Chicago Bulls Head Paster, Phil Jackson

By Unsworth, Tim | National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

Chicago Bulls Head Paster, Phil Jackson


Unsworth, Tim, National Catholic Reporter


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. …

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