Friday, January 20, 2017

"Faith is the 'Biggest Under-Covered Story' in Football"

Partners in Ministry,

This article from Relevant magazine ran across my Twitter feed this week and I thought it could be of interest to you. At the bottom of the page there is a link to the complete article from Sports Illustrated mentioned by the author. I hope this is of value to your service of the men and women of sport. To my readers outside the USA, when he says football, he means American football.

Jan 19, 2017 /
NFL Columnist: Faith Is the 'Biggest Under-Covered Story' in Football

If you're not a football person, you might not know, but we're approaching the culmination of the NFL season: There are now only four teams left in the league's playoffs, and this weekend's conference championship games will determine who will meet in the Super Bowl on February 5.
Sports Illustrated gathered a few sports journalists and NFL columnists for a "roundtable" discussion about the 2016-17, trends, off-the-field issues and stories they think get overlooked. That last part is where things get interesting. When asked about stories in the NFL that don't get enough attention from sports media, Armando Salguero, an NFL columnist for the Miami Herald, brought up the place of faith within the NFL.
"The biggest under-covered story in the NFL every year is how huge a factor faith in God and Jesus Christ is in the playing and coaching of the sport," he says. "Every day, in season and out of season, coaches and players (and women on staff) pray before they begin their duties and often ask God through Jesus Christ for guidance and health in the carrying out of their functions. Yes, they get paid and rewarded, but for many, everything they do is unto God. It is their motivator and at the center of who they are."
He continues:
In times of adversity, which come often in the NFL, they turn to their faith for answers, strength and encouragement. That touchdown celebration you see every weekend, where guys point to the sky? That's not the first or only time these men address God, Christ, and heaven, but rather that is the public view of a deep and daily walk and relationship these people have with their Lord. Many of these people see themselves as Christians first and employees of the NFL later. And yet, their stories—their testimonies—go unreported because the media is largely secular and the NFL wants to keep the game largely secular despite the fact a large percentage of its employees are believers.
Salguero suggests that faith is under-covered because the topic makes people in sports media uncomfortable. Apparently anticipating pushback, Salguero points out how frequently football players will cite God, Jesus or their faith in sideline interviews, but almost never get asked to elaborate on or even defend their statements. He says:
When sideline reporters ask a question after the game and the player says, "First I want to thank my Lord Jesus Christ," the follow up is never, "For what? What did He do for you?" The follow is more likely about a touchdown run or turnover. Disagree? Here's a test: Did you cringe or roll your eyes when you read the first sentence of this answer? Yeah, faith in God and Jesus Christ among NFL people makes the media uncomfortable and reporters and news organizations run away from the topic.
Who knows if Salguero's analysis will bring any change in how sports journalists approach faith in football, but at the very least he's put the topic on a very big, nationally read table.
You can read the whole SI roundtable—which goes on to talk about other social and ethical issues surrounding the sport like concussions and continued instances of domestic violence among players—here.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Ministry at a Coaches Convention

The American Football Coaches Convention was just held this week in Nashville, Tennessee (USA). Approximately 4,000 American Football coaches, mostly collegiate, but some from high schools were in attendance for the Sunday through Wednesday activities, meetings, seminars, awards programs, and more.

