September 19, 2020

iMonk Classic: Lessons from a Lousy Referee

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From Sept 13, 2008

Note from CM: Since this is our national sports “holy week,” I thought I’d re-post one of Michael’s rare excursions into the use of sports to illustrate a spiritual point.

I’m not usually the guy with sports illustrations, but this one couldn’t be passed up. (And if anyone I know says to me that I was “secretly” talking about them, I’m going to laugh right at you, very loudly.) This is so relevant to thousands of situations, it preaches itself without explanation.

Young pastors, listen up.

Friday night high school football with several other men is a highlight of fall for me, and last night was the first game we’d seen. The who, what and where aren’t important, but one aspect of the game was memorable.

The officiating crew was terrible. I know that’s a frequent complaint, but I didn’t really have a dog in the fight and the team I was modestly pulling for won, so I’m not whining. The terrible officiating simply ruined the game. I felt bad for everyone: fans, coaches and, of course, the boys.

In short, the officials threw over 30 flags, most of them frivolous, and mostly in the second half when one team had some hope of gaining momentum enough to make up a three touchdown deficit. There were four reversed calls. Four! Four times the announcer read the signal, the teams reacted, and then a couple of minutes later- without benefit of instant replay- the call was reversed, usually taking away a fumble recovery or a first down.

The coaches repeatedly received sideline warnings for being out on the playing field pleading their case. I usually find coach complaints unprofessional, but these coaches were in the middle of complete chaos and they couldn’t be blamed for speaking up.

It appeared to me and my friends that one referee was making most of these calls, and the others were gently trying to correct him and restrain his excessive penalty calling impulses. But to no avail. By the fourth quarter, both teams looked completely drained. The game had gone on much longer than a normal game. For the entire third and fourth quarters, it seemed that no more than two plays in a row occurred without a penalty.

Tempers briefly flared between the teams, which gave us some hope that the game would get interesting, but the referees quelled that as well. With the last 12 minutes left, everyone on the field was out of it, and even the crowd was silent with disgust.

Really, it was one of the worst displays of officiating I’ve ever seen.

It reminded me a lot of lessons for those of us who minister to and with the body of Christ. So Christian leaders, ministry leaders, pastors, youth ministers, denominational types, preachers, evangelists, district superintendents, bishops, cardinals and popes……consider a few lessons from a very badly officiated football game. If you can’t see how it applies to what we do, throw a flag in the comments.

1. Let the team play the game. It’s about the Gospel first, then it’s about people, then the church. It’s not about you until we get well down the list of what’s important.

2. You’re there to serve, and if you truly serve you will rarely need to be the person everyone thinks about or talks about all the time. Other people will look good. Everyone will have a stake in a good experience. You will look competent.

3. Find that balance between you doing your job and the regular Christian doing his/hers. When good leaders are finished, it looks like they were working with a great team.

4. You don’t have to call every infraction you see. Question your sensitivity to pointing out what is wrong. Barney Fife was probably right most of the time when he arrested jaywalkers. The compulsion to make the game about your ability to see infractions is a disqualifier from being an official, in my opinion. There’s a difference between looking the other way all the time and seeing where leadership is needed judiciously.

5. If you have to be escorted to your car by law enforcement, you probably didn’t do a very good job that day. (I know that’s not universally true, and sometimes you have to make the tough call and make lots of people unhappy. But that should be rare, not regular.) If you have to change your phone number and are constantly talking about those who are out to get you, consider a reality check. That angry mob may be the only way to get your attention.

6. If we go home talking about how many times you told everyone that something was wrong, I doubt that we heard the Gospel. An abundance of corrections isn’t Good News, in case you didn’t know that.

7. Yes, some coaches and players are upset with the officials who are “just doing their job.” And yes, you can probably quote the rulebook better than they can. But remember that the striped shirt and the rulebook don’t insure that you are anyone’s superior or that you have seen everything and understand everything. Sometimes the other guy really did see the play better than you did.

God called you to demonstrate his gifts and to use yours. In that order, about 98% to 2%.

8. When your fellow referees tell you it’s time to back off a bit for the sake of the game and your own integrity as an official, listen to them. They may see something you need to see, but that you can’t see while you are practicing your two handed double flag toss act.

9. That despondent look on the players’ faces after your 20th flag of the night… close attention to it. It’s telling you something nothing else will; something sad that’s hard to put into words. Remember that if that player quits tomorrow, he can be blamed, of course. But you are a large part of why. You took away his joy and convinced him that his best efforts were pointless. He knows he’s imperfect. Do you know that about yourself?

10. One of the good things about being an official in this game is we don’t have to reinvent our identity or our role with every game. Those striped shirts are about continuity with what’s best, not about originality in officiating. In other words, stay old school. Hide behind the masters. There have been great officials before us that showed us what to do and how to do it in a way that made te game better. Learn from those examples. Imitate them. Doubt yourself and your instant reactions a bit more. Search for wisdom even more diligently than you share yours.


  1. I liked it!

    But I was especially fond of the final sentence…….

    Search for wisdom even more diligently than you share yours.

    God help me!

