It takes a…special kind of person to enjoy officiating sports. Normal people don’t get an adrenaline rush from knowing that a crowd of strangers who love you one moment will hate you the next. Normal people don’t get a thrill out of knowing that a single call can make or break a game. Normal people don’t take joy from going toe to toe with an angry coach and seeing who will come out on top. Normal people don’t chuckle on the inside and appreciate the cleverness of the insults being hurled by the angry stranger calling you names from the other side of a sideline or fence. Normal people avoid that kind of stress.
Sports officials are weird. Which is why I fit right in. I was a fast pitch softball umpire for 12 years, and I loved every moment of it.
Baseball and softball officiating is incredibly technical. The rule books are literally hundreds of pages of technical jargon explaining what to do in an unlimited number of weird and unexpected situations. And if you umpire for long enough, you will see situations that haven’t even made it in the rule book yet. Don’t believe me? Go find an old umpire and ask her to tell you about her craziest calls. Call me tomorrow when she’s done talking.
One of the hardest things to call correctly in softball is illegal pitches. Because the windup is so different from baseball, there are a lot of ways the pitcher can cheat, and they can be really hard to spot. Legal pitches often look borderline, and illegal pitches can look almost identical to pitches that are perfect. Check out this video and you’ll see how hard it can be to tell a difference (skip to 0:59 to see them side by side).
If you’re going to be a good umpire, you have to learn to tell an illegal pitch from a legal one quickly. There is little room for error. An umpire needs to spot an illegal pitch the first time it’s thrown. So how do you get that good? You don’t spend hours watching YouTube videos of illegal pitches to see them in all their variety. You don’t go to clinics. You don’t guess. In fact, you can learn to call illegal pitches without ever seeing one.
Good umpires learn to call illegal pitches by watching good, legal pitches over and over again.
You memorize what a good pitch looks like, so the first time something is even slightly incorrect, it catches your attention. You may not know exactly what’s off, but you immediately know it’s wrong because you’ve seen the right thing so many times.
I think it’s the same way with choosing our spiritual leaders. I told you in my last post that I’d tell you how to spot a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But just like spotting an illegal pitch, the key to spotting a false spiritual leader isn’t to dwell on what bad leadership looks like, it’s by focusing so intently on what good spiritual leaders do that the bad immediately stands out, no matter its variety.
As we saw last time, Jesus said we could tell the quality of a spiritual leader by his or her fruit (Matthew 7:15-16). So let’s talk about fruit.
The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
This is not an exhaustive list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it’s like a shorthand for how we can determine if a person is allowing the Holy Spirit to work out the ways of Jesus in their hearts. This is true of all Christians, but it’s especially important to recognize when choosing who to follow on your spiritual journey. A leader who is following the Spirit will have these fruits in abundance. Abundance isn’t perfection, and we all have fruits that are in need of continued growth at different times. I know that for myself, I find that when I work with the Spirit to cultivate one specific fruit, I often drop my guard and slip in another area. What we’re looking for isn’t perfection, but rather a life that leaves in it’s wake broad evidence of the presence of the fruits of the Spirit.
Good spiritual leaders:
- Act out of love for Jesus and for all people. A person who is mature in the faith is especially loving toward those who have little or nothing to offer. (Luke 14:23-13)
- Have a joy that is not situational. That joy bubbles over in times of hardship and pain, as well as in easy times of happiness and comfort.
- Have inner peace and creates peace around themselves. (James 3:18)
- Are patient when people are slow to follow, understand, or buy into their vision. They lead people at the pace their followers can handle, never choosing to leave them behind.
- Are kind. Period.
- Have lives that overflow with the goodness of God.
- Are faithful to God, their calling, and their following.
- Are gentle with those who are weaker then themselves, the people they have leadership over, and those who disagree with them.
- Have lives that is marked by balance, discipline, and a general even-keeledness. At least two of those are real words.
Paul ends his passage on the fruits of the Spirit by saying that “There is no law against these things!” Another way to say that is that it’s a blessing to follow leaders with these qualities. These fruits combine to produce a godly life that is inspiring and infectious. They are a joy to follow, and they will help you in your walk with Christ.
Umpires do occasionally study videos of illegal pitchers. At the end of the day, you want to know what common bad pitches look like. Paul does something similar earlier in Galatians 5. You can read that on your own if you want. But for now, if you want to know how to spot a bad spiritual leader, I’d encourage you not to focus on all the bad things they might do. Instead, focus intently on what good spiritual leadership looks like. Just like an umpire, our goal is that we know the good so deeply that we spot the wrong the first time it shows up.