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Chicago Bulls head pastor, Phil Jackson


I try to be trendy. Recently, I persuaded a flexible priest to rebaptize me with imported bottled water. I've lost 10 pounds on a horseradish diet. Even as I write, I am listening to a CD of Music from the Paleolithic Age, played on original rocks, accompanied by the Titular Bishops' Curial Choir.

In that spirit, I have searched for the ideal pastor and found him in the world of major league sports.

I'm pleased to announce that my selection for America's best pastor is Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls.

The four-time national championship coach reminds one of Hebrews 11:1: "Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen." Jackson, who often appears to be asleep on the bench, understands the difference between leadership and authority, between power and influence.

Richard Lacayo, writing in Time magazine, noted that power and influence are not identical notions. "To hold power," he wrote, "is to have at your disposal blunt instruments. But without influence, power dies out at the end of its own channels of command. To have influence is to gain assent, not just obedience; to attract a following, not just an entourage; to have imitators, not just subordinates."

Phil Jackson, son of Pentecostal ministers, succeeds because he enlists the hearts and minds of a wildly disparate group of players (read parishioners). He doesn't try to keep his parishioners guessing in the misguided notion that such nonsense is a way to stimulate creativity. He realizes that no one can create a successful "parish" alone, no matter how gifted he is.

According to Jackson, many coaches are "controloholics." For these people, everything must flow from the top.

Bishops afflicted with this syndrome write letters to priests decreeing that, upon a bishop's arrival for confirmation, priests must vest in a separate room. Pastors give lengthy directions on the proper administration of the Eucharist by intinction or on how high the processional cross should be held.

Jackson is different. He not only positions the spokes of his game plan, he pays attention to the spaces between the spokes, just the way great composers are mindful of the silence between notes. He understands that no vision can become a reality until it is owned by every member of the group.

"Being aware is more important than being smart," he wrote in his 1995 book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior (Hyperion, New York, $22.95). He gives his players freedom to discover what works and what doesn't, to think more for themselves.

Citing Carlos Castaneda's The Teaching of Don Juan, he instructs his players to look at everything closely and deliberately. "Try it as many times as you think necessary," Castaneda says. "Then ask yourself: 'Does this path have a heart?' If it does, the path is good. If it doesn't, it is of no use."

The advice reminded me of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's last homily to his priests, delivered by Bernadin's delegate after his death. "People look to priests to be authentic witnesses to God's active role in the world. They don't want us to be politicians or business managers. They are not interested in the petty conflicts that may show up in parish life. They want us to bring Jesus to them."

Jackson is a Zen Christian. He uses such Zen-like words as "interconnectedness" and "mindfulness." He urges his charges to pay attention to what is actually happening, to become more attuned to each other. The obvious joy his players experience becomes a powerful motivating force, a feeling that comes from deep within, not from some frenzied coach pacing along the sidelines.

Much of what passes for leadership is a kind of social engineering that dictates every move and motivational technique, but does nothing to move the heart. After encountering one's pastor, one should always understand a little more about why one is alive.

Jesuit Fr. Richard A. McCormick, professor of Christian ethics at the University of Notre Dame, writing in America, reflects on the recent restorationist trend in the church that supplies bishops who have authority and yet do not exercise true leadership. McCormick points out that the criteria for episcopal appointments is so tightly structured that it may exclude many of the most eligible and influential pastoral leaders.

"We see bishops not maximizing the apostolic effectiveness of their priests but controlling them," he writes. "We see priests controlling, not releasing their congregations. We see theologians controlling those dependent on their expertise, not aiding them." In McCormick's view, what emerges from this authoritarian pile is a species of authority that has ceased to struggle to become leadership.

According to Jackson, the most efficient way to forge a winning team is "to call on the players' (read parishioners') need to connect with something larger than themselves." He enlists their hearts through inclusion and participation, not decrees.

Not long ago, Jackson spoke at Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago's loop. The crowd was so large that they had to move into the upstairs church where the coach, who stands 6' 8" and gets about on a motorcycle, used the pulpit. He told the crowd of the power of prayer and the fact that his team won the NBA title because they had formed a community and had surrendered the "me" for the "we."

"Find a structure that would empower everybody," he said, "not just the stars. And allow the players to grow as individuals as they surrender themselves to the group effort."

"I was far more effective when I balanced the masculine and feminine side of my nature," he wrote in his book. He added that one of the most important qualities of a leader is listening without judgment: "When I back off and just listen, I get much better results on the court."

If the liberating mentality of mindfulness and interconnectedness continues to infuse us as Christians, then, in Fr. McCormick's words, "we will begin to experience their delightful results.

"We will know security amid confusion, peace amid disagreement, unity amid pluralism, freedom amid regulation and law, loyalty amid dissent -- briefly, hope in a broken world.

"True leadership, if it would build on the example of Christ, does not control," McCormick concludes. "It liberates."

It's likely that the Bulls will be National champions for the fifth time. Watch them play. Study Pastor Jackson. He will free you up to lead others -- and control yourself.

Tim Unsworth lives in Chicago. His book I Am Your Brother Joseph: Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago (Crossroad) will be released in late January.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997