Tag Archives: skill

What Preachers Can Learn from Tom Brady: Part 3

by W. Jackson Watts

(Part 1 and Part 2 of this article appeared earlier on our site. They can be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinks).

Committed to the Team (Collaboration)

Over the last year or two, news outlets have reported several times on a friction in the Patriots organization between Tom Brady and his legendary coach Bill Belichick. Some of this stemmed from Belichick’s reported interest in beginning to transition the team to an emerging young backup quarterback. Despite this story and related ones, all accounts appear to suggest that Brady and Belichick have patched up their relationship, at least enough to have another successful season.

Many dimensions of the Patriot’s dynasty transcend Brady’s own individual excellence. He has almost always had an above-average offensive line (the players who protect him from opposing defenses). This no doubt partially explains his ability to stay healthy for nearly his entire career.[1] The Kraft family has provided stable ownership for the franchise. Pundits view Belichick as arguably the best coach of all time. Brady has had competent coordinators and assistant coaches. Though the overall talent of his teams has varied over his career, Brady has managed to succeed with all rosters. These points highlight that Brady is more than just the product of a good system and culture. However, his greatness cannot be interpreted apart from the organization he has been a part of.

Preachers also are part of a larger whole that is essential to their pulpit effectiveness. When we stand in the pulpit, we don’t do so in a vacuum. We preach to people who have perhaps heard ten different pastors in that same pulpit over their lifetime. Or perhaps they have heard only one voice for that same period of time. This can shape the way listeners hear and respond to our preaching.

The quality of the music and other service elements preceding and surrounding the sermon can shape the mind and mood of both preacher and congregation. What has transpired in the week before can impact the pastor’s confidence as he prepares to preach. Poor sound quality or mics unexpectedly squealing are highly disruptive. What of the congregation’s readiness? Have they prayerfully prepared to listen to God’s Word this day? These are just a few of the hundreds of factors shaping the presentation of and reception of the sermon.

The simple lesson is this: There are factors we can and cannot control. We can put in the necessary study time and prayer throughout the week. We can read what the great theologians and preachers of the past have said. We can discuss our passage with our wives during the week. We can ask Sunday school teachers to encourage people to enter the service with a prayerful, focused mindset. These are some of the ways we can collaborate with our congregation to make the preaching moment more impactful.

For those factors outside of our control, we’re in good company. Tom Brady cannot control the weather he works in; neither can you. The prophets and apostles couldn’t manipulate their hearers into hearing better. All they could do was their best to follow the Spirit’s leadership, and let God work. So should we.

Conclusion

Gotham Chopra, son of the famed spiritualist guru Deepak Chopra, produced Tom vs Time. Remarking on Tom’s commitment, Chopra said the following: “What’s really at the epicenter of it is this devotional love for the game. . . . It is his vocation—it’s what gives his life meaning and purpose.”[2] When we hear those words, we might recall the comment one observer made about football being Brady’s religion. As Christians we worry about those who find their meaning in a game or career, not in Christ. Yet for those of us who call Jesus Savior and Lord, who are free to serve Him because of grace, not to earn grace, how much more commitment should we have to excellence in His service?

If Brady, playing a temporal game with temporal satisfaction, has committed himself to longevity, details, and teamwork, how much more should preachers, serving an eternal God through work with eternal consequences, give their best?

You don’t have to pursue a Doctorate of Ministry in preaching to commit yourself to your calling and craft (though doing so might be useful for some). For me, the four most helpful practices have been to: (1) listen to my own sermons regularly; (2) occasionally collaborate on a preaching series with a fellow pastor; (3) read great books on preaching; and (4) read as broadly as possible.

Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students was the textbook I found most helpful in this area many years ago, and certainly it has helped previous generations. Among more modern books, Mark Galli and Craig Larson’s Preaching that Connects is another book that first stimulated my thinking about cultivating rhetoric skills. More recently Tim Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in An Age of Skepticism has been instructive about preaching Christ from all the Scriptures and preaching in our particular historical and cultural moment.

