Are You a Spiritual Lifeguard?
Tony Cooke

Are You a Spiritual LifeguardIn my teenage years, I spent three summers as a lifeguard at a local pool. Reflecting upon that experience, I came to realize that there are several similarities between being a lifeguard and serving in the ministry. I believe that these similarities can yield some very helpful insights. Here are some lessons to consider:

There Is a Vast Difference Between Recreational Swimming and Lifeguarding

I remember learning how to swim as a child. At first, it was a bit scary, but it eventually became fun. As my swimming skills advanced, my enjoyment in the water increased. In the early days, it was all about feeling safe, having fun, and building confidence. At that time, I never thought about helping anyone else; it was all about my enjoyment. Likewise, a young Christian is typically learning how to “feel safe” around God, enjoy his presence, and establish some skills in successful Christian living. That is not to say young Christians cannot influence others. In fact, a recently saved person typically has the most contacts and connections with others who need Jesus. While the young Christian may not have advanced ministerial skills, they can certainly invite others to jump in and enjoy the water, so to speak.

After establishing basic competencies in the water, a person can then consider becoming a lifeguard. In the same way, people should not think about stepping into positions of spiritual leadership, thereby assuming responsibility for others, who have not become relatively competent in their own spiritual walk with God. For example, John Wesley stepped into missionary work without really being assured of his own right standing with God. After a frustrating experience on the mission field, he wrote in his journal, “I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! Who shall convert me?” He later had an experience with God that established that necessary assurance in his life.

A person who wants to be a lifeguard must have basic water skills. Once these skills are well developed, then he or she can think about learning the necessary techniques required to rescue others. In the Christian walk, there are basic character issues, such as integrity, self-control, holiness, that are separate from ministry skills. When a person senses a call to spiritual leadership, he or she must not move beyond foundational matters of character; rather, he or she should build upon them. We have all seen people who have learned preaching or teaching skills but seemed to forget about the importance of character issues. That is like a person who has learned to sit on the lifeguard’s chair and occasionally blows his or her whistle, but has badly deteriorated in his or her own swimming skills. In other words, we shouldn’t focus on becoming an effective minister at the expense of being an effective Christian.

As a recreational swimmer, the emphasis is on you. It’s about your enjoyment and having fun. You show up when you want and you leave when you want. Poolside or beachside, you can put your earbuds in and listen to whatever music you desire. You are at liberty to drown out all of the noise that would otherwise distract you. You do what you want—whether that’s lying in the sun, going to the snack bar, or swimming leisurely. It’s all about you and what you want. The lifeguard, though, has an entirely different focus. For the lifeguard, being near the water is all about the safety and well-being of others. You don’t do what you want, when you want. You are on duty, and you are responsible for other people. You have assignments, and you work with others to make sure that all the swimmers have a safe and enjoyable experience. This difference between personal enjoyment and public responsibility is the same for Christians in ministry. Ministers are called to be servants who put the welfare and benefit of others first, and they must take their duty and responsibility seriously.

Establishing the Right Mindset is Imperative

For both lifeguarding and ministry, training and learning the right skills are important, but it is equally important to have the right mindset. When I took Red Cross training, our Water Safety Instructor impressed strongly upon us that some situations we faced could be a matter of life and death. She made it clear that lifeguarding is not something to be taken lightly. People’s lives depend on whether a lifeguard is focused and paying attention and on whether he or she knows how to effectively perform rescue techniques. Our instructor told us that she was not going to make the course easy to pass, because she did not want to be responsible for placing ill-prepared, incompetent people in such a vital position if they could not do the job. In fact, 23 people out of the 28 who started the course did not complete it successfully or receive the necessary certification to become a lifeguard.

While lifeguarding can potentially deal with matters of life or death, ministry is certainly a matter of life or death. When we step into spiritual leadership, we must be mindful of why Jesus came in the first place. He states, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). The significance of Jesus’ ministry is reflected in two of his other statements, “…that whoever believes in Him should not perish” and “he who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:16, 18). When we embrace being his representatives, we then begin to value what he values. In Luke 15, Jesus tells stories about things that were lost—a lost coin, a lost sheep, and a lost son. Jesus values the lost being rescued, and we will also if we represent him properly.

Look at Jesus’ attitude toward his role as a spiritual lifeguard: “I guarded them so that not one was lost, except the one headed for destruction, as the Scriptures foretold” (John 17:12, NLT). Theologian R. C. Sproul writes, “God just doesn’t throw a life-preserver to a drowning person. He goes to the bottom of the sea, and pulls a corpse from the bottom of the sea, takes him up on the bank, breathes into him the breath of life and makes him alive. That’s what the Bible says happens in your salvation.” When we understand the heart of God, we will truly appreciate how committed he is to rescuing, guarding, preserving, and protecting—and we will join him as his ambassadors in that task. Having established the right mindset, it is also important to learn the necessary skills.

