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Of football coaches and pastors

By Mike Ruffin Unless you’ve been living under a rock or keeping up with the crazy things that presidential candidates say (which would leave you no time to keep up with anything else), you know that Mark Richt is no longer the head football coach at the University of Georgia. I understand the move, but I also hate that it happened. Based on what I’ve read, even most people who are glad that Richt is gone agree that he’s a good guy. Perhaps the columnist who said Richt was a good coach but a great man had it right. So far as I can tell, Coach Richt did almost everything right at UGA. He ran a major college football program for 15 years with no major NCAA violations. He genuinely cared about his players. He coached so as to shape lives and not just to develop athletes. He did his work with integrity. He lived out his Christian ethic in his workplace. But in the world of major college football, none of that is what’s regarded as most important. What’s most important is winning. Now, Coach Richt won. His teams regularly won nine or ten games a year. Lately, though, his teams have also lost a lot of big games on a big stage to big rivals. Georgia hasn’t won an SEC championship in 10 years. The Dawgs haven’t won a national championship since the Herschel Walker era. I suspect that if Georgia had won some conference crowns and a national championship in the last few years, Richt would still be their coach today, even if he had consistently run afoul of the NCAA, had berated and belittled his players, had seen 2% of his players graduate and had been a goat-sacrificing pagan. All of this naturally leads me to talk about church. It seems to me that some pastors experience something like what coach Richt has gone through. They do most things right. They maintain a strong personal relationship with the Lord, they show their love for their people through consistent pastoral care, they preach what they believe to be the truth and not just what people want to hear, and they try to get the church to take seriously its role in the world. But, for whatever reasons, the churches they pastor don’t grow numerically. And all too often, no matter how much legitimacy and integrity they display, such pastors are talked about and sometimes driven away by folks who see only the bottom lines of ‘membership’ and attendance. Meanwhile, some pastors stay on and revel in the adulation of their congregations because their numbers are way up, even if the spirit, character and methods of the pastor (and of the church) don’t quite rise to the level of Christlikeness that they should. People love a winner. Too many of them don’t care how the winning happens. Some of Jesus’ words haunt me. ’For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matthew 7:14). ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’ (Matthew 16:24-26). When coach Richt appeared at his farewell press conference on the day after he was fired, he sat there at peace and with his head held high because he had done things the right way, even if he didn’t win enough to suit the crowd. When we pastors appear before the Lord when our time here is over, I wonder what our posture will be like ‘¦ Michael Ruffin is curriculum editor for Smyth and Helwys Christian publishers and a native of Lamar County. He has served Baptist churches in Fitzgerald, Adel and Augusta. Ruffin also has served as Associate Professor at the School of Religion at Belmont University. He preaches at The Rock Baptist Church at 11 a.m. on Sunday.

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