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. One thing is certain: every fall I experience a strange phenomenon. Down the street from our house is the local high school football field. About the time school begins each year, as I hear the marching band practice, and see the football players sweating in their two-a-days, I begin to twitch, and feel an adrenaline rush. I find myself looking for someone to tackle, or at least to hit with a forearm! Something about playing high school football, although in my distant past of over twenty years ago, has never left me.
Now 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 gave me a lot. Oh, I was not 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.
The team is first
The more you focus on helping others the better it is for you. 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.
Sacrifice is a good thing
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 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. Just look at the analogies Paul uses for leaders that relate to sacrifice.
Keep your eye on the prize
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. And winning souls should remain our priority.
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.
Be a good sport
Learn what is important and what isn't. In football hustle, preparation, and teamwork rule - personal feelings do not. 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. We need to reverse those two and lighten up!
Leave nothing on the field
A good football player never quits. Too many ministers spend more time preparing for retirement than reaching the lost. I still apply this mentally when I preach. 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.
A good coach sure 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.
Be agile, mobile, and hostile
OK, I am getting carried away a bit — 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.
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.
Alvin Reid is Professor of Evangelism/Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forrest, NC.