What Nick Saban Taught Me About Student Ministry

how to grow a youth group

Whether you classify yourself as a Crimson Tide fan or not, you’ve got to admit that Head Football Coach Nick Saban seems to be something pretty special.  He’s the only coach in the BCS era to win 3 National Championships and two of them have been in the past three years.  He seems like he knows a thing or two about the game of football.

As I watched a recent interview with Coach Saban, I knew that he was wise in regards to the game of football, but I wasn’t really prepared for him to teach me something about my own line of work; Student Ministry.

Here’s what he reminded me of:  We’re all in the recruiting business.  As Coach Saban was talking about the importance of recruiting, he mentioned that he is focused on recruiting the top High School talent in the country, and how his goal is to get these boys committed to calling his locker room home for the next several years of their lives.

In this interview, Coach Saban told me as a Youth Pastor  “You aren’t going to recruit top talent because you have these things”:

1.  Fancy Facilities– Many of us in ministry are guilty of believing that a better facility will bring more people into our church.  Afterall, don’t we all want hundreds of thousands of square feet and new paint and fancy electronics throughout?  A nice facility is great, but as far as people actually showing up and getting assimilated into your ministry, a facility isn’t going to make that happen most of the time.

2.  Sharp Jerseys & Logos– Ministry Marketing is a huge buzz word right now, and many of us believe that if you have a big enough marketing budgets or cool enough logos and graphics, than your church will grow and people will get plugged in.  It’s a great advantage to have these things, but they’re not the answer either.

3.  A Great Staff Team– If a church has an incredible staff, it should explode right?  You would think so… But apparently just having a great team in place isn’t what gets someone committed to becoming a part of your church.  Now, we all know that a great staff team is your best resource, but in the area of recruitment, it takes more than that.

4.  A Great History & Tradition– Believe it or not, the past is the past.  Make no mistakes, a great legacy is invaluable, but people really are concerned more about the future than they are the past.  Therefore, a great tradition or history isn’t what it takes to get someone committed.

5.  Boosters & Budget– Everyone would commit to going to a church that has a ton of money and a group of people backing it and supporting it, right?  Apparently that’s not the answer.  There are many churches that have money and good support systems in place.  So, if that’s not the key in recruiting, what is?

As I watched the interview, I was on the edge of my seat, because at times in my ministry career, I’ve bought into all 5 of these lies.  I’ve found myself envious of my Pastor-friends spending millions on incredible facilities and said to myself, “If we could only build a facility like that… then we would explode…”  I remember times in my past when I’ve thought, “If our website was cooler…” or “If I could just hire these guys…”  “If I only had a bigger budget…”  “If I only had the support of the finance team or the Executive Staff…”

If you’ve been in ministry any time at all, I’m pretty confident you can identify with these statements.

So I’m sitting there, waiting to hear the secret to Coach Saban’s recruiting success and you know what he says?  He says,

“If you want to get a High School kid to commit to your organization… if you want him to be in your locker room, you first have to get in his living room.”

That’s it.  It’s not Facebook contacts or writing thank you notes to your visitors.  It’s not a phone call from a Bible Study teacher or a text blast from a Youth Pastor.  The secret is old school visitation.  If you want a High School student to be committed to you and your organization, you must first be committed enough to meet him or her on their home turf.  If you show that much commitment initially, the return on your investment is typically pretty good.

I’m not sure why it took a Nick Saban interview to jog this realization in my brain, because the Bible is full of examples that teach this very same thing.  If you are intentional in meeting people on their home turf, they’re way more likely to embrace you, your story and the opportunity you’re presenting them.  So, if you’re really All-In… embrace what works, put a few extra miles on your car this year and hit the ground running in 2012.

23 Comments

  1. Well my goodness Jordan. I think you might have just stumbled onto to something pretty awesome bro. Great article that every youth pastor needs to embrace. It's about people that God loves and Jesus gave his life to reclaim. Good eye bro.
  2. Well my goodness Jordan. I think you might have just stumbled onto to something pretty awesome bro. Great article that every youth pastor needs to embrace. It's about people that God loves and Jesus gave his life to reclaim. Good eye bro.
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  5. As the parochial vicar at the Catholic Church nearest Penn State (I something approximately similar to a youth pastor) I had the privilege of having mass for the Crimson Tide team and coaches when they came to Penn State this year. It was an incredible experience, but let me say they are the ONLY school that Penn State plays who specifically request a Priest for mass (along with their team chaplain who does the inter-denominational service) and Coach Saban is a solid Catholic. When he walks into a room, by his very presence, he commands respect. It's a wonderful testimony that Mass and/or Service is an integral part of the team's Game-Day Morning (as it was for PSU under Paterno) and I think all of us in ministry could learn from the Coach Saban's example and do our best to carry ourselves with a degree of respect and self-confidence in our mission. Players, Teens, and often families look to clergy for guidance. Of course we make mistakes, but If we don't try to have it together and well thought out. Our people are just going to think it's not really possible at all! For Coach Saban, it's very clear it's about relationship, and that relationship doesn't always have to be warm and fuzzy, it can be based on respect, and that's something we sometimes forget, especially in youth ministry!
  6. As the parochial vicar at the Catholic Church nearest Penn State (I something approximately similar to a youth pastor) I had the privilege of having mass for the Crimson Tide team and coaches when they came to Penn State this year. It was an incredible experience, but let me say they are the ONLY school that Penn State plays who specifically request a Priest for mass (along with their team chaplain who does the inter-denominational service) and Coach Saban is a solid Catholic. When he walks into a room, by his very presence, he commands respect. It's a wonderful testimony that Mass and/or Service is an integral part of the team's Game-Day Morning (as it was for PSU under Paterno) and I think all of us in ministry could learn from the Coach Saban's example and do our best to carry ourselves with a degree of respect and self-confidence in our mission. Players, Teens, and often families look to clergy for guidance. Of course we make mistakes, but If we don't try to have it together and well thought out. Our people are just going to think it's not really possible at all! For Coach Saban, it's very clear it's about relationship, and that relationship doesn't always have to be warm and fuzzy, it can be based on respect, and that's something we sometimes forget, especially in youth ministry!

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