What Every Church Leader Can Learn from the World’s Greatest Leader

When ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney asked Theo Epstein what he thought about being named the world’s greatest leader by Fortune magazine, the Chicago Cubs team president had the perfect response:

“Um, I can’t even get my dog to stop peeing in the house. That is ridiculous.”

And of course, it is. Some of the other luminaries on the list include Pope Francis (#3), Jack Ma (#2), Melinda Gates (#4), Jeff Bezos (#5), John McCain (#9), Angela Merkel (#10), and Joe Biden (#23). (Evidently, Jesus didn’t make the cut for Forbes.)

Theo Epstein doesn’t lead the largest religious body in the world. He doesn’t lead one of the world’s leading venture philanthropic organizations. He isn’t chancellor of Germany. Nor is he the former Vice President of the United States.

Instead, Theo Epstein is the president of a baseball team that has claimed only one world championship in 108 years.

Whether or not Epstein is the world’s greatest leader or not, the story of how he built the Cubs (which is detailed in Tom Verducci’s new book, The Cubs Way) has a lot to say to leaders of all stripes, including local church pastors.  

In less than two decades in the sport, Epstein has become probably the most decorated baseball executive in the past half century. He built the teams that toppled two of the most famous championship droughts in American sports history. First, at only 30 years old, he led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series title since 1918 (when Babe Ruth was their star left-handed pitcher). Then, just last year, he led the Chicago Cubs to their first championship since

Teddy Roosevelt was president.

When Epstein took over the Cubs in 2011, the team had just completed the second of its five straight fifth place finishes. With a depleted farm system and limited talent on the Major League squad, it appeared the Cubs were set to continue their century-long streak of ineptitude.

Just five years later, Epstein had flattened The (so-called) Curse of the Billy Goat (which had been inflicted upon the franchise when a fan attempted to bring his goat into a 1945 World Series game and was rebuffed).

Here are five lessons every church pastor can learn from the world’s greatest leader:

1. Have a plan

When Epstein took over the Cubs, owner Tom Ricketts made it clear he didn’t expect an overnight success. Both he and Epstein realized they needed to rebuild the entire franchise top to bottom—everything from the team’s facilities to its minor league system to its clubhouse culture. But despite the massive overhaul, Epstein instinctively realized he had only five years to turn the team around.

Epstein couldn’t leave the turnaround to chance. He needed a plan. Prior to spring training in 2012, he met with every member of the team’s baseball operations. The plan detailed the kind of players they were going to bring into the team, how they were going to evaluate them, and how these players were expected to carry themselves (among many other characteristics).

Verducci wrote in The Cub Way, “Those expectations included details as fine as the exact sequence and number of pitches in the proper pregame warm-up (exactly 38 pitches) and the answers to the discussions on how to touch first base while running through it (“always hit the front edge of the bag with the left foot”) and how to touch all bases while rounding them (“always hit the front corner of the bag with the right foot”).”

As a church leader, you’re not trying to turn around a $2 billion sports franchise. You’re trying to do something much more important—lead a church to make disciples in your community and around the world. If Theo Epstein needs a plan, you do too.

Mark Marshall writes for ChristianityToday.com, “Strategic planning is not only a biblical concept, it is a biblical mandate. It is God’s chosen method of working to establish how you and your church intend to carry out the Great Commission. Don’t just repeat last year. Be intentional in getting God’s heart and knowing how you will accomplish His mission in your setting.”

2. Bring on board the right people

A big part of Epstein’s plan was the kind of players he planned to bring on board. He looked for hitters that knew how to work the count, get on base, and drive the ball with authority. He also went after pitchers who threw a high percentage of strikes and had “swing-and-miss” stuff.

Character was, by far, the most important part of the mix. Epstein had seen character issues derail his plans toward the end of his run with the Red Sox. He didn’t want a repeat performance. He sought out guys who played the game hard and wanted to win.

Epstein told Verducci, “Talent wins, but…It’s like every year I did the job I just developed a greater appreciation for how much the human element matters and how much more you can achieve as a team when you have players who care about winning, care about each other, develop those relationships, have those conversations…it creates an environment where the sum is greater than the parts.”

