Being a sports fan and living in Africa has been a little complicated. Unfortunately, I have no affiliation for soccer - the most popular (or only?) sport for the majority of the world, including Mozambique. So, websites, podcasts and phone calls with my father-in-law have been the life-lines keeping me connected to the American sports scene.
One of my favorite NFL commentators was Mike Lombardi, who regularly appeared on Bill Simmons' podcast before taking a job in the Cleveland Browns' front office. Besides having a great football name (!), Lombardi used a number of memorable phrases on the podcast in evaluating the different teams.
I enjoy the way sports can make helpful connections to life and ministry and have written about connections between missions and baseball and basketball. Here, I wanted to share some thoughts about how Lombardi's diagnostic tools for football teams could serve to increase the effectiveness of cross-cultural mission teams.
A proverb - "Don't confuse hope for a plan."
This is my favorite Lombardi-ism. He would often talk about football teams whose whole strategies or long-term vision would be based on the 'hope' that player 'X' would develop into a star. Lombardi would belittle that approach saying that while hope may be a good thing, there still needed to be plans in case that hope never became a reality.
In missions, it can be easy to fall prey to false hope. We may invest time and resources in immature and unfaithful people with the hope that eventually they will figure it out and turn their life around. While hope and a reliance on God's power to transform are foundational, we still need to take seriously the powerful forces that keep people from moving forward. In working towards long-term goals we need to plan for the fact that many we work with will fail to meet their potential.
A metaphor - "A great team's playbook looks like a first-class French restaurant menu: a small selection of dishes that are all excellent."
So, while good teams do a few things well, Lombardi would contrast that with an underperforming football team whose playbook looks like a gigantic menu from a mediocre restaurant. Sure, they serve a bunch of dishes, but are any of them really good? He emphasized the need to pick a few things and do them consistently with excellence. In evaluating a team's playbook, one should look for quality over quantity.
In missions we can sometimes get pulled into doing lots and lots of activities, all of them are good and there are needs all around us. But, I think we should draw from the example of successful teams and businesses that do only a few things really, really well. Teams should concentrate on the things that they are: the most passionate about, the most qualified for, and would have the most impact.
A question - "Who are the 'blue chippers' in your organization?"
For a number of years, Lombardi made lists of the elite players ('blue chips') and near-elite players ('red chips') at each position across the NFL. Then he would add up the number of those great players on each team and use that as a way to predict how well that team would perform that year. Lombardi said that most teams don't do a good job of evaluating their own talent. They tend to overvalue and overpay them to the detriment of the organization. Great teams, though, are skilled at making objective evaluations about their in-house talent. His counsel would be to know who your elite players are and how to use them well.
In missions, especially working with multiple churches on a regional level, it is extremely important to know who the blue chippers are and how to help them be most effective. It is challenging to objectively discern the intersection of capacity (what is this person capable of?) and craving (what is this person eager to do?) in a church leader. Like Jim Collins example from Good to Great, we must make sure that the right people are on the bus and that they are in the right seats on the bus.
Well, thanks for indulging my inner sports fan for a few minutes. My hope is that these three football diagnostics - the proverb, the metaphor and the question - may be a helpful addition to our toolboxes, aiding teams in becoming better at fulfilling the mission.