For the last dozen years I have attended this event, simply because that is where the coaches are. To see this many of the coaches, already in my network or those I have yet to meet, at any other time would require months of travel and tens of thousands of dollars. On these days, they are all in the same building.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes was in attendance and engaged in ministry with these coaches and their spouses in various ways.
1.   We held a worship service on Sunday morning at 10:00. An estimated 250 people were in attendance for the service which included a simple welcome, three worship songs (led by a man with a guitar), prayer, and a talk by a college football team chaplain (Mitch Mason from the University of North Carolina). The service was well done and well received.
2.   We held a Coaches Huddle on Sunday night from 9:00 to 10:15. Rather than delivering another talk from another guy at a podium, we had the coaches and spouses (around 200) to rearrange their chairs into circles of 6-8 people each. We then invited them to talk with the others in their groups, answering the questions projected onto the screen. We started with facts like their names, where they coach, and how many years they had been in coaching. We moved on to questions like, “Why do you coach?” We talked about the coaches from their pasts who shaped how they coach, their legacy in the coaches’ lives now, and the legacy they’d like to leave in the lives of their players. Lastly, we invited them to pray together, and we finished a few minutes early. We were thrilled that many lingered in the room well beyond the parameters of the meeting. They enjoyed the fellowship and our questions uncovered their hearts in a way that passively listening to a presentation never would have.
3.   We hosted an FCA Breakfast for about 400 coaches on Monday morning. The program was crisp, it moved quickly, and each part was succinctly presented. It included an emcee with introductory thoughts, a prayer, and then breakfast. We viewed a strong video of a coach, his team, and the impact of FCA’s 3Dimensional Coaching upon the players and the community. We then interviewed that coach, live on stage. The program continued with an annual Coach of the Year award, and the recipient made brief, but excellent comments. The final part of the program was an address by FCA’s new president, himself a football coach. The coaches left the room encouraged and many made connections with other Christian coaches they only see at this event or occasionally on the field of competition.
4.   We spent hours and hours at our booth in the exhibition hall. We were favored to have a spot right by the entry doors, very convenient for those looking for us, and even better for those not looking for us. We had countless conversations, hugs, handshakes, trades of business cards, referrals of colleagues, and more. We distributed hundreds of copies of books, devotional materials, and brochures. In addition, we had a kiosk that included an iPad for connection with our various web based resources and programs.


I would challenge you to consider where the people you intend to serve are. Where do they gather? What would it take to be there with them? In what ways could you serve them in that location or event? The clinics, conventions, and other gatherings where they gather are rich environments for ministry. Discover them and then develop a strategy. Go!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Who is Your Chaplain?

One of the items of great interest to me in the book, Replenish – Leading from a Healthy Soul, by Lance Witt, is the terrible fact that far too many pastors and other ministry workers are terribly isolated. Too few of us have strong relationships with trusted friends or mentors.

This leads me to ask, “Who is your chaplain?” Who is there in your life to provide the same sort of service that you regularly dispense to others? If you didn’t immediately have an answer, this is a problem to be addressed. Who cares for your soul? Who knows you well enough to ask you hard questions about your use of time, energy, and relationship? Who understands your life’s pressures, your weak spots, your character flaws, and loves you through them?

Are you close enough to your pastor for this sort of relationship? Have you given him or her permission to enter your life beyond your “public persona?” Is there a friend or colleague with whom you meet often enough to be vulnerable about your life?

Although I am an off the chart extrovert with thousands of acquaintances, there are few people I trust with my life’s pains and struggles. My introverted friends may find this even more difficult, but with a smaller circle of relationships.

Again, “Who is your chaplain?”

I meet with two men every Tuesday at 6:30 am at a local coffee shop. One of those gentlemen and I have been meeting together for over twenty-two years now. We three have walked together through family health issues (cancer and epilepsy), a divorce, a suicide attempt, a remarriage, multiple family issues, financial growth and challenge, joy, grief, and pain. Such is life. We know and trust each other. They are my chaplains.


Once more, I will ask, “Who is your chaplain?” I challenge you to find an answer to that question, to commit to an enduring and vulnerable relationship with someone who knows you well enough to care for your soul’s health. The long-term success or failure of your ministry as a sport chaplain or character coach may be determined by this relationship or the lack thereof.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Changes in Service Across 23 Seasons

I was recently reflecting on the changes I have seen across my twenty-three seasons of serving Saluki Football (collegiate American Football). We have served with five different coaching staffs, some with lots of changes within the tenure of the same head coach. We have seen hundreds of young men cycle through the university in those years, about 25 new players each year, 100+ on each year’s roster. This note will feature the differences in how my service has changed across the years. I hope this allows you some sense that changes can be good, even if clouded by firing, failure, pain, and uncertainty.

