“Coaching for Fun or Profit?”  by Mark W. Harris


January 6, 2013 –  First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – from Sara Moores Campbell


Spirit of holiness, speak now to us.

Speak in the language of tradition, in words from scripture and poetry, in myths that capture the holy.

Speak in the language of faces – faces that tell of pain or longing or fear or joy or contentment or hope.

Speak to us in the language of music, with voices and rhythms that vibrate through body and soul;

Speak to us, holy mystery of the universe, in the language of winter – with beauty of austerity; and in the language of early spring – with buds bursting boldly from frost threatened air.

Speak in the language of color, the language of form, the language of motion, the language of stillness.

And help us, please help us, to listen.  Help us to hear the many languages that speak to us of our own possibility within the impossibility of life.


Reading –  “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid  (slightly edited)


Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry;

don’t walk barehead in the hot sun;

cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil;

when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash;

soak salt fish overnight before you cook it;

is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school ?;

always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach;

on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming;

don’t sing benna in Sunday school;

you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions;

don’t eat fruits on the street – flies will follow you;

but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school;

this is how to sew on a button;

this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on;

this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and to prevent yourself from looking like the slut you are so bent on becoming;

this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease;

this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease;

this is how you grow okra – far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants;

when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it;

this is how you sweep a corner;

this is how you sweep a whole house;

this is how you sweep a yard;

this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much;

this is how you smile at someone you don’t like at all;

this is how you smile to someone you like completely;

this is how you set a table for tea;

this is how you set a table for dinner;

this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest;

this is how you set a table for lunch;

this is how you set a table for breakfast;

this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming;

be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit;

don’t swat down to play marbles – you are not a boy, you know;

don’t pick people’s flowers – you might catch something;

don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all;

this is how to make a bread pudding;

this is how to make pepper pot;

this is how to make a good medicine for a cold;

this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child;

this is how to catch a fish;

this is how to throw back a fish you don’t like and that way something bad won’t fall on you;

this is how to bully a man;

this is how a man bullies you;

this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up;

this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you;

this is how to make ends meet;

always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh;

but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?;

you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?



“Coaching for Fun or Profit?”    by Mark W. Harris


I have bad memories of coaches.  I only seem to recall looking up at some red-faced man with his mouth open, yelling at me to “Do it again,” or “Do it right,” or “Why can’t you get it?”  Take my high school football coach.  Some of my worst adolescent moments were interactions with him.  Mr. Spadafora was also a biology teacher who had a reputation as being strict, tough and a disciplinarian, and that was in the classroom, before we even came close to being on the field.  The absolute worst incident was one Monday following a Saturday afternoon loss.  The entire team sat in his classroom waiting for the guillotine to drop.  We reviewed the game film, as we did every Monday, to see how we had performed.  Those who made many mistakes, such as missed tackles or blocks, dropped passes or botched plays could expect to feel the hot wrath of an unhappy coach.  Those who played well expected to at least be free of overt criticism, or perhaps get lucky and hear a word or two of faint praise. After this particular loss, we waited with baited breath.  It was going to be painful. When the film finished, and the coach had given his commentary, he summed up by singling out particular players, including me.  “Harris, at the beginning of the season, I said you would be one of the best ends in western Massachusetts, well, you’re the worst.”  I can still feel the sting of that humiliating comment more than forty years later.  Did it motivate me to do better? Was it a good style of instruction?  Was it a model for coaching someone in the art of playing football?

