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When the football coach at my son’s public high school asked me to help coach the team, my immediate response was, “No way. I’m too busy.” Besides, I hadn’t been involved with football in 20 years, since my days as a college quarterback. It seemed out of the question.

But I was convicted by my own preaching on parenting from Proverbs, and the coach said I could come to practice as much or as little as I liked. So on the first day of preseason workouts, I was there. Immediately, all those sights and sounds and smells of my playing days came flooding back, and I was hooked.

For the next 12 years, coaching high school football on the side was one of my great joys. And my congregation appreciated that it got me out of the “ecclesiastical bubble” and engaged in the community.

Relationship Building

There I was known as “coach” instead of “pastor,” and I could build relationships easily with other coaches, school administrators, parents, and students. Some of those relationships have persisted for two decades, providing opportunities to share Christ in all sorts of ways. Though I am no longer coaching, I still get invited to address the team from time to time, and I was asked to officiate two funerals recently for a former player and a coach. I cherish the relationships with people outside the church that my coaching experience provided.

Before I was done, I coached two other sons. Being at practice every day cemented in their minds that though Dad was deeply committed to the church, he was also deeply committed to them. Better still, I entered into their world, got to know their friends, and shared the highs and lows inherent to such an emotionally intense sport. It bonded us, and we share many precious memories.

I can still feel the thickness of the pre-game tension in the locker room. Two of my sons played quarterback, and I felt a kind of intimacy through hand signals we developed to communicate plays. I was there when one son injured his knee before his senior year, and when another lay helplessly on the field with a dislocated shoulder. I was also there after one son made an interception to seal an astonishing upset victory, and when another son threw a touchdown pass to secure a district championship. I’ll never forget the big hugs as they ran off the field.

Coaching your own children can be precarious, though. I was determined to keep things as positive as I could, leaving the more punitive measures to staff coaches. I aspired to be a teacher and an encourager, challenging my sons to improve and excel, while assuring them of my abiding and unconditional love—a difficult balance to achieve. I wanted to be proud of their achievements without trying to live through them—a common parental (and coaching) temptation.

Maturing Boys

There is something special about high school football. It provides a distinctly male environment for the development of adolescent boys. They are challenged physically and emotionally; they confront pain, even bodily danger; they must invest in something bigger than themselves—a team, a band of brothers. There are significant parallels to military service and, as we walked through the trial of 9/11 together, I often told the players I hoped this would be the closest they’d ever come to combat.

We never ceased to preach about the lessons they could learn and the virtues they could develop—courage, self-sacrifice, discipline, responsibility, perseverance, even love. For these young men, the experience of high school football could serve as a kind of rite of passage to adulthood. It could channel the testosterone-driven aggression of the adolescent male into controlled expressions, providing a positive outlet for their God-given propensities.

They engage in a battle of sorts, laying their bodily comforts on the line, courageously confronting their fears, playing their part in a united struggle to overcome a common enemy. Don’t we find allusions here to the spiritual-warfare language with which Paul describes the Christian life (Eph. 6:10–20)?

Both Coaches and Players

My football coaching ended a few years after our youngest son graduated. But my pastoral coaching continues. I’ve found coaching to be a useful metaphor for understanding my role in helping others mature in faith—to become more like Jesus, to grow as disciples, and to engage in the great challenge of living for him and combating the spiritual forces of evil. Doesn’t Paul sound a little like a coach in exhorting Corinthian believers, “Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24)? The author of Hebrews gives a similar charge: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1).

As a pastor, I’m a teacher and encourager, challenging church members to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:14). I try to help them see that the various disciplines of the Christian life—Bible reading, prayer, local-church fellowship—are in many ways like practice reps. They prepare us for the real game—the game of living a life of love to God and neighbor.

There will be setbacks and defeats, but victory comes when God puts us back on our feet after we fall, in repentance and faith, and when we regularly come to the cross of Christ for spiritual nourishment. I am a coach but also a player myself, seeking to lead by example. What a challenge to say with Paul, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).