1994-1996 – Head Coach Shawn Watson – I owe Shawn more than I could ever express. He invited me into college football and gave me enough room to experiment, to fail, to succeed, to be trusted, and to innovate. I attended practices, led team chapels, served in crises, began to travel with the team, wrote personal notes to players and coaches, and began to write game day devotions for the team. I prayed with Shawn personally before games and led the team in praying the Lord’s prayer after games in the locker room. He left our program to take another opportunity in coaching and we have stayed in touch as he has traveled through six universities since.
1997-2000 – Head Coach Jan Quarless – I was stunned when Coach Q allowed me even more space to serve and I started with tremendous favor. I did all the things I had done with Shawn and added some sideline responsibilities (get back coach), but with a little less personal relationship with the head coach. Coach Q’s tenure included a good deal of turmoil, a number of coaching staff transitions, and the team hovered near the point of excellence without ever achieving it. He was relieved of his duties shortly after the university hired a new Director of Athletics. Jan is out of football, having completed his PhD after being fired and then finished his career as a school administrator.
2001-2007 – Head Coach Jerry Kill – When Coach Kill and I met for lunch to discuss how I would serve his team, I was stunned at his response to my questions about boundaries. He said, “As far as I’m concerned, there are no boundaries.” I had again been given an amazing level of favor and access to the coaching staff, the players, the facilities, and more. We did as we had in the past years, but added some new forms of service as this staff developed an excellent program. I began to do “team-building” activities with the team during the preseason. In these sessions it was my job to accelerate the process of developing both the culture and the community that enables a team to compete well. We also added some weekly meetings to build team leadership. Coach Kill and I developed a strong relationship that continues to this day. It was forged in the fires of early losses, later championships, personal crises, health scares, cancer surgery, court appearances with troubled players, and lots of heart to heart talks. Coach left our program after a string of very successful seasons to take a new coaching opportunity. He has recently been out of coaching for a season, but just took an offensive coordinator position.
2008-2015 – Head Coach Dale Lennon – Coach Lennon came to us from the University of North Dakota and a radically different culture from Southern Illinois. I was unsure how he would perceive me or my role, but when we talked after recruiting was finished I was again amazed at the favor the Lord gave me with Coach Lennon. He fully embraced every way I had been serving and strongly endorsed our team-building process. He and I collaborated on annual and weekly themes for the team and I was thrilled to build those themes into my team-building, team chapels, and more. Coach Lennon’s more introverted nature made building our relationship more difficult than it was with Coach Kill, but we had a strong and open friendship characterized by respect and collaboration. There were a number of changes within the staff during these years, and though we had early success (two conference championships), the program seemed to decline year to year and Coach Lennon’s tenure ended in his firing. He and his wife, my wife and I, had dinner a couple of weeks after the season and I could sense how deeply it hurt him. I don’t think he had ever tasted failure of this sort and it was a rather bitter experience. We have stayed in touch, mostly by text message, as he is out of coaching. I doubt he will return to the game as this last experience may have squashed his passion for coaching and its life consuming nature.
2016 - ? – Head Coach Nick Hill – I have known Nick since he was an area high school football and basketball player. After a year of playing college basketball elsewhere, he transferred to our university, playing both basketball and football. As a four year starting quarterback retired from the game, Nick was the heir apparent to the starting job, and he wisely walked away from basketball. He led us to two of our most successful seasons, went on to some pre-season NFL football and then a couple of seasons of Arena Football. He coached some high school football in Florida, returned to coach a local high school team, and then was offered the opportunity to coach quarterbacks for Coach Lennon’s staff. He and I discussed the opportunity over coffee one morning and he chose to join us. Two seasons later, he was named our head coach, at thirty years of age. On the day of his introductory press conference, he called me to come to the office and to pray with him. That set the tone for our service together. Once again, I have been given remarkable favor and unfettered access. Added to all the earlier avenues of service, we added an off-season discussion of the book, Legacy, with the coaching staff and discussions of the same book with the five team captains during the season. Coach and I have shared book titles we are reading and he has been very responsive to each suggestion I have made for his leadership of the program.