Your church needs to be greater than the sum of its parts, too. That happens when you get the right people on board—whether on your staff or as volunteers. Sometimes talented, godly leaders won’t be good fits for the culture of your church. Sometimes volunteers you pay nothing will cost your church more than you ever imagined.

Your church will have to define what you’re looking for in the people you’re bringing in to be a part of your team. Every church will be slightly different. But the time to figure out the kind of person you want to bring on board isn’t after you’ve made an agreement. It’s before the process ever starts.

Have you spent time discerning what kind of people you want to bring on board and what kind of people you don’t?  

3. Develop the people you’re leading

Baseball teams have long kept detailed scouting reports on each player in their system. The reports detailed what the players needed to work on to improve their game and move up from the minor leagues to the majors. For as far back has his Red Sox days, Epstein realized that the players rarely, if ever, saw these reports. For the most part, they were in the dark about how they could improve and advance their careers.

Epstein changed that, creating Individual Development Plans for every player in the team’s major and minor league system. These plans detailed a player’s strengths and weaknesses and what he needed to do to move up in the system. He then made it mandatory for every player to go over his plan with a team executive or a member of the coaching staff three times a year.

Written out plans to disciple and develop those we lead are critical for the church, too. Most people see personal growth as something nebulous they should work on, but they don’t really know how. In a time when many people don’t have family in friends involved deeply in their lives, too many of us lack a critical look at our strengths and weaknesses that comes to us from someone who cares about our development.

You’ll find a variety of great resources out there to help you create personal development plans for yourself and others. 

4. Invest in the right tools

Epstein has always been ahead of his time when it came to technology. Back in the early 2000s, as he built the Red Sox into two-time champions, he was one of baseball’s first to invest heavily into advanced analytics.

When Epstein came to Chicago, he joined a franchise that was decidedly behind the times. The team’s scouts were storing their evaluations of players in a database that the rest of baseball was using in the mid-1990s. Many scouts still filed reports by hand.

Epstein changed all that, bringing to Chicago many of the state-of-the-art tools he used in Boston. One of those tools was a “neuroscouting” program that first analyzed the “read-and-react” time of players and then helped them develop it further. It’s a critical tool for a sport where hitters must read and react to a fastball in a quarter of a second.

Ministry leaders need the right tools, too. Technology is changing nearly every aspect of our lives. Ministry is no different.

Technology won’t solve problems in your ministry. If you’re looking for that, you’ll just exaggerate the problem. However, technology can accelerate your ministry efforts. 

5. Share a vision that resonates

As Epstein built the Cubs, he took an approach that differed from conventional baseball wisdom. Most teams have tried to build baseball winners by investing in good young pitchers, realizing just how scarce they are. Realizing that he had a short window to secure the four impact players he felt he needed, Epstein took the opposite approach (and one he felt was a much safer bet). He brought in young, high-character position players.

But that meant by the end of 2014, the Cubs needed a few veteran starting pitchers to compliment the blossoming core of young hitters. Fortunately, that realization came at the same time Jon Lester hit the open market. Epstein had been familiar with Lester’s value because they both had been with the Red Sox for years prior to Epstein’s 2011 departure.

Epstein went after Lester with all he had. But instead of going the conventional route and simply offering the pitcher a long-term, high-dollar deal (which he would later do), he sold Lester on a vision.

“Epstein had hired special-effects masters from Hollywood and producers from the gaming industry to make a lifelike movie of the Cubs hosting and winning the World Series,” Verducci writes. “He didn’t want Lester to just imagine what it would be like to win the World Series in a Cubs uniform, he also wanted him to see what it would look like.”

Epstein gave Lester a taste of what it might look like if he bought into the vision. And buy it he did. Lester signed with the Cubs before the 2015 season and became the runner up for the 2016 National League Cy Young Award (given to the league’s best pitcher).

Too often when church leaders think about vision, they imagine easily repeatable pithy sayings that encapsulate a ministry philosophy (much like a mission statement).

But a vision that people can follow isn’t much different than what Epstein offered Lester. It’s helping those you lead see themselves in an exciting Kingdom-centered future.

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