Asking For It

Critics say when President George W. Bush appeared on that aircraft carrier with the words “Mission Accomplished” emblazoned across a banner, he was just asking for a continuation of the war in the Middle East. And when he defiantly said to the enemies of the USA, “Bring it on,” that did it.

He came to regret both.

In this morning’s USA Today, the discussion is whether Bobby Bowden should retire from coaching Florida State’s Seminole football team. This year’s record was 5-5, a vast difference from the championship calibre teams he has usually fielded over his 35 seasons at that school. His 387 victories over 44 years of coaching puts him second on the all-time list, behind Penn State’s Joe Paterno, another octogenarian who arguably needs to hang it up.

Bowden is 80 years old. The FSU fans and alums are calling for him to retire. But the decision is not theirs to make, although they can bring incredible pressure on the president of the university and the athletic director who will be making the call one way or the other soon.

What struck me–I’m no FSU fan and have no dog in this fight, but am always interested in the strangeness of human behavior–is the way Bowden is insisting the school is going to have to fire him to get him to leave. No one knows but the coach, but since the university brought in Jimbo Fisher as his assistant a year or two ago with the understanding he would succeed Bowden, guaranteeing him $5 million if he’s not the coach by January 10, 2011, it would appear that Bowden is maneuvering for one more year, after which he would step down.

Here’s what Bowden said, and then a quote from his wife Ann.

“You can figure it out. Here I am, 80 years old and I’m just as excited now as I was 50 years ago as far as going on the field and looking at film and making decisions here in the office.”

“They’ll have to fire him for him not to go another year….If they’ve got guts enough to do it, let them do it.”

That did it for me.

She has thrown down the gauntlet, accusing the administration of not having the guts to fire her husband.

I’d fire him in a New York minute and never look back. The fans–who always want it both ways and every other way: we want him to leave, we want to honor him, we don’t want to humiliate him, we want him happy, and we also want a winning program–would bellyache for a few days. Then when Fisher begins winning, that’s it. People would be saying, “Bobby who?” That’s the nature of fandom. Every coach knows it.

Being a pastor and pastor of pastors (historically), I’m more interested in the reflection of this kind of ego-driven refusal to get out of the way and let someone else take the reins which we see every day in the church.

“Will everyone here kindly step to the rear and let a winner lead the way!” (I don’t recall what Broadway musical that came from.)

Far better for a coach or a pastor who has outstayed his welcome to say, “I’m your servant. I’d like to stay, but others will be making that decision.”

The last thing–the absolute final straw–is to say, “Let them fire me if they’ve got the guts.”

They’ll fire him. They have to now.

For pastors, however, there is another side to this issue.

Recently a pastor who has stayed at his church nearly a quarter-century told me of a move to oust him over a decade ago. “Why?” I asked. His answer surprised me. “They gave no reason other than it was time for me to go.”

It turns out that his predecessors had all stayed about ten years before departing for other fields. When he reached that milestone and it grew evident he was not leaving, the dissidents took matters into their own hands.

The little group met and plotted and spread their infection, then brought it before the deacons where they received their comeuppance. “No, never,” the deacons said.

Gradually, the pastor said, the unhappy minority toned down their griping and several joined other churches. The day came when he realized it had been two years since he’d heard a peep out of them. He had survived the mutiny. And if I’m any judge–I’m not, but we all can have our opinion–the church benefited from his staying. I’ve known that church for decades and it has never been stronger. It seems prosperous in every way–in spirit, in ministry, in fellowship, in worship, statistics, everything.

They tried to get rid of JoePa (that would be Joe Paterno) at Penn State a couple of years back. He stayed, made some coaching changes, and the team came back the next year and has done well since.

So, it’s not always a cut and dried affair.

I’m not against old guys staying in the pulpit or on the sidelines. I am against anyone remaining after he has outlived his usefulness and effectiveness and who looks upon himself as the owner of that position, not the steward.

When I preach Matthew 16:18 (“…upon this rock I will build my church….”), I remind everyone that it’s the Lord’s church. It’s not the preacher’s, not the deacons’, not the members with the longest tenure nor the best giving records, and–Southern Baptist polity aside–not the congregation that owns the church. It’s Jesus’ church. Acts 20:28 says God purchased it “with His own blood.”

Give it back, pastor. You’d be amazed how liberating that is. It’s not yours, it’s not dependent on your wisdom or your resources and definitely not your staying.

A little ditty out of the 1950s fits here:

“Got along without you before I met you; Gonna get along without you now.”

Florida State may be singing that to Coach Bowden soon; we have no way of knowing. No doubt a few churches could sing that to their pastors who need to retire. And while they’re at it, that white-haired pastor may want to sing it himself. He can do effective ministry without having to serve that particular church.

I’m a witness for that scenario, thank the Lord.  

by Dr. Joe McKeever
After five years as Director of Missions for the 100 Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, Joe retired on June 1, 2009. These days, he has an office at the First Baptist Church of Kenner where he’s working on three books, and he’s trying to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that comes his way. He loves to do revivals, prayer conferences, deacon training, leadership banquets, and such. Usually, he’s working on some cartooning project for the denomination or some agency.
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