Reading broadly offers several benefits. It introduces us to God’s common grace poured out on many scholars, experts, journalists, historians, and even humorists across many subjects. It introduces us to new language, new concepts, and a treasure-trove of sermon illustrations. Biographies, autobiographies, and novels are especially useful in our finding appropriate and timely illustrations.

Certainly every preacher must discern what habits and practices best orient him to listening well to Scripture, understanding his people, and speaking to them week after week. I have offered a secular (though not irreligious) analogy for a spiritual aim: the formation of disciples toward Christlikeness. Christ is magnified through the foolishness of preaching, but that in no way discounts the vehicle of preaching as an art and craft that preachers should steward and sharpen. Pastors committed to excellence in preaching will appreciate the depth and breadth of the Scriptures, the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, and the multi-faceted dynamics of human communication.

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[1]Brady did miss most of the 2008 season due to an ACL injury. However, it is not uncommon for even great players to miss part of a season or an entire season over their career with some kind of acute injury.

[2]Bob Smietana, “For Tom Brady, football has become religion. No, really.” Washington Post, 4 February 2018; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/02/02/for-tom-brady-football-has-become-religion-no-really/?utm_term=.5af11a5b462b; accessed 22 January 2019.

What Preachers Can Learn from Tom Brady: Part 2

by W. Jackson Watts

(Part 1 of this article appeared earlier on our site. It can be accessed here.)

Attention to Detail (Focus)

Brady is well-known for his commitment to film study. Studying the film from actual games is a large component of game preparation for coaches and players. The regular rhythm of film study is part of every team’s weekly preparation. By studying film, one gains a better understanding of what is happening on the field: Why did this play work? Why didn’t that play work? What are my bad tendencies and habits that I’m not seeing? If film study can help yield answers to these questions, then Brady is miles ahead of most players. He has remarked that he can literally watch film all day.

Film study is representative of a commitment to grow and improve, specifically by giving attention to details. Instead of having just a gut-level idea of what happened on the field based on what the scoreboard says, film analysis gives a clearer view. Similarly, preachers committed to their craft will pay attention to detail. This is part and parcel of being serious about growth and improvement in the pulpit.

No decent pastor believes that God’s blessing isn’t essential to good sermon work. We know that we need the Holy Spirit in the study and in the pulpit. Moreover, we need Him every day leading up to Sunday to help us practice what we are preparing to preach. In a real sense, the “results” of our preaching are in His hands. As the apostle Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). [1]

On the other hand, our focused effort should never be minimized. Ezra was spoken of favorably as having “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10). This was not the most opportune time to be a teacher, to remind a freshly-liberated people of the Word they had forsaken. Yet he had real “power in the pulpit” because of this commitment.[2] The corporate confession and repentance that we see in Ezra’s ministry seems to evidence of the Spirit’s power. Ezra was committed in heart and mind to know and share the Word.

Some may reject this interpretation of Ezra’s impact, emphasizing that God doesn’t need our preparation. They point to Peter and James as they preached in Jerusalem. Didn’t they confound the religious leaders since they “perceived that they were uneducated, common men”? (Acts 4:13). Yet when we look closer at this passage, it does not emphasize their boldness at the expense of competence. Peter and James may not have received the type of rabbinical training that religious teachers had, but they had been to the Harvard of their day: They had enrolled in the school of Jesus. They had learned from Him, and had His Holy Spirit breathed on them (Jn. 20:22). They were students empowered to share what they had learned and memorized.

There are two aspects of the preparation I’m referring to: When it comes to substance, we need to consider both our text and the theology surrounding it, as well as the words we use to convey that text and theology. The first requires a regular deep dive into Scripture, language, history, culture, and our theological tradition to learn what is meant by the Word. This is a persistent pursuit. When do we truly master the Scriptures? In the tenth year of ministry? Twentieth? Thirtieth? No, this is a lifelong pursuit.