That style of motivating someone to perform better may or may not feel familiar to you. In our reading today from  “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid, we find a paragraph long, single sentence that showcases a conversation between a mother and her daughter. In this short story the mother is telling her daughter, in a relentless, dictatorial fashion, what are the correct and incorrect ways to do everything; from house chores, to cooking, to how to take care of men.  But it is not merely telling her the right way to do everyday things; there are also the reprimands to not do the things she fears she will do. The mother keeps telling her daughter how not to be the slut she is so intent on becoming. But there does not seem to be any evidence that she will be that slut the mother projects on her.  Of course parenting and coaching is hardly the same thing, but there are areas of overlap. I am a parent who has coached his sons from time to time.  While not wanting to replicate the behavior of my football coach, I sometimes feel at least one of my sons thinks I only talk to him using an angry yell that he is not doing what he is suppose to do.  While clearly the father of Serena and Venus Williams has done something right in coaching his daughters to fame and glory in the tennis world, I have often struggled trying to show my boys the correct ways to shoot a basketball or swing a bat.  Sometimes they say we already know how or that was the way it used to be done, as if they are talking to a dinosaur from the distant past. With my older son, I remember putting undue pressure on him by either playing him as the goalie or as my main striker in soccer, or batting fourth or playing shortstop in baseball.  I felt like perhaps I placed high expectations on him to perform better than any other children.  As children age it seems better to leave coaching to the experts.

One of my Christmas gifts was a copy of the book, Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.  This is a book about parenting at its best, but what is intriguing about it is that he believes that it is diversity, yes, difference, not similarity, that unites parents with children.  His primary focus is on families that have had to cope with children who have severe disabilities or other physical or psychiatric issues and how they have responded.  All parenting he says is based in a crucial question: to what extent should we accept our children for who they are, and to what extent should we help them become their best selves.  Sometimes this translates into how much we push to make them like us, or what we perceive will make them happy in the world.  He tells how his mother struggled with his being a gay man. She didn’t want him to be gay, he says, because she believed that it wouldn’t be the happiest course for him, plus she would have to be the mother of a gay son.  It was not so much that she wanted to control his life, but she did want to control her life, and being the mother of a homosexual was something she wanted to alter. Like all of us, she believed that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy.  So the question Solomon struggles with is how do families tolerate, accept and ultimately celebrate children who are not what they originally had in mind. What do you do if you perceive your family as a book loving, or sports loving family, and the children despise those things? It’s one thing if the children end up falling close to the tree, but what if it is far?

Solomon writes about families who often end up grateful for experiences they once would have done everything to avoid.  While we are left wondering how much difference is too much, we see family members who end up more loving and understanding because they develop a conviction to love the person for who they are rather than who they might have been or who they wish they would be.  Sometimes this is merely in the way we understand the difference between illness and identity, one being a way to disparage a way of being, and the other to validate that same way of being.

How does this relate to coaching?  To this point I have characterized coaching with my negative memories of one person who worked us to death physically and shamed us mentally. One summer that same high school football coach of mine read a book by Vince Lombardi, the famous coach of the Green Bay Packers, who were often perceived then as the best football team in the world.  Lombardi was often quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Wanting to produce a winning team, my coach tried to find ever-new ways to get us in shape and discipline us to play. This particular year we gathered for the end of the summer double sessions of practice, and he informed us that he had a new drill for us.  Apparently Lombardi had discovered that one way to produce agility and stamina in players was to have them run their laps backwards. Now I don’t mean running clock-wise around the perimeter rather than the usual counter clock-wise.  I mean actually, stumbling, looking over your shoulder, wrong way running that easily produced falling down awkward laughing moments of sheer stupidity, especially in 50 pounds of padded equipment.  For some reason, our coach realized he had gone too far.  We were not the Green Bay Packers, but just a bunch of kids from central Massachusetts who wanted to play a game together.  There was this point of convergence between good parenting and good coaching. Each should be ways of helping others find their strengths without bullying or coercion where we listen and prompt the development of abilities and skills that are already present.

