This summer we have waited for Barry Bonds to knock number 756 out of the park, surpassing Hank Aaron’s home run record of 755. Seven times Bonds has been voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player. He’s won the Golden Glove Awards eight times. And that’s just the beginning of the list of his accomplishments, and of the controversy surrounding them.
As one who steps into the pulpit every week and attempts to send one sailing over the balcony wall, I have considered that there may be some lessons in Barry Bonds’s experience for us preachers and church leaders.
1. Every home run is preceded by two strike-outs.
That’s right. Barry Bonds, arguably one of the greatest players in the history of the game, struck out more than 1,500 times, twice as many times at he hit homers. Here’s the lesson for pastors: not every sermon is going to be great. Sometimes we can carry an unrealistic expectation that we are going to preach an excellent sermon each week. I don’t know of any preacher for whom that is true. The Spirit speaks each week, if we have been open to the Spirit’s work and we are preaching the Scriptures, but all sermons are not equal, and even the best preachers don’t bat a thousand.
In evaluating my own preaching, I feel like one in four is a pretty good sermon. One in four feels like a pop-fly or strike out, and the rest are walks, singles or occasionally doubles. I trust that the Spirit works even through those sermons when I fell short.
2. “I never stop looking for things to try and make myself better.”
This quote from Bonds is part of the reason he is a great player; he is constantly looking to improve. The fact that you’re reading this article may indicate that you are constantly looking to improve as a leader, teacher, or preacher. Do you read books on your subject? Attend continuing education events? Do you invite others to give you constructive criticism?
I’ve known preachers who, in their fifties and sixties, seemed to be preaching warmed-over sermons they’ve preached many times before. But I’ve also known preachers who continued to stretch themselves, and whose form and style in preaching continued to adapt and improve over time.
One thing that helps to stretch me is to listen to other preacher’s sermons. Every year I will listen to at least ten other preachers, both to hear God speak to me, and also to evaluate their preaching to see what I can learn and how I can improve my own preaching.
3. You can try too hard.*
At the moment when he was eclipsing Aaron’s record, what should have been a great personal moment for Barry and an even greater moment for baseball fans everywhere, Bonds’s feat was itself eclipsed by questions over steroid use. The use of steroids, if proven, would call into question his amazing accomplishment and add an asterisk (*) to the record books. If nothing more, Bonds is accused of trying too hard to make himself better.
Self-improvement has its limits in baseball. It also has its limits in preaching. When we take someone else’s sermons and preach them as our own, we may improve the quality of our preaching, but at the price of our integrity. If we borrow heavily from another preacher, we need to get permission, to cite our source, and to not share someone else’s experiences and stories as though they were our own.
4. What happens off the field affects what happens on the field.
I don’t know if Barry Bonds is innocent or guilty of steroid use. What I do know is that the allegation has significantly impacted his career and his otherwise amazing accomplishments. Our private lives, as preachers, have an even greater impact upon how our parishioners receive our messages. Does your private life undermine the gospel you preach?
Some years ago I interviewed an executive pastor at a very large church in Texas. I asked him, “Tell me about your senior pastor.”
His answer has helped shape how I hope to live. He said, “The people who know our senior pastor the best respect him the most.” In a word, we’re called to have “integrity,” to practice what we preach.
5. Relationships and people matter.
One of the persistent criticisms of Barry Bonds is that he’s not very personable. He is perceived as aloof. This doesn’t change the record books, but it affects how others receive him and often how much grace they are willing to show him. I am reminded of the words of the late Bishop W.T. Handy who told me that the key to effective leadership was to be found in two simple tasks: “Preach the Word and love the people.” Effective preaching starts with loving the people we’re preaching to.