The second aspect of verbal communication refers more to how we express the text’s meaning and application. This is where preachers really should consider their own “film study.” Most churches record sermons. As much as we all dislike the sound of our own voices on tape, I strongly recommend pastors at least occasionally listen to their messages. You’ll be surprised at what you hear! Places you think you bungled sound different on tape and presumably sounded different to hearers, too. Places you thought were sufficiently clear don’t sound so clear the second time around.

Pastoral film study also reveals those pesky and awkward habits of speech that cling to us over the years. Some preachers incessantly end their good points with the solicitous, “Amen church?!” Others preach like they talk, always ending sentences with, “You know?” or “Right?” (I’ve suffered from a heavy dose of the latter recently). Or as one pastor I know always said following a call to obedience (or request to bring a casserole to a potluck), “Do this and the Lord will bless you for it.” Film study helps us identify and gradually eliminate those repetitive statements and phrases. We’re then better able to offer our audience a diversity of language that adds color and appeal to our sermons.

A final way we can pay attention to detail as we strive for preaching excellence is to watch ourselves. Listening is useful, but viewing ourselves takes us from two dimensions to three. Preaching is not only verbal but also non-verbal. God has designed us as creatures with senses that enable us to interpret, process, and be enriched through all kinds of unique non-verbal cues. Preachers committed to their craft will let themselves be impacted by their passage, so when they preach they will more likely reflect authentic facial expression, gestures, and other movement. This also applies to verbal qualities, such as volume and inflection. Ultimately preachers must let the Holy Spirit guide them to be true to their own God-given personalities, while also letting Him more fully sanctify their personalities. In other words, it’s fine to be yourself. However, be the most effective version of yourself!

Pastors’ wives can be a great asset to them in evaluation. They love us enough to tell us the truth, no matter how hard the truth may be. In most cases, they have sat under our preaching longer than our congregations. They know the content of our message and the content of our lives. They see the delivery of the message and hear the message delivered. Sometimes a wise staff member may also provide additional input. Utilize these assets in improving your preaching.

Other practices can also help “fine-tune and sharpen our fundamentals,” just as the veteran Tom Brady still does. We should probably read at least one preaching book a year. Listen occasionally to a sermon online from a respected pastor—perhaps from one you know and from one who you have respected from afar. Strive to give your people your best since Christ Jesus gave us His best. We can sharpen our skills by asking questions as diverse as, “Is this really what this verse is saying?” to “Is this anecdote as humorous to others as it is to me?”

We need great discipline to give this type of attention to detail—and, perhaps more so, humility. Humility says, “I have not arrived at this task.” Humility says, “I can learn from other preachers, living and dead.” Humility says, “With God’s help and personal diligence, I can be more effective.” While great people can grow proud, the Christian will recognize that greatness is defined by and achieved through humility (e.g., Mt. 18:4).

(The third and final part of this article will post next Tuesday here on the Commission’s blog.)

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[1]All Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version.

[2]I borrow this phrase from the Jim Shaddix preaching book by the same title.

 

What Preachers Can Learn from Tom Brady

by W. Jackson Watts

This past Sunday, for the ninth time in 18 years as a starting quarterback, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots played in the Super Bowl. He had won five of his previous eight trips to football’s biggest game (and America’s most watched sporting event), and Sunday he won his sixth. 12 times he has played in the conference championship game (the game you must win to advance to the Super Bowl). 15 times he has led his team to a division title.[1]

You don’t have to be a football fan to begin to understand how astounding these accomplishments are—and this is without considering his individual achievements as a player (e.g. passing touchdowns). Many great players, quarterbacks included, have never played in a Super Bowl, much less won one. It’s something Brady does every other year, literally. I confess that I have never considered myself a fan. Frankly, I’m like many football fans who are tired of seeing the Brady-led Patriots in the big game. But then I heard this report a few weeks ago: Before the playoffs began, when his team had a week off to rest, Brady met with his throwing coach “to fine-tune and sharpen his fundamentals entering the playoffs.”[2]

This phrase may seem innocuous, but let’s contextualize it: On his week off, a veteran quarterback who is the most accomplished at his position—and perhaps any position—preparing to play in the biggest game he has previously played in eight times, met with a coach who specializes in throwing the football. This isn’t practice; this is the pursuit of perfection.

