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A Reflection on the Practice of Sports Chaplaincy

David Chawner

[David Chawner is a Baptist Minister and Coordinator of Chaplaincy for Rugby Union]

 

Introduction

SCORE, the national sports chaplaincy charity, has been recruiting, preparing and placing chaplains in sports clubs for nearly 20 years. It has a network of around 170 SCORE chaplains in football, rugby, cricket and athletics across the UK & Northern Ireland, and a full time chaplain to the horse racing industry.

 

Whilst SCORE works in all types of clubs at all levels of sport, its major emphasis is in the professional & semi-professional sporting world. Therefore this paper will focus on that area. For ease of reading, the word “professional” when related to sport will be taken to include semi-professional sport as well

 

Most of the comments could probably apply equally to other forms of work place chaplaincy, for on one level sports chaplaincy is simply another version of such ministry. However, as with any industry, there are some unique features about the sports world, not least the sense of celebrity that inevitably surrounds the professional athlete.

 

This paper will attempt to look at the role of the sports chaplain in the local club from a theological perspective. It does not claim to be especially deep, but hopefully will offer some insights and form a basis for discussion.

 

History of Sports Chaplaincy

The relationship between sport and the gospel goes back a long way. It would appear that the apostle Paul was a sports fan, as he knowingly uses sporting illustrations (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, 2 Timothy 2:5).

 

The close relationship between sport and the church blossomed in the mid-19th century with Dr Arnold and his work at Rugby School. In late Victorian times many churches organised football & cricket teams, and some of our current professional clubs arose from that route (e.g. Tottenham Hotspur in football, and Northampton Saints in Rugby Union).

 

Over the years the churches attitude towards sport, and particularly professional sport, has varied from outright condemnation to eager embrace, mostly as a means of outreach particularly among young people. Sport has also featured in the recreational activities of the clergy. The Anglican inter-diocesan Church Times Cricket Cup is still hotly contested.

 

Within this relationship between church & sports teams chaplaincy has played its part, often with the clergy taking an interest in the team and those in it. As clubs developed independently of the church, there was still a role for a chaplain. More often than not this was a local clergyman who had some sort of link to the club – past player, friend of the chairman etc – who played a formal religious role; fulfilling functions such as saying grace at the annual dinner and conducting weddings for members of the club.

 

However, over time another model of chaplaincy in sport has emerged, based on building relationship with those involved in the club; a pastoral & spiritual support available to everyone involved. This is the model SCORE chaplains work to.

 

But is this model a matter of expedience, a means of involvement in a high profile sector of society, or does it have some theological and biblical validity? Clearly as a Christian based organisation SCORE would offer a positive answer and there appear to be 3 aspects to the sports chaplains’ role within their club that justify this position.

 

The Sports Chaplain as Servant

“I am among you as one who serves”

 

The world of professional sport, like most businesses, is busy and pressured, with constant demands of various kinds from governing bodies, financial backers, fans, and many more sources.

 

The danger in this atmosphere is that individuals and their needs are relegated to the bottom of the agenda; often so far down that they almost disappear. A staff member once commented to me about my role that it was good to have someone around “with the time to listen”. To have someone around to talk things through with and to offload to is a reassurance to many. It also adds value to the club, often providing early intervention and thus preventing a drop in performance whether in the office or on the pitch.

 

Sport has specialists in every field, and the chaplain fits in as the specialist in people. But equally this service is offered without strings and free of charge. This in itself, once grasped, has a great impact within professional sport; a world that is well used to many hangers on looking for what they can get out of it from kudos, to publicity, to financial gain, or even a life partner.

 

Last year SCORE provided chaplaincy to the Rugby Union Junior World Championship in Wales, and the chaplains’ briefing meeting was attended by the tournament coordinator. The following day he sent an e-mail in which he said, “It was really refreshing to see people who aren't always after things that suit their best interests.” He had grasped that these chaplains were not involved out of self interest, but as servants.

 

Such servant heartedness is an essential pre-requisite for the sports chaplain, as they soon find that they themselves come low down on the club’s and individuals’ agendas; not out of disrespect, but simply because of the pressure of other things. Phone calls unreturned and useful information not communicated has to be accepted as a way of life; often a stark contrast to what the person is used to in the local church.

 

There is though a sense in which this attitude of serving others acts as a prophetic challenge to the prevailing values within professional sport – stressing the importance of the person above results and finance.