          I have no idea what the future holds. I have no idea how many years I will continue to serve in this manner. I have no idea how my service may change, immediately or in the next five years. I have full confidence that I am operating in the grace and favor of God, because there is no way I could engineer the opportunities I have been given. I trust that the Lord will lead and that I will follow as well as I am able. I cannot wait to see what is next. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Conference Calls for Sports Chaplains and Character Coaches

A couple of the most effective, but hard to arrange avenues of professional development for sports chaplains are networking and mentoring. Most of us are either too busy, or we don’t prioritize the time to be with our colleagues on a regular basis. Most of us learn best when we simply spend time in conversation with each other, comparing notes, telling stories, and asking questions of each other. The wisest among us make time for such networking, and we seek out mentors to help us develop our ministries.

One of the most effective ways we have been doing this recently has been through conference calls on a monthly basis. Starting in August of 2015, I began hosting conference calls, approximately sixty minutes in duration, in which I simply interview one of our respected sports chaplaincy colleagues from around the USA. Several times, we have even connected with people outside the USA by Skype while having my mobile phone on speaker so our international friends could participate. Dozens of people, from coast to coast, have called in, learned, asked good questions, and have been encouraged and inspired by our guests.

I am aware that some others have been doing this within their geographic regions and by other associations. That is wonderful. Below, please see the details for the calls, the questions I use to direct the calls, and a list of people who have contributed to them, as well as some who are on queue for future calls.

I hope you can join us for a future call.



Template for each call: (30-60 minutes in duration)
·        I will start the call with a welcome.
·        I’ll have someone ready to pray to begin.
·        I’ll promote any upcoming events related to training, networking, or mentoring for sports chaplains and character coaches.
·        I’ll introduce and interview the guest.
·        I’ll wrap things up and will have someone close in prayer.
These are some of the questions I use for FCA Sports Chaplain conference calls.

·        Tell us about yourself, your family, and your background.
·        Tell us about the place where you serve as a sports chaplain or character coach.
·        In what sports do you serve?
·        When did you first begin to serve as a sports chaplain or character coach and how did that happen?
·        What are some of your most effective strategies?
·        One thing a sports chaplain or character coach should ALWAYS do is…
·        One thing a sports chaplain or character coach should NEVER do is….
·        Questions we received via email ahead or during the call.
·        Who are your mentors and most valued colleagues? How do you connect with them?
·        What forms of communication do you employ in your service as a chaplain?
·        How many months did it take for you to feel like you had a good handle on your role?
·        How well does your church understand your ministry and the fact that it may require you to occasionally miss Sunday services?
·        What are some things a sports chaplain or character coach should do in his or her first 30 days of service?
These are sports chaplains and character coaches who have been recently interviewed on our conference calls:
·        Jason Lipe – Southeast Missouri State University
·        Sara Hurst – University of Illinois
·        Eric Drake – Benton High School
·        Anthony Morris – Towson State University
·        Troy Collier – University of Illinois
·        Russ Talley – Northern Illinois University
·        Scott Tickner – Sesser-Valier High School
·        Robbie Trent – University of Nebraska
·        Dan Bishop – FCA National Director of Training
·        T. J. Carlson – South Dakota State University
·        Justin Neally – University of Illinois
·        Marla Butterworth – formerly of Georgia Tech University
·        Brandi Cantrell – Texas Tech University
·        Chris Morgan – University of Louisville
These are sports chaplains and character coaches slated for upcoming conference calls:
·        Tim Schneckloth – Augustana College
·        Keith Brown – Georgia Tech
·        David Applegate – Iowa FCA
·        Kirby Myers – Naval Academy
·        Richard Lopez – University of Arizona

·        Jill Nash – Georgia FCA 

Monday, December 12, 2016

"Stay in Touch."

One of the values I learned from my mentor, Fred Bishop, is to maintain long-term relationships, even across the globe and for decades. He did it by making long trips by car and by writing post cards by hand. He has since graduated to email and social media. I have marveled at the way he was able to stay in touch with people, to pray for them, to encourage them, and to be encouraged by their development as men and women who love Christ Jesus. Below are the ways I have found to do this and the results I receive.