Does this mean that we all really need a coach to help us make life decisions, to improve our professional abilities, to find new and exciting ways to develop our minds and bodies?  Life coaching is popular these days.  Everyone seems to have a coach, a guide, a mentor, or spiritual director.   This has been a difficult concept for me to grasp partly do to my negative experience with coaching, and thinking of it only in the context of sports, but also because coaching as a help to me was an alien idea when I entered my profession.  I mostly understood ministry as a type of lone ranger calling where I worked in isolation from others who were part of my profession, and never experienced their work in the context of a parish, except through what they told me, and it was hard to determine how accurate their perceptions were.  The only time where a colleague ever saw me was as a student working under a settled minister, much like Margaret working with me.  Once you learned your skills preaching, teaching, administering, and pastoring through an internship and classes, then you carried out your professional training in a parish setting. While I could avail myself of continuing education opportunities, it was entirely random whether I would do so or not.  Now I have colleagues training to be coaches to travel the country to advise and help those who think they need it.

I’ve been a minister for almost thirty-five years, but I have never really discovered an adequate way to find out how well I am fulfilling my capabilities as a minister.  When I was minister in Milton, an anonymous survey was used to help prove to me that it was time to leave.  It was not made up of objective feedback from the entire congregation, but gave a few people a chance to publicize their disappointment in me. This is no good overall evaluative tool obviously, but honest feedback about people’s needs can be helpful.  I have a colleague for whom I am serving as a mentor now.  His congregation told him that he needed to make more pastoral visits.  When he told me it was just not in his nature to make these kinds of home visits, I suggested that he look at the source of the feedback.  It was constructive, and it had a solution he could do something about.  He could improve his ministry by visiting more.  People would know him better, and thus trust him more, and develop a deeper relationship with him. They were not criticizing him personally, but instead were identifying ways he could become a better minister to them.

In a parish ministry, it could be that you all serve in some capacity as my coaches because in theory we are all striving together to make it a more effective church and ministry. We all need people who can coach us towards improvement by observing and give constructive feedback.  There is a tension though between skills coming from having lots of experience and talent, or skill coming from being responsive to others input. Some people only take feedback as criticism, and are unable to listen or use it, but rather take it as a personal attack. We should each be mindful that honest and useful feedback is always important to any of us if we are going to keep getting better at what we do with our lives.  If we think we are the best preacher, or the best volunteer for a non-profit, or greatest computer programmer with no need for improvement, then we will stop getting better, or more important will probably stop caring, and will just slog through our days pretty much doing our job as we have always done it in the past.  What a coach can do for us is challenge us to grow personally and professionally. This is especially a challenge for someone like me who trained so long ago.  In preaching there is the challenge of continuing to read, and keep up with the latest ideas and religious practices, but how am I going to learn to reach out to a multicultural world or manage conflict, especially if I am a person who only knows a white, highly educated environment, or avoids conflict?

Your response might be that while highly paid singers and athletes need personal coaches, why should we bother? They have to perform at a high level because fans are clamoring for new hits, and higher averages, and the pressure may lead to some forms of cheating in order to continue to perform at a high level.  While no one is clamoring to download my sermons onto their IPods, I feel a need to know if I am satisfying my own personal need to get better, plus be more interesting or stimulating to you, or if I have just stopped improving, and if so, what can I do in response? Many of you are very kind in your positive feedback, but what does that mean overall?  Are people these days going to respond better to less intellectual, or more extemporaneous methods? I have a colleague who is not a good preacher, and his congregation has instructed him to take seminars to improve.  The problem with that approach though is how well any of us does with criticism.  He thinks he is a good preacher. Any coaching he receives will need to seek to find ways to enhance the skills he already has, rather than give the impression it is no good.

How do you take it when someone says you didn’t prepare enough, or your materials are out of date, or we have heard that theme a hundred times before?  I think it is hard for most of us, partly because we had that experience of the coach yelling at us, or someone demanding we do it the right way (which is always their way). Once we learned our own way of doing something we reached a kind of personal or professional plateau.  Here Andrew Solomon’s idea of diversity in parenting is especially useful.  Mentors who we trained with may have showed us how they did something in ministry, but it was left to us to determine how our own call to ministry grows out of the particular personal skills and spiritual orientation we each have. No one says this is the one way to do ministry.  We become ministers out of our own sense of self, but it must be in a collaborative relationship with whomever we are working.  We must listen and respond, just as my colleague needed to hear my coaching to do more visiting.  And he did, with positive results.  Here it is important not to be too rigid about our willingness to be flexible. We can’t just say that is how I do my job, and you either need to love or leave it. The teacher or mentor can say this might work better, and also might make you happier in your position.  But you have to want to hear how you can improve.

