What Coaching Basketball Teaches me about Outdoor Ministry Soul Care

by Ashley Denton

Have You ever Wondered what the Coach is Saying to his Team During a Time Out?

I stepped out of my comfort zone this year and agreed to help coach the 8th grade basketball team at Liberty Common School here in Fort Collins. I played high school ball, but I have never coached it, so my learning curve has been steep. Coaching a high pace sport is very different from playing it.

One thing that has impressed me is how well the head coach, Jared Dybzinski, knows basketball. He knows each player’s ability, and he knows the skills and the tactics needed to win the game. But the thing that has impressed me the most is what goes on during a time out. Jared sees things on the court that my untrained eye doesn’t see yet. And when the momentum needs to be shifted in the game, he calls a time out.

What the team needs to hear during a time out is specific instruction. It doesn’t do much good for the coach to say things like, “keep up the hard work”, or “make sure to box out”, or to tell the center to, “stay out of foul trouble.” The players already know that. Generalities don’t help you win a game. Instead, specific instruction is the game changer. So the head coach draws up an in-bounds play, changes the defensive setup, or shows the team how to shut down a hot shooter on the other team. It’s the specific, detailed instruction that changes the game.

Facilitation as Soul Care in Outdoor Ministry

In outdoor leadership we use the term facilitation instead of coaching, but many of the principles are the same. Even more specifically in the field of outdoor ministry or Christian outdoor leadership, I assert the term soul care might be a better description of what we do rather than using the general term, facilitation (although I use the terms interchangeably depending what audience I’m speaking to).

Soul Care is about Giving Game-Changing, Specific Instruction on the Particulars of One’s Soul

It’s easy to talk about generalities with people by encouraging them to “think more positively”, or “overcome your fears”. Those are general things that most people know they “ought” to be doing.  But are they game changers? NO. By contrast, a truly effective spiritual leader will seek to know the person, and their life situation like a coach knows his players and the game they are playing. Then he can offer game changing perspective. Caring for another person’s soul involves giving specific guidance. Much like players on the court battling for the ball against a team that wants to shut them down, in the spiritual journey everyone needs someone to coach them by offering specific words on target to the unique inner-workings of their soul.

Jesus Offers Life, but He Gives a Specific Path to Obtain it: Himself

For example Jesus said to an inquiring political leader of his day, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (John 3:3).” And another time while talking to a woman with a deeply wounded soul out by a lonely water well, the woman said, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’ Then Jesus declared, ‘I who speak to you am he (John 4:25-26).” Time out. Did Jesus really say that he is the only Savior for the world? And that she was invited to follow him? Here Jesus himself is the game changer, and he did not speak in generalities about this woman’s need. He invited her to fall at his feet and repent of her sin, so that she could be freed from the tyranny and slavery of sin’s hold on her life.  Jesus offers life, but he gives a very specific path to obtain it: Himself.

Yet soul care is not just about leading someone to salvation through a relationship with Jesus. It is a vocation of helping those who want to follow Jesus know how to remain and abide in his love in the details of one’s life. My friend, Howard Baker, who is the director of Spiritual Formation at Denver Seminary reflects on the power of this kind of spiritual friendship in his book Soul Keeping. Describing the moment he grasped the vacuum of spiritual guides in the Western church today, he writes:

All around me were astute Bible teachers, dynamic preachers, passionate evangelists, and skilled ministry organizers—but no spiritual guides.  Many were willing to discuss the generalities of the Christian life, but I found no one willing to talk about the particulars of my soul’s condition (Baker, Soul Keeping).

