By Joel Rainey
“I planted. Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).
This article is painful for me to write because I’m no fan of Alabama football.
But two seasons ago, the college football championship game between the Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs was one of the most riveting games I’ve ever watched.
And it ended with an Alabama victory primarily because of a controversial decision by Coach Nick Saban to sideline his starting quarterback in the second half.
A Controversial Decision
A scoreless first half resulted in Saban benching Jalen Hurts and replacing him with true freshman Tua Tagovailoa. That turned out to be a genius call as Tagovailoa led his team to a 26-23 win over Georgia, passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns—all while Jalen Hurts watched from the sidelines.
It’s a hard decision to put someone you otherwise love on the bench. It’s harder still for the person sitting on the bench.
But Hurts didn’t just watch, nor did he sulk at being relieved of his command. Throughout the second half, Hurts was Tagovailoa’s biggest fan.
Each time the camera showed Hurts, it captured him enthusiastically cheering for his teammate. Two seasons later, I still think about that game and what I witnessed.
How might things have been different had Hurts responded negatively to what happened to him? Would Tagovailoa have gotten the encouragement and motivation he needed to lead the team to win the national championship?
It’s impossible to know how things would’ve turned out differently, but watching these two athletes celebrate together after the game reminded me of something.
What happens on the bench matters
We pastors aren’t always the best examples of what it means to be teammates. I remember leading a man to the Lord over 20 years ago.
It was an amazing opportunity to watch the gospel transform this person’s life. But then, after visiting our church for a few weeks and talking about baptism, he told me he was joining a Methodist church in town because he was more comfortable with their worship style.
That church was a good place for him, and he continued to grow there in his relationship with Jesus. But it bothered me for years that I couldn’t play a deeper role in his spiritual development and that someone else now had that privilege.
When You’re Benched
A friend of mine labored for years to revitalize a struggling church. After five years of hard, spiritual labor, the congregation was finally ripe for growth. But then, God called this man to serve somewhere else.
Within six months, the church tripled in attendance. The pastor who presided over that rapid growth is now a well-known Christian leader. But to this day, few, if any, recognize the work my friend did to set up his successor.
Sometimes, God passes over you and uses the other guy to finish what you started.
Sometimes, God uses you to start a fire, but then picks someone else to stoke that fire into an inferno.
It’s easy in moments like this to sulk, to give in to envy, and to look toward heaven in desperation as if to say, “God, throw me the ball!”
But two seasons ago, two young quarterbacks modeled how we should respond when others get the playing time, or the credit, we want for ourselves.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul stated that, in a context where everyone is figuring out who their favorite preacher is, preachers themselves should concentrate on one thing only: the advance of the gospel.
We should be grateful the gospel is going forward and that people are coming to Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:12-17). When God uses the other guy, are we more regretful he didn’t use us, or more thankful He transformed a life?
A disposition of thankfulness is fatal to envy and jealousy. It’s also better for our own spiritual health and mental well-being. Here are three qualities of a leader who models humility in moments where someone else gets the glory:
Jalen Hurts may have spent the second half on the sidelines, but he was still wearing an Alabama jersey. How many quarterbacks get the honor of playing for a team of this caliber?
This young man was able to cheer from the bench because he knew that in this case, the brand was more important than the man.
In the end, our churches and ministries are important and essential, but they aren’t ultimate, because individually, they don’t constitute the “team.”
The “team” is the kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to that kingdom (Matthew 6:33).
Something Hurts understood from his prior play was the pressure his true freshman teammate was now facing in the second half—a pressure he had likely never faced before.
At least when you’re sitting on the bench, the national spotlight isn’t on you to perform! That kind of perspective can be helpful to pastors.
I’ve been the single-staff pastor of a small church (those pastors are heroes by the way). In this role, I presumed how much easier my ministry would be if my congregation were just larger, or if I had more money, or more staff help.
Today, I pastor a large congregation with multiple staff members and a vast campus. What I’ve discovered is that one’s liabilities usually end up equaling one’s assets.
My struggles as a pastor didn’t go away by serving a larger church. They just got bigger!
In times when I’m tempted to envy others, it’s helpful to remind myself where those feelings come from. They emerge from a sense of entitlement.
They result from presupposing that I somehow “earned” a growing ministry, another convert, a higher salary, or a better overall situation.
In moments like this, I forget that I deserve nothing and that being a pastor is simply a gracious gift from a loving God. I get to be part of a team of faithful pastors around the world who, together, are making a combined difference no one can measure this side of eternity.
I’m on a team that, from the beginning, has been declared the overwhelming victor. I’m on the team that transforms the lives of people in this world and the world to come.
And I’m on the team that’ll one day welcome our Lord back to the world He created—a world where He’ll establish a kingdom we’ll enjoy with Him. That realization produces immeasurable joy, no matter what position we play.
What happens on the bench matters
How we respond when God puts us on the bench—and we’ll all end up there at some point—matters to God. It’s amazing what we can learn from two young football players, even from their time spent out of the limelight.
JOEL RAINEY (@joelrainey) is Lead Pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He’s husband to Amy, father of three, serves on the adjunct faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the author of four books, and blogs at Themelios.