Alright… so maybe Chip Kelly (picture by is a football coach and not a missionary, but his first attempt in cross-cultural work was a flop and there are some things aspiring missionaries can learn from his NFL failure at the helm of the Philadelphia Eagles American football team.
Lesson #1 – Getting experience at home
This is something Chip Kelly did well. In 2007, he became the offensive coordinator for the University of Oregon Ducks. Then in 2009, he became their head coach and met with tremendous success. He received numerous awards and kudos. He had time to learn and put into practice great coaching principles and practices in a setting that did not involve as much scrutiny as he would experience in his first cross-cultural NFL experience.
This is something from which every aspiring missionary can learn. Missions is the NFL of ministry. It is tough, stressful, demanding and usually in a language not native to the missionary. The field of foreign ministry is not the place to go to learn ministry or to get your life together and every attempt I’ve seen at doing so has met with ineffectiveness or abject failure. Learn and practice good ministry principles in your native culture and then apply to go overseas.
Lesson #2 – Remember you are only one person
Chip Kelly went on to coach the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, but he wasn’t satisfied with simply being their head coach. He also took on the title and powers of the general manager. In other words, he didn’t stick with his area of expertise and giftedness, but rather took the reigns away from those who actually knew how to manage. Did he have a “messiah complex”? Or was he just really so full of himself as to think he could do two very demanding jobs at the same time. In the end, he didn’t do either job well.
The point is that missionaries should remember they are not islands in and of themselves, nor are they the Messiah. We are people and we would do well to know our areas of expertise and giftedness, work within those spheres and to allow other people the time and space to do what they do well.
Lesson #3 – Consider the culture
Chip Kelly had three years to adapt to the culture in Philadelphia, but in his third season (2015) with the team, his actions showed a complete and utter disregard for the culture of this historic city. It isn’t that he was antagonistic, but rather simply ignorant. Let me explain. The city of brotherly love is driven by a lot of emotion and perhaps that is why its teams have always fared better when the city has a hero to rally around. Whether it was Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain or Doctor J of the Seventy-Sixers, or Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose (a.k.a. Charlie Hustle) or even Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams of the Phillies, Philadelphia loves heroes. It is not a coincidence they have erected a statue to the fictional character Rocky Balboa, but rather a reflection of their values. They particularly idolize the champion who rose out of humble stock… the everyday schmo who became something great against all odds. That hero for the 2015 Eagles may have become Tim Tebow.
Tebow is strong and fast, but in previous years did not have the passing consistency to become a leading NFL quarterback. So, together with the most outstanding experts, he went to work on his passing, honing his skills to near perfection. He worked the preseason with the Eagles and it became obvious he was on par with other second and third string quarterbacks in the league. Philadelphia started to come alive again as Tim epitomized the hero the city craved. It was obvious Tim wasn’t as technically good as the first string QB, but he was stronger than any of them and would have been less prone to injury. Also, despite his lack of experience, many considered Tim to have something none of the other quarterbacks had – the drive and ability to win.
Then when it looked like Tebow might get the second string QB position, he was dropped from the team as Chip Kelly brought in a reject from a Carolina team to take the position of third string QB. In effect, Kelly’s actions told Tim Tebow he wasn’t good enough to even play third string on the Eagle’s roster and it told the myriads of Philadelphia fans who were looking for a hero that Kelly didn’t give a hoot about them either. As it turned out, the star QB, Sam Bradford, predictably got injured and the Eagles spent the rest of their lackluster season being led by quarterbacks that did not excite the imagination of their own teammates or even the most easily swayed of fans. Before the end of the season, Chip Kelly was dismissed in a stunning rebuke of his performance or lack thereof in Philadelphia.
When missionaries go to minister in foreign lands, ministry principles almost always transfer and sometimes methods do as well. However, the importance of observing, knowing and taking into account the cultural values and idiosyncrasies of the local population can’t be overstated. Indeed, since the impact may have eternal consequences, it would seem more important for a missionary to do his homework in this regard than it would be for a head coach of an NFL team.
If Chip Kelly had simply studied the culture when he went to Philadelphia, he would have been embraced by the people of this great city. Instead, there was much rejoicing when he was fired. I wish Kelly well in his new endeavor as he coaches the San Francisco 49rs. Maybe he has learned a few lessons since his three year stint on the east coast. Although, if I may be so bold, I would suggest he take a few years to coach a Canadian team before returning to the NFL.
Let us know what you think in the comments below…