I have a modest jersey collection. My closet features a handful of hockey jerseys, the prize of which is a Shane Doan Kamloops Blazers jersey I got when I was probably around 11 years old. It is personally signed three times, including the inscription “To an amazing street hockey player, your pal, Shane Doan.” These days I’ve been adding to my soccer jersey collection by picking up a local jersey when I travel to a new country. Sometimes my dad and I will wear the rival kits of the Intercontinental Derby of Istanbul.

I’m often tempted to purchase a new favourite jersey, but one that I’ve never worn or coveted is a referee’s jersey. The sports stores line the shelves with all big teams and famous players, but I have never seen anyone admiring the jersey of a ref. As sports fans we watch and admire the players, not the referees. The great players are remembered for what they did, but the referees are largely forgotten.

Church Referees

We have referees in church as well. What does a referee do? He or she runs around calling fouls, pointing out all the things that other people are doing wrong. They don’t play the game. They aren’t part of the team. They don’t know the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. They don’t contribute. They don’t score. They just run around calling fouls, criticizing everything they see, getting in the way of those actually playing the game. And when they retire, nobody notices.

In every church there are self-assigned referees. This is not an official role, but is a mantle that certain individuals take on themselves. What does the church referee do? They view it as their job to criticize and complain, to push-back and challenge. They may love the church and be committed to it, but their passion for the church doesn’t lead them to serve humbly and joyfully as part of the team, but instead to complain and criticize. Anything that they see that is new or different or imperfect is pointed out and criticized.

What’s Your Legacy?

Every player makes mistakes. Every player has a bad game. But I would rather be a flawed player who did all he could to help my team than to be a referee pointing out the flaws of others. It is far better to work hard and serve the church faithfully and imperfectly than it is to leave a legacy of being the church critic.

It’s easy to be a critic. It takes no special skill to point out the mistakes of others. But actual ministry is hard work. There is pressure to perform, there are conflicting expectations from the church, and the constant pressure of balancing ministry and family. Church leaders are broken vessels, sinners saved by grace. And when sinners minister the gospel to other sinners, they will let each other down. Mistakes will be made. But it far better to pour yourself into an imperfect ministry than to stand by and criticize those who do.

The Path to Influence is Service, not Criticism

Here’s the irony of the church referee. They can be perceptive. They can spot deficiencies. They often are correct in their assessment. But their critical spirit results in them almost completely being tuned out. I don’t take seriously the referees in my church. When you complain about everything, it all becomes white noise. It’s hard to distinguish real concerns from the constant everyday criticism.

This isn’t to say that I ignore all criticism. I’m very open to feedback and wisdom from others. I strongly believe in a team model of leadership. But who do I listen to? Those who serve with joy. Those who work hard. Those who have a humble attitude. Those who are motivated by a desire to see the gospel advance and the church flourish. Those who pray and serve and are doing all they can to help the mission. These aren’t self-appointed church referees, these are teammates. We have each other’s back and will share insights to help each other and the team.

If you want to have a greater influence in the church, the answer is not constant criticism, but humble service. Put down the whistle and get in the game. Start contributing with joy and humility and soon people will see you as a teammate worth listening to rather than an angry critic to ignore.

Finishing Well

There’s an older pastor that I’ve really grown to love. He’s probably now in his 80’s. A generous, kind and encouraging man packed with wisdom and ministry experience. I can only hope to be as gracious and wise when I’m in that stage of life. Though he has long-retired from vocational ministry, I know that he is full of wisdom that others would benefit from. I once asked him to guest preach in our church and I’ll never forget his response. He said to me: “There’s a season where I played the game. And then there was a season where I was a coach and instructed and taught younger men to play. And now my role in this season is to be a fan and to cheer on those who are playing. They may not play how I played, but I know my role is to loudly cheer them on.”

I’m a flawed pastor. I mess up a lot of things. It takes no special discernment or skill to point out my flaws, and if you need help I’ve got my own growing list. But I would rather be a mediocre player than a referee. I’d rather serve the church with my whole heart and my broken skills than be a critic who contributes nothing. And when my season of ministry has passed, I pray God gives me the maturity and grace to become the biggest supporter of the next generation in their imperfect ministry.


Originally posted at Grounded in the Gospel.