W. Jackson Watts
In February 2019 I published a three-part article entitled “What Preachers Can Learn from Tom Brady.” I posted this on the occasion of quarterback Tom Brady winning his sixth Super Bowl title, an unparalleled achievement in professional football. Since then, Brady departed from the team whose uniform he wore for twenty seasons (a rare feat), joined another team (a historically losing franchise) and led them to a Super Bowl title. Since then I have been giving more thought to Brady’s legacy and its potential relevance to excellence in Christian ministry.
In the earlier articles I explained how God’s common grace, exhibited through excellence in non-clerical fields such as medicine, business, and even sports, might yield lessons for Christian preachers. Specifically, Brady’s long-term effectiveness (longevity), attention to detail (focus), and commitment to the team (collaboration) present commendable qualities that should ideally surface in the pastorate. My position has not changed.
What has changed is the unlikely and shocking departure of Brady from his team of two decades in Boston to a gulf-coast franchise with a losing history. While Brady was technically a free agent, the New England Patriots and he decided to go their separate ways.
Brady’s new franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had an above-average roster, but added more players to complement him (many whom he specifically requested), contributing to their successful season. Brady’s former team, on the other hand, finished the year with a losing record—their first since 2000—having settled for a sub-par roster. Brady’s new team signed him to a lucrative deal. Brady’s former team, which often expected him to take pay cuts despite his high-level of performance, took the frugal route in signing their next quarterback. They watched from home while Brady and the Buccaneers rolled to victory.
People who consider my earlier argument could undoubtedly draw conclusions about church life that may press the boundaries of these kinds of analogies.
For example, some might say, “This is what happens when you don’t pay pastors a generous wage; they leave for greener pastures.” While the New Testament certainly commands fair and generous pay, using the language of “double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17), Scripture also cautions us against being motivated by financial gain (1 Tim. 3:8b). Worldly notions of “knowing your worth” can easily supersede “fair and generous pay” in our thinking. Churches indeed should learn the proper balance in these principles, but in my opinion the Brady parallel isn’t an obvious one—at least not the primary one.
Others might reason, “See, this is what happens when you don’t give pastors more say in the appointment of volunteers, selection of officers, and hiring of staff members. They will go where their voice counts on such matters.” I would heartily agree that pastors as overseers must indeed have a chief role in the establishment of policy, standards for those serving, and certainly in the oversight of staff hiring. This is simply a wise and necessary application of their responsibility to teach, lead, and shepherd. Yet congregational church government must factor into the equation also. And let’s be honest: you can’t fire church members. They may be subject to church discipline if the circumstance calls for it, but part of pastoral ministry is learning to be patient with the critics, the weak, and the immature. Churches must realize they aren’t just hiring a “preacher,” but a leader. At the same time, leaders can’t move people around like chess pieces on a board on day one.
One Big Lesson
There is a larger, significant lesson that I think we ought to take from the Brady departure. It can be summed up in a question, then an assertion: “How well are we positioning our congregations to fare after we depart? Part of faithful church leadership is preparing and leading toward long-term health and maturity so that their future well-being isn’t contingent on our presence.”
The conclusion that many have drawn about the Brady situation is two-fold: “Wow, the New England system must not be as resilient and great as we thought. I guess their head coach is mortal after all.” And, “Tom Brady was greater than we even imagined! Look at how poorly the Patriots did after he left, and how great the Buccaneers became after he arrived.”
Unfortunately, this way of seeing the situation often surfaces in Christian circles, yet it’s a fundamentally different calculation. It doesn’t speak well of our leadership when churches crumble immediately after we depart. We must qualify this to say that churches can be given the tools they need to handle transition, but they must choose to use them. And numerous factors can impact a church following a pastoral departure. But a New Testament vision of discipleship and the raising up of “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” would seem to mitigate (at least partially) the ill-effects of a pastor’s departure, regardless of how gifted or beloved he was.
A deacon friend in another church reminded me recently that you can tell how impactful a man’s ministry was by how deeply people feel it when he has gone. There is much wisdom in this. We deeply feel the losses of those whom we have loved and who have loved us. Yet when we love people, we also seek to equip them for a future in which their well-being is not dependent on our physical presence. Instead, it must be dependent on the body of Christ and the presence of the Spirit.
So on the one hand, short-term transition in a church and the long-term outcome of a ministry cannot be assigned exclusively as the responsibility of a pastor. That’s too much weight to place on one man. On the other hand, this is a warning to those currently serving to be careful how quickly we read our own press reports. A significant part of the true evaluation of “how well we’re doing” or “how well we’ve done” includes “how well others have done.” That is, what is the situation going to look like when we’re no longer there after resignation, retirement, or death?
New Testament Reminders
Paul’s incessant emphasis on sound doctrine surfaces here in incredibly important ways. The apostle was not of two minds when he wrote the Pastoral Epistles—“Let me say some stuff about sound doctrine. Now let me hop over here and talk about church health and unity. Oh wait, let me say some things about the requirements for leaders.” No, the Spirit intentionally and organically led the apostle Paul to write what he wrote in view of his actual experiences with the churches. The Holy Spirit intended to show us that faithful doctrine and practice, church health, and competent leaders are interdependent.
A serious and prudent reading of the New Testament would require at least four practices of faithful shepherds in this area: (1) Regular preaching of sound doctrine; (2) An intentional emphasis on the pastoral epistles which address the issues at hand; (3) The raising up of faithful lay leaders; and (4) Before you leave a ministry, “How ready are they?” is at least one question we must consider.