December 3, 2020

Lessons from a Lousy Referee

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. Were you at the same game I was at last night? Probably not, since I’m in Mississippi. Nevertheless, I’m feeling both the literal and metaphorical points you were trying to make.

  2. “With the last 12 minutes left, everyone on the field was out of it, and even the crowd was silent with disgust.”

    This reminds me of Augustine’s statement: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”.

    I think charity and grace are in pretty short supply in world in general, and as the church (which is supposed to be,in my opinion, the home of both) the lack of both is even more apparent. I will freely say that I am trying to learn it as well.

    Without grace and charity, it is hard to get along, and all one’s energy will get sucked out of you.

    Thanks for this, Michael. While there seems to be an overabundance of poor athletic comparisons out there, I think you have found a good one.

  3. Sounds like the story of my life trying to serve in Christian “ministry.” It seems rare when a “leader” (whether in church, politics, etc.) truly understands that his actions can affect everybody in a huge way. Yes, it is draining. Overlording and micromanaging are cancers to human hope. I think I’ll take a few decades off from official church ministry and remain free lance. I’m glad you found such a good picture from a Friday night out with da boys.

  4. I said I was going to laugh, didn’t I?

  5. That reminds me of a conversation I overheard in my reformed leaning Baptist church.

    One fellow told another, in delighted satisfaction, the story of a young Reformed pastor who had taken a local pulpit and ‘started preaching the truth about the doctrines of grace.’ 80% of the people had left, the man reported, and now the pastor really had something to start working with.

  6. Myrddin,

    You’ve nailed the kind of person I immediately thought of. I’m meeting so many young theologically oriented pastors who need to understand that Jesus didn’t call them to be referees or sheriffs, but servants and shepherds.

    The essentially positive aspect of ministry eludes a lot of people. It’s incredibly tempting in these declining times to become doctrinal watchdogs and personal busybodies instead of Jesus shaped leaders.

    And I hope all my readers will hear this sentence: pursuing a Jesus shaped direction for life and ministry is what I am all about. I’ve settled that one, and no one is going to discourage me.

    Readers: This is my door, and I’m nailing stuff to it. Read it or walk by. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m preaching to myself and whomever the Spirit chooses.