MODELING SERVANT LEADERSHIP: Manassas High School coach Bill Courtney sought to teach more than football.
We’ve seen the story before: a white coach turns around a failing inner-city football team and, in the process, helps ease racial tensions in his community. This time the film is Undefeated, a documentary about three black players from North Memphis, Tennessee, and their volunteer coach Bill Courtney. The film won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards last Sunday night (snagging an Oscar for executive producer Sean “P.Diddy” Combs), but while Courtney is humbled by the honor, he isn’t all that impressed and says he didn’t set out to save anybody. UrbanFaith talked to this no-nonsense coach about his faith, his motives, and his goals for working with the team. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: In an interview with MSN before Undefeated won the Academy Award, you said if the film defines you or the players featured in it, or if it is the best thing that ever happened to any of you, you’ve got real problems. How do you feel now that it’s won?
Bill Courtney: I feel the same way. The film winning a little 14-inch gold statue doesn’t make it any better or worse than it was before it won it. It’s a great honor and it’s humbling. In Hollywood, societal statements or environmental statements are the types of things that are typically celebrated, so when a film about perseverance and kids wins, it speaks to the power of the film. I think it’s great, but it doesn’t define us and it cannot define us. What needs to define us is the experience that we had together so that when we go on in our lives 20 years from now, and we’re raising families, having graduated from college, and have jobs, that’s what needs to define us, not a moment in time that was captured on film. Don’t take me wrong. It’s humbling. It’s a wonderful experience and we should allow ourselves to enjoy it, but if something like that defines you, you start taking yourself too seriously and that’s a pretty tough road to hoe.
An employee of yours had asked for time off to cook pre-game meals with his Sunday school class for an inner-city football team and you told him about Manassas High School, which is down the road from your lumber company. He then told the Manassas team about you and that’s how you got involved. Did faith play a role in your involvement too?
Courtney: Faith plays a role in everything I do. I’m a Christian. It’s my job to be as Christ-like as I possibly can. I sin daily. Thank goodness for forgiveness; otherwise my life would be in shambles. Certainly faith played a role in it, because I feel compelled and I feel that it’s all of our calling to help out those in the greatest need. These kids were completely deficient in a number of basic tenets and fundamentals that I want my own children raised with. The need was there and it was the most rewarding experience of my life to be able to share my life with them. It’s inspirational that they shared their lives with me. I don’t think they would have been welcomed into my neighborhood nearly as quickly and generously as they welcomed me into theirs.
What did you learn from these young men who came from a different culture and a different racial background than you?
Courtney: The racial thing didn’t really have anything to do with it. I didn’t think of them as my black players and they didn’t think of me as the white coach. I know society is going to look at this film and want to have that conversation. It had nothing to do with our relationship. Therefore, I don’t have anything to say about it.
With regard to what I learned from them, prior to my experience with them, I probably would have had the attitude that this is a free country. My mom and dad were divorced early. I grew up with very little and I made it, so if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault. Frankly, that’s a lie. That’s something we want to tell ourselves to make ourselves feel good. The truth is the playing field isn’t level. When children grow up having seen perpetual generations that have no hope and feel lost, and feel like they’re not even part of society, that’s what they’re going to feel and grow up doing. All the money and governmental programs and everything in the world simply does not replace true love, care, and compassion, and true mentorship.
What they taught me was that no matter what you’re circumstances are, when you try to do the right things, and you work toward commitment and discipline, and you work on your own soul and character, then amazing things can happen. I will forever be indebted to those kids and that community for welcoming me and accepting me.
You’ve said that football doesn’t build character, it reveals character, and that if a person’s foundation is football, they’re going to fall on their behind.
Courtney: I don’t think something as trivial as a game builds character. You build your own character when you build a foundation of the tenets you want to make yourself. Things like football, a job, a marriage—the real things in life are what reveal your character. If you think football is going to help you to rise up above your circumstances and have a great life, I think you’re wrong. You can’t stand on a football. Football cannot be a foundation for anything. Your foundation has to be your discipline and your commitment. If you build your foundation on those principles, then you can hold 20 footballs over your head all day long.
