Pastor of West End Baptist Church uses his hobby — officiating football — as an extension of his ministry
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
COLUMBIA — Like so many others in Tennessee, Rick Elsey spends his Friday nights in the fall going to high school football games.
But Elsey, pastor at West End Baptist Church in Columbia, doesn’t go to the games just to observe. He’s actually a part of the action.
One of Elsey’s favorite hobbies is being a football official, and he has worked with the TSSAA (Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association) for more than a dozen years.
“It’s something that I really enjoy doing,” he said, “and I look forward to it every week.”
Elsey has, somewhat literally, earned his stripes. He has worked his way up to the position of referee — a term designated for the “head official” on each crew — with his years of experience with the TSSAA.
“I really enjoy all the parts of being an official,” said Elsey, who works a varsity football game each Friday night and also does some junior varsity and middle school games during the week.
“There’s honestly not any aspect of it that I don’t enjoy,” he said. “It allows me to do something that I love and it gives me ministry opportunities.”
To some, the idea of being a pastor and a football referee might seem like an odd combination. But Elsey said he has been able to find common ground in the two roles.
Whether he’s making an altar call or a holding call, Elsey’s primary objective is always the same: Letting others see Jesus through him.
“In any circumstance — if it’s pastoring, officiating football or whatever I am doing in everyday life — I always want to be a positive testimony for Christ,” said Elsey.
Elsey said maintaining a Christ-like attitude in the midst of an intense environment can sometimes be a challenge.
Certainly, it’s not easy to stand by and politely listen when coaches, players and fans are questioning your abilities or your vision or your intelligence. Or perhaps all three.
But Elsey understands that’s the nature of the game, and criticism simply comes with the territory.
Elsey prepares himself for such instances long before the game starts. By doing so, he is able to remain calm, even when tempers are rising.
“The way that I’ve always looked at it is, even if I am getting yelled at or something like that, it’s up to me to be able to give a good example of who I am as a believer,” Elsey said. “Sometimes the coaches and players know that I am a pastor and sometimes they don’t. Either way, my hope is that, at the end of the game, I have been someone who has shown respect to them, has kept my cool and has been a positive testimony for my relationship with the Lord.”
Although the TSSAA has rules against coaches and players using profanity directed toward officials, Elsey stills hears snide comments from time to time.
Elsey said he learned long ago to let such comments — joking or not — simply roll off his back. He said he has found that one of the most effective ways to be a peacekeeper is by letting the coaches speak their mind, even if they are voicing a complaint.
“I do my very best to respond to everyone with grace,” Elsey said. “Yes, I’ve had a few coaches in my face. But I try to always give them an opportunity to say their piece. I understand that this is their livelihood, while for me it’s a hobby.
“I try to bring some calmness to the situation,” he continued. “And my hope is that my actions will be something they will look at and will make a difference just in terms of the way I carry myself as a believer.”
Elsey said perhaps his favorite part of being a football official is the camaraderie with the other officials on his crew, who generally work together each Friday night. They usually ride to-and-from the games together, and they always gather for a time of prayer before kickoff.
“I really enjoy the fellowship that I have with my crew,” he said. “We have a large area (that we are assigned to), and many times, we will ride an hour or more to get to our game. So that time together, in the car, is always a great time of fellowship.”
Elsey said his prayer has always been that God would use his “hobby” as an extension of his ministry. And indeed, ministry opportunities have come about, with Elsey being able to provide “pastoral care” to other officials. Esley said he has also had some occasions in which he has been able to witness to some of his fellow officials.
“I’ve counseled some guys, been to the hospital and been to the funeral homes for (some of his fellow officials),” he said. “And I’ve sensed that they really appreciated that. For me, that part has been especially rewarding; being able to minister to them.”
Elsey said the other officials he has worked with through the years have been respectful of his beliefs and his role as a pastor. And there is one event, in particular, when the other officials are always glad to have a preacher on hand.
“When we have our annual cookout, I always get the privilege of asking the blessing,” said Elsey with a laugh.