Winning by Being Third

By Rev. Ethan Linder

The men's basketball coaches at Indiana Wesleyan University want to win games, but their most important task involves discipleship.

Learn more about Indiana Wesleyan University Men’s Basketball.
IWU Men's Basketball

Leading marketplace discipleship can be challenging, because an organization's primary focus -- for business, making a profit; for a basketball team, winning championships -- often overshadows emphasis on the life of faith. Indiana Wesleyan University's (IWU) basketball coaches Greg Tonagel and Jeff Clark see discipleship as essential to their leadership and success in athletics.

IWU’s basketball team is recognized nationally for winning championships. More noteworthy, however, is the coaching staff’s approach to developing players who prioritize God first, others second and self third. Their coaching approach — denoted by the tagline “I Am 3rd”— focuses equally on cultivating proficiency in discipleship and excellence in basketball.

Players accustomed to functioning in the self-promoting culture often prevalent in athletics have a learning curve when transitioning into IWU’s basketball program. “From a young age, athletics is a ‘me-first’ environment, where you’re valued for winning or for your statistics,” said Clark. “Identity is always given based on how you perform. For players to come in and have that flipped — to be told your value and identity come from God and your success is going to be evaluated by the growth of the people around you — it’s not natural at first.”

“There are times when we have sensed God calling us to fast from a practice session and instead seek him in prayer as a team.”

Helping student athletes with overcommitted schedules prioritize discipline in basketball and depth in their spiritual life seems like a lofty goal. But while cultivating an “I Am 3rd” rhythm, Tonagel and Clark have found attentiveness to the spiritual life often accompanies growth in basketball performance.

“There are times when we have sensed God calling us to fast from a practice session and instead seek him in prayer as a team,” Tonagel said. “Taking away practice time means I am no longer in control. But when we have stepped out in faith and prioritized his kingdom, God has always exceeded our ability and shown up in ways unimaginable.”

Remarkable to this “I Am 3rd” culture, and unusual in college athletics, is the long-standing coaching relationship between Tonagel, in his fourteenth year at IWU and Clark, his thirteenth.

“Jeff is a big reason of who I am today,” Tonagel said. “He has helped disciple me in my coaching journey. What continues to amaze me about Jeff is that he has chosen to prioritize kingdom impact over worldly status or recognition. I am not sure I know of anybody who is making a bigger kingdom impact.”

Jeff Clark.jpg

Coach Jeff Clark

Clark says his ability to be effective emerges not so much from a calling to second-chair leadership, but faithfulness in fulfilling God’s calling. “What college basketball values is position, but for me, following God’s call is where value has been found,” said Clark. “Greg is doing coaching and discipleship in a way that’s different and truly is God-first, which is exciting to be a part of.”

What neither could expect is how this discipleship-oriented approach to basketball would translate to other coaches, leaders and churches. IWU basketball recently invited every Indiana high school basketball coach to gather for a dialogue around coaching and discipleship. Forty-five coaches responded.

Last August, Tonagel invited a few college basketball coaches to do the same. The few spread the word to more and 26 coaches gathered. “What surprised them was how primary discipleship was to Greg,” said Clark. “They thought they would hear a little about God and a lot about how we won championships.”

Tonagel and Clark have maintained monthly contact with the college coaches about what God’s doing in their communities and how they can support one another. Additionally, a national ministry that focuses on athletes is working to get IWU’s coaching staff in front of some of the highest-level college coaches in the U.S.

His ability to be effective emerges

not so much from a calling to second-chair leadership,

but faithfulness in fulfilling God’s calling. 

Clark and Tonagel are quick to emphasize the importance of the local church in their capacity for discipleship. “Even as I have moved into positions of lay leadership, our pastors at College Wesleyan Church [Marion, Indiana] have continued to challenge me to think more about the ’sending’ into the world than the ‘gathering’ into the church. This has increased my vision for what God can do through the marketplace and has led to discipleship movement in places our pastors likely could never have access to,” Clark said.

Tonagel encourages action for those hungry for this kind of discipleship movement in their workplace. “Don’t wait until you think you know enough or have it all figured out. Take what you are passionate about and use it to connect other people to the life of Jesus,” he said. “It’s really a fun way to live!”

Learn more about “I Am 3rd.”