 

Sports chaplaincy is thus an incarnational ministry, not just ministering on Jesus’ behalf to all who have need irrespective of background, gender or creed, but done in the manner, the character, and (in the truest sense of the word) the name of Jesus.

 

 

 

The Sports Chaplain as Missionary

“I am going before you”

 

Scripture teaches that God is omnipresent & (Psalm 139) and always at work (John 5:17). Presumably therefore he is also present and working within professional sports clubs. That is the basic premise with which the sports chaplain approaches their work. The only issue that remains is to discover where God is at work, and follow him there. That is the essence of all mission.

 

Within local church ministry there is an expectation of planning; casting vision etc. This can give the impression that we are in control of the way God is going to work. Indeed it easily becomes a situation where we formulate our plans, and seek God’s blessing on them. This option is not really open within sports chaplaincy.

 

The running of professional sport can be somewhat chaotic. Schedules change at the last minute etc. This makes it very difficult for the sports chaplain to plan ahead, a factor that some ministers coming into sports chaplaincy have found difficulty adjusting to. Rather than being frustrated by this, it’s more a matter of seeking where God is going today, and seeking to meet him.

 

Thus the prayer for guidance as they enter the training ground is an essential tool in the sports chaplain’s work. Much of the time is spent just being around – loitering with intent – but this becomes an exciting adventure when seen as waiting upon God’s possibilities. Some of the deepest conversations arise from chance comments in apparently chance meetings. It keeps the chaplain on their spiritual mettle.

 

But by their very presence the sports chaplain is a missionary. Inevitably, irrespective of their spiritual outlook or view of ministry, for most people the presence of a religious professional reminds them of God. So whenever the sports chaplain walks through the door, God is on the agenda. One of the ways that this is seen is in the banter it provokes – such banter is in itself a sign of acceptance being part of the team atmosphere. I recall walking into a room one day to be greeted with, “Hi Dave. How’s God doing?” I’ve never been given to sparkling repartee, but on this occasion however was able to respond with, “He’s doing fine thanks, Johnny. And the last time I spoke to him he was asking for you.”

 

Banter about God can also be an indication of that person’s spiritual search. A few months later that same player generously gave me a lift back to the church one day when it was raining, decided he would come in, and then engaged me in a long spiritual conversation.

 

Whilst being proactive in direct evangelism is not the chaplain’s role – clubs would soon end our tenure if they saw us doing this – there is a very proactive role in the use of prayer. Over the last few years we have all been rediscovering the power of prayer as a factor in mission, yet one that is acceptable to most people.

 

This may be praying for and with individuals or prayer walking around grounds. There is one football club where prayer for healing is advertised openly as a service from the chaplain. Several safety officers I have met are keen on having the chaplain pray for safety at the ground, especially in the light of the danger of terrorist attacks. But praying for God’s grace to fill the place and the lives of those involved is just another step.

 

There are many times when just being around affords the chaplain opportunities to share the Christian faith. Sometimes this is in casual conversation, and at other times it is provoked by outside circumstances and world events. “The God Delusion” and “The Shack” are examples of popular literature which touch on the spiritual, and as probably one of the few “religious” people they know folk are interested to get the chaplain’s opinion.

 

When “The Passion” first hit the screens many players went to watch it. Indeed one club chaplain persuaded the head coach to take the whole first team squad to see it. Afterwards in the run up to Easter he was given 30 minutes to talk to them. He wrote to them all asking them what question they would want to ask Jesus, later using this as a basis for his input.

 

In these and other circumstances the chaplain acts as a spiritual catalyst, creatively enabling processes to happen that would otherwise not take place or allowing them to be speeded up.

 

In other circumstances chaplains have been the means of clubs supporting mission work overseas, usually development work, but done unashamedly in the name of Christ. One amusing example is where the chaplain was the instigator of a Rugby club becoming a collection point for ladies underwear for a Christian mission in Africa. Imagine the banter that provoked!

 

The sports chaplain requires spiritual sensitivity to discern where God is going and a dependence on the Spirit to minister in that situation. This again represents ministry after the manner of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, going to where people are, and where God is meeting with them.

 

 

The Sports Chaplain as Pastor

“Feed my sheep”

 

It may only be from circumstantial evidence, but many Christians engaged in professional sport have a sense that God is moving in exciting ways in that world. One piece of this evidence is the presence of more openly committed Christian players and staff around. At London Wasps we have gone from none to 5 in the last 3 years. Another is home gown players coming to faith.

