What can Christian leaders learn from Gareth Southgate?

Is it just me, or does the football World Cup seem a world away? We have returned to our usual combination of agonising (and antagonism) about Brexit, and endless comments about the weather, at the moment mostly of the ‘Whew what a scorcher!’ variety. How quickly the waters of stoical disappointment have closed over the momentary hopes of a glorious triumph, thanks to the dampening waters of Croatia!

But it was not long ago that there was some momentum behind a campaign (only half in jest) for Gareth Southgate to be appointed our new Prime Minister. If he could turn a young and inexperienced team into one that looked like it might even have a serious chance of winning, was there nothing that he could not do? In fact, there is some serious reflection to be done on why his leadership was so effective—and there are things that could be learned in the context of Christian ministry.

1 He was not a likely candidate

It is quite difficult to remember back to the days before the World Cup, when Southgate was appointed, and the main responses were either ‘Who?’ or (with a sigh of despair) ‘Why?’ This looked like another mysterious appointment which was doomed to failure.

No one expected much of Southgate. Not even the Football Association, whose chairman Greg Dyke said in 2016 that English football was in such a desperate state that no one should dream of any real success until the 2022 World Cup, at the earliest. Southgate, notorious for missing a penalty and being sacked as manager of Middlesbrough, was just there as a stopgap. Expendable collateral damage in the seemingly futile search for English football’s lost soul.

In one sense, it is something of a truism that ‘God uses the unlikely’ when he calls individuals into positions of leadership. We can rehearse Abraham’s equivocal response to God’s trust in him, Moses’ failures and inadequacies (a murderer with a rage, and someone who was not good at speaking). We can revisit the failures of Gideon, Samson, Saul, David and Solomon. Alongside the men, we can recall the unlikely women God used, like Rahab, Ruth and Mary. We can list again the motley rag-bag that constituted the Twelve Apostles. And we probably need to do all that, because we live in an age where there is increasing pressure to perform, and where the Church is an institution which constantly faces the dangers of failure, and so succumbs to selecting in leadership those who will look like ‘a safe pair of hands‘.

I suspect that, with the benefit of hindsight, we will look back and see the things which did, in fact, make Southgate a good choice, and any fly on the wall in the room where the decision was made would be able to mention the question of qualities and qualifications. But it is worth remembering that, in real life, the world is not saved by Superman.

2. He is a team player

This might sound like an obvious, even banal, observation—but football needs team players, and not egotistical soloists. And the same is true in ministry. But, once again, it needs repeating, since both areas of life can easily be dominated by big personalities.

In the past, England has seemed like a team in name only. A two-tier collection of so-called stars, such as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, with random individuals making up the numbers. No wonder they struggled. Southgate has made a virtue of a necessity – England is, thankfully, completely out of big-ego players right now – and picked a squad where Harry Kane is the only player to even be the biggest name at his Premier League club. And even he looks like someone who is simply thrilled to be part of the England setup and not someone who is doing his country a favour.

Southgate invested energy in forming and building a team—and in comparison with other sports, football needs strength to do that, since there is always the temptation for individuals to hog the limelight, and pursue their own ends. If you watch football even occasionally, it will not be long before you see two strikers running up with field, one with the ball and his eye on glory, and the other waving frantically from the free space he has created and desperate to be passed the ball. Without the pass, the ball is lost, and a goal-scoring opportunity crashes against the rock of egomania.

But, unusually for a manager, Southgate not only built a team—he saw himself as part of the team.

He trusts his players. He encourages them to take responsibility for their own actions. He helps them to tell their own stories. To be known both to themselves and those around them.

Most of the best-known managers are large personalities—and the success of their team is thought to have been built on them as individuals. The same is often true in business—and too often the same is true for large and flourishing churches or church movements. Can you name the long-term rector of All Souls’, Langham Place? Or the leader of the HTB network? Now, can you name the leader of the church in Philippi? Or Ephesus? Or any of the New Testament church communities?

Andy Griffiths writes powerfully of the mistakes he made early on in ministry, thinking himself to be indispensable—and how he changed the focus of his approach to ministry.

In July 2005, I made God a vow: “No one but Jesus will be the sun in this solar system.” I meant two things: first, I would not make myself central to church life; second, aware that my curacy church had taken too central a place in my life, I refused to make St Michael’s central to my discipleship or that of its other members. I cultivated team-building. I discovered more and more areas where I was incompetent, and put together flat teams of equals to work — initially with me, but soon without my regular participation — to achieve the team goals.

(You can read more about this in his recent Grove Leadership booklet.)

3. He treats friends and ‘enemies’ as human

Much has been made of Southgate’s ’emotional intelligence’—the way that he treats the members of his squad as fully orbed human beings, and not just footballing machines from whom he gets the best results. This means that he shows concern for all aspects of his players’ lives—their well-being, their families, and the wider situation they are in.

Southgate is blessed with the rare gift – in football, especially – of emotional intelligence. That is what makes him emblematic of a modern, outward-looking man…All year, left-back Danny Rose has been suffering from a depression which he had kept to himself after picking up an injury: Southgate helped him come to terms with it by going public (“England has been my salvation and I can’t thank the manager and the medical staff enough,” he told the press). It was as close to therapy as football gets. By acknowledging the possibility of failure, he has made success more likely. The ball of fear that had hung heavily over the English game has been lifted.

