Church leadership lessons from the Miami Heat (or, how I got comfortable with being a villain sometimes).
I love the NBA. I’ve been infatuated with this scrappy, selfless veteran line-up of Boston Celtics for the last few years. I want to love the Charlotte Bobcats and I’m trying—but this season they traded away their best player for something like a bag of cornmeal and a six-pack (perhaps there was a low rung pick in a perfectly uninteresting draft, but who can remember?). I do not love the Miami Heat, and will be delighted to see the Celtics KO them in 6 games in the second round of the playoffs (That’s prophecy baby—test me and see). But while I join most of America in hating on the Heat, I also learn about leadership and ministry from them.
As you recall, LeBron James raised the ire of not only the city of Cleveland but the free world when he defected from the capital of underdog blue collar sports to join Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. There was so much spectacle around LeBron’s “Decision” and the arena rock antics of the new Miami big three that public opinion turned nasty overnight. So the most celebrated, popular player in the NBA became Darth Vader, the Heat became the Empire, and they were treated like Nazis in every away game of 2011. When they faltered through the regular season and James and Wade displayed roughly the same chemistry of Screech and Lisa from TV’s Saved by the Bell, America loved it. Facing external and internal pressure to become an NBA dynasty in a matter of weeks, the caterpillar didn’t immediately become a butterfly—but then late season became a mutant butterfly with blood dripping from its fangs. The newly hated Heat didn’t get squeamish, they got badder. They started embracing the role of villains instead of complaining about it. In the words of a recent Sports Illustraed column by Ian Thomsen, “a full season of public berating has both hardened and liberated them.”
While I am unlikely even at 6’5 to dunk a basketball unless you put a bag of chocolate chip cookies on the rim, I relate to the Heat these days. I don’t know why I feel comfortable sharing this with you on the 2nd day of the new blog, but somehow I just feel safe with you, dear reader, and eager to share my heart. You see I was born with a rare genetic disorder called OnlyChildClarkKentBoyScoutNeedToPlease, an under reported disease that effects somewhere between a dozen and millions of people around the world. Symptoms include chronic niceness, regular constipation of actual feelings and nauseating sweetness. I used to confuse this disorder with what we in Christendom call “Christ-likeness” or even “anointing.”
Not to be misunderstood, the primary antidote for this disorder is abiding in Christ, prayer as natural as breathing and finding identity in the one who loved me and gave Himself for me. But there is no question that part of what God has used these last few years in my path to freedom has been a healthy dose of “berating that has both hardened and liberated me.” This is tricky to narrate, since that same remedy can cause church leaders to become bitter and cynical rather than free and strong. The treatment is as dangerous as the disease if the abiding part isn’t taken seriously. But it can work beautifully if taken in proper dosage and proper perspective.
I’m no martyr. I’ve not faced anything in my life worth complaining about compared to the afflictions faced by brothers and sisters around the world. But broadly speaking, here’s the highlight reel of transformation: The more I started operating in my calling, I started making the occasional enemy—all around the same time. I gave a speech at our denominational general assembly about women in ministry, where I said by way of example that the fact that my spiritual grandmother, Margaret Gaines, had been able to serve as regional overseer for our Church in the Middle East and could not serve on her local church council in America was hypocrisy. I had two ministers interrupt the speech asking our general overseer to censure me, people cheer and yell against me, and one brother who hollered out “somebody needs to hit that guy with a chair.” It was not “persecution,” but it was a turning point.
Around the same time, I preached a series at our church called “the Politics of Jesus.” It was election time, and the Church was wound up believing that we were about to either elect the messiah or the antichrist. I felt strongly moved to remind the body that as followers of Jesus, we believe He is already the King of the world. And thus our hopes should not either be realized or crushed by who got elected, because we have to live out the gospel of the kingdom everyday. I didn’t want anybody to be deceived into thinking that God’s only concern was what they did in the voting booth, when we have to live each moment for Him. So the whole series we talked about what it meant to live in such a way as to demonstrate that we really believe that Jesus is King. We talked about how, whatever you believe about what the governments of the nations should or should not do to help the poor and needy, WE AS THE CHURCH MUST care for those who are marginalized AND preach the gospel to them as the Church—being the Church is our primary task. To reinforce this, I brought in the aforementioned grandmother in the Lord one Sunday, Margaret Gaines, to talk to our Church about how God used her to change a Palestinian village in Aboud through the love of Christ. One Sunday morning in the series, we actually had the entire Church participate in a foot washing service to demonstrate that THIS is how Jesus has called us to change the world, through our humble service in His name. It was completely non-partisan and kingdom focused in every way—as my friends who have to come to Christ from all sides of the political spectrum from far right to far left affirmed repeatedly during the series. (Although in all fairness, it should be said that these individuals are all of the sort who engage in elitist practices like “reading” and “thinking” and “civil conversation”) We believed we couldn’t afford to let electoral politics become so consuming as to forget our mission to serve Jesus and the world in daily life.
