Leadership Lessons from Little League

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Well, spring has finally showed up, the boys of summer are hitting the field, and the smell of popcorn and hotdogs is in the air...

'Tis the season for summer athletics around the country (and it seems like a good time to revisit an old lesson).

For 10 years, I had the opportunity to serve as the Vice-President of a youth league and chaplain of Tennessee Dizzy Dean Baseball and Scenic City Football. During that time, I had the opportunity to coach some incredible athletes, some inspirational kids, and more teams than I can count. Through those years, there were many experiences that taught me life lessons and helped me develop leadership characteristics. Here are a few of the lessons I have learned through little league that can also relate to life and ministry today.

1. A leader is only as good as the people on their team.

I have coached all three of my sons. I have coached my oldest son since he was 5 years old. Now at 16, he has matured into an outstanding football player. Being the coach of his team of talented athletes was an honor, as we won almost every game and always strove to play our best. This team won multiple championships, had various newspaper articles written about them, and attained many other accolades.

And me? I thought I was the greatest coach of all time! 

The truth is, the Lord blessed me with some incredible talent during those years, with more than a dozen of those young men becoming exceptional players in high school and,  subsequently, have many college programs interested in them.

My oldest eventually went to middle school and began playing school ball, which allowed me to start over coaching my seven year old. At this time, the local park had undergone some major changes and the quantity of players was sparse to pick from. Quickly, I realized that the drills, playbook, and skill to motivate did not work the same with this team as it did with my oldest son's. A local high school coach once told me, “Pastor Ronnie, it’s not X’s and O’s, but Jimmys and Joes”. This new team learned differently, but battled nonetheless, and in their last 2 years got to play in the “A” bracket instead of the “B” bracket where they started. I was joyful seeing the growth in these kids, and watched players most would consider "underrated" blossom into real football players. I began to understand that coaching was more about transforming lives, not seeking plastic trophies. There are coaches who will cheat, steal players, and bend rules for that plastic trophy, just hoping little Johnny will be the next Peyton Manning. In all honesty, a person has a better chance of winning the lottery than playing pro ball, but as adults that did not achieve our dreams, we often want to live our lives over again through our children. We must keep the right perspective and understand there are more important things in life. What is more important to you: plastic trophies for your child or seeing them live their life for Christ?

This same principle can be applied in ministry: a pastor is only as good as the people that he gets to serve each week. I’ve learned to never judge a servant of God by the size of the congregation, their bank account, education, building, or the accolades they receive. I am a strong believer in honor and working hard to be successful, but Jesus gave us His model for success while summarizing the Ten Commandments (see Mark 12:30-31).

Jesus also teaches us that those who lose or suffer in this life will one day be crowned as winners, so be careful not to boast about what you have on this earth (see 1 Peter 4:12-14).

2. One negative individual can ruin the unity of the entire team.

Out of the 30+ teams that I have coached, there is always one player, parent, or assistant coach that attempts to undermine the plan of the coach. Unfortunately, we see this in the church and in corporate America as well. The difference is that a company can fire a troublesome employee, but in the Church, we have to respond differently. As in Little League, those of us in the Church should respond with patience and love. Jesus had twelve disciples, yet one sabotaged, marginalized, and eventually betrayed him. There will always be that one individual that tries to ruin the experience for everyone else. These types of people are focused on their own personal agenda, and making sure the leader is serving that self-centered agenda. If they are not getting praised by the ones in leadership, then they will quickly leave them and begin to criticize and deceive those they have influence over.

Paul told the church in Corinth and the church in Ephesus the following...

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. ~ 1 Corinthians 1:10

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ~ Ephesians 4:1-3

Jesus prayed in John 17 that his disciples would become “one”. Teams, churches, organizations, and political parties that become “one” will accomplish their goals and achieve new heights! If Abba’s House is going to be the church God has called us to be, then we have to work as a team in unity... regardless of our differences.

3. Development takes hard work and lots of repetition.

A team cannot be great without a good coach that helps them run drills and plays, and conditions them through repetition until their moves become second nature. In the Kingdom of God, we call this discipleship. Churches have been so focused on decisions for Christ that we have failed to implement discipleship programs. A new Christian needs to be taught how to live, study the Bible, pray, and persevere when times get tough; this will take consistency in devotion and being held accountable through discipleship (see Matthew 28:18-20). Churches often function in dysfunction as individuals operate out of emotion instead of being led by the Spirit. This may lead to good feelings, but we need to be operating under Godly principles. Jesus didn’t tell us to go get rich, brag on our numbers, or collect plastic trophies; he told us to make disciples.

Even when it is hard, we must invest in people and help each other grow. I want to apologize for times I have not done this for others around me.

The book of Acts tells us that the first church “devoted themselves” to teaching, fellowship, and the ordinances of the church. Devotion is key to an organization winning in their realm of influence. Devotion means to put in the time to reach your goal; as a team, we must all be involved.

4. Leaders build. Losers Run.

Losers Run. Let me explain this. True leaders (pastors, business owners, executives) can build a dynasty right where they are. The popular saying,  “if you can’t beat them join them” is nowhere in the Bible. God has called each of us to shine in our area of influence. Coach Bobby Bowden (my hero) did that at Florida State University. They had no money for scholarships or stadium improvements, but he gave them 34 years of devotion. He had some tough seasons, but he stayed the course and went down in history as the only coach to finish in the Top Five 14 years in a row. Bobby Cox did this for the Atlanta Braves. Many kids today have been a part of at least 5 organizations before they are ten years old. Sometimes it is necessary, but so many times the reason lies in a disgruntled parent that can’t get their way. This teaches little Johnny that he can run from situations he does not agree with until he finds somewhere that gives him his way.  I wouldn’t recommend anyone staying in a toxic or abusive environment, but in real life, you will work for unfair people, be on bad teams, not get your way, and have to deal with decisions you don’t agree with. This is called LIFE and it is not fair. I try to teach my boys the principle that, if you persevere, it will pay off in the long run. I have worked for men, women, Republicans, Democrats, and non-believers. I loved some and disliked others. I didn’t run. I made it through.

We see this in churches all too often. So many pastors want to run when the going gets tough and things don't happen right away. Likewise, many members are more loyal to their agenda or an individual than the vision of the organization.

Leaders stay and build a legacy. Losers run from responsibility for less accountability. True leaders aren’t afraid to work with what they’ve got. My father has always taught me to work with the people God has given me, and when I need new giftings, then to trust that God will provide for me. Success is more meaningful when you didn’t take a shortcut to get there. Be great where you are! Be great at what you do! Be the same with twelve people as you are with 12,000. God is watching what kind of legacy you are leaving.

One generation shall praise Your works to another,
And shall declare Your mighty acts.
 ~ Psalms 145:4

A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children,
But the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.
Proverbs 13:22

5. Great Teams Finish!

A true leader takes advantage of every second and knows how to meet deadlines. A team with the right pieces must finish the race. Just because you have a lead, a great team, or an advantage doesn’t mean you will win in the end. You must FINISH! Paul finished his race...

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. ~ 2 Timothy 4:6-8

I encourage you... to run your race that has been set before you! God has a race marked out for you and only you --- THAT is the race you must run! That is the race you must FINISH! Are you ready?

On your mark... get set... GO!

God Bless,

Dr. Ronnie Phillips, Jr.