A couple of summers ago, I was down at Victory Field with my sons Asher and Dana.  We were taking turns playing tennis. At one point as the boys were playing a match; this eastern European sounding voice emerged from the stands next to the fence.  He had noticed that they were serving with the racquet out in front of their bodies, and not getting their legs enough into the serves.  He kept repeating, “more power.”  We kind of made a joke of his refrain for “more power,” but he was really trying to be helpful to a couple of kids who didn’t really know what they were doing.  He was trying to make them better players. One could say that it does not matter how good they become because they are not professional athletes.  They’re just boys playing for fun. That was the spirit that my high school coach had lost, but then again he coached the only undefeated team I ever played on.  At Bates College, we mostly played for fun, but we also lost 23 games in a row at one point.   But it’s not just about winning, it is exciting to get better at something.

Coaches, as an article in the New Yorker pointed out last year, do not even necessarily know how to play a sport.  However, what they are good at is observation, judgment and guidance. I tend to think we could all use a little more of all of those.  Too much of the modern world, even as coaching has become more popular, says do it yourself.  I am often amused by these television ads for drugs for various illnesses and ailments. It says you need such and such a pill for depression, and don’t forget to tell your doctor your medical history before taking this drug.  Wait a minute, I always say, shouldn’t your doctor know your medical history.  If not, you are in serious trouble. It seems like with medicine we have to self-diagnose, with the stock market we have to mange our own investments, and the list goes on and on.  Well, you know what? I like it when there are a few experts around who can observe and tell me what to do.  I have had quite enough of taking care of myself, and want a little more of taking care and helping each other.  I think we deepen our knowledge of the world and each other when we look at ourselves, and challenge ourselves to deepen our skills and learn about new challenges. People with knowledge can help us and deepen us in new and exciting ways.

One problem is that we resist criticism and being exposed for what we can’t do or what we don’t know. None of us want to seem incompetent to another for fear of embarrassment or looking stupid.  Even though we all know we fall short, we cannot admit it to each other or ourselves. It’s hard for us because it feels like someone is looking for our faults.  But when we see what someone we know and respect does, or suggests, that can help. In school we used video for preaching and for counseling, and so we could see ourselves in action, and learn how to do it in other more productive or meaningful ways.  It can seem different than a coach yelling at you.  Coaching has become kind of trendy, but it is really just another form of teaching or mentoring.  It is having someone in our lives help us love to learn again, or help us do our best work.  We all need that.  We may think that coaching is tied to results, so what does it matter?  While we don’t have smash hits, or draw millions, we do want a church where everyone is striving to be more fully developed human beings who love learning, and want to know all about themselves, each other and the world. It may be something to consider in your jobs, hobbies and lives, too.  This will make us deeper spiritual beings that will give us all more fulfilling lives.

Almost 200 years ago Samuel Gridley Howe worked with Laura Bridgman at the Perkins School for the Blind.  Howe and his friend Horace Mann, both Unitarians, believed that all education should be undergirded by the principle that students should be motivated to learn by the God given pleasure of learning, not by rewards and punishments. The evidence for this, they believed came from Laura, the first person in the world who learned to use language even though she was deaf and blind.  Howe believed that we have a natural eagerness to carry ideas, or offerings of delight upward to the “sovereign mind.”  Everyone, they believed, should have the chance to discover their personal best.


Closing Words  – from T.H. White, The Once and Future King


The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing, which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, and never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”