The Importance of Competence Cannot be Overstated

Of course, a person can have the heart to help others, but the skills to do so are also necessary.

In lifeguard training, there is book learning (theory) and there is hands-on training (practical). One of the things we learned was how to protect ourselves at the same time we are trying to help someone else. We were taught that people who are struggling in the water sometimes shift into panic mode. We had to memorize the definition of panic (and I still remember it more than forty years later): Panic is the sudden, unreasoning, and overwhelming fear that overtakes a person in the face of real or imagined danger. We learned that tragic double-drownings occur when panicked swimmers drag their would-be helpers under the water. Instead of the intended “save,” both people drown. A lifeguard must be prepared to rescue people who are not at their best—people who are in panic mode and in danger of drowning—and spiritual leaders must also be prepared for people who are struggling and in need of help.

In lifeguarding, there are ways to help others and ways not to help. Lifeguards usually have quick access to tools such as a rescue pole or hook or a rescue tube or board. In some environments, a jet ski could be an effective rescue tool. Many years ago, before these tools were available, people tied ropes to a stationary object on land, and the “lifeline” was stretched out into the ocean. The idea was that struggling swimmers could grab hold of the lifeline and pull themselves safely to shore. While this method might have had some benefit, it was soon discovered that many struggling swimmers could not make it to the lifeline or were too exhausted to hold on to it once they managed to reach it. As methods and tools are evaluated for their effectiveness, new techniques are sometimes developed. We can make an analogy here that applies to ministry. While our objective in ministry always remains the same—like Jesus, we are to seek and save that which was lost—our tools and techniques change from time to time. Wise spiritual leaders never compromise principles but are willing to learn new methods and utilize new tools when doing so will increase effectiveness.

Knowing how to swim, how to focus and spot a struggling swimmer, and how to use rescue tools isn’t enough. Lifeguards also learn specific techniques of how to approach the person they are trying to rescue and how to make contact. Part of this training involves learning to escape different kinds of grips, in case a person suddenly panics and turns on the rescuer. Lifeguards also learn different kinds of “carries” so that they can take people to safety. Spiritual leaders must also learn to protect themselves. Paul admonishes Timothy, “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16). In addition to learning self-care, spiritual leaders do well to improve their communication skills, listening skills, people skills, and other skills. Effective spiritual leaders are always learning and continuously improving their competencies as ministers of the Gospel. This does not mean that ministry is all about natural skills. Rather, spiritual leaders are also growing in their spiritual competencies and are increasing in their reliance upon and cooperation with the Holy Spirit.

Here are some other miscellaneous lessons I learned as a lifeguard that apply to ministry:

  • It is better to teach people how to swim and thus make life-saving rescues unnecessary than to hope you’re around to save them when they get into trouble and need to be rescued. The pool where I worked as a teenager taught swimming lessons as part of a vigorous water safety program. Because there was quality instruction upfront, there wasn’t much need for dramatic rescues later.
  • The ability to focus is one of the greatest attributes a lifeguard can possess. Lifeguards do a little bit of everything when they are not on-point, but when they are in the chair, they WATCH the pool. They have to guard themselves against distractions and focus on the people. In lifeguarding, you don’t just watch the surface of the water. You need to watch what’s going on beneath the water as well. Much of what a lifeguard deals with is not dramatic or exciting; much of the work is mundane and routine. But a lifeguard cannot get lulled into a sense of complacency. In Acts 20:28, Paul spoke of the duty of spiritual overseers. The term Paul uses to describe the work of these elders means “to take the oversight of the flock, and exhibit watchfulness and care.” That sounds a bit like spiritual lifeguarding.
  • Teamwork is essential in lifeguarding. Rotations take place so a person is not on-point at all times. Lifeguards need periodic breaks from the mental focus that is required. Also, a lifeguard never attempts a rescue without notifying his fellow lifeguards that he or she is going into the water. Back-up might be necessary. Additionally, communication is very important. When changing shifts, the person leaving the post should share with the next lifeguard on duty any pertinent information that might require special attention (for example, “Watch that kid in the blue trunks; he doesn’t appear to be a strong swimmer”). Team members should also be consistent in applying the rules. If one guard is hyper-strict and another guard is extremely lax, the inconsistency will create problems.
  • Not all parts of the pool are the same. In the pool where I worked, there was a baby pool, a shallow end, and a deep end. Each part of the pool served a different purpose, offered different benefits, and presented different needs. Likewise, not all lifeguarding settings are the same. A beach at the ocean has very different dynamics than a pool at a private club. Certain settings can offer varying levels of difficulty and danger. Lifeguards and spiritual leaders must always be aware of their particular situation and what it requires of them.

Since this letter has addressed similarities between lifeguards and spiritual leaders, let me close with Paul’s admonition: “Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong” (1 Cor 16:13, NLT).