. Changing positions for the good of the team is usually no big deal, a minor change in focus.

A winning team needs a star player or two. Given freedom to go one-on-one, these players can make or break the team. Adding or losing a star player can turn the season around.

While basketball teams do not have the same depth of relationships found on the golf course, the good ones have great esprit de corps. Everyone rides to the game in one van. The locker room is lively. Trash talk is half the fun.

Offense, Defense, Special teams

When the primary leadership team increases beyond 15, the game changes radically. More like a football team, the dynamics can be very uncomfortable for the golfer. And for those who still think they’re playing basketball, ministry can become confusing—and painful.

Football is a game of highly specialized roles. Few players are interchangeable. Guards seldom become quarterbacks. Teamwork is more important than one-on-one skill. In fact, a great athlete who freelances can mess up the entire game.

Football players don’t know what everyone else is doing. The offensive and defensive teams have different playbooks and different game plans. When not in the game, they may not even watch their teammates; they huddle with their unit and position coach to plan for the next series. Most players have to watch the game films to know what happened.

The sheer number of players and the distinctly different roles make camaraderie a challenge. While the basketball team rides everywhere together, the football team takes may take two buses.

For the members of a leadership team that once played basketball, this is a difficult adjustment. They may feel out of the loop and insignificant. Some won’t be able to make the change. Some won’t want to. But there is nothing they can do about it. The game has changed. The only question: Am I going to put on the pads, retire, or just stand here in my shorts and get run over?

Questions to Consider

Osborne’s concept is spot-on. I see many churches and ministries struggling because they don’t adapt to how they lead when growth comes. Without addressing these issues, the growth stops and decline happens soon after.

Here are some great questions to consider as a ministry team:

  • What type of sport describes us best right now?
  • Where were we 3 years ago?
  • Do you think we are about to change again?
  • How has growth complicated our leadership?
  • What needs to change so we can effectively lead during this season of ministry?