Scott (or Franklin). Mike. Scott. Dennis. Four names of four coaches who will always hold a very special place in my heart. They were the first four coaches I ever worked with on a full-time coaching staff. Man, did we grow close. When I think about these guys I think of two verses from Proverbs, “Iron sharpens iron” and “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” These guys were my iron and we were brothers.
I remember the time we were tied with less than 10 seconds left. Scott, our head coach, called a timeout. After discussing, as a staff, the proper play for the moment, we decided to draw up a play calling for our best shooter to catch the ball in the corner off a pin-down screen. We had executed that play MANY times in practice. It was a sure and wise decision.
The girls listened intently as Scott purposefully and artfully drew the play on the dry erase board. We, the entire staff, were confident that the girls would execute it to perfection for a game winning shot. We broke the huddle with a hopeful all-hands-in “team” cheer and then we, the staff, waited for our girls to display our coaching prowess.
The girls set up in the right formation. The ball was handed to the official. The screener went to set the screen and then…Our shooting guard, who was supposed to go under the screen, went over top of the screen, allowing her defender to deny her the pass. Our screener panicked and instead of trying to re-screen the defender, just stood still. The eyes of the girl in-bounding the basketball grew wider and wider as the horror of the play breaking down took place before her eyes. The other two offensive players started running around like chickens-with-their-heads-cut off, doing, what I am sure they thought, were productive basketball moves. As a staff, all of our faces turned ashen white. The play we thought was fault proof was unraveling before our eyes. Instead of thinking, “Get the ball and make the shot,” we were thinking, “Dear Lord, please don’t let it be a turnover.”
And then, somehow, the ball was inbounded to our shooting guard who was supposed to be open in the corner. However, instead of catching the ball in the corner, she caught the ball about five feet behind the three point line, near the hash mark. And, once she caught the ball, she dribbled away from the basket! What was she thinking?! By the time she made any move towards the basket, there were only three seconds left on the clock.
“Well, at least it’s not a turnover.”
“Maybe we can get them in overtime.”
“This is possibly the worst executed play in the history of basketball.”
Two seconds. One second. Our guard was about three miles away from the basket when she attempted a lean-in, falling down, one foot, with one hand tied behind her back 25 footer (slight exaggeration). Time stopped. (You know those scenes in movies where everything slows down while everyone is following the flight of the ball. I can almost swear that the theme to “Chariots of Fire” was playing in the background too.)
“There is no way this shot is going in.”
“Who are we going to start in overtime?”
“If only we would have blocked out more.”
All of a sudden, I noticed something strange. The arch of the ball actually looked like it might end up close to the rim, which meant the shot had a chance of going in. (The music to Chariots of Fire grew louder.) The ball grew closer and closer to the basket. And then, I see the ball bank off the backboard and into the basket. The shot didn’t even touch the rim. The broken play-25 foot-falling down-lean-in acrobatic shot was a success.
My reaction was to jump into the arms of Scott, who was a good two inches shorter than me. Now, we were the ones running around the court like chickens-with-our-heads-cut off celebrating the victory. Picture two grown men, two short grown men, acting like two little boys who had just defeated Mario Brothers for the first time. We celebrated by eating at Wendy’s. We laughed so hard we cried. Everyone was talking about either the miraculous shot or the two short coaches running around the court celebrating.
What made that moment so special? Was it the miraculous shot? Definitely. Was it the fact that our team made something out of nothing and won? Sure. But what made it the most special was the band of brothers that I shared the sidelines with. I couldn’t think of a better metaphor to describe my time on that staff; in the arms of my brothers, running around like chickens-with-our-heads cut off, having a great time coaching a game we loved. A great staff can feel like family. These guys were my extended family.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Proverbs 27.17
“I wish it was easy.”
“I wish it was easier.”
“I wish I didn’t have to put in all this work.”
Four phrases that I often uttered as an athlete during pre-season workouts. Four phrases that I still hear athletes say today as I coach. Pre-season is not easy. Athletes are asked to focus on parts of their development that appear to have nothing to do with the sport they love.
“What do mile runs have to do with my ability to make jump shots?”
“How can sprints possibly be tied to cutting off the player I’m guarding?”
“Agility drills? I never zig-zag like this during a basketball game.”
“Plyometrics? When will I ever jump on a box in the 4th quarter?”
Many a basketball player, or athlete, has found themselves wanting to give up in the middle of a pre-season conditioning drill because they are physically fatigued, are in pain, and do not understand that, if properly built upon, hard work pays off. What does a basketball player, or any athlete, do when pre-season conditioning gets tough? They lean in. They embrace it. They believe that the pain and hard work has a purpose.
In life, I sometimes find myself saying, “I wish this were easier.” “This” could be my role as a pastor, being a parent, being a husband, being a friend, being a coach, being a doctoral student, etc. I have often thought that if “this” were easier, my life would be better.
However, the older I get, I am finding myself starting to say a different prayer in the midst of pain, “Lord, use this pain to teach me what it is you want me to learn.” There are still many, many days where I still say, “I wish this were easier” or “This sucks.” But, the older I get, the more I believe that growth is not possible without experiencing pain and hard work. And, I believe that God primarily uses pain to grow us.
“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” James 1:2-4 (NLT)
That athlete on the track during pre-season who is tired of sprinting—the pain and hard work will pay off by increasing their endurance.
The parents who are wrestling through a tough parenting season with a difficult child—the pain and hard work will pay off by increasing their endurance.
The pastor who is fighting battles from all sides—the pain and hard work will pay off by increasing their endurance.
Pre-season workouts could be easier, but there would be no increase of endurance.
Life could be easier, but there would be no increase of endurance.
So, when, as a point guard, parent, pastor, or spouse, life is full of hard work and pain, lean in because you are in the blessed crucible of growth.
After reading about multiple moral pastoral failures over the last month, my first emotional reaction was that of heartbreak. When the mighty fall, those we deem mighty in spirituality, how hard and reverberating is their fall? After the feeling of heartbreak settled, my first thought was, "Why is anyone surprised?" I once heard a wonderful therapist, Diane Langberg, say that, as a pastor or counselor, one cannot expect to go untouched by the constant sin and death that surround us in our professions. In essence, Langberg strongly indicated that we will be stained and wounded because we walk along side and with the stained and wounded.
Perry Noble. Wounded. Rob Turner. Wounded. Darrin Patrick. Wounded.
Paul Gibson. Wounded.
Wait..What?! Have I experienced a moral failure that disqualifies me for the pastorate? No, but I must admit that hearing about these pastors shook me deeply. If it could happen to these bastions of evangelical faith, it could definitely happen to me. Therefore, in the words of St. Peter, I must be sober and vigilant because the evil one walks around preying on whom he might devour. Based on the history of the pastorate, especially very recent history, he loves to devour pastors. When we fight someone who wants to devour us, we will be wounded and stained.
There is an additional problem for pastors. We not only battle the evil one in our own lives, we enter into the dark battlefields, the secret places, the traumatic scenes of many of our parishioners. We might survive our own battle with the evil one, but what about helping other people fight the good fight?
When I heard of Pastor Noble's failures, again, I was heartbroken. However, Pastor Noble is a man that God has used to grow a church to over 2,000 people. We celebrate that growth, but while we celebrate that growth, we forget that a church of 2,000 people is full of 2,000 broken, messy, sinful, wounded, and stained people. I cannot imagine the burdens and wounds that Pastor Noble sustained while pastoring a church of so many people. Again, a singular, personal fight against the evil one is tough. But to also partner with so many in their fights against the evil one? Talk about exhaustion and fatigue. Mountains and valleys. Think Elijah on Mt. Carmel and then Elijah after Mt. Carmel. Pastoring is extremely hard work. Pastors can quickly burnout and experience exhaustion.
So, what are pastors, who are burnout and exhausted, tempted to do? Shutdown. Medicate. Escape. They will drink. They will look at pornography. They will develop a gambling addiction. They will be tempted to engage in an extra-marital relationship. They will power up and bully in order to avoid having to be vulnerable and sensitive. They will watch hours of endless and meaningless television. They will do whatever is necessary to dress the emotional wounds and cover the emotional stains that develop from both their own battle with the evil one and with all the other battles they share with their parishioners.
I believe it is time that churches stop expressing reactive surprise when their leaders fall and, instead, proactively prepare their leaders to avoid the temptation that occurs due to exhaustion and burning out. Below are three suggestions I have for congregations who wish to avoid the heartache of pastor failure.
These are only three suggestions, but I believe they are foundational to helping a pastor survive and even thrive in their fight and their congregation’s fight with the evil one. Please pray for your pastor on a daily basis and together, you guys can help your city, town, or local setting look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
Paul is the husband to Tara, father to Natalie and Isaac, has an average jump shot, and enjoys running. His secret wish is to one day become a Jedi Knight. Paul holds a doctorate in marriage and family counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves as senior pastor of Harrodsburg Baptist Church. Paul desires to help young couples navigate the early crucibles of marriage, especially when one or both of the spouses are engaged in vocational ministry.