What Ministry Leaders Can Learn from the Man who Redefined Baseball

 In Jason Bunger

Moneyball is the story of General Manager Billy Beane and his quest to rebuild the small-market Oakland Athletics to be competitive with the big-market teams. The movie speaks volumes to the issues of leadership.

Leaders must be aware that the metrics of past success may no longer be as relevant. For most of baseball history, a hitter was measured by batting average, number of home runs, hits, and runs batted in. However, Billy and his assistant general manager realized that something else was actually a better predictor of winning — it was on base percentage, or OBP. To win baseball games, you have to score runs, and in order to score runs people have to get on base. Recognizing this, they were then able to get undervalued talent by looking primarily at the new metric of OBP rather than the old metrics of average, hits and home runs. This can be a valuable lesson in the church as well. Historically, we have measured success as buildings, baptisms, and “butts in seats.” As church participation continues to decline among the millennial generation in the west, we need to find a new metric to grade success. In addition to genuine conversions, perhaps success can be measured in the percentage of people engaged in mission, or the number of people involved in discipleship relationships. If we measure our success by the metrics of the past 100 years, we will probably become discouraged and somewhat schizophrenic trying to continue a growth trajectory that has not existed for most churches in the past decade.

Leaders must rethink how we measure the worth of someone. Scouting talent is not an exact science. It is relatively easy to see if someone is a five-tool player (hit for average, throw, hit for power, field and steal bases). However, it is impossible to measure the heart and character of a person. Billy acknowledged that a scout got it wrong about him 20 years ago and so many times he and the other scouts got it wrong with people. Pete and Billy began to evaluate players by statically analysis (cyber-metrics) rather than the “eye test” of experts to determine their potential value to a team. The data revealed there were undervalued players they could acquire. In ministry, we must remember that sometimes it is not always the people who pass the “eye test” but often those who are undervalued by others, but noticed by great leaders. Israel wanted Saul to be their king because he looked the part. Samuel wanted David’s brothers. But God chose David because, while man looks at the outside, God looks at the heart. One of our responsibilities as leaders is to find worth in “undervalued” people and to invest in them. Sometimes it works, other times it may not. However, we must constantly be evaluating and investing in people.

Leaders must remember that leadership is not for the fainthearted. Billy was trying to do something that no one had ever tried before and most coaches, players and fans did not understand it. When the season started, the A’s were in last place and things looked like they were getting worse. The movie portrayed the challenges that Billy faced with scouts that no longer chose the players, a manager that refused to play players when asked, players that wanted to be treated special, and a fan base that did not understand what was taking place. The movie reveals the internal struggles Beane experienced while wondering if his method was actually going to work. When the team played poorly, it was blamed on Beane. When they played well, it was accredited to the manager. However, as a representative of the Boston Red Sox told Beane, “The first person through the wall always gets bloody.”

Leadership is about the journey and not just the destination. Only one playoff team wins the last game of the season. To make everything about the championship and not about the people and the process robs the game and leadership of the joy of serving. Billy stated it was not about the money or even the championship – it was about changing the game and making a difference. Ministry is not about setting goals, meeting them and being the best. It is about living a life that exults Christ and walking people through the joys and challenges of life.

Leadership is about evolving as a leader. In the beginning of the movie, Beane did not allow himself to personally know the players to avoid the pain when he had to trade, cut or send down a player. As the movie played out, Beane became more personally connected with his players. He sat down with one player he had to send down to the minors and told him, “I am sorry for the crap news. I know it hurts.” He also encouraged David Justice to end his career well by redefining himself into a mentor and a leader in his final days. He wanted Justice to end his career well, and Justice knew it. We must remember that the millennial generation is interested in meaningful relationships and desire open communication.

Leadership is about winning at your own game. The A’s simply could not (and still can’t) play the way the Yankees play because they could not pay what the Yankees pay. Bean stated, “If we try to play like the Yankees in here (the conference room), we will lose to the Yankees out there.” They simply did not have the resources to compete with the Yankees. They played differently by fielding undervalued players. They refused to steal. They made the opposing pitchers throw 100 pitches by being selective at the plate. They made the other team make the mistakes. One of the unspoken challenges of church leaders is being a small-market church near a big-market church. For example, despite what people may say, Walmart does not generate as much money or jobs into a community when it opens a new Supercenter as we are led to believe. Because Walmart can offer goods and services so much cheaper, it absorbs the money that was already being spent somewhere else in the community. Small businesses simply cannot compete in the shadow of Walmart by trying to be Walmart. The way to survive in the shadow of Walmart is to play a different game. Focus on quality, integrity, expertise and personal relationships. In the same way, the average sized church cannot compete with the resources, expertise and marketing of the “Big Box” churches that are popping up in their communities. These smaller churches simply need to do the best they can at what they do best. Don’t try to “out-Walmart” Walmart and don’t try to out-spend the Yankees. Just play your game, know your mission and do it better than anyone in the world.

Once again, baseball serves as a great metaphor for life and leadership. I would love to hear your insights on leadership and baseball. Here’s to a great season of baseball and a better season of ministry.

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  • Mark

    Jason, this might be your best post ever! Much needed word. In a day where we seem to glorify only the Super Mega church pastor you have laid out clearly what our ultimate goal should be. I love your Yankees and Walmart illustration and the line…”Don’t try to “out-Walmart” Walmart and don’t try to out-spend the Yankees. Just play your game, know your mission and do it better than anyone in the world.” Amen! I have always said, “Success is being where God wants you, when he wants you there, doing what he wants you to do and being who he called you to be.” Great word!

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