Can God Speak Through ESPN?

Throughout the years I’ve been enamored by the similarities I’ve seen between coaching a football team and pastoring a church. I don’t know how many times, while watching an NFL Films documentary of some historic gridiron battle, that the coach’s passion, instruction or frustration matched perfectly with what I had at some time experienced in ministry.

Now I’m not a jock or a sport’s junkie or anything along those lines. In fact, the closest I’ve ever come to the chalk-marks was when my sons were younger and we became part of the fantasy football phenomena. I say “we,” but it soon became “I.” Like many of you, I don’t do anything in a small way, so I soon found myself studying the lineups, depth charts and injury reports so as to gain an advantage in the weekend match-ups. Through a brief vision the Lord revealed that this “little hobby” had innocently become a “little fox” that was stealing much from my spiritual life. (“Everything is permissible for me—but not everything is beneficial”). Before this correction, I seemed to be able to harness the conviction of the Spirit as I stood in worship on a Sunday evening; hands lifted and mouth moving, while at the same time wondering how many points my running-back and tight-end were racking up in the late starts that day. Since then, with fantasy football forsaken, it’s been all things in moderation.

This past Tuesday, however, I was once again challenged by a parallel between the coaching and pastoral worlds, and I believe God had something to say to me though ESPN. Perhaps you saw the news conference where Bobby Petrino, the head coach of the beleaguered Atlanta Falcons, resigned mid-season to accept a new position as coach at the University of Arkansas. Petrino, who was only in his first season in the pros, smiled gleefully at his press conference, noting that “it was a sad but glad day” as he severed himself from the Falcons to head back to the collegent world where he had experienced immense success the year before at lesser Louisville.

Petrino is now perceived to have “used” the Falcons as a stepping stone to a better position in the college ranks. Adding an NFL coaching job to his resume was in some critic’s minds a clever way to raise his stock as he waited for the right opening at a power-house football school. Arthur Blank, the Falcon’s owner, bemoaned the fact that “he felt betrayed” by Petrino’s resignation, seeing that the coach had apparently told him the day before that he would remain with the team.

The players were even more shocked and outspoken. Veteran tackle Grady Jackson, who was cut this season by Petrino, spurned, “It just shows his true color, like a coward with a yellow stripe down his back!” And again, “He probably didn’t want the job anyway. He was probably waiting for a better job to come along, a college job. He wanted out of Louisville.” Safety Lawyer Milloy added, “This league is for real men. I think he realized he didn’t belong here. I feel like I’ve been sleeping with the enemy.” When defensive-end Jamaal Anderson was asked about how Petrino would be remembered, he replied, “One word: Disloyal!”

But it was during cornerback Deangelo Hall’s phone interview with ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt that something stirred in my spirit. “…We were a little bit disappointed in the decision he made,” Hall said. “But when you see him out there celebrating and smiling and having fun, you tend to be a little angry. This was the guy who wanted us to buy into his system. I was one of the guys who was a little bit leery at first, and I guess I had right cause to be because he obviously had ulterior motives when he came. He came to the Atlanta Falcons as a stepping stool to get where he wanted to be, and that’s, a better college job.”

As I listened to the comments of the “Falcon congregation” regarding the departure of their “lead pastor,” I realized that these are the same feelings and emotions that arise within the church when the shepherd “chooses” to move on to more pleasant pastures after having just convinced the congregation to “buy into their system.” I say “chooses” because, while I can’t discount the fact that God can and does move people in ministry, I am not convinced that every pastoral transition is in obedience to the Spirit’s voice. Sadly, Petrino is a parable of many of the leaders of our day. Hirelings and opportunists who move from church to church, bolstering their resume in pursuit of that illustrious ministry, yet willfully ignorant of the great hurt and disappointment they leave in their wake.

Petrino’s world was surely complicated by the negative press associated with the arrest, trial and conviction of quarterback Michael Vick, who was sentenced the day before the coach’s resignation to 23 months in prison on dog-fighting charges. But Petrino knew it was going to be a demanding position even before he inked-out his five-year, $24 million contract (OK – this is where the pastoral parallel breaks down). We must ask ourselves as spiritual leaders; “Are we going to quit simply because we are facing the challenges we were told to expect when we first answered the call to ministry?” Are we really to be surprised when the going gets tough or opposition rises against us? The Apostle Paul’s instruction to “beware of dogs” in Philippians 3:2 isn’t a warning to mailmen (or quarterbacks). Instead it speaks of the spiritual dogfights which we can expect to encounter as the Kingdom of God advances against the darkness of this present age. This league really is for real men! Sadly, many leaders transition out mid-season in their ministry because results don’t come as quickly as expected. Like Petrino, who resigned after dropping his tenth game of the year, many pastors decide to “go back” to their comfort zone; back to the where all of the challenges are understood; back to the realm where they are guaranteed some measure of success.

At his responding press conference, owner Arthur Blank, looking like he’d been stabbed in the back, made reference to a sign on the wall posted by Petrino in the team meeting room soon after his hiring. The sign listed the traits the new coach demanded from his players. Blank made special reference to Petrino’s final characteristic – Finish! My friend, this word is not limited to the locker room but should be etched indelibly upon every leader’s heart. Speaking sarcastically, Blank added, “I don’t think quitting after 13 games is equal to the word ‘Finish!”

Is it Monday yet? Da-Nuh-Nuh; Da-Nuh-Nuh!

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