An Unexpected Inspiration for Long-Term Ministry from the NBA Finals
Over the last year, I have heard one refrain from my senior pastor countless times: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Ministry is a sport of endurance. Scores of men have been in my position as a rookie pastor; far fewer last long enough to leave a true mark on the people they serve.
The true champion pastors, I have been told, tough it out in one place, plant roots, and leave a legacy through the new leaders they develop.
These are just ideals for me – something to strive for, not something I have accomplished in any measure.
But as I meditate on these goals, I do seek examples for inspiration. Of course many of these examples are actual pastors who have a track record of fruitful ministry. I read their books and read some more. Write down quotes from conversations. Listen to their sermons. I crave any word of encouragement I can find that might spur me on.
Sometimes I even find the inspiration when I am not looking for it.
Such was the case the other night as I watched Game 3 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.
Watching this championship best-of-seven series is an annual ritual in my home. In fact, with our anniversary always around the same time of the event, my wife and I can keep up with what we were doing different years according to who was playing in the Finals that year. The Celtics beat the Lakers during our honeymoon. The Lakers beat the Magic when we went on vacation with my family. The Heat beat the Spurs last year when we moved to Wheeling.
Basketball is a big deal in my house. In fact, my daughter’s first word longer than 2 syllables? “Basketball.”
All this to say, watching the game the other night was nothing unusual. I wasn’t setting out to find some special inspiration for pastoral ministry. I just wanted to enjoy a good game.
But with one fleeting comment from ABC lead announcer Mike Breen, who was probably just trying to fill air time as the game slowly closed out, I immediately thought back to all the conversations I had been having with my senior pastor about the long-term approach to ministry.
Tim Duncan: The Real-Life Superhero Movie
Commenting on the future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan, Breen pointed out, “When Tim won his first championship in 1999, [his teammate] Kawhi Leonard was in the first grade.”
What an amazing story and testament to the long-term greatness of Duncan. While the game continued, I started to dwell on just how long Duncan had been serving as one of the greatest, yet most humble players in the NBA.
I thought about what it would have looked like if 1999 NBA Champion Tim Duncan had shown up to little 1st grader Kawhi Leonard’s school for an NBA Cares event like the Spurs just did recently. I imagined what it would have looked like to see Duncan pick little Kawhi up on his knee to read a picture book. Would he have any idea that this little boy clinging to his baggy shirt would one day become his sidekick in another NBA Finals fifteen years later?
Tim Duncan is the real Wolverine. The mutant who never ages and watches his future X-Men teammates grow up, get old, and move on while he is still fighting more wars.
Then I started thinking about Tim Duncan’s career in relation to my own life.
In 1999, Tim Duncan won his first championship. I was graduating 8th grade and getting ready for high school.
In 2003, Duncan won his second championship. I was graduating high school and getting ready for college.
In 2005, Duncan won his third championship. I was rescued from the fraternity lifestyle and called to pursue Christian ministry.
In 2007, Duncan won his fourth championship. I was graduating college and getting engaged to my future wife.
In 2013, Duncan goes to his fifth finals and loses for the first time. I was graduating from seminary and loading a moving truck headed for my first role in ministry.
In 2014, Duncan makes his sixth finals and is two games away from winning his fifth ring. I am wrapping up my first year as a youth pastor and living in my first house with my wife of six years and our two children.
My life has gone from one monumental life change to another in the last fifteen years. Tim Duncan is just doing what he has always done. He is still the same old Wolverine.
Same Old Tricks in the Same Old Place
What makes this even more impressive is the fact that he has done it all in one place.
Like a lot of pastors, NBA players usually make many changes between teams during their career. Michael Jordan played for the Wizards. Shaquille O’Neal played for the Suns, Cavs, Celtics after his glory years in Orlando, LA, and Miami. Garnett and Pierce went to Brooklyn. LeBron famously left Cleveland. Guys like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli who spend their entire career in one place just do not exist anymore.
In my mind, Tim Duncan is not just a great basketball player. He is a mutant superhero. He is a pastor.
He puts in the work day after day, year after year constantly serving the same congregation to which he was called in 1998. He hardly receives any public attention while guys who have never done anything near as noteworthy like Blake Griffin and Kevin Love get all the commercials and notoriety like a bunch of NBA Prosperity Gospel preachers.
He demonstrates true leadership by sharing leadership. He steps back so that other guys can step up and take ownership. He has made room for guys like Parker and Ginobli, and Leonard and Green to thrive and to reach their full potential. Instead of demanding to be the one who does everything, he has given up playing time and stats in order for other future leaders to establish themselves. His team is not the single pastor model. Duncan works with a plurality of elders.
David Robinson did it first for Tim when he was younger. Now, Tim is paying it forward to Kawhi. It is a modern day metaphor for the Apostle Paul’s ministry to Timothy and Titus who later passed on what they knew to other faithful men who would do the same.
So on days when I have no idea how to embrace the marathon outlook of ministry, on days I want to sprint and take an easier route, I am going to think about that dream elementary school classroom where six-year-old Kawhi is sitting on the great Tim Duncan’s lap reading a book not realizing that one day he is going to be carrying the legend to the cusp of his fifth NBA Championship.
I imagine that little boy would look up to the great athlete with eyes of wonder and think to himself, “One day, I am going to be like him.”
Me too, Kawhi. Me too.