Generalities Only Get You So Far in the Wilderness

In the field of outdoor leadership both secular and faith-based organizations understand the importance of specific instruction. And many would agree that wilderness classrooms are the perfect theater to provide scenarios for people to be pushed beyond their comfort zone into new spheres of growth. Wilderness by its very nature is out of our control. We learn in the wilderness that generalities only get us so far. What separates the men from the boys or the girls from the women in outdoor ministry programs is one’s ability to give specific, timely, advice based upon knowledge, experience, and an awareness of the other person’s abilities. When done well, no matter how uncomfortable the participant is, no matter what perceived risk the participant might be facing, an effective guide can help a novice cross over from bland generalities into the game-changing world of specific spiritual details. Simply put, those who can aim small and get down to the specifics are the ones who rise to roles of spiritual leadership:

In The Patriot, Benjamin Martin taught his sons to “aim small, miss small.” The idea is that if you aim at the bullseye on a target, you are more likely to hit it. If you aim at the whole target you might hit somewhere on the object but you won’t hit the bullseye…. If we deal only in generalities then we will probably either miss or barely hit the target. As we keep a keen eye on our audience and choose outcomes and objectives that create an environment of spiritual formation for our group then we will be more satisfied with the results. (Christian Outdoor Leadership: Theology, Theory & Practice, p. 149).

A Specific Difference between Non-Faith Based and Christ-Centered Outdoor Leadership

One of the specific differences I see between secular and Christ-centered outdoor leadership is that although secular outdoor leadership organizations are equally passionate about service of others and stewardship of the environment, outdoor ministries are committed specifically to outdoor leadership in the way of Christ. They have an uncompromising commitment to the soul care of those who participate in their wilderness expeditions. I’m grateful that there are many followers of Christ who work in secular outdoor leadership or education organizations. They are able to be witnesses to their participants and co-workers of the difference Jesus makes in their life while leading under their organization’s model of leadership development. They serve as “salt and light” in a bland and dark world where there is much need of the good news of Jesus. And if I could be so bold to say, without their presence and proclamation of Jesus, the people in their sphere of influence would be void of hope. We need more of these types of leaders in every strata of leadership in this field.

Jesus is the Main Course, Not the Appetizer

No matter where you serve as an outdoor leader (in a secular organization or as a volunteer or paid staff in an outdoor ministry or Christian camp), as a follower of Christ we need keep our focus on helping people experience God in the outdoors. This involves soul care at the highest level. Artfully presenting the good news of Jesus Christ through the outdoor adventure is the main course, not the appetizer.

Be the Type of Outdoor Leader Who Knows What to Tell Your Team During a Time Out

So the next time you are leading a group of people in the wilderness or facilitating an outdoor adventure, be a passionate shepherd–seeking to know those you are leading so well that throughout the journey you can periodically “call a time out” and huddle everyone up for a timely and specific trail talk, or pull an individual aside for some specific spiritual guidance. Since you know the game plan of the Great Commission, and you are familiar with the tactics of our enemy, the Devil (who is a liar, thief, and seeks to destroy people’s souls), then be the type of coach that knows what to say in the time out. Couple your knowledge and experience of God with familiarity of your team (group you are leading), and speak boldly about the specifics of the spiritual life. Anyone can preach on bland generalities. We need more Christian outdoor leaders who are skilled with words that target the particularities of people’s souls.

Residing in Fort Collins, CO, Dr. Ashley Denton is married to Becky and has five children. He is on staff with Nexus International and is the director of Wilderness Ministry Institute and the Center for International Youth Ministry.  He has a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from University of Arizona, a Master’s in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a Doctoral degree in Missions and Cross Cultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Involved in over 20 countries, his ministry encourages and equips indigenous leaders in the heart and skills to introduce young people to Jesus Christ through combining relational youth ministry and outdoor adventure.  He was formerly on staff with Young Life for 15 years and served as their National Director in New Zealand.  He also currently serves as a professor of Outdoor Leadership at Denver Theological Seminary.


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2 thoughts on “What Coaching Basketball Teaches me about Outdoor Ministry Soul Care

  1. Great insight and comparison here.  I really appreciate it.  As a Small Group Pastor at my church, I’m very quick to give general advice or direction, but not always so quick to give thoughtful, specific instruction.  This is good, and requires that those of us leading KNOW what we are talking about.  

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