What does Tom Brady’s commitment to excellence in football, especially at this point in his career, have to do with Christian theology and ministry?

Excellence in the Pulpit?

Preaching is at the heart of pastoral ministry. It’s fitting that we focus largely on the content or substance of what is preached. We might call this the theology of one’s preaching. Yet a holistic theology of preaching includes what we say and how we say it. This intersection of content and form, or sermon development and delivery, is the subject matter of homiletics.

Most students and scholars of preaching (homileticians) describe preaching as more than a calling or spiritual gift. Certainly it is both, but they also characterize it as an art and craft. For thousands of years oral communication has been viewed as a skill that could and should be cultivated and bettered. Some traditions emphasize the principles of rhetoric that predate the New Testament, going back at least as far as Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). But within church history we find many preaching books that deal not only with proper biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), but also with the “art and science of sermon construction.”[3]

I contend that the church would be greatly edified by not only layman embracing and using their spiritual gifts, but by pastor-teachers continuing to make the most of the gift God has given them. After all, preaching and teaching are the pastor’s “main function.”[4]

In this respect, Tom Brady’s excellence in football, and quarterbacking particularly, is instructive. To be clear, Tom Brady himself is not a Christian as far as I know. Ironically some observers describe him as being “religious” about football.[5] However, we shouldn’t allow someone’s potential idolatry to obscure some valuable lessons.[6] Just as the Lord through common grace teaches us many important lessons and blesses all mankind (e.g. Mt. 5:45), preachers can learn some constructive lessons from Brady.

Long-Term Effectiveness (Longevity)

Brady’s effectiveness is especially incredible because he is performing at a high level at age 41 (he turns 42 in August). To put that into perspective, most successful quarterbacks generally play around 15 seasons, meaning they retire around age 35. Hall Fame quarterback Troy Aikman retired at 34; Terry Bradshaw was 36. Dan Fouts was 36. Peyton Manning managed to play until age 39, though he was a shell of himself by his last season. Decline is generally expected near the end of an athlete’s career, especially in a sport like football where players are literally facing violence every Sunday.

Quarterbacks certainly depend on the players who protect them while they pass, as well as the rest of their team (more on this below). But Brady has redefined how modern quarterbacks and quarterback coaches see the position. In recent years extensive attention has been given to his unique diet and workout regimen. Known as the “TB12 Method,” Brady’s commitment to disciplined eating, sleeping, and exercise has rubbed off on many of his teammates and other young players. Though many see professional athletes as people who play hard on game day, and party all night, Brady is a picture of discipline and stability. He never drinks alcohol during the season—unheard of for most players. And when he is not at the teams’ facilities, he apparently spends his time at home with his wife and children. He has repeatedly said he doesn’t know why he cannot play at a high level until age 45.[7]

Preaching, similarly, is a profoundly physical act. It involves extensive concentration during preparation, but in sermon delivery a significant amount of physical and emotional energy is expended. I heard one veteran pastor once say that during the average sermon just as much adrenaline is released as is during a typical eight-hour work day.[8] Consider, then, the fact that many pastors will preach or teach at least three times a week, 50 weeks a year, over several decades.[9] And this isn’t even factoring in how preaching is stacked on top of other highly demanding tasks such as pastoral care and counseling, outreach and evangelism, administration, and more.

How then can preachers prepare to minister for the long-haul if they have not committed themselves to physical and emotional health for the long-haul?

Certainly the time comes for all pastors when they can no longer serve a ministry in a full-time capacity. As pastors age, they must rely on the Lord’s guidance, as well as the wisdom of their spouse, church leaders, pastor friends and colleagues to discern when they should consider retirement from the full-time pastorate. I’ve heard a thousand times that pastors tend to stay too long at a church near the end of their ministry. This also happens in football. Many times quarterbacks are practically carted off the field as their team erodes before they retire and move into a different vocation.

