A month ago, I began a foray into coaching. Our local high school needed a boys’ track coach. The principal remembered that I had run track in high school, so she asked if I would be interested in taking the position. Over the course of this month of practice, I have found my mind dwelling on the similarities between coaching and pastoring, between a team and the church.
Coaches and Pastors Equip
Whereas in many team sports like football, basketball, and baseball, the coach is responsible for calling the plays, in track there are no plays. As a track coach, my purpose is to equip my athletes to do the best they possibly can. I can train them to improve their endurance and speed, but when that starting pistol goes off the results are completely out of my hands. Paul felt the same way about being a leader in the church. He wrote to the church in Ephesus:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, (Eph 4:11-12 ESV)
I can take it easy on my guys at practice. A nice two or three-mile jog requires less exertion than a sprint workout for sure. And if the goal was simply to be on the roster and get a nice certificate of participation, that might be okay. However, the goal is to improve, to contribute, to compete. Running a tough workout isn’t fun, but it is necessary to improve on the track. In the same way, the sermons most needed are never the ones that are the easiest to preach. Have we allowed our brothers and sisters to settle for just a spot on the roster? Or are we equipping them for the work of ministry in the week ahead?
Not Everyone Is a Sprinter
Sprinters are the stars of track and field. Case in point: a lot of people know that Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest man, the world-record holder for the 100m and 200m dash. However, if asked who currently holds the world record for the mile, few people would be able to answer Hicham El Guerrouj. Sprinters are stars for a few reasons. First, they run the fastest. Second, they run for the shortest period. Watching the world’s fastest men and women race for ten seconds is exciting. Watching the world’s best distance runners race for ten minutes is less exhilarating, and I say this as a former distance runner myself. In high school, even I got bored during my event, running eight laps around the track.
The thing is, not everyone can be a sprinter. There are several sprinting events, but there are also several distance events, throwing events, and jumping events. While the sprinting events might be more fun to watch, and more likely to make you famous, winning the discus gets you the same gold medal that the sprinters get for winning their race. The same is true for our roles within the body of Christ. There are some roles that are more glamorous, for lack of a better word. There are some jobs that get your name recognized. However, the jobs that are done without an audience are just as important. Again, Paul points out the need for a diversity of gifts within the body:
And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Cor 12:16-19)
In track, you win as a team by having someone competing in each event, doing their best, earning points by placing well. The throwers might not get the attention that the sprinters do, but their points are just as valuable. Similarly, the Sunday School teacher who shares Bible stories with little children every week might not be as visible or receive the credit that the preacher does. But if our children never learn their Bible, how will they ever be able to grasp what is being taught in the sermon in weeks when they get older?
Don’t Be Surprised
One of the biggest joys of being a coach is getting to see talent come to the surface. It’s easy to assume that the strongest looking kid will be the best thrower, or that the basketball player will be the best jumper. However, sometimes it’s the kid who doesn’t look like a jumper who jumps the best! A few weeks ago, I watched a kid who had never run competitively gracefully glide over a hurdle like it was a piece of cake. I watched a skinny kid who has never played sports jump higher than some of the kids on the basketball team could. I never would have guessed that these boys had that ability … which is why it was important for me to let them try. God has used a cast of characters in the history of salvation who are unlikely to say the least. What if the apostles had refused to let Peter take the stage on Pentecost based on his three denials of Jesus just a few weeks before? What if the church in Antioch had refused to commission Saul as a missionary because of his prior persecution of the church? The church is robbed of many of its gifts when we assume we know who is capable of what. Our track team is better because some hidden talents have been revealed. Can we say the same about the church? Are we intentional about identifying and developing the gifts within our churches? Or, do we assume that we already know what every person is capable of?
I am not sure how we will do this track season. It could be that we fail to add a single trophy to the school’s trophy case. What I do know is that we will be better than we were before we started. After all, in track your biggest competition is yourself. Your body can be your own worst enemy. It’s no different in our spiritual walk.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24-27)
Are we, as church leaders, training our brothers and sisters? Are we equipping them to run the race? Or are we letting them settle for just being on the team?
Justin Simmons has served as minister for the Glenmora Church of Christ in central Louisiana since 2011. Previously he studied at the University of South Carolina (BA, MA), and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University (MDiv). He is blessed to call Melissa his wife, and has three wonderful step-children. He enjoys reading about history and practical theology, listening to Gregorian chants, and passionately following Braves baseball and Gamecock sports.