This is the time of year when NFL coaches get fired. It happens mostly over two or three days and I have always found this to be an interesting event. Football coaches are asked to help run an institution that requires a certain amount of success to be viable. They are expected to provide leadership and inspiration. They are expected to help allocate resources. At the same time, they are part of a team. They are dependent on the other people in the system to make them as successful as they can be. That is, the relationship runs both ways.
A lot of these same things can be said about parish ministers (and possibly other ministers, I am a parish minister so I write about what I know). We also are expected to lead and inspire, we help the other leaders with resource allocation and program development. We depend on the other people who bring their talents and energy to the shared endeavor. Ministers and coaches are community builders, strategists, counselors and public speakers.
I like the coaching metaphor when thinking about the ministry. Some folks still prefer the "ministry is like a marriage" line. I don't. Perhaps this is because I am already married and I find the commitment I make to my wife is quite different from my relationship with the church. Honestly I think the church would find the idea of marriage strange as well. Perhaps it is because--while my current ministry is increasingly seen as long-term--the "divorce" rate between clergy and congregations is too high for it to make sense. Also, what about high quality short settlements (of which there are many) and interim ministries? What are they "like"?
Back to the coaching metaphor: There are plenty of differences, of course, in areas such as culture and goals. Sports teams are quite a bit more competitive internally than are churches...and most people get paid. However the similarities have always interested me, particularly during the hiring and firing process. Sometimes the coach is the one who is necessarily let go when things don't work out as planned. Sometimes the coach isn't as good as expected. Sometimes they are just a "bad match". Sometimes the teams (or owners) have quit on them and they never got the support they thought they would get. In some few cases, they retire or resign after years of successful service. Some of these same reasons turn up in transitions among my colleagues. Like most ministers, I know the stories around many changes in ministry. Again, these are some of the same reasons. Usually the people involved are good people, trying to make sense of their own needs and those of the communities they belong to and/or serve.
I find it interesting when leaders try to figure out what went wrong. I feel for them. It is also interesting when a team tries to find ways to make the next settlement work. For the most part, they started their relationship with the best of intentions. My wish in both cases is that the people involved grow from the experience and move on.
There is, of course, a big difference between ministers and coaches in the area of salary. Most head coaches in the NFL are paid in the millions of dollars and many of the fired coaches will continue to get paid for years to come. But like I said, the existential challenge is still there. For most people, no amount of money prepares you for losing your job. No amount of money keeps you from re-thinking your every move and wondering how to improve.
Yesterday, for example, the Cleveland Browns fired their coach, Eric Mangini. While he is not so popular around New England, he was well liked by his players. His final news conference is a bit heartbreaking. "Thank you for being patient with me" he said. "I tried to be better this year."