 

Sports people are infamous for their superstitions; in English cricket a score of 111 is considered ominous for the batting side the time when a wicket may fall. In Australia it is 87 (13 short of a hundred). Some individuals will have a set pattern of putting on their kit, whilst others have to be last on to the pitch. But it also appears at the moment that there is a greater openness to faith & the spiritual, including Christianity.  At Bolton Wanderers “when asked questions about how important their faith was to them out of a score of ten, over half the squad came up with a score of ten.” (Footballing Lives p.44)

 

So there is a readymade congregation within a professional club for the chaplain to pastor; some committed, some seeking, others just curious, a few totally disinterested.

 

This can be done in various ways. There are several instances of players’ bible study/fellowship groups. We have one for Rugby Union players in the West London area. These are there for encouraging and building those who have faith in their spiritual growth & witness; exploring what it means to be a Christian and to witness with integrity in the often macho world of professional sport.

 

Such groups offer support to the individual. Issues such as contract negotiations cannot be shared in the more public arena of a church cell group. But among those involved requests for prayer on such matters can be made, and the chaplain with an inside knowledge of the club and the sport can offer biblical and theological insight into the situation. Praying for team mates can also occur

 

Such groups are not an alternative to the local church, though there are many players who for various reasons (short term contracts, regular Sunday games, the difficulty of being seen as a “celebrity”, or sheer laziness) never link up with a local church. There are many instances of people in this situation being mentored by the chaplain.

 

Other examples of this pastoral care include holding pre-match services for staff that wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend church on Sunday match days, and times of reflection at Christmas and during Holy Week. There is always the element of surprise as to who turns up to these occasions.

 

Additionally the chaplain may have a pastoral role towards supporters through functions such as marriage blessings and scattering ashes at the ground.

 

Again such pastoral ministry expresses the character of Jesus, and the nature of God, caring for his sheep.

 

Conclusion

Generally the idea of chaplaincy is welcomed today within professional sport. Taking hold of those opportunities is not just a matter of the church being seen in high profile places, it is a theological and biblical mandate.

 

Thus God is opening great opportunities for service, mission and pastoring in a significant sector of our society. He is also calling men and women to work with him in his way to bring more of his kingdom and his righteousness into the world of professional sport.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Lupson P, Thank God for Football, (London: SPCK 2007)

Heskins J & Baker D (eds.), Footballing Lives, (Norwich: Canterbury Press 2006)

Weir J S, Sport & the UK Church in the 19th Century, (Paper delivered to ISC

            Symposium 2005)

 

 

Workshop Discussion

  • Sports Chaplaincy is a form of workplace ministry. It is possible to be involved even if you are not interested in sport, because you are interested in people. We do not need to be a team supporter or need to be ‘sporty’.
  • Theologically sports chaplains act in the roles of:

a] servant - sport is full of people who want something from players, instead here we can be servers;

b] missionary – it is a ‘God role’;

c] pastor - the age profile among sports people is one we do not see in church: i.e. young males. Chaplaincy must be pastorally pro-active and evangelistically reactive.

  • A problem for workplace ministry is that the local church often takes priority. But chaplaincy does reach people who never come to church. Plus chaplains need to raise their own finances.
  • There is also a problem with ‘official’ chaplains who do not push the ‘truth’. They baptise the structures, through rituals and formalities. Do we need to lose the prophetic role of challenging values? In contrast SCORE supports people. Chaplains are not supported by denominations like the COE. Nor do they belong the institution, as in hospital chaplaincies.
  • We can also challenge Christians who hide their faith, by encouraging them to act: e.g. giving tickets to hear Bear Grylls. Apart from that, what is the entry point for the gospel among chaplains? How do we open up opportunities for people to hear about God? We must recognise that God is already at work. Therefore we do not need to do something original. I have to recognise where he is at work, ,and cooperate with him. Seeing & discerning.
  • There are opportunities to talk at dinners. And discussing personal problems: relationships, suicide. Sometimes it is not obvious what God is doing. But we often find we are following on his coat-tails. Or sometimes we find we are a catalyst. It is a difficult ministry because many sports people are treated as celebrities. But in fact most are in small groups, except in the premier teams.
  • Other religions do emphasise sport. A sports psychologist [from the Centre of Sport and Spirituality in York] did a survey of Bolton Wanderers found high rates of spiritual interest and participation: Christians, Muslims, Jews. Meditation was popular. But the Christian faith is different in that we are there for everybody. Other faiths & Roman Catholic chaplains tend to be there only to support their own faithful.
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