By Daniel Darling
I always hated sitting on the bench. I made the varsity team of my small Christian school basketball team my freshman year, but I spent most of the first two years riding the pine while more talented players got all the minutes.
The only time I got to play was when our team was so far ahead they could afford to go easy on the other team.
I hated it for a few reasons. First, I wanted to be in on the action. Who doesn’t? After practicing hard all week, I wanted to get out there and use what I learned.
Second, my ego told me I could do way better than the players the coach had in the starting line up. It probably wasn’t true, but I told myself it was.
Third, bench players seemed less important and got less praise from the fans. Nobody really cheered you on for setting a pick in practice or helping the starters perfect their offensive strategy during the week. There seemed to be no glory in sitting.
And yet many years later I have come to realize the value of sitting on the bench. It allowed God to humble me, to be satisfied with not being in the spotlight, and to learn how to trust the one calling the plays.
Ministry provides much of the same opportunity to be freshly humbled by God. Though I’ve led a church as senior pastor, I’ve also had seasons where I was not the leader and was in a position of supporting someone else’s vision.
Currently, in my professional role and in my role at the church, I’m in a secondary position—helping shape the culture but listening to, supporting, and submitting to someone else’s leadership.
Along the way, here’s what God is teaching me.
1. Leaders need humility
The first few years after my senior pastorate were an adjustment for me. I was used to being the one responsible for casting vision and leadership at my church and now I had to figure out how to sit in church and not dwell on how I would do things differently.
I didn’t always do this well and my wife became a weekly sounding board, absorbing my many critiques.
Later when I joined the staff of another church I realized how valuable those pew-sitting, bench-warming days were for me. Our ambition and gifts rightly motivate us to want to lead God’s people, but we can easily grow a sense of leadership entitlement.
God uses seasons of humility to remind us that no matter what positions we hold, we’re under God’s leadership. We’re not really that big of a deal.
2. Leaders need shepherds
When you’re the senior pastor of a church, you’re almost always giving ministry rather than receiving it.
That isn’t to say senior leaders aren’t always learning and growing listening—they are. And preaching every week meant I first had to preach to myself. Overall, though, leadership is usually output.
But being in an associate role or attending a church without serving in leadership has allowed me to be shepherded in ways I didn’t realize I needed. I’ve been the recipient, in this season, of good preaching, personal pastoring, and community life in ways I haven’t experienced before. It’s been wonderful.
One concrete example: For the first time, in a very long time, I’m able to engage in singing and worship with my family in ways I wasn’t able to while serving as the main teaching pastor. It’s been a season of spiritual refreshment, nourishing my soul.
3. Leaders need opportunities to follow
Perhaps the most formative lessons I’ve learned in this time in my life are the lessons I’ve learned from following the vision of another leader.
It can be hard for us who are accustomed to casting vision, creating ideas, and expecting others to execute them to follow someone else’s leading. But it’s good for us.
The call to faithful followership is not optional in the New Testament. All of us, regardless of our roles, are called to listen and learn and come alongside the callings of others in the mission of the church.
All of us are called to set aside our preferences and priorities and pet peeves for the sake of our brothers and sisters.
This has been good for me. I have learned, by watching, what shepherding looks like up close. My pastor has modeled for me what difficult, messy, and labor-intensive leadership looks like.
He’s not just someone preaching on Sundays (he does that faithfully and well). He’s someone who’s involved in the lives of those he’s called to lead. By watching and following him, I’ve had an opportunity to both observe and grow in my own leadership capacity.
All of us, ultimately, are called to “sit on the bench” in ministry life. Whether you’re the pastor of the world’s largest megachurch or a faithfully obscure member in your congregation, you’re not the star of the story.
Jesus Christ is the only hero in our congregations and all of us are called to set aside our preferences and desires and egos to follow him. He alone is worthy.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.