I look back all the time on the lessons I learned from football. Here are a few:
- 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.
- 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 or your “fit” so much as it is pursuing godliness. This involves great sacrifice over time.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
[Note: I publish a version of this every August at www.alvinreid.com]
Alvin L. “Doc” Reid serves as Senior Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he has been since 1995. He is also the founding Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism. Alvin and his wife Michelle have two married children: Joshua and his wife Jacqueline, and Hannah and her husband Corey. Hannah and Corey recently welcomed Doc’s first grandchild, Lincoln James. He also serves as Pastor to Young Professionals at Richland Creek Community Church. Alvin travels extensively speaking and has authored a number of books. His most recent is Sharing Jesus Without Freaking Out (B&H Academic).