Not controversial stuff—except for people who hear the word “politics” and believe that if you aren’t telling them who to vote for that you aren’t in the will of God. As we talked about how justice in Biblical terms means that the Church serves folks in need all around us no matter what governments do (and in doing so share the gospel of Christ), a preacher who I loved and admired deeply at least seemed to take a thinly veiled pot shot at me in a sermon (or so I perceived it, fairly or not—perhaps I was just being defensive and I think that’s important to say). “We’ve got preachers in this town talking about things like politics and justice,” he said. “I’m here to tell you IT’S ALL SIN, you should only be lifting up the blood-stained banner of Jesus Christ.” Whether or not I should have internalized this…I was heartbroken.
Silly or not, I felt baffled and hurt. I thought lifting up the blood stained banner of Jesus Christ in preaching salvation by the cross and giving a cup of cold water in his name was part and parcel of the same calling and should be integrated instead of separated. And if I would have had perhaps listened to Glenn Beck, himself part of a cultish offshoot of Christianity, instead of trying to define the word “justice” by using the words of this silly old Isaiah person back then, perhaps I would have known better to use the word justice in a deeply Biblical way—relating to how God’s people and not the world care for the widows, orphans and oppressed in their midst.
It was also the same year that I was mysteriously uninvited from a speaking event for the first and only time in my life. Again, I was baffled. Now I’m not only a pleaser but fanatical about Christian orthodoxy. I don’t want to say I’m one of the most orthodox preachers on the scene because that would seem pretentious, but I’ll put it this way: fragments of an early copy of the Apostles’ creed were once found in a stool sample I gave. At Renovatus we like to say that “We ARE your grandmother’s church. And your great grandmother’s church, and your great, great grandmother’s church.” We are quite intense about having continuity both with the historic church through the centuries as well as our fathers and mothers within this Pentecostal tradition of mine. So beyond stuff like foot washing, we recite the creed and the Lord’s prayer every week, and we keep worship and preaching of the gospel WAY out front in everything we do. That’s core to who we are and what we believe.
That’s the long way of saying I wasn’t use to wearing the black hat, and I was unnerved to be a villain to anybody then. But things were shifting. Since then I’ve had other important experiences—like being betrayed and dishonored by people I trusted deeply. I’ve had occasions to look certain people in the eye and say, “I really don’t think this is the right church for you. You need to go.”
And what I’ve learned is this—the very best thing that a Church in general and a leadership team in particular can experience is getting booed and jeered when you are playing in Philly against the 76ers on the road. When your team is tight and focused and on mission, when the preaching and goals are clear, adversity makes you lean and depend on each other more. The identity of the team is forged in the fires of adversity. Pastors and church leaders—unpopular decisions can be the mechanism God uses to set you and your church free. Your people don’t want you to agree with them nearly as much as you think they do. They want a strong, decisive man or woman of God who they can see has been with Jesus lead with the authority only God’s presence can bring. When you make a call they don’t necessarily like, they will respect you. You will be set free from the tyranny of public opinion by the terror of Sinai.
I’m not saying you should be controversial for the sake of being controversial—that’s immaturity. I’m not saying you should shock and awe for the sake of being edgy—that’s juvenile. I’m not saying you should go picking fights or trying to make trouble—that’s foolishness. What I am saying is that when you are faithful to what God tells you to do and you face some opposition, it will build you up and build unity on your team. As it was for Gideon, you will find out who is called to the battle with you and who might be called back to the house (in which case you better bless and not curse them).
What I am saying is that these days when the voices of opposition get loud and angry, I don’t get discouraged or depressed.
I get a triple double.