While pastoral ministry, and preaching specifically, is certainly not a perfect analogy to quarterbacking for a professional football team (no analogy is perfect), the primary comparison is this: Preachers must take care of themselves and churches need to take care of their preachers if they expect to have long-term fruitfulness in the pulpit.

Discussing a pastor’s health or well-being with him is awkward for concerned lay people and church leaders. It sounds like a criticism, not loving concern. However, pastors should cultivate healthy self-awareness and humility so as to avoid being defensive. They should be honest about their age, weight, stress-level, and energy-level. They should welcome input, carefully consider it, and evaluate how it may influence their ability to serve well. Church leaders and members should always express concern privately, and do so having carefully weighed their words. They should be sure to voice concerns from a place of love that has been expressed in tangible ways previously such that their pastor perceives it as just that: caring admonition. Finally, both parties should realize that a refusal to say something is the very opposite of love. Leaving concerns unexpressed doesn’t mean that people hate their pastor. However, true love leads us to communicate honestly with those whom we love.

All preachers hope for longevity, but this will likely be influenced by some forces outside of their control. Genetic factors and certain unavoidable health conditions may influence one’s employment in unexpected ways. However, we must not dismiss the Scriptural connection between wise living and long life. Many of the Proverbs, for example, suggest a meaningful link between how we live and how long we live (and by extension, work). We can often observe this link through general revelation, so the medical field can teach us much about our bodies. So insomuch as it is within our control, we should cultivate healthy eating patterns, a commitment to regular rest and sleep, and intentional exercise.

Church members, consider giving your pastor a sabbatical after he has served for a certain number of years. Pastors, consider asking for one if you feel the wheels coming off physically, mentally, and/or emotionally. Church members, giving a gym membership for Pastor Appreciation Month could be a useful gift. A pastor’s mood and mindset toward his work shouldn’t radically change over time if he is walking in the Spirit and observing sound principles of physical and emotional health. Preaching is, in its own way, a contact sport. It should be treated as such.

Parts two and three of this article will post on forthcoming Tuesday mornings. Be sure to check back then!

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[1] Brady’s remarkable and historic run is even more impressive when he consider that he was not the starter for his team until his second season in the league, making his statistics look even more gaudy when one considers the percentage of times in his career he has lead his team to these achievements.

[2]Mike Reiss, “Tom Brady spends time with throwing coach during playoff bye week,”  http://www.espn.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/291728/tom-brady-spends-time-with-throwing-coach-during-playoff-bye-week; Accessed 22 January 2019.

[3] Among Free Will Baptists we have had several men who have taught and written in this field, and so this article is simply an addition to that tradition of thought and practice.

[4] Robert E. Picirilli, ed., Randall House Bible Commentary: Galatians through Colossians (Nashville: Randall House, 1988), 198.

[5] Bob Smietana, “For Tom Brady, football has become religion. No, really.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/02/02/for-tom-brady-football-has-become-religion-no-really/?utm_term=.5af11a5b462b; Accessed 22 Jan 2019.

[6] Others familiar with Brady’s career might be reluctant to engage in such a thought experiment for other reason as well. He has been suspended once for slightly deflating footballs below regulation standards.  Yet no serious football analyst believes he has cheated his way through his career. The scale of his achievements simply cannot be explained away by one or two questionable incidents.

[7] Brady’s obsession with overcoming the typical health and chronological limits on playing football have been chronicled in a Facebook Live series called Tom vs Time.

[8] Rev. Danny Dwyer made the following statement at the 2018 Missouri Pastors’ Retreat in Rocky Mount, MO. I believe he said he had heard this from someone with a medical background.

[9] I am assuming here that the pastor takes at least two weeks’ vacation. Even if he is out of the pulpit more due to guest speakers, he still has other preaching and teaching responsibilities for his church, his local association, perhaps a nursing home ministry, and other such opportunities. This also includes weddings and funerals.