Better still, Southgate leads by example. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. He believes in the importance of family and encouraged Fabian Delph to return home for the birth of his child.

But the best demonstration of this came when England won its first-ever penalty shoot-out in a World Cup, against Colombia. Once Southgate has taken time to congratulate his own team (and particularly Dier who took the final penalty), he then went over to the Colombian player, Mateus Uribe, who has missed the last Colombian penalty, in order to console him. Because, of course, Southgate knew what it was to be in that position himself.

This wasn’t just a random act of sensitivity and compassion – though these qualities are sufficiently uncommon, not just in English football but football the world over, to have made them remarkable in themselves. It was one of empathy. It was Southgate’s missed penalty against Germany that had been England’s downfall in the 1996 European Championship. He knew what it felt like to be the man to dash a nation’s dreams. To have been the man who ended up as the fall guy in a Pizza Hut advert. His arm round Uribe’s shoulder wasn’t a casual, passing gesture: it was one that spoke of a deep personal understanding. Even more than that, though, it was a moment of grace.

As I observe the exercise of Christian ministry in different contexts and different places, and as I listen to debates about the qualities required for ‘effective’ ministry, the more I become convinced that the primary quality for ministry is to be human, and to treat others as human, in the fullest sense of that word. So many failures, splits and hurt in ministry arises from those in leadership simply failing to act like normal, decent human beings. I don’t really know how the Church might select for this quality—but I know that it is important.

4. He has a sense of proportion

It is often said that Bill Shankly, the famous Liverpool manager for many years and who saw some of their greatest triumphs, stated that ‘Football is not a matter of life and death; it is much more important than that’. Southgate clearly believes the opposite. Other things in life matter—and many of them are a lot more important than football. That is why he was able to allow a member of the squad to leave—in the middle of the World Cup—to attend the birth of his child. A World Cup may come around again, but to be present at the birth of your child is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—and Southgate knows it.

In fact, contrary to reputation, Shankly knew it too.

He was grateful for his sporting life and said: “Pressure is working down the pit. Pressure is having no work at all … pressure is not the European Cup or the Championship or the Cup Final. That’s the reward.”

When he made his famous comment, he was actually saying it against himself—and highlighting the error of thinking in this way.

 Asked if he regretted that absence he said: “I regret it very much. Somebody said: ‘Football’s a matter of life and death to you.’ I said, ‘Listen it’s more important than that.’ And my family’s suffered. They’ve been neglected.”

The same is too often true of Christian leaders in ministry. I recently heard a report of a high-profile Christian scholar, who has published prolifically, who told a young audience that ministry was so important, it should be the thing that dominates their life—so much so that they should only have four hours of sleep a night. The gospel is so much more important than sleep! That is a terribly damaging perspective, and one that still continues in many areas of ministry. And the reason is that it sounds noble and seductive—’the gospel is so important!’—but it is actually deceptive. When this language is used, it is not the gospel that takes centre-stage, but this person’s ministry. It is as if God cannot do his work without us—that we are indispensable to him. And that is heresy.

So where did Southgate learn all these important lessons? Well, perhaps he learned them from the one we should be learning from as well.

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9 thoughts on “What can Christian leaders learn from Gareth Southgate?”

  1. I’ve long thought this about the appointment of leaders in the CofE: how so often it seems to be a certain type of personality that is preferred over those who might have more relevant qualities.

    • An unavoidable consequence of how they’re selected: handing appointment over to a tiny body of insiders, and worse, with the crucial pre-screening done off-the-books with a nod and a wink, makes it inevitable that company men (and now women) will be appointed. Doubt it’s even by design: it’s inevitable that the church hierarchy will gravitate towards people like them.

      If England does what other provinces do, and introduces episcopal elections, the diversity of her bishops’ bench can but increase. So long as evangelicals hold the levers of power, however, doubt there’ll be any pressure for this long, long overdue reform.

  2. As a Spurs fan I noted that in all England;s performances they faded in the second half. Perhaps Southgate needed to add Poch’s ingredient, endurance. Matt 24:13?

  3. I saw this from Pope Francis this week along similar lines:

    “The first disease threatening the church today, and especially its leaders, is the disease of thinking we are downright “indispensable”, A simple visit to the cemetery might help us see the names of many people who thought they were immortal, immune and indispensable! It is often an effect of the pathology of power, from a superiority complex, from a narcissism which passionately gazes at its own image and does not see the image of God on the face of others, especially the weakest. From this flows excessive busy-ness. It is found in those who immerse themselves in work and inevitably neglect “the better part”: sitting at the feet of Jesus (cf. Lk 10:38-42). Jesus called his disciples to “rest a while” (cf. Mk 6:31) for a reason, because neglecting needed rest leads to stress and agitation. A time of rest, for those who have completed their work, is necessary, obligatory and should be taken seriously.”

  4. Most of us only know Gareth Southgate through the media. The greatest testimony is that a friend at church who has a senior technical role at the FA told me (unbidden) that the media profile is accurate. So, for example, they have a shared colleague suffering from serious cancer. GS texted him before and after every World Cup match to check how he was and encourage him. As a result I am much more inclined to trust him as a role model.


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