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Coach’s 3-Prong Philosophy Applies to Churches

Even fans of other Atlantic Coast Conference basketball teams reluctantly admit that the late Dean Smith was a great basketball coach.

Smith co-wrote, with management expert Gerald Bell, “The Carolina Way,” a few years go. “The Carolina Way” was his coaching philosophy, and it was also his life philosophy.

Smith distinguished between a system and a philosophy. For him, a system was a limited bag of tricks: a settled set of plays or a particular style of offense or defense.

He thought basketball required more flexibility than a system would allow. Changes in the game or changes in the players – who had graduated, who had been recruited and who had been injured – required adaptability.

So “the Carolina Way” wasn’t a system; it was a philosophy comprised of principles, which Smith applied flexibly, wisely and effectively to fluid circumstances.

“Although we didn’t have a system at North Carolina, we certainly had a philosophy. We believed in it strongly and didn’t stray very far from it,” Smith wrote. “It pretty much stayed the same from my first year as head coach. It was our mission statement, our strategic plan, our entire approach in a nutshell: Play hard; play smart; play together.”

He continued, “Hard meant with effort, determination and courage; together meant unselfishly trusting your teammates and doing everything possible not to let them down; smart meant with good execution and poise, treating each possession as if it were the only one in the game.”

“Our [North Carolina] players seldom heard me or my assistants talk about winning. Winning would be the byproduct of the process. There could be no shortcuts,” he said.

Play hard, play smart, play together. These guiding principles are important for local churches as well.

Sometimes, in our quest for vital faith and a vibrant church we look for a “system” – a set of rules or a list of instructions or a collection of formulas for every circumstance and situation.

There isn’t, though, an ironclad system when it comes to living a creative, responsive and faithful Christian life.

We need more flexibility and adaptability than a system can provide. Thankfully, what we have instead is a philosophy or, even better, a “way,” characteristics of which Paul described in Galatians 6:

  • Restore those who stumble in a spirit of gentleness.
  • Bear one another’s burdens.
  • Shoulder your own responsibility.
  • Keep doing the right things.
  • Work for the good of all and don’t neglect those who are closest to you.

Call it “The Gentle Way:” Be humble; be responsible; be together.

1. Be humble.

Mercy for broken people is a mark of maturity. Whether from flawed intention or failed attention, people end up broken: shattered by guilt, wounded by shame or torn by regret.

When they do, the Jesus way is to restore them, humbly and gently.

2. Be responsible.

Paul names an important paradox. “Bear one another’s burdens,” but also, “All must carry their own loads.”

There are some challenges that we’ll never be able to manage unless other people help us. We’re not meant to live our lives on our own and alone. We all need help.

But there are some things we have to do for ourselves. If you and I are hiking a steep mountain trail, you won’t be able to climb very high or hike very long if you’ve got both my pack and yours. At some point, for your sake and mine, I have to carry my own.

3. Be together.

Paul sounds his overarching theme in verse 10. “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Why, I wonder, does Paul tell us to work especially for the good of those of the family of faith?

Instead, I think Paul simply underlined a practical truth: It’s easy for us to overlook the people closest to us, not to see the pain and possibility of the people most familiar to us, and not to hear the fears and dreams of people nearest to us.

We learn to do good to all – to the whole world – by practicing that goodness in our everyday relationships with the people who are close by.

We won’t be able to love a stranger or an enemy if we haven’t even learned to love well, for their sakes and on their own terms, our family, friends and co-workers.

This is “the Gentle Way:” Be humble; be responsible; be together.

Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches and an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School. He will join the religion faculty at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, North Carolina, in the fall. He served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, North Carolina, for more than 13 years previously. A version of this article first appeared on his website, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.