What Nick Saban can teach us about Church Vitality

Not much of anybody thinks of Nick Saban as a go to guy for church health issues. Today, in fact, many UGA Bulldog fans are picturing him with horns and a pitchfork. But as I watched him lead the University of Alabama to yet another NCAAF National Championship, I was impressed that there are definitely transferable principles that could help in the turnaround journey for declining churches. At halftime, trailing 13-0, Saban decided to bench his starting quarterback Jalen Hurts and go to his freshman left-hander Tua Tagovailoa to jump start a faltering offense. It was a decision that turned the tide, and I woke up today, the morning after “the Natty” thinking about how it relates to leadership in struggling churches.

Saban cared about bringing his team back from a deficit.  
He was urgent and passionate about changing the situation in the game. He wasn’t content with the status quo. His urgency was completely appropriate to his situation. Because there isn’t a visible clock, ticking down the end for our churches we can become laissez-faire. Decline and church closure happen gradually. It can take years and we can become complacent and lose sight of how much we need to be people of action NOW!

Saban probably cares a lot about Jalen Hurts, but his priority wasn't protecting his feelings.
It could not have been easy to pull QB Jalen Hurts from that game. It had to be embarrassing to the young man. The reality was, though, that he lacked the specific skills that were needed in those circumstances to stage a comeback. I think many of the decisions that we don’t make to give our churches the opportunity to comeback are driven by fear of hurting someone’s feelings. The relational realities keep us from pulling the trigger on important strategic steps. We absolutely know that if we make decisions that are in the best interest of the long term health of the church there will be some people who will have their feelings hurt, so we don’t act.

Saban assessed the truth about the situation and made a difficult decision.
Nick Saban thought about his decision. He was thoughtfully prepared. I heard this morning on sports talk radio that he had the freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa taking snaps with the first team offense to prepare for the possibility that he might enter the game. One thing is certain: Saban absolutely knew that he is in the decision making business. Assessment and decision making are also the territory of Biblical leaders—not just the pastor, but other church leaders as well. A leader is anyone who exerts influence over others. People who ought to be guiding decision making processes in churches should be actively committed to thoughtful, strategic thinking and dialogue. In that way, the when the church acts it will be in the aftermath of thoughtful, (hopefully prayerful) intentional behaviors.

Saban is passionately committed to the reason he was brought to Alabama: winning championships. He knew his "why".
Nick Saban understands his bottom line. He has demonstrated this by winning 6 NCAAF National Championships with two different programs. The University of Alabama employs Nick Saban to recruit, train and deploy a team that will routinely compete and win at the highest possible level of college football. That is what he wakes up for professionally every day.  I think churches often forget their “why.” I’m not the first person to point this out. It’s just obvious in this discussion.* The longer a local church exists in a state of decline, the more likely it will be to grow inwardly focused and forget that it primarily exists to know and glorify God through Christ, AND to reach and teach others to do the same.

Saban fully expected a turnaround to happen. He didn't lose hope!
Napoleon reportedly said, “A leader is a dealer in hope!” I know that often we are working in overwhelmingly difficult church environments or communities that feel burned over and infertile. We must meditate often on 1 Corinthians 15:58 and Galatians 6:9. A leader must cultivate a culture of hope.

Saban was open to any reasonable option that would help his team win. He put all the options on the table.
 This dovetails with his willingness to put the interest of the team above the interest of a particular player. Yes, I know we have to be careful about taking a strictly Machiavellian approach to leading. But what I am talking about here is positive, active creativity. Bring all the crazy ideas to the table. Weed through them. Today a declining church (and particularly one in leadership transition) ought to talk about every possible option going forward. Talk about merger. Talk about a strategic partnership with healthier church. Talk about sharing a minister with another congregation. Talk about the realities coming if nothing changes. Ask: “What stands in the way of us doing what we know is best? Why can't we?”

Saban took a huge risk: 
Today as armchair quarterbacks, we know that it was the right decision. But last night it was a risk. Paul Chappell said, "Today's churches are either risk taking, care taking, or undertaking." If we want to reach the goal, we can't play not to lose. We have to take risks rather than playing it safe. Taking risks requires courage. Sometimes just having a difficult conversation as a congregation requires courage. Being willing to move past an outdated way of approaching the work of ministry requires courage.

Conclusion – I know that there are limits to how far the analogy of coaching a college football team can be taken in comparison to leading local churches. But I also know that we need the passion, urgency and willingness to turn things around. I am praying that many churches experience a comeback so that God is glorified and the world is blessed!