John Boyers explains the role of a chaplain to a football team
LET ME FIRST introduce myself. I am a Baptist Minister who, for some 15 years, was involved with normal local church ministry. In 1990 leaders of the denomination began to discuss with me the possibilities of ceasing such ministry to focus on a specialised area of work on a full-time basis – the development of Sports Chaplaincy.
By the middle of 1991, we had set up a Registered Charity, SCORE, to pioneer this very sphere of ministry on a full-time basis. The following year, Manchester United asked me to do for them what I was already doing at Watford, and so I write, as Director of SCORE, and chaplain of MUFC.
My beginnings in Sports Chaplaincy reach back to 1977. I was involved in ministry at St James Road Baptist Church, West Watford. The church building was located less than half a mile from the Vicarage Road ground of Watford FC – but I had no special interest in ‘The Hornets’. Deep down I am a Grimsby Town fan – but in the early autumn of 1977 I really felt the Lord was confronting me with the possibility of chaplaincy involvement at Watford FC.
We had house-groups in the church, for prayer, Bible Study, worship and fellowship, with lay people responsible for leading these. We organised house group leaders training meetings on a monthly basis, and sometimes, either the Senior Minister, or myself, would speak at these meetings. Occasionally outside speakers were brought in. In September 1977. Mike Pusey, a Baptist Minister from Farnborough, came to inspire our HGLs. During his visit he spoke with me of his involvement with Aldershot FC as chaplain, and strongly suggested that I consider a similar work with nearby Watford FC.
Some six weeks later, the same thought was passed on to me by Alan West, then captain at Luton Town FC, when he came to a youth event to speak about his own Christian faith, and life in football.
Alan West’s comments really made me feel that God was saying something, and started a process of prayer, discussing with the Senior Minister, considering the possibilities – and it all concluded several weeks later with an approach to speak with the recently appointed Manager at Vicarage Road, Graham Taylor. Mr Taylor was open to the possibility, as he had long advocated club involvements with the local community, and vice versa. So, in November 1977, I began working as WFC’s chaplain.
The role of a chaplain is different from that of an evangelist. Perhaps it is best described as a pastoral and spiritual safety net. Being a chaplain involves pastoring a secular community. I got involved helping young home-sick players, visiting staff in hospital, supporting those facing bereavement, family troubles, and listening to all sorts of confidential chats. At times people asked me questions which invited a Christian response, and an explanation of my faith in Jesus Christ. I was always happy to respond to questions, but was keen to assure the club that I wasn’t going to impose beliefs on non-interested listeners. So, the actual Christian input is largely reactive rather than proactive.
I would have several observations of a theological nature on sports chaplaincy situations.
I would note the importance of involvement in the world. The scriptures invite God’s people to both be distinct from the world, and involved with the world. Maybe the most appropriate scripture, is John 1 v 14, which tells of the incarnation, and invites the church, by example, to engage in international mission. It is good to invite people to come to our services, but perhaps it is more Jesus-like for us to take our Christian faith into the world. Indeed, Matthew 5 vs 13-16 affirm the importance of us bringing savour and illumination into a tasteless and dark world. One great theme on my heart is for the church to be involved in the world. Too long we have hidden behind our walls and windows. We need to congregate – for worship, teaching, fellowship, inspiration, support, etc. etc. – but we must see our congregating, not as an end in itself, but at least in. pan, to prepare us for our ministry in the world outside. The church has to show Christian lifestyle, model Christian faith in the world and to the world,
The Scriptures – Matthew 28 v 19, Acts 1 v 7 – invite us to go into “all the world”. Again, we need to hear this. Sometimes we choose which worlds we invade, sometimes we seem to believe the commission is to some parts of the world. Christian presence, mission and ministry is needed in all the world – education, politics, industry, finance, business, the arts. community etc. – including the Sports World.
And chaplaincy also demonstrates another scriptural principle, the Servant Principle. In Phil 2 vs 5-8, Christ is described as “taking the nature of a servant”, and we can, perhaps, learn from this passage. Sports Chaplains should demonstrate Christ’s servanthood in their lives.
We are not involved to gain or benefit from our involvement, but to serve in Christ’s name. Such work brings together aspects of Christian mission that some have seen as dichotomous, – social action and mission. Some have stressed the importance of “Good Works” and “Social Action”, Others have stressed the importance of ‘Communicating the Gospel Message’ and ‘evangelising’. Surely it is not an ‘either/or’ – it is a ‘both/and’.
We are to be ready to share the truth of our Christian faith, and should live out the reality of that faith by our lifestyle, compassion, integrity and credibility. Faith and deeds go together (James 2 v 17). Good works are to flow from real Christian faith (Ephesians 2 v 10). Chaplaincy in Sport is Christian faith demonstrated in action in a sports context.
It is important to stress that SCORE’s ministry is beyond football to the Sports World – SCORE began at Watford FC, but God has opened up across sports, and across regions too. In the past few years we have seen chaplaincy positions established in Rugby League, County Cricket, Golf Clubs, and in the athletics world. SCORE has provided chaplaincy for the Commonwealth Games, organised a chaplaincy provision for Euro ’96 Football Championships, and more recently, organised the chaplaincy team for the ’99 Belfast World Cross Country Championships.
We have set up chaplaincies in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. We have liaised with the English PFA to provide material for chaplains to teach to English footballers under the Adidas Football Scholarship Scheme. God has opened many doors!
Perhaps the most interesting, most specific door is that at Old Trafford.
In 1992, MUFC asked if I could become the official chaplain at Manchester United, to do there what I was doing at Vicarage Road, Watford. It is a huge opportunity. MUFC now employs 550 full-time staff, and perhaps 1500-2000 part-timers on a match day. I seek to be chaplain to all, to visit all where they work, usually on a Monday, to provide support and confidential help if needed. It also provides a platform to model chaplaincy, so that SCORE is directed, not simply by theoreticians, but by practitioners.
Manchester United is an interesting place to work. People seem to either love them or hate them, – no lukewarmness there! To some, the support of MUFC is like a religion – but it can’t do what real Christian faith can do. It may give people a sporting cathedral, a chance to sing songs of worship, a place of friendship and identity – but it can’t meet our deeper needs. It doesn’t deal with issues of guilt and forgiveness, issues of purpose, or peace with God, and the assurance of heaven hereafter,
Christians can know these things through faith in Christ. To some, the fact I meet up with Alex Ferguson, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, et al, is awesome. It may be a privilege, but they are only people. There is one, who is to me so much more significant. Knowing the love and grace of God, through Jesus Christ, made known by the Holy Spirit, is so much more significant.
It is that Divine relationship that inspires me, inspires SCORE, and sends us to serve God in the Sports World. Please remember us. and pray for us – and the needy world of sport.
John K Boyers is National Director of SCORE, and Hon Chaplain to Manchester United FC.
Further information about SCORE, a Baptist-initiated, interdenominational mission to develop effective Chaplaincy in Sport, and to encourage fruitful local church sports ministry, cat be had by writing to.
SCORE P.O. Box 123, SALE, Manchester M33 4ZA Tel/Fax:0161-969-1762