Moving From Performer to Coach
Having served for more than a decade as Dean of Duke Divinity School, L. Gregory Jones is now a senior strategist and professor of theology there. His work is reliably insightful, challenging, and innovative. More than that – and those who know theologians will understand why I want to underscore this next point – his work is also regularly and eminently practical. He’s written another important article posted at Duke’s Faith and Leadership website called “Performance as Leadership Preparation.” I couldn’t find a place to comment on the site, so I’ll both commend his article to you as well as respond to it here.
In his article, Jones (assisted by Kelly Gilmer) urges us to move from critic to performer. Noting the current cultural preference – well established in seminaries and divinity schools as well – for critique over performance, he points out the limits of our penchant for demonstrating our ability by picking apart the offerings of others rather than actually doing something ourselves. In contrast, he invites us to consider how valuable training toward performance can be. It doesn’t matter if one is practicing to play piano, compete with the swim team, dance ballet, or act in the school play – training for performance teaches creativity, collaborative skills, and perseverance.
Quoting two of my favorite books recently published – The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg and Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer – Jones persuasively argues that we should encourage our children and students to be performers not because they may make a living as a dancer or become an Olympic swimmer but because the skills they learn on their way to being performers will enhance everything they do in life. I couldn’t agree more.
The one disagreement I have with Jones is his focus on leaders. As he writes, “We need performers to lead our Christian institutions.” As much as I love everything else in this piece, I couldn’t disagree more with this single, central sentiment. Why? Because our focus should be on training all Christians to be performers, not just the leaders. In fact, I’d say especially not just the leaders. Let me explain.
For an example of the importance of performance, Jones cites Howard Schultz, legendary CEO of Starbucks, referencing his football career at Northern Michigan University as evidence of the transferable benefits of performance. But while Schultz’s hours on the gridiron no doubt have served him well, what makes him stand out is not his ability to perform – either on the fields of athletics or business – but rather his ability to train, to coach, to develop the abilities of others. Indeed, what made Schultz legendary was his systematic development of an incredibly effective employee training program. Jones points to the impact this program had on Travis Leach, a high school dropout whose parents were drug addicts. Leach’s life was literally turned around – one could argue that it was saved – by entering into Starbuck’s training program.
And that’s precisely what I’d like to see the leaders of our Christian institutions do – not focus on their performance but rather on their vital calling to train, support, coach, and nurture those they lead to be competent, even accomplished performers of the Christian faith. The problem with seminary education as it currently exists, I would argue, is precisely that it trains its graduates to be performers – performers of religious rites and skills like pastoral care, preaching, and teaching. This model flourished in a modernist culture that valued specialization and was held together by a loosely shared Christian narrative. In a postmodern world of competing narratives where most church-going Christians have difficulty articulating either the basics of their faith or why it matters to them, we can no longer train leaders to perform the faith while others look on in appreciation.
Or to put it more crassly: the church is declining not because its leaders are incompetent performers of the faith but because its people are. Everyday Christians, that is, have little to no confidence in their ability to read the Bible with understanding and enjoyment, make connections between their faith and their life, and share their faith with others. And why would we expect them to have confidence when for the last several centuries it was the task of the pastor to do precisely these things?
Indeed, can you recall the last time at Sunday worship where you were given any training or practice in these central skills of the Christian life? What we value we practice, and currently what we practice in most of our congregations is looking on in admiration and appreciation as our leaders perform skills we can’t imagine doing ourselves.
In a fantastic TED Talk, Benjamin Zander remarked that he came into his own as conductor of the Boston Philharmonic only when he realized not only that he was the only one on stage who made no sound during the concert, but when he recognized that that was precisely his role: to make no sound as he endeavored to make his players sound that much better.
Is that a type of performance? No doubt, but it is performance not as standout soloist but rather as conductor, teacher, and coach – those roles, that is, where the mark of competence isn’t that you can perform a particular skill well, but that overtime those under your charge can perform it better. So if Professor Jones is inviting us to imagine leaders as player-coaches and performer-teachers, I heartily agree. But if he is calling us to train more virtuosos then I don’t expect any change in the fortunes of these churches such leaders dazzle with their performance.