  2. Point 9 speaks to a situation I discovered…the crushing disappointment of realizing that Christianity is flawed and full of problems and holes. Last year I heard of one such situation. Now I’m pretty open about being agnostic. My co-workers know it, as do my friends, and Christians I once knew. The only ones who don’t are my family. But one of the interesting things that has happened is that I have had 2 people come up to me in silence or on the side and tell me that they agree, they no longer believe in God, view Christianity as being flawed and yet act it out when they are around family and friends to preserve the peace and keep their friendships.

    Let me tell you of one such story. Last year I was on Facebook and an acquaintance saw me on and we chatted. He told me that he understood where I was coming from, as he know longer believes in God. He then proceeded to talk about how he was tired of the politics, tired of the certainity, and tired of being in circles that constantly looked down upon others in an arrogant manner. He couldn’t stand the “us” vs “them” mentality. And yet he was afraid of what his parents, family and friends would do back home if they knew he doesn’t believe in God. He was afraid of being ostracized and people going overboard. So when “Bob” visits home he plays along, he acts out the faith, speaks “Christianese” and goes along with the act.

    I can understand where he comes from, but I can’t live a lie. But when I spoke with him on the phone occasionally I can tell…his voice is crushed and not like it once was. Like he experienced a huge let down. I know that feeling as well. What was promised to me didn’t work out like I was taught. But again how healthy is it in Christinaity today where people have to act and play along in order to fit in. Indeed agnosticism is healthier…

    😀 😀 😀

    • Eagle, of course Christianity is flawed. Who besides Jesus isn’t? Agnosticism isn’t the answer, I’ve been there.Our only hope is that,”Jesus is Lord'” and died for our sins.

    • Charles Fines says

      Eagle, there are many young people who share your pain. Those within the church might view this as a generational falling away. Perhaps from another point of view it might be regarded as a sort of awakening.

      Might I suggest that your disappointment is not so much with God as it is with religion, and perhaps mostly with the Evangelical flavor of religion. That is more or less the whole point to this particular gathering of people. The people here seem to come from a fairly diverse perspective but perhaps what they might all agree on is that they are flawed, wounded, and in need of healing. Most people here would appear to have their hands full trying to clean up their own back yard without worrying overly about yours or mine. There is the occasional finger pointer but mostly folks here are fairly tolerant.

      I frequently go out to Burger Night at a local eatery with an Evangelical friend of mind whose wife recently died. Partly I see this as a mini-ministry in that he is lonely, but partly I see it as good practice in not getting upset with doctrine and beliefs that I find laughable at best and harmful at worst. I can often do the same here. Perhaps the one thing we might all agree on is the core teaching of Jesus that loving God above all and your neighbor as yourself is the Way home. And perhaps not.

      In any case, I urge you not to throw the Baby out with the bathwater. I would suggest that out of all the people you can read about in the Bible, the only one that appears flawless is Jesus. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t have to deal with family and friends and neighbors who didn’t understand him and thought he should be going a different way. Even if you presently can’t handle the idea of loving God, I would suggest that trying to love your fellow flawed humans, including your family, possibly even including yourself, might fill your plate.

      Somewhere in between the hypocrisy of pretending to share religious ideas you don’t believe and a battle field, there ought to be a balance where integrity and tolerance can share a foxhole. With my Evangelical friend, sometimes this involves quietly pointing out that not everyone agrees, sometimes it just requires me to keep my mouth shut and send out a silent blessing.

  3. Last sentence was well worth the price (time) of admission. That Michael….what a gift he was/is.

  4. Eagle,
    R.D. Laing’s book The Politics of Experience might interest you if you appreciate the psychological bent. Here’s a paragraph:
    “Existence is a flame which constantly melts and recasts our theories. Existential thinking offers no security, no home for the homeless. It addresses no one except you and me. It finds its validation when, across the gulf of our idioms and styles, our mistakes, errings and perversities, we find in the other’s communication an experience of relationship established, lost, destroyed, or regained. We hope to share the experience of a relationship, but the only honest beginning, or even end, may be to share the experience of its absence.”
    One more from Laing:
    “It is of fundamental importance not to make the positivist mistake of assuming that, because a group are ‘in formation’, this means they are necessarily ‘on course’. This is the Gadarene swine fallacy. Nor is it necessarily the case that the person who is ‘out of formation’ is more ‘on course’ than the formation. There is no need to idealize someone just because he is labeled ‘out of formation.’ Nor is there any need to persuade the person who is ‘out of formation’ that cure consists in getting back into formation. The person who is out of formation is often full of hatred toward the formation and of fears about being the odd man out. If the formation is itself off course then the man who is really to get on course must leave the formation. But it is possible to do so, if one desires, without screeches and screams, and without terrorizing the already terrified formation that one has to leave.

  5. Just a P.S. to those quotes – We are all stumbling in the dark (through a glass dimly) here to greater or lesser degrees. To really know God we must lose Him and find Him again in a continual process . Each time He gets bigger and so do we, but it requires dissolution and distress at different junctures. I hope your friend just goes for it because he’ll never find wholeness acting the part. It is a “crushing” experience. He may find nothing but anything is better than acting because then not only do you not feel good about God and the people around you, you don’t feel good about yourself.