Theo Epstein and the art of discipleship

I don’t know much about baseball.

Because I grew up in a culture without baseball, its appeal eludes me, sadly.  Sure, I’ve seen a few movies about the magic of the game (The Natural, Field of Dreams) or the science behind it (Moneyball) or the romance of baseball (For the Love of the Game). I just haven’t seen much actual baseball.

But that hasn’t stopped me from hearing about this guy from the Chicago Cubs, Theo Epstein.

Epstein, in case you don’t know, is the president of baseball operations for the Cubs. He guided them to their recent World Series victory, their first since 1908 (expect the film version to be out sometime soon).

He turned around an over a century long losing streak not just by signing the best players in the game, but by looking for the best people. When Epstein and his scouts went looking for players they didn’t just assess their skill level. Epstein wanted players with character.

“In the draft room, we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player. We ask our scouts to provide three examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Say what?

According to Epstein, to build a champion team you not only need the right kind of athlete on the field, you need the right kind of people there too. You need men or women of character.

 

This leads me to Ed Smith.  Ed Smith is a journalist and author. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England. He reckons you can see three phases in the development of professional sport.

The first phase emphasized physical prowess. All the effort went into making people faster, stronger, better.

The second phase looked to psychology. Once all professional sportspeople reached a requisite level of physical conditioning, it was thaughty that the thing that could give them an edge over others was their mental capacity and stress management. The world of “sports psychology” was born.

But Smith thinks sports psychology was somewhat overrated. He believes we’re in the third phase: coaching the whole person. Building character. Deepening relationships. Understanding and helping people. Like Epstein does.

In other words, Smith believes it’s a mistake to separate body, mind and character and to work on only one or two. Coaches need to help their charges acquire skills and physical stamina, and to cope with stress and mental fatigue, and to be able to make better choices about ethics, relationships and leadership.

Head. Hands. Heart.

I guess if Theo Epstein or Ed Smith were pastors, they’d say that the art of discipleship includes all three. We need to teach people well. They need to have their minds renewed by gospel and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But they also need to develop missional prowess – the capacity to give and serve and sacrifice. They need to acquire the skills of the servant missionary.

But there’s more. Thirdly, the church needs to grow women and men of deep godly character, with a biblical ethic and an ability to make wise choices in the interests of others, not shirking suffering or fleeing from disappointment or failure.

Men and women of character don’t need accolades or the adoration of others. They care for least in society and speak for those at the margins. They protect the vulnerable and are willing to attract the abuse or criticism of others, including the powerful whose vested interests they challenge.

 

Godly men and women of character know there is a higher calling, a greater thing at stake than their career or the growth of their empire or organization. They have submitted their interests to the will of God and vowed to suffer whatever may come in serving God’s people.

Sometimes I think the best sports coaches know more about shaping the whole person than pastors do. Some pastors want to teach discipleship in a classroom. Others want to reduce it to certain required skills in the field. But the best ones know it involves the intertwining of three significant sinews – head, hands, and a heart of Christlike character. I think it’s the missing piece in much of our discipleship.

Theo Epstein has shown us what coaching the whole person can produce. It was something the church should have known all along.

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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9 thoughts on “Theo Epstein and the art of discipleship

  1. It seems Theo starts with people of good character? Trying to disciple some guys on the fringes at the moment who definitely wouldn’t get picked for the team. Do you think people need to meet a baseline character standard before discipleship starts?

    1. Great question. Unlike a baseball team, I guess a church grows its own disciples, which is to say the process of training the mind, passing on skills and developing character should begin with children. Having said that, I do think that you require a minimum standard of character for leadership. Those who are committed to discipling leaders/planters/pastors shouldn’t think they can just accept anyone into the journey.

      1. A minimum standard of character is a tension point for me. If we aren’t discipling the ‘least of these’ (which is really, really hard – i.e. ex con, ex addict, ex dv) it seems we are focusing on internal leadership recruiting (good looking, good upbringing, good potential). Isn’t the model is just going to repeat itself?

        1. I hear ya. I might have garbled that first response. I was trying to say I agree that we don’t only disciple those with an already established godly character. We should be discipling all the saints. But I do think there are minimum biblical standards for leaders. Having said that, and in response to your second comment, I should point out that I’ve known many “good upstanding church-raised folks” who are self-centered, lazy, lustful, etc, and plenty of ex cons and ex addicts who have developed a deep sense of personal character. Good comments though, bro. Very helpful.

          1. Yeah good point. Thanks for that.

            I find it strange that the college I went to (Malyon in Brisbane) didn’t have discipleship as a subject. So researching practical discipleship for myself – Neil Cole and Mike Breen have been most helpful so far.

            Feel free to write a book on it 😉

          2. Hi James & Mike,
            I reckon it’s also worth remembering too that, unlike the coach of a baseball team, we have every reason expect miraculous and rapid changes in character, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting, enlightening etc… There are numerous examples in the Bible of this happening and I think it partly explains the rapid spread of the Gospel in many times and places across the world – those who no-one expected followed Jesus and changed the world around them (Paul is an obvious example). Clearly ongoing discipleship is a key component, but we don’t necessarily to wait years for someone to develop prowess in the way a pro baseball would before they can play in the big league…

  2. Thanks for your post. I am uplifted by my subscription to your blog posts. Just wondering if you would like to complete your baseball movies “A League of Their Own” is a geat movies about the women’s teams during the WWII. Some great characters.

    1. I think I have seen that one. Madonna as a baseball player, right?

  3. Just in case there’s any interest…a couple more resources on Theo…

    In both the podcast and the the book he talks about a document he created called “The Cubs Way”, which details how he goes about creating an intentional culture that contains much of what you mentioned…

    http://podcast.cnn.com/the-axe-files-david-axelrod/episode/all/dBY8yHjBr3rgwK/35ro00.html

    https://www.amazon.com/Cubs-Way-Building-Baseball-Breaking/dp/0804190011

    By the way, as a Cubs fan, my mantra since Epstein arrived with the team has been “in Theo we trust”…it finally paid off this past year…

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