What Being a Soccer Chaplain Has Taught Me about Faithfulness
By José González | Photos by Don Klingberg | May 18, 2016
When I arrived as a student at North Park Theological Seminary in August 2013, I had already heard that one ministry opportunity on campus was to serve as chaplain of a sports team. Before orientation was over, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Having played soccer in high school and college, I thought that serving as chaplain to the men’s soccer team would be an opportunity to do ministry in the context of the sport I love. I was eager to practice ministry and find some kind of life-giving activity in the midst of the demands of my academic program. When my fellow students and I were introduced to the various ministries and organizations on campus, I immediately went to University Ministries to find out if the soccer team needed a chaplain. As it turned out, their chaplain had recently left to take another job. After I met with the coaching staff, the job was mine.
When I introduce myself to a new or prospective player as the team chaplain, they either ask, “What’s a chaplain?” or they give me a polite but confused smile. It’s understandable. Not many schools have chaplains for their teams, and not even every team at North Park has one. Further, the players come from many different faith backgrounds, or they may not even have faith at all.
So I’ve memorized a concise explanation of my job that has proved to be useful: Being the chaplain means I’m there for the spiritual and emotional well-being of the team. I’m there to listen if the players have anything on their minds, especially stuff they’re not comfortable talking to the coaches about. I encourage them to come to me whether there is a family tragedy, they’re having relationship problems, or they just want to talk about the game they saw the other night—and everything in between.
When I started, the coaches gave me the green light to be present at any team function and the players accepted me as a member of the team. So I go to practices, meetings, and workouts. I do the pre-game prayer, I pray pre-game blessings over any players who want them, and I have the best seat at every home game, right alongside the coaches and players.
But as much fun as it is watching the guys play, what I wanted the most was to connect with the players, to hear their stories. I tried to meet with them one-on-one over coffee or lunch to get to know them better, to talk about things on their mind, or maybe even to help them get a better grip on a Bible class.
Yet those deep conversations didn’t happen the way I hoped they would. Initially I had the impression that pretty quickly I’d be something along the lines of a walking confessional, with guys sharing their stories, worries, and concerns at every practice.
That didn’t happen. There was a long period where the work seemed mostly routine. The surface-level conversations at our coffee meetings sometimes left me wondering if I was of any service to the team.
But I kept showing up. I kept going to practices and games. I kept inviting guys out to coffee while I did a lot of routine things.
You’d think I might have known that most people need to build a relationship before there can be trust and vulnerability. But I wanted results to come quickly.
You’d think I might have known that most people need to build a relationship before there can be trust and vulnerability.
Soon I began to see that the “results” weren’t the point. My role was to be there for the players, not the other way around. I needed to be there—both if they had something to share, and if they didn’t. Even if someone had something on their mind that they wanted to talk about, they weren’t going to tell me if I wasn’t faithful in being present. So I kept showing up.
Jesus has significant things to say about faithfulness. If we want to be entrusted with much, we have to first be faithful with little. The master in the parable of the talents says the exact same phrase to the first two servants: “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” (Matthew 25:21, 23).
It’s a principle that shows up again and again in Scripture. Joseph ran a household and a jail before he became responsible for the resources of an entire country. David oversaw a flock of sheep, protecting them from lions and bears, before he oversaw the kingdom of Israel and defended it against its enemies. Because of her faithfulness, Mary Magdalene was at the tomb, becoming one of the first witnesses of the resurrection and entrusted to be one of the first to proclaim the risen Lord to the apostles.
The players on the NPU soccer team understand well the importance of faithfulness. The team roster is large, consisting of more than forty guys. But that means the coaches are able to assemble a reserve team that plays unofficial matches against other reserve teams and opponents that the team would not otherwise play. Many players are on the reserve team for the entire season, but they have ambitions to get to the first team. So they show up. They go to practice and scrimmages. They work out on their own time and go to off-season workouts that the coaches may not even see. They are faithful with their gifts and abilities, and sometimes they are awarded a spot on the first team.
I realized it was the same for me. And eventually my showing up began to pay off. Guys started opening up and sharing their stories, concerns, and faith questions with me.
I wanted to do something significant, to change lives, to have a mountaintop moment. But sometimes in our ambition for greater things we neglect the seemingly smaller things. We want to introduce many to Christ, but we don’t talk to the stranger in the room. We want people to share their faith questions with us, but we don’t take the time to listen to how their day went. We want to be on the leadership team of our ministries, but our attendance at meetings is spotty. We want to show people the love of God, but we’re short with them when they offend us.
If I don’t show up when God asks me to, I may miss out on some of the things God has in store. And it may very well be that the things that appear to be smaller may be the true preparation for the things we long for. Regardless of the “prestige” of the task, the bottom line is, if I want to see God at work I need to be faithful with the opportunities I’m given.
Things may not always turn out the way I hope or pray, but I am learning that I cannot minister effectively or see God work through me if I am too hung up on the results to be faithful and obedient in the things before me right now. I have to show up.