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.

3 thoughts on “What Preachers Can Learn from Tom Brady”

  1. Jackson, I appreciated this essay. As Christians, who are charged to be missional, it is imperative that we interact with pop culture so we can be more effective witnesses. Your interaction with Brady and Brad-led is a deeper reminder that we are to interpret the culture of this world through our Biblical lens and then share with others.

    As a football fan, your take prompts me to play with other sub-analogies (that were beyond the scope of your thoughts). I would argue we possess a strong human tendency to understand and operationalize human behavior, which takes root in sports.

    For instance, we have come to define “the Patriot-way” and engage in armchair debates such as, “Is the winning more a product of Belichick or Brady”. In a sports age of hyper individualism and free agency we want to credit the person, not unity within a team (see NBA ;-). We can look to I Corinthians 1:10 , among other verses, as a message of being of the same mind (and commitment). As Christians, this gives us a foothold to a Godly message of unity or the Patriot-way, if you will, within a body and its many benefits. A second example could be placing glory to men is insignificant in light of the Lord (Psalm 115:1). Sadly these temptations and exercises at reductionism cause us to miss the potential lessons of Biblical interpretation.

    Thanks for getting my morning brain juices going!

    1. Brent, great to hear from you! I appreciate the feedback and interaction. I have thought a ton about the NBA v. NFL comparison as it relates to team culture versus individual or personality-driven culture. I do believe there are many fruitful analogies (or sub-analogies, to use your term) that we can learn from, especially in congregations and in Christian organizations. I think you’ll enjoy parts two and three of this piece to follow, as part three deals more with the team dynamic.

      Jackson

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