Texas Coach Tom Herman said something interesting after the Texas Longhorns beat the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2019 Sugar Bowl,

“This locker room finally became player led instead of coach fed”

This is a powerful statement about how discipleship in our youth ministries should look. Coach fed must happen at the beginning, but it should come to the place where students are picking up what you are laying down and spreading it around to others. If what we sharing is not sticking, we need to change tactics, pray more or have deeper conversations with our students about what it means to follow Jesus.

Herman is a college coach and he deals with students trying to get their degrees while playing football. Unlike players in the NFL, these students are not worried about contract negotiations or brand deals, they just want to win and they are trusting their coach to help them get there.

At the same time this is happening, I’m watching players like Le’veon Bell and Antonio Brown bale on their team. The coach of the Steelers, Mike Tomlin, recently said that Antonio Brown left them “in their darkest hour”.

This sounds familiar,

Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.” 40Then Jesus returned to the disciples and found them sleeping. “Were you not able to keep watch with Me for one hour?” He asked Peter. 41“Watch and pray so that you will not enter into temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”… Matthew 26:39-41

When Jesus needed his “key players”, James, John, and Peter, they were sleeping. Hadn’t Jesus done a good job investing in them, teaching them, walking with them through life? Of course, the disciples weaknesses were not on account of anything Jesus did or did not do.

While Tom Herman rejoiced that his team had reached a peak in their football “discipleship”, Mike Tomlin was admitting he has some things to clean up in their locker room.

As Youth Pastors, the emotional pendulum is always swinging with teenagers. Sometimes they’re committed and sometimes they’re not. The work we need to put in starts in the locker room (the youth meeting) not the playing field (the mission field).

Managing an NFL locker room full of overpaid stars and a youth group of hormonal teenagers isn’t much different. There’s still core emotions at work like pride, hurt feelings, not feeling appreciated, not feeling like their talent is being used, etc. Our locker room skills will eventually play out in public.

Here’s a few tips on how I managed the “locker room”

I chose students who were picking up what I was laying down

I find no reason to be “fair” in ministry. Those who are pushing in and wanting to jump on board with the direction I think the youth ministry should go, those are the students I am investing in most. That is not to say I ignore everyone else, but I engage them differently, with the intent of getting them on board or allowing them to choose stay where they are or move on (as it seems the Steelers are with Antonio Brown).

I praised, publicly, the ones who tried (and failed)

You might think, from what I am written, I am saying Tom Herman is a better leader or coach than Mike Tomlin, absolutely not. Both coaches are great leaders and each coach, as every great leader discovers, is hitting a different part of their leadership cycle. Yes, Jesus was disappointed to see his disciples sleeping but he also knew when they “got it”,

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” Matthew 11:25

I always made it a point to reward good behavior without tearing down those who weren’t’ there yet, but I always left bread crumbs for them to find their way being excellent leaders.

The bread crumbs included:

Asking them to lead in small things (pray over the offering, etc.)

Inviting them to step into accountability through small groups

Taking them to lunch to share the potential I see in them

Students, like NFL players, have to make choices. Play for the team or play for themselves. I make playing for the team so inviting and profitable, why would they play for themselves? Church, like football, is a team sport minus the super stars.

I laid down and enforced the standards we created

Mike Tomlin admitted he had some messes to clean up. As leaders, we all let the bar slip from time to time. It’s hard work to hold up the standard especially when it involves students or adults and anyone else where feeling get involved. Mike Tomlin held it down and helps it together for a long time. I don’t fault him; time, pressure, media and personalities all have had their impact on him.

I love the saying in the Steeler’s locker room, “The standard is the standard”. I don’t know what all the standards are but I imagine it involves hard work, good attitudes, playing to your full potential and being a good teammate.

Jesus had standards and He lost people because of them. There was nothing wrong with the standard, there was something wrong with their hearts. The rich young ruler walked away sorrowful because he was told to sell all he had and follow Christ. Jesus did not run after him and say, “OK, let’s make a deal, sell half your riches and follow me.” It hurt Jesus to see him walk away and it hurts me when anyone walks away.

I lost kids because I held the standard. I lost adults because I held the standard. I always got in trouble when I lowered the standards for leadership or didn’t manage my “locker room” well. This is not to say that grace and mercy do not have their place or that special circumstances don’t come into play. If our hearts are bent towards grace, the Holy Spirit will show us the way without having to lower our standards

What state is your locker room in right now? What do you need to do to manage it better? What conversations do you need to have? All of these are hard to think about and even harder to act on, but, remember, the condition of your locker room will eventually show itself on the field.

For more about what it means to set the standard of discipleship in your youth ministry, be sure to check out my book The Disciple Project.

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