‘Tis the season…for football coach firings.

Unless you have been exposed to the wild and crazy business of coaching, it’s easy to graze over the roller coaster ride many coaches and their families experience this time of year. At the collegiate or professional level, most coaches invest a minimum baseline of 80 hours a week (or more) into the game and profession they are so passionate about. Job security is non-existent as progress and success are defined by one thing—winning—and just a few bad bounces, often outside of the coach’s control, can lead to being fired. And being fired means the uncertainty of scrambling for a new position in a job market where a limited number of vacancies exist, while helping family navigate time apart, moving, and a new scene with new friends.

This holiday season I’ve reflected on this wild ride more than ever as I’ve watched it affect many of my friends in the coaching profession, as well as many men I played for during my career. One of those men is Scott Shafer, who made a meaningful investment in my life during his time at Western Michigan University. Coach “Shafe” is a quality man who coaches for the right reason—to take teenage boys and use a physically and mentally demanding game to build them into men ready for life. His Syracuse program finished 4-8 this year, losing to #8 LSU by only 10 points, losing a 3OT heartbreaker at Virginia, losing on a last second field goal to Pitt, and dropping a game to the #1 team in the country, Clemson, also by just 10 points. A different bounce of the ball in any 2 of those games and Coach “Shafe” is preparing for a bowl game right now. But despite his meaningful mission, “Shafe” was dismissed from his position and coached his final game at Syracuse just a couple weeks ago. True to form, he left with gratitude and class, as evidenced by an emotional and inspiring letter to his players.

At a personal level, I can relate to this rejection as I experienced the door closing on my dream of playing professional football over and over and over again. I had no plan B. In my mind, I was going to spend at least a few years in the NFL doing what I loved. The road had been long and challenging, filled with injuries and surgeries, but unless I was physically unable, nothing was going to stop me from achieving my goal. Or so I thought. I had to learn the hard way—despite my best efforts, there was a different and better plan for my life and career path.

But you don’t have to be an athlete or coach to experience these type of painful transitions. All human beings experience these life changes in some form. Whether it is job loss, retiring, a medical diagnosis, being denied entry to school, getting cut from the team, experiencing foreclosure and financial uncertainty, or something else unmentioned, we will all face these type of circumstances at some point during our lifetimes.

The harsh reality is this: on our temporary planet and in our fleeting lives, there is NOTHING this side of heaven we can do or have forever. Absolutely nothing.

So what do we do when something we love ends?

I’d like to submit to you 4 key things we can learn from one of the great, but unheralded, leaders of all time—a man named Nehemiah. A man who, in amazing fashion (444/445 BC—no modern technology!), led the rebuilding of a fortress wall around the city of Jerusalem in just 52 days, despite opposition from enemy nations on all sides.

1. Grieve the loss

When Nehemiah was away from home, working in Persia for king Artaxerxes, he learns that his homeland is in distress and its walls are rubble. Nehemiah’s reaction? “I sat down and wept,” his account says. (1:4)

When life’s difficult transitions or losses come, we need to give ourselves permission to grieve. It’s normal, needed, and even healthy to cry, to share emotion, and to struggle with our change in plans or circumstance.

2. Grade your skills

Chapter 1 of Nehemiah’s begins with the receipt of bad news in the month of Kislev (November/December), but we don’t see Nehemiah taking any outwardly visible action until the month of Nisan (March/April). So what was he doing for these 3-4 months? Praying and planning. We see Nehemiah seeking God’s direction, and as the story unfolds, we see an incredibly well thought out plan unfolding under Nehemiah’s leadership.

So often when difficult transitions come, we want to escape as fast as possible and get on to the next thing, stuffing our feelings and rushing to be busy again. However, it’s important to pray and plan, grading ourselves with some key questions:

  • What unique gifts, talents, and skills do I have?
  • What do I love to do?
  • Why am I doing what I’m doing?

Slowing down to pray, plan, and grade our God-given abilities is an often missed step in navigating life’s transition challenges.

3. Grow in a new area

Nehemiah was an important official in the King of Persia’s cabinet, as evidenced by his ability to speak to the king and make requests. (2:4-9) But to the best of our knowledge he had never been in charge of a construction project and he had never been a governor.

When life’s challenging changes come our way, once we’ve graded our skills and abilities, it’s important to be willing to grow in a new area of interest. We can always improve, always stretch, and always learn something innovative or different. Having an open mind to do so may very well lead us through the transition we are facing.

4. Go do something new

After Nehemiah grieved the destroyed wall, graded his abilities and circumstances through prayer and planning, and was willing to grow in a new area of his leadership…it was time to GO. And off he went, ready to take on a new challenge, because he had grieved, graded, and grew.

In life’s difficult transitions, going on to something new is scary. It’s unfamiliar, it’s different, and it may not be what we originally set out to do. But it might also be better. We just don’t know yet. But going on to something new becomes much easier if we do the work up front of grieving the loss, grading ourselves through prayer and planning, and being willing to grow in a new area.

Change and challenge are both constant and inevitable. But when they do come, if we will take time to grieve, grade, grow, and then go forward toward what God has planned for us, we stand the best chance of leading the life we were meant to live.

Photo via Flickr