Shaka Smart & How Athletic Coaching Is Like Pastoring

Shaka Smart is the basketball coach of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond.  For two years in a row, his teams have made it to the national tournament and overachieved.  He’s coveted now by many larger schools who can pay him a great deal more money than VCU.

But he just surprised the college basketball world by declining a $2.5 million/year offer from Illinois to stay at VCU for half that.  Here’s the rationale:

“My family is really, really happy in the city of Richmond,” Smart said, repeating something he has said often. “We have a great group of guys. We have some of the best fans in the country. It’s just a great situation.

“A coach told me a long time ago, don’t run away from happiness, and that’s what we have at VCU.”

Mark Few, head basketball coach of Gonzaga University, has had similar opportunities to jump for a bigger school and has likewise stayed at Gonzaga.  An ESPN story said this about his decision:

“The biggest mistake is that everybody tries to project their own feelings and own thoughts and own values into what you think a guy should do,” said Few. “It comes down to what that individual person wants in life.

“The only people that matter is the coach and the family and what they want and value and where they’re at in life,” said Few. “Do you want to pack up and move young kids, kids in junior high, high school? That’s where it becomes an individual choice and situation.”

The whole piece is worth reading.

I really like Shaka Smart.  He seems like an excellent coach in every way.  He builds his players up and doesn’t tear them down.  I’m impressed by his decision to stay–for now–at VCU.  He may well leave in the future, but even staying this long at a small school is unusual in the college basketball world when one has the kind of chances that Smart does.  Smart stayed because he genuinely likes VCU, and his family likes Richmond.  It’s refreshing to see a talented young coach do this.

It reminded me of a piece on pastoral ministry that Mark Dever wrote a little while back.  Dever suggested that his models for pastoral ministry are three Anglican bachelors who each stayed in a pastorate for decades:

When I’m asked about my models for pastoral ministry I’ve often said, “Three Cambridge Anglican bachelor S’s—Sibbes, Simeon, and Stott.” Each of these men found a strategic location, began expounding God’s Word, and stayed. Expositional preaching is foundational to a Christian ministry, and it’s worth thinking about finding a strategic location and even remaining single. But for this article I want us to consider that other matter of longevity.

First, the facts about these three. Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) began preaching in Cambridge in the early 1600s, and had a continuous ministry in London at Gray’s Inn from 1617 until his death in 1635. Charles Simeon (1759-1836) preached at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge from 1782 until his death in 1836, a remarkable 54-year ministry! And John Stott (b. 1921) began preaching at All Souls’ Church, Langham Place, in London from his appointment as curate (1945) and rector (1950), and he preached there regularly until just a few years ago—a ministry that, remarkably, even exceeds Simeon’s in length!

Here’s the whole piece.

Not every pastor needs to stay in one place for their entire career to be faithful to Christ.  But this is an inspiring model.  Those that do stay in one church for decades will know a level of influence that pastors with shorter tenures simply will not.  There will be many good things that come from such a situation–knowing generations of your people, becoming known in the community as a substantive and durable leader, and observing the gospel change hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives.

In the same way that we could commend Smart for his wise decision, we can commend the pastor who labors to love a certain people for much longer than he could.  There is a beauty in that, a humility, and a reward to be had on the last day.


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