*I post a version of this every August :-).
Football is BACK! I love this time of year. In some ways no better time exists: the cool air this morning beckoning fall to arrive (ok this year August has been HOT, but it is coming!), the excitement of a new school year, and the many new faces at our Young Pros ministry at Richland Creek Community Church, to name only a few. But something else happens to me (and to many more) this time of year. The marching bands, the pom poms, and the endless discussions have arrived concerning the great American sport: football. No sport turns my crank more than football. Around here we hope the Carolina Panthers will continue to win. I would be okay with the Crimson Tide winning another national title, and would like the Tar Heels to win another bowl game. But football in particular takes me back to my own youth and the days of playing football.
Football has had an enduring affect on my life. Maybe it stems from the matching scars I have on both knees from surgical repairs brought about from my gridiron days. No doubt it comes in no small way from my having grown up in Alabama in the heyday of Bear Bryant-led Alabama football. My brief stint coaching Josh in football back in his freshman year in high school brought a lot of joy, although I think I will stick to teaching. One thing is certain: every fall I experience a strange phenomenon. About the time school begins, if I hear a marching band practice or see football players sweating in their two-a-days, I begin to twitch, and I feel an adrenaline rush. I find myself looking for someone to tackle, or at least find the urge to watch Remember the Titans one more time! Something about football has never left me.
I have fought the urge to tackle a colleague or try to convince the secretaries in my office to lead a pep rally. But I have discovered that nothing in my adult experience causes me to reflect on my teenage years more than my annual habit of football nostalgia.
Football stands as the ultimate team sport. It is, as one former NFL coach put it, one of the last places in America where men can be men and be praised for it. Few realms offer the opportunity to risk, sacrifice, sweat, hurt, push, think, and react. If you play the game as intended, it pushes your mind, your emotions, your body, all of you to excellence. No, playing football does not make you a man, but it provides a wonderful venue for the God-given attributes of a man to be developed.
Football gave me a lot. I was far from the all-star player on my team. Like most guys, in my mind the older I get, the better player I was! But I have observed that being on a football team over four years taught me practical lessons about life that have helped me ever since. And, many of these same lessons have been especially helpful to me in ministry. Ministry is to team sports (like football) as painted lines are to a highway — not the same, but a pretty good parallel. Just look at the times Paul used athletics in the New Testament to teach spiritual truth (I Cor. 9:24-27, Phil. 3:14, I Tim, etc).
I look back all the time on the lessons I learned from football. Here are a few:
1. The TEAM comes First. The more you focus on helping others the better it becomes for you. Be a servant leader. If you are a pastor or staff member, helping the whole staff honor God should supersede any personal goals. When the team wins, everyone gets the credit, but when the team loses, individual achievements really don’t matter. I learned this from watching Bear Bryant: a great leader takes more blame than he deserves and gives more credit to others than they deserve.
2. Value SACRIFICE. If all being on a football team involved was showing up and playing a game every week, half the guys in school would want to play. No, to play the game, you have to pay the price. Hours of sweating during two-a-days in the August sun, off-season conditioning, grueling drills, wind sprints, on and on the sacrifice goes. Afternoons in the fall are surrendered to practice. Ministry is not about finding your niche so much as it is pursuing godliness. This involves great sacrifice over time.
3. STAY FOCUSED on the Goal. Our team’s goal, make no mistake, was to WIN. Our coach never began a season saying, “Our goal this year is to be 0 and 10.” We never started a week of practice with the goal of losing. Excuses were never allowed. In ministry we have to be careful about how we define “winning” by overly focusing on some things to the neglect of others. But let’s be clear — the goal of a team is never mediocrity, and neither should being average satisfy a minister. Winning people to Christ and building disciples should remain our priority.
4. EVALUATION Helps. Every Monday we watched film as a team. Our coach loved to say, “the big eye won’t lie.” If an assignment was blown, all could see. If a great play was made, all observed. Effective ministry requires ongoing evaluation. But the evaluation should always be focused on making people better rather than tearing them down. We need people in our lives to coach us, to evaluate us, to push us daily.
5. Be a GOOD SPORT (i.e. have character). Learn what is important and what isn’t. Don’t confuse personal preference with things that really matter. In football things like hustle, preparation, and teamwork rule – personal feelings do not. I honestly learned some virtues in a locker room (okay, there were plenty of vices there too!) I did not learn at church, such as treating each other with respect regardless of the color of their skin. The coach has the right to ride a player’s back if he loafs. In ministry, we tend to take ourselves too seriously, but fail to take the gospel seriously enough. We need to reverse those two and lighten up! We should rejoice in the success of others and be grateful for any measure of grace God gives us.
6. Leave NOTHING on the Field. A good football player never quits. Great teams play until the final whistle. Too many ministers spend more time preparing for retirement than reaching the lost, too much time magnifying themselves than the Jesus they should be preaching. Ministry properly done is exhausting work, and we should give it our best effort, particularly when we teach the Word. I still apply this mentally when I preach or teach. When I am finished, I am exhausted, but it is a good feeling to know I have given my best to communicate the Word of God.
7. A GOOD COACH Helps. Great football programs on any level are marked by great coaches. The “coach” of a local church is the pastor. Everything rises or falls on leadership.
8. RISK and Be Rewarded. The players that make the greatest impact are typically those who risk the most. Football games are often won or lost by playmakers–those who at a critical moment step up and deliver. As a minister of the gospel, your willingness to trust God and take risks of faith will mark much of your life’s trajectory. You can’t get injured watching a game from the couch. You can definitely get hurt playing the game, but the thrill is worth the risk.
9. Keep a LONG TERM Look. Losing one game does not have to destroy a season. Falling behind in one quarter does not mean you will lose the game. A setback in ministry does not mean the whole future is bleak. Keeping a long term perspective helps to deal with short term setbacks. Let’s face it, drama queens (those who constantly go from “today is the best day of my life!” to “today is the most awful day ever”) never seem to do well at football. Or ministry.
10. Be AGILE, MOBILE, and HOSTILE. OK, I am getting carried away a bit, but that’s how my coach described a linebacker. At my age I am fragile, docile and senile! In ministry we should never be hostile, but we must be agile and mobile, or flexible. We should be aware of our times and our people and be able to apply a timeless gospel in a timely manner. And we should be hostile toward the devil.
I will add an 11th that I have only learned in recent days: Value rest at the appropriate time. After the Friday night lights went out, before we went home, coach would tell us on Saturday to get some rest, drink lots of fluids, to be prepared to go back after it on Monday. We need to work hard, but we also need to Sabbath well, to stop at times. Jesus did (Luke 5:16). Burnout doesn’t come from working too hard but from resting too little.
Football and ministry obviously are not exactly the same. Ministry matters a lot more. Ministry is not a game: it’s life and death. But, just as Paul used a soldier, an athlete, and a farmer to describe a minister, football can teach us a lot.
Now, go out there and give it all for the — no, not the Gipper — for the Savior!
* With apologies to Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things.