In the MSN interview, you talked about the servant leadership of a coach you had growing up who made seniors get water for the team and things like that instead of making freshman do it, as is customary. Is Christ-like servant leadership something you taught your players and modeled for them?
Courtney: I believe that Christ lived on this earth and gave his life so that I could be forgiven for the things I do on a daily basis that I’m ashamed of. So, when I believe the ruler of the universe served me, I pretty much feel like it’s my responsibility to serve everyone I can. In serving, you then lead, because you give an example to people of a way to lead your life that is more selfless than self-serving. I didn’t say that, because it comes off self-serving if you say, “Hey, look at me.” I just did it. My belief is: I can’t save anybody—I can’t save anybody from circumstances; I can’t save anybody into a faith. It’s my job to introduce my faith and then let the Lord work his will the way he sees fit. The way you do that is you walk what you talk and do the very best you can to serve and to share what your life is about, if they ask. Hopefully from there, they find a place in their own lives to grow from that.
Has the Black church lowered its expectations regarding its pastors? According to Rev. Eric Redmond, the Eddie Long scandal provides us with an opportunity to reevaluate what’s required of our church leaders and to reclaim a biblical standard.
The allegations against Bishop Eddie Long are horrifying and disgraceful, but not necessarily shocking. For, unfortunately, many well-known Christian leaders of large ministries have made the choice of stepping outside of their marriages into sexual immorality. Even more unfortunate is that we, as African Americans, often excuse our morally failing leaders as people who are mere men or victims of white conspiracies. But sinners are not victims; they are fallen people who make choices.
Yesterday, in front of his Atlanta congregation, Bishop Long finally addressed the accusations that were leveled against him. He was right in saying the case should not be tried in the media, and it is not my intention to imply the man’s guilt in this space. Until proven otherwise, he deserves the presumption of innocence.
For pastors like myself, however, the allegations against Long should cause us all to pause and seek the Lord for more mercy and grace upon our own souls: “Lord, lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” But this sad episode also provides an opportunity for all believers to consider what we should expect of our Christian ministers in terms of character and morality, and what to do when pastors make choices that disqualify them for leadership.
What We Should Expect
First, churches should expect their pastors to be men who walk in holiness before God. All of us are called to be holy, for our God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). But pastors are called to live at a higher standard of Christian behavior than that of the general believer. When the qualifications for pastors (elders) are given in Scripture, the pastor is expected to be a man who meets the full composite of the qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-8; Tit. 1:5-9). Many of these qualifications concern the pastor’s personal holiness: “self-controlled,” “not a drunkard,” “not a lover of money,” “upright,” and “holy.” These qualifications should characterize the pastor throughout his tenure as a pastor, not simply during his candidate period at a church. This is the only way in which he can remain above the reproach of his people.
Second, churches should expect their pastors to be men who model Christ. Again, all of us are called to follow Christ and our Lord’s walk before God the Father. In a more significant way, pastors must set an example of Christ for others to follow. At all times we must be able to say to our people, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, ESV). We are to “set an example to the believers … in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Fighting for Survival: On Sunday, Bishop Eddie Long finally addressed the allegations leveled against him by four accusers. The unfolding saga illustrates the importance of pastors being “above reproach” in both their ministries and personal lives. (Image from New Life Missionary Baptist Church)
Believers are commanded to consider how their leaders live and imitate them (Heb. 13:7). If our people cannot see an example of Christ in us — including keeping our bodies pure from immorality — they cannot follow Christ by following us. To put it differently, our stead as pastors is no greater than our ability to say, “You can please Christ; just follow me and I will show you how to do it.” We have no credibility or meaningful role in evangelizing sinners if our message only is “God can change and keep you, but he cannot do the same for me.”
