Making Mistakes in Ministry: An NBA Finals Lesson for All of Us

A Mistake that will Never be Forgotten

Whether you’re a basketball fan or not, chances are you have heard about the mistake J.R. Smith from the Cleveland Cavaliers made at the end of game 1 in the NBA finals. He was in possession of the ball with only seconds remaining, and instead of calling a timeout or shooting the ball, he passed it to another player. The time ran out and the game went into overtime. But the real story is what happened on the sidelines.

Many channels have posted clips of the last moments of the game, and those clips have already received millions upon millions of views. The one clip that shows where leadership went wrong, however, is the one where Lebron James—arguably the best player in the NBA— actually sits down out of frustration over Smith’s decision to pass. James was rightfully heated at such a blatant mistake. In fact, he could not even look at Smith, his teammate.

While still waiting for overtime to begin, James asked his coach if they still had a timeout left. When his coach told him there was one timeout left, James’ demeanor went from understandable frustration to one of incredulity and disgust. He simply hid his head in a towel, as if to communicate the sentiment that he did not want anything more to do with either Smith or the rest of his teammates.

When the coach gathered the team for a quick huddle before the start of overtime, James then had to be coerced into being a part of the huddle. Ironically, it is James himself who usually runs the pre-game huddles, telling his teammates: “Follow my lead.” As the team took the floor for overtimes, the players looked defeated, especially Smith.

What Went Wrong?

There is no denying that Smith made a mistake, and there is no denying that James had every right to be frustrated, but what went wrong?

The point where everything went wrong was not in Smith’s gaffe, because, thanks to the clips, we can actually review the last two-minutes of the game and observe other mistakes made by other players during that window. Instead, everything went wrong when the team witnessed their leader and champion lose faith in one of his own teammates.

Sitting despondently on the bench, the devastation on Smith’s face heartbreakingly palpable, but what made the situation far worse was that his leader had lost confidence in him, and he even seemed to have lost confidence in his team’s ability to win the game.

As the team walked out onto the court, there was an obvious change in demeanor and morale. There the team was, on the court in overtime, their leader obviously frustrated and lacking the necessary confidence in his teammates, and the members of the team fed off of that frustration and negativity. The result: the Cavaliers lost the game by a whopping 10 points!

Mistakes are Opportunities to Display Effective Leadership

The mistake in judgment that led to an eventual loss for the Cavaliers is certainly hard to stomach for fans, the team, and almost certainly most devastatingly for Smith himself, but we can’t place the blame only on his shoulders. In order to be successful, leaders must believe in their teams. In heat of the moment, we need to rise above our frustration and take responsibility for the role we play in the unity and direction of the team.

In the heat of the moment, a good leader must not let their emotions get the best of them. It’s true that, in the heat of the moment, leaders must make quick decisions, but those decisions must transcend the ego of the leader in order to benefit the whole team. Leaders need to communicate that they still value, and even love, those who make mistakes. Yes, mistakes need to be addressed, but there is a time and place for that—and that time is most certainly not in the heat of the moment while the game is still being played!

Consider the pastor who yells at an employee in front of the rest of the staff because they forgot to complete an important task. That staff member will almost certainly feel humiliated, and the rest of the team will be placed in an awkward situation. Just think about the message that this kind of behavior sends; it creates an atmosphere where that entire staff is then terrified to make a mistake for fear of a similar response by their leader, and this winds up stifling communication, comradery and creativity.

We All Make Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. In fact, everyone should be given the freedom to make mistakes. Making mistakes is a normal part of learning and working toward goals, and when those mistakes happen, everyone usually finds out. But the real test is in how the team, especially the leader, responds.

Responding well to mistakes means encouraging and exhorting the people who make the mistakes. It means finding the time and place to address the mistake properly and to challenge that person to do better going forward. But when leaders succumb to frustration, anger or despair, it creates an unhealthy atmosphere that is not conducive to growth or learning. This the kind of environment is fatal to the team and its members.

The crazy part about this lesson in leadership is that my four-year-old daughter already understands it! One of the bonding moments we share is playing a video game app on my phone. Basically, it’s a Tetris-type game and you win diamonds. The more diamonds we win, the more my daughter is able to use that currency in order to decorate for our game.

Often I’ll be at a point in the game where it’s pretty much inconceivable that I might win, and, my daughter will say to me, “Daddy, you can beat this level!” Her confidence in me is so encouraging that I’ll then often look carefully for other avenues to beat the level that I simply didn’t see before. Sometimes I beat the level and sometimes I don’t, but her vote of confidence in my potential to do so really does inspire me to keep pushing forward.

Coming from my four-year-old daughter who is getting ready to enter transitional kindergarten, I’m reminded how important it is to build up those who are watching us, following us, and depending on us, and one of the most critical points that we can use to build others up is when they’ve made a mistake and have lost confidence in themselves.

Did a Lack of Leadership Cause the Downfall in the NBA Finals?

We all have had those moments in ministry where we made a big mistake and perhaps embarrassed by a person in a leadership role because of it. In these scenarios, we usually remember how that individual responded to our mistake more than the circumstances surrounding it.

For example, I know from personal experience that when my lead pastor has come alongside me to empathize with a mistake I’ve made, I was then more committed not only to learning from those mistakes in order to avoid making them in the future, but I was more committed the objective—to finishing the game strong.

So, did James’s response on the sidelines cause the Cavaliers to blow the NBA Finals? Honestly, I don’t know, but I do know that, as leaders, you and I are called to a profound responsibility. Morally speaking, we are responsible for the unity, direction, and spirit of our teams. Most importantly, we’re responsible for how we treat those members of our team when the chips are down, and we must be held accountable.

Let’s lead with grace and love. Let’s speak the truth in love. And let’s hold those who serve with us accountable for their mistakes—only, for the good of the team, identify the appropriate time and place for addressing the issue so that we can finish strong while the game is still in play.

Bryan A. Sands is campus pastor of Hope International University and the author of Everyone Loves Sex: So Why Wait?: A Discussion in Sexual Faithfulness.