Excellence Success Faithfulness

I was all set for the Super Bowl last night after a soloist in the church I attended on Sunday morning sang Bobby Bare’s 1976 Christian football waltz,

Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life;
End over end neither left nor to right;
Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights;
Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life.

I was rooting for the Patriots, who have won 3 Super Bowls and 9 division titles under the leadership of Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.  Belichick and Brady have established the best winning percentage ever (.780) by a coach-quarterback duo over their 12 years.  Our family has a soft spot for University of Michigan alum Tom Brady, who began his professional career as a 6th rounder.  Brady did not achieve success immediately at Michigan or with the Patriots but focused on honing his skills and was ready when his time came.

What is the secret to the Patriots’ success?  It’s excellence.  Every Super Bowl team has had a different offensive style, as Coach Belichick draws out the best in his players by continuously adapting to changing circumstances and personnel.  Belichick is fresh and creative at the same time as he models an underlying stability.   

Quarterback Tom Brady displays consistency every week.  He does not expect to be treated like a prima donna but works harder than anyone else.  He diligently watches film, analyzes where he can improve, and then focuses on the next game plan.  Brady also knows that football is ultimately a team sport and readily credited the defense when he was not at his best in the AFC title game

Both Belichick and Brady set the tone for the team because of their intense work ethic.  Patriot Brian Waters was quoted in USA Today, “If the best player on your team is all-in, 100%, then who are you to be different?”

But that’s not all.  Team owner Robert Kraft will only hire people who make a long term commitment to the team and are smarter than he is about areas in which he is not as knowledgeable.  Kraft believes that “When you hire good people, they get good people.”

At the same time as I was watching the excellent coaching of Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin last night, I was also thinking of Joe Paterno, long time Penn State coach who died a few weeks ago.  The sadness of his death so soon after he was fired by the Trustees of Penn State University was matched only by the tragedy of the sex abuse scandal that marred the excellence of Paterno’s career.  I have been pondering lately one of Paterno’s most famous quotes, “There are many people, particularly in sports, who think that success and excellence are the same thing.  They are not the same thing.  Excellence is something that is lasting and dependable and largely within a person’s control.  In contrast, success is perishable and is often outside our control.  If you strive for excellence, you will probably be successful eventually.  “People who put excellence in the first place have the patience to end up with success.  An additional burden for the victim of the success mentality is that he is threatened by the success of others, and he resents real excellence.  In contrast, the person that is fascinated by quality is excited when he sees it in others.”  

Do you see the difference?  We produce excellence through internal motivation and a will to become the best that we can be, even though we may not achieve success as the world sees it.  On the other hand, success is largely determined by luck and circumstances and may be here today, gone tomorrow.   The New York Giants were successful in winning the Super Bowl last night, but both teams displayed the kind of excellence which was a joy to behold. 

  • When football teams pursue excellence, the result is often success, which is defined as winning. 
  • When business leaders pursue excellence, it can lead to success, which is defined a making a profit. 
  • When we pursue excellence in the secular world, we may become successful, which is usually defined as fame and/or wealth. 
  • When we pursue excellence for the sake of the kingdom of God, however, it always leads to success, which is defined as faithfulness.

What is the more excellent way of Jesus that leads to success in faithfulness?    

  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)
  • “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27)
  • “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:38)
  • “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)
  • “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose not only the Super Bowl but their fortune and even their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24, faithfully paraphrased)

The United Methodist Church is in throes of transformation, where the temptation to imitate corporate models of success is compelling.  The need to reverse our membership, attendance, and financial decline has fostered an almost desperate focus on metrics, accountability, and restructuring.  I would be the first to acknowledge that we have placed more emphasis on self-preservation and institution maintenance than spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.  At the same time, disciples of Jesus Christ are called not to conform to this world through the numbers game but to transform the church through renewal and fruit-bearing. 

The United Methodist Church must focus on excellence in ministry at every level, but our excellence leads to a success that can only be characterized as faithfulness. 

  • If our success leads to anything other than obeying Jesus’ call to faithfully “Follow me” and make disciples of Jesus Christ …
  • If excellence becomes twisted into doctrinal purity, theological partisanship, competition for dollars, turf protection, or exclusivity …
  • If we abandon our inner cities, ethnic minorities, and the rural poor in favor of starting new churches only in profitable and sustainable locations and populations … then our future as a denomination and as people of God is, indeed, in jeopardy.

Make me, oh make me, Lord more than I am;
Make me a piece in your master game plan
Free from the earthly tempestion below;
I’ve got the will, Lord if you’ve got the toe.

I was thinking of yet another coach last night as I watched the Super Bowl.   My favorite coach is Pat Summitt, coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, who was voted Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year in 2011.  Summitt became Tennessee’s coach in 1974, just before her 22nd birthday, and her teams have not only won 8 national titles but they have not had a single losing season in 38 years.  Tennessee women’s basketball often outdraws professional NBA basketball teams.  Pat Summitt is known for her excellence, discipline, passion for teaching, fierce love for and investment of time in her players, and stature as a role model. 

Tragically, Pat Summitt was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s last summer, which was devastating to her family, players, assistant coaches, and Tennessee fans.  After accepting the reality of Alzheimer’s and regaining her courage, Pat chose to see her illness as a challenge and immediately formed the Pat Summitt Foundation to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s. 

The administration of the University of Tennessee had the contractual right to remove Pat immediately because of her diagnosis, but they chose a different way.  Rather than focus on success through winning or profit margins, they chose to view success as faithfulness to Pat Summitt’s value to the university and its students.  They have retained Pat as head coach for as long as she is able, with more direct coaching from her assistants. The excellence of Summitt’s legacy will surely outweigh the progress of Alzheimer’s and the world’s expectations. 

Take all the brothers who’ve gone on before
And all of the sisters who’ve knocked on your door
All the departed dear loved ones of mine
Stick’em up front in the offensive line.

 “Life is an unknown and none of us has a crystal ball,” said Joan Cronan, women’s athletic director at Tennessee. “But I do have a record to go on.  I know what Pat stands for: excellence, strength, honesty, and courage.”

(Sports)   Excellence → Success → Winning

(Business)   Excellence → Success → Profit

(Secular world)   Excellence → Success → Fame, Wealth

(The kingdom of God)   Excellence → Success → Faithfulness

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things — and let Jesus dropkick you through the goalposts of life.” (Philippians 4:8, faithfully paraphrased)


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