Third, churches should expect their pastors to be men who keep their marriage vows faithfully. Pastors must be “[husbands] of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; 1:6). The man of God must be one who keeps his marriage vows. This means that he should not be a man of remarriage, adultery, pornography-watching or addiction, or bisexual and/or down-low relationships, for each of these items stands in opposition to fidelity in marriage to one woman. This is an issue where lesser understandings and disobedience to this Scripture are harmful to our churches, and of which we, as African Americans in particular, need to raise our standards, for at least two reasons:
- The African American family needs to hear and see modeled the message of the gospel and its significance for the family so that our families and community might be rescued from destruction. The social indicators of African Americans, including high divorce rates, high percentage of children growing up in single-parent homes, and high numbers of single, marriageable-age women — some of whom are now blaming the Black Church for the problem of their singleness — all point toward the need for the strengthening of the African American marriage and family. Couple this with the large numbers of African Americans who are members of churches, and you will see that there is an opportunity for the church to lead the way in repairing the ruins of the African American community. The repair work starts with the church being a place in which marriage is held in high honor. Typically this happens in places where a pastor holds his own marriage is high honor.
- The gospel story itself is most readily portrayed and explained by the mystery of marriage. The gospel is the story of Christ giving his blood in death and rising from the dead in power in order to beautify the bride the he will wed in her final salvation (Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 21:1-4). The gospel we proclaim to the world inherently says, “Do you want to see what salvation is like? It is like a perfect marriage between the Perfect Man and the perfect woman in perfect marital bliss forever and ever! Come get what you have always wanted in life!” We, the believers, are that bride that Christ is beautifying. We are the ones who should be able to say, “Christ will make your life like a great marriage; just look at my marriage” (or “my purity as a single believer,” cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-38; 2 Cor. 11:2-4).
Pastors should be the leaders in their congregation in preaching and living out the gospel — the story of the Perfect and Eternal Marriage. Otherwise, how can his people trust his word on marriage? When he says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” will he have any credibility? Can his members trust that his counsel on marriage will work for them if God’s power did not work for him? Instead of questioning their pastors, congregations should be able to trust their pastors as men who fear the Lord in all areas, including in their bedrooms (cf. Heb. 13:4).
When the Pastor Falls
Many of you might be rightfully wondering at this point, If a pastor fails in his marriage, what should happen next? There are no easy answers to this. Simply put, having not met the qualities of a pastor, that man is biblically obligated to step down from his role as leader of his congregation immediately. If he does not step down, his congregation should ask him to step down. This may seem harsh, but consider the alternative message you are sending to his wife, children, and the watching world that is in need of redemption. The wife and children are, in effect, being told that the church is not there to hold the head of their household accountable to the gospel. Thus, he can live two lives before them and God’s people and there is nothing his family can expect the church to do.
Moreover, we tell the world that our gospel is a sham and powerless. We appear to be people who say, “Well, you do not really have to live like a Christian in order to be one, or be a member of the church. We’ll prove it to you: just look at our pastor!” This is shameful, but it also is what we do when we allow immoral men to remain in their pulpits, and it is commonly accepted in the African American church. We must remember that, unlike King David or President Clinton, a pastor cannot divorce his work from his life, for his work is a message that must be modeled in order to be proclaimed with credibility and the power of the Spirit of God.
Let me be clear that requiring an immoral man to step down from his position as pastor is not a question of the man’s gifts or of his internal calling (which is subjective). It is a matter of his qualifications — his external calling, which are objective and verifiable for every man, regardless of his spiritual and natural gifts. Such a man may be gifted as a teacher and preacher. However, this does not mean he needs a pulpit. Instead, he needs repentance, marital counseling, brotherly accountability, a pattern of faithfulness in his marriage, and to make amends with the congregation that he has harmed. His gifts may be used to do outreach in the community or to teach a Bible study. But, at that point, he is not qualified to lead a congregation.
The fall of a pastor is a serious matter for the church as we seek to glorify God in all things. It must mean the end of a pastor’s tenure as his church’s pastor. Thankfully, because of the blood and resurrection of Christ, it does not mean the end of his salvation. For his fall is only a fall from his qualification for the pulpit. It is not a fall from the grace and mercy that secures our salvation in Christ.