Coaches Like Dabo Swinney and Mark Richt Can Teach the Church How to Build Spiritual Leaders

Head coaches Mark Richt and Dabo Swinney chat before the Georgia game

Dabo Sweeney and Mark Richt stand out in the world of college football. The two coaches know the game through and through. They’re gifted leaders and unusually effective at recruiting and motivating young athletes. Both have been successful at every stop of their coaching careers. But they have something else going for them that rises above whatever they’ve accomplished professionally. For them, Jesus is more important than anything else.


Dabo’s Clemson Tigers won the National Championship in January (here’s a previous post about that game called “The Secret to Clemson’s National Championship”) and Richt’s record at the University of Georgia and now at Miami is among college football’s best. The two have excelled in one of the most cut-throat businesses in America while demonstrating an authentic and engaging faith. That’s not easy to do.


I’m impressed by the coaches’ witness for its own sake but can’t help wondering what their example may teach about leadership development in the church. Congregations today have many high-achieving people who are faithful church members but somehow haven’t been able to translate spiritual maturity into effective witness at work. It’s not that they’re hypocrites, it’s just that they’ve unwittingly been taught to keep those two worlds separate. Our message as church leaders has often been a Vegas-like appeal: what happens in church stays in church and what happens at the job stays at the job.


How can the church help our people learn to be spiritual leaders in the demanding—and at times hostile—secular work environment?


Dabo and Richt show that the two worlds of church and work aren’t separate at all and force us to answer a question basic to the biblical call of discipleship: How can the church help our people learn to be spiritual leaders in the demanding—and at times hostile—secular work environment?


The answer comes down to the environment we create at church and the expectations we have of our members. While it’s foolish to think a program or a Bible study can somehow manufacture high-achieving professionals who are also passionate witnesses for Jesus (only the Holy Spirit can do that), we can align our ministries along a different axis, one less focused on personal comfort and institutional needs and more along the line of spiritual challenge and personal responsibility.


So here are some suggestions to help churches raise up women and men—like Dabo and Richt—to be as effective in their spiritual leadership at work as they are successful in their chosen professions:


Focus on the distinctiveness of the faith. The people in the Bible who responded to Jesus’ call sacrificed their reputations, their families, their jobs, their national and even ethnic identities—all for the sake of the gospel. Their lives were so different from their society that they were called Christians—“little Christs.” When we blur that distinction out of a misguided desire to be acceptable to our culture, we erase the very reason for believing to begin with. Leaders know enough about themselves and the world that they want to invest in the full-blown faith of the Bible. Anything less isn’t worth their time or energy.


Build a culture of courage. Church culture today often defaults to pressure. Parents give in to children. Pastors give in to critics. Congregations submit to bullies. Denominations tailor their literature not to offend. Courage swims against that current. It motivates us to stay true to our convictions regardless of opposition. Nobody understands that better than coaches like Dabo and Richt. Both have been through the crucible of failure, criticism and nay-sayers; and been courageous enough to hold on to their vision until they saw success. We need to figure out a way of building that virtue into the fabric of congregational life, so that our people can see first- hand how their churches stand for something so important that they won’t back down or give in.


If we want to raise up spiritual leaders in the workplace, we’d better be prepared to give them a voice at church.


Make room for outsize personalities. People who achieve—I don’t just mean highly educated professionals but those in every walk of life, plumbers and mechanics as well as doctors and teachers—aren’t wallflowers. They tend instead to be decisive, driven and high-energy. They often have big personalities, loud opinions and an impatience with mediocrity. For churches accustomed to soft-spoken members who hate conflict and value peace more than results, these kinds of folks can be a shock. In fact, congregations often feel so threatened by outsize personalities that they push them out. If we want to raise up spiritual leaders in the workplace, we’d better be prepared to give them a voice at church.


These are just a few suggestions from my years as a local church pastor. The truth is, though, that while there’s no magic pill for building spiritual leaders in the workplace, Coach Dabo and Coach Richt give us hope that it can happen.

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