As a life-long supporter of Sunderland AFC, and suffering more than my fair share of ups and downs during my 54 years, I have mixed feelings about Big Sam being called up to coach the England Team. He’s only been with us for nine months, saved us from relegation, signed a few good players and, for the first time in many years, supporters were optimistic about the coming season.  Not so anymore!  Of course, we wish him luck – it’s not everyday that a Sunderland manager takes the helm of the national team. But, like many others, I’m hoping we don’t find ourselves losing players or being embroiled in (yet) another relegation battle.

With obvious mixed feelings about this, I came across Andy Walton’s excellent article How Big Sam manages for success: What the Church can learn from new England football coach via Christian Today and thought I’d pass it on!

After yet another summer of failure, the England football team is about to get a new manager. For our American readers, it’s hard to express just what a mixture of tragedy and comedy the soccer team brings out in many of us English folk. Ever since we won the World Cup for the only time, on home soil in 1966, our story has been one of failure. Sometimes the failure has been glorious (Bobby Robson’s Italia ’90 surge, with Gazza’s tears, Platt’s wonderful volley against Belgium and Lineker’s expert goal poaching) and sometimes it’s just been farcical (this year’s risible loss to Iceland in the European championships, with barely a whimper).

In the aftermath of Brexit, uncertainty about our role in the world and the possible future break-up of the UK, the sense of identity the England football team gives to many could be an important force for good. That’s why I’m delighted in the choice of Sam Allardyce – a man who will galvanise the players, and hopefully the fans.

But what can the Church learn from his leadership style? Here are some lessons from his long managerial career.

1. Leaders Don’t Need To Be ‘The Usual Suspects’
Some of the furious reaction to Big Sam being appointed as the manager is down to sheer prejudice. He’s from the West Midlands and has spent much of his career managing unfashionable northern clubs. “Can anything good come out of Dudley” they ask? Well, yes! He may not have the tailored suits of a suave Italian manager or speak in eloquent prose, but he gets results.

There is a major lesson for the Church here. In too many of our congregations, much of the leadership is done by those who look the part. White, male, educated, able-bodied, married, etc… None of those criteria are bad in themselves, but we must look beyond the current leadership mould to find great talents. Jesus didn’t fit the mould of what many expected of a Messiah. We must be more willing to be led by people who don’t look like our current leaders.

2. There Is Strength In Diversity
When Allardyce was managing my beloved Bolton Wanderers, he stitched together a remarkable squad consisting of faded European stars, who were supposedly long past their best, young local lads of limited ability, and journeymen professionals who’d played much of their career in the lower leagues. Somehow, he created such a sense of teamwork in the squad that they regularly defeated the pampered millionaires of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and the rest. Diversity was a strength – there was even a time when we had two Israelis, a Muslim from Tunisia and an Iranian in the squad, working together in harmony.

The Church has to learn this lesson. Far from being a box-ticking exercise, being diverse can strengthen us in ways we can’t even imagine. The different talents, cultures and skillsets that a diverse congregation can muster are potentially potent than a monocultural group. Allardyce’s teams mix the British grit of homegrown players with continental flair. In the same way, we need to take the best aspects of the huge range of cultures which make up the Church.

3. Team Spirit
At a time when Church attendance is falling in the West and when young people especially are asking what the point of being a Christian is, we have a big problem on our hands. No longer does social convention or family pressure dictate that young people will follow their parents in the faith. While bringing them back into the fold (and attracting others) is a complicated issue, one of the main prerequisites is a sense of community and solidarity within a church.

Allardyce is famous for building a winning team, not only through tactics and sports science, but also through the spirit of togetherness. A series of outrageous and fun forfeits and challenges are a regular feature of his training routine. Building camaraderie means players willing to go the extra mile on the pitch. In the church this will take many forms – but does your congregation look after each other in a tangible, practical way? Are you there for each other in good times and bad? Is there a sense of fun and joy, which is missing from the contemporary secular world? Are you more like family than a bunch of individuals who come together for an hour on a Sunday? That’s what team spirit looks like.

4. Preparation and Routine
A good football team is like a good church – it has the right mix of planning and spontaneity. Sam Allardyce’s teams are mischaracterised as ‘boring’ or ‘predictable’, whereas actually, they are a good mixture. Allardyce plays to his strengths – all his players know their roles and they are worked incessantly on set pieces and other tactical drills. But at the same time, skillful individuals such as Jay-Jay Okocha or Youri Djorkaeff are always given licence to be creative.

In the same way, a church should have structures in place. Leadership heirarchies, creeds, liturgies, sacraments and other ‘planned elements’ are vital to a healthy and flourishing church. Yet so is creativity and spontaneity – those opportunities to see where God may be leading a congregation and individuals in worship, prayer and community building.

5. Have Some Fun
Sam Allardyce is often incorrectly assumed to be a dour personality by the overwhelmingly southern-based media. It’s just not true. He has a good sense of humour and deploys it with the squad in equal measure to his moments of more firm leadership. I was once at a press conference with him and asked a question he considered to be a bit silly. He gave a tongue-in-cheek answer which gave us all a great story and showed his personality. Numerous former players have spoken about his instilling humour into their training sessions.

Surely we need this as a Church – however worthy your task, however important your sermon topic, however serious the pastoral situation. When dealing with the most important issues, like the meaning of life and people’s struggles, it would be easy for a pastor to be po-faced and worthy. Yet often the best first response in many of these situations is to laugh. A church which laughs together and doesn’t take itself too seriously will be more effective. It will be more attractive to outsiders. It’s a better place to be.

Here’s to a bright future for the Three Lions of England, but more importantly for the Church …

Haway The Lads!

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy