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Most former athletes acknowledge that there are few sensations that can compare with the thrill of taking the court or the field. In the lives of some—especially those that make it to the highest levels of their sport—this can become the basis of a lifelong struggle. But for others, the same passion that drove them to excel in the athletic arena also drives them to become champions in some other realm of life.
I was by no means a gifted athlete. However, I do see tremendous crossover between the physical competition inherent in the game of football, which I played for eight years, and the spiritual discipline demanded by ministry. This is where I left off in the previous column, and I would like to build upon that analogy and flesh it out with some practical lessons I’ve learned in ministry.
For me, any service where I’ll be preaching or teaching is like game time. The rush of adrenaline, as well as the butterflies, are very similar—as is the single-mindedness that is required. I desire to give my very best effort every time, and despise leaving with regrets. I understand that I will never get another chance to preach the same message to those same people, under the same circumstances. Never.
Much like a football game, therefore, every ministry opportunity deserves a great deal of preparation. Those closest to me will tell you that I can be obsessive about such things, and playing football only served to reinforce that characteristic—be it a weakness or a strength.
In college, home games were not a huge stressor, on the practical side, because I lived on campus, and I always loved them. But away games were completely different.
I did enjoy those trips, but there were many complicating factors. First, each of us had to pack our own equipment (which we set alongside the bus, trusting that it would arrive intact at our destination), our gym bags, and our personal items (including the requisite coats and ties). All of this required clear thinking and organization—and woe be unto the man who came up one item short … or one minute late!
Like an away game, most ministry engagements involve travel. This means that, in addition to getting my sermon and multi-media slides ready, I must make sure that our team bus—the minivan—is packed and ready to go on time.
Having your uniform picked out ahead of time is essential. Looking for a shirt or a pair of pants to wear just as the clock rolls past the time of departure is the stuff of nightmares. I need to have my shoes shined and everything packed up by Saturday night.
Then there is the issue of physical preparation. As I have gotten older, I find that what I eat before preaching, and how I sleep, are much more important than they used to be.
In fact, I begin to watch what I eat at least 48 hours beforehand. My best pre-game meals are going to involve chicken, lots of vegetables, and often a large salad. I cannot stand to eat anything greasy or spicy. Sometimes well-meaning people will want to take Lynnette and me out to eat during this time, or invite us to their home. On occasion—even after explaining how critical it is that I eat a certain type of meal—they will insist that it won’t hurt me just this once. Yes, in fact, it will.
It has also become crucial for me to get a generous amount of sleep the night before I preach. I think the earliest I have ever gone to bed is 6:30 p.m. If that sounds excessive, keep in mind that there are Sunday mornings when I must get up by 4:30 a.m. (These are aspects of our particular type of ministry that many people simply never consider.)
I never like to meet a pastor for the first time on Sunday morning. Whenever possible, we will attempt to set up in the church on Saturday. Otherwise, we try to arrive at least an hour before the service begins. By the time we assemble our display for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, check the slides on the screen (a challenge the Apostle Paul never had to face!), and then get Lynnette set up to provide piano, violin or vocal music, that hour goes by very quickly. It is vital for me to be relaxed and ready to meet people well before the service begins.
There is one other key area where I believe that my athletic background has truly affected me in ministry: I hate sitting. I hate having too much time to cool down. And I love to experience the feeling of exhaustion when I’m finished. Given the choice, I will always speak three times instead of two, or two times instead of one, or teach Sunday School instead of watching.
I hope that many readers will find these musings to be edifying. And may our Lord fill each of our hearts with a holy desire to compete—and win—for His eternal glory!
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, serving in the midwest. He also assists Whitcomb Ministries and writes for “Answers” Magazine and Regular Baptist Press. For more information on his ministry, visit foi.org/scharf or email firstname.lastname@example.org.