What Kind of Dog Are You? [Thoughts from Shoe Dog for Ministry Leaders]

I just finished reading Shoe Dog, the memoir from Phil Knight, the creator of Nike. While the title is catchy, you don’t learn what a “shoe dog” is until page 186 when Knight describes them: “People who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes. Lifers used this phrase cheerfully to describe other lifers, men and women who had toiled so long and hard in the shoe trade, they thought and talked about nothing else.”

Phil Knight was an incredible shoe dog. Not only did he love shoes, but he also really loved running, even before it was cool and popular. In fact, his love for shoes emerged from his love for running. The people around him who started Nike all loved running. Knight’s co-founder, Bill Bowerman, was his track coach and a man fanatical about developing the best possible shoe to help those he coached. Knight’s first employee, Jeff Johnson, was obsessed with running. Knight wrote of Johnson, “Johnson believed that runners are God’s chosen, that running, done right, in the correct spirit and with the proper form, is a mystical experience and thus he felt called to help runners reach their nirvana.”

As I read the book, a book from a remarkable leader, I thought about those I love who serve the Lord and His people in ministry. I thought about the team I serve alongside, and I thought about my own heart. Here are four thoughts for ministry leaders from Phil Knight’s book:

1. All are passionate about something.

Many waste their lives trading one passion for another every few years. Knight’s life is an example of being passionate about one thing for a sustained period of time. But being consumed with anything other than Christ will ultimately leave one unquenched and unfulfilled. It would be a mistake for a ministry leader to read Knight’s book and walk away thinking that ministry should be the overwhelming passion. It must not be. Christ must be.

2. Our ministries must be the tools, not our overwhelming passion.

What I love most about Knight and Nike (I am a fan) is that there is passion and mission beneath the shoes. For Knight and his friends, the shoes were the tools for running, the expression of the greater passion. Our ministries must not be our overwhelming passion but an expression of our overwhelming passion—Christ.

3. Passion can pull out abilities we did not even know we had.

Phil Knight started selling shoes out of his car, initially, at track meets and could not write orders fast enough. He had not been a great salesman of encyclopedias or mutual funds in former jobs and contemplated his sudden ability: “Driving back to Portland I’d puzzle over my sudden success at selling… I realized I wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place.” When we are passionate for the ministry the Lord has given us, we find ourselves bravely attempting things we never thought we would attempt.

4. Passion for ministry must never trump passion for ministry to one’s family.

Knight does an incredible job in his book chronicling the beginnings of Nike and honestly showing what a passionate pursuit of one thing can cost a group of people. They worked non-stop, and you get a sense of regret that he did not spend more time with his family. Knight is not alone. Many local church leaders have walked the same path. When we neglect our families for the sake of our ministries, our ministries lose credibility.