I maintain relationships with former players (college football, basketball, baseball, softball, professional baseball) via a number of channels:
·        Email – I have near 900 people on my weekly devotion list and send them out each Monday morning.
·        Text messages – I send a daily verse from the Proverbs to baseball players who have come through our club.
·        Social media – I employ both Twitter and Facebook, with a strategic approach, in maintaining contact with players from the past. On Twitter, I post links to our daily devotional site, in English and in Spanish. I also tweet or retweet items I believe could be of interest to those in my Twitter network of 1,300+.
·        Face to face meetings – Collegiate sports programs have occasional events like homecoming that welcome former players back to the university and these are perfect for reconnecting with players from past years. These face to face meetings deepen the relationships that can be further maintained at a distance.

I stay connected with coaches in similar ways:
·        Email – many coaches who have come through our university are also on my Monday devotion list.
·        Text messages – During the college football season, I send messages to dozens of coaches for whom I have numbers. I send a prayer, an encouragement, a scripture, a congratulatory note for a big win, or a conciliatory note after a bitter defeat. I always aim to encourage and to inspire.
·        Social media – A number of the coaches from our network also follow us on social media.
·        Face to face meetings – The American Football Coaches Association holds an annual convention and I have attended it each year since 2005. I attend not because I am a football coach, but because thousands of them are there. Rather than chasing all over the USA to see them, I can meet them at this event and reconnect very well. There is a similar event in Champaign, Illinois for high school football coaches and there are doubtless similar events for coaches of most other sports. Find a way to get there and to engage the coaches.

I stay in touch with sports chaplains around the nation and the world as well:
·        Email – this weekly email is my primary attempt to share what I am learning and often the excellent strategies, methods, and ideas of others.
·        Text messages – I have a group of numbers in my phone that are for college and high school football chaplains. I text message these weekly with scripture, prayer, and/or encouragement. I will also send individuals a text message related to particular situations, crises, or opportunities. I also use text messages to promote monthly conference calls for sports chaplains and character coaches.
·        Social media – I promote the monthly sports chaplain conference calls via Twitter, and each one is automatically repeated on Facebook.
·        Face to face meetings – Events like the PowerUp Sports Ministry conferences, FCA’s annual Sports Chaplains Conference, the AFCA convention (for American Football), and other events are excellent opportunities to see a number of our colleagues, to share a cup of coffee, a meal, and to compare notes.


I firmly believe that the Lord puts people in our lives for specific purposes and that our responsibility to Him for them does not end simply because their career paths have led them away from our communities. Especially now, when our communities can be held in our hands, electronically, via our smart phones.  We can maintain influential, redemptive relationships with countless individuals by very simple and time efficient methods. Please join me in extending the Lord Jesus’ love, encouragement, challenge, and instruction by any and every means at your hand.

Friday, December 2, 2016

"Be a Man"

A year ago our head football coach was fired and we worked with him, his staff, their families, and support staff to manage the transitions each had to make. A few weeks later, our new head coach was chosen and he began to assemble his staff, to determine the direction of the program, and to outline its values. The new head coach is only 31 years old and that presents him a particular set of challenges. His staff is also rather young, with one exception.

He and I talked after recruiting was completed about how I could serve him and we had a tremendous discussion. One of his first thoughts was to have his program defined by the statement, “Be a Man.” Rather than have a long list of rules, he would like the young men in his program to just, “be a man.” I pushed back, saying, “Coach, they don’t know what that is.” Near 80% of our players grew up with no man in the house, and probably a number of the others had poor models for what a man is. I said, “Coach, we have to define terms. Will you trust me to help them learn what it is to be a man?” He agreed and the rest of this note is related to what I told them and how I delivered the messages.

In the way that I work with our college football team, I have several different opportunities and methods to convey a message:
Preseason – Team Building sessions (4-6), senior player talks, coach talks, Sunday morning chapels (2).
In season – Pregame chapels (11), letters at pregame meals (11).

Prior to the season, during the early summer, I approached the head coach with some simple ideas to help define what a man is that we could emphasize over and over again. He agreed to this set of four statements: “A Man Loves. A Man Takes Responsibility. A Man Serves. A Man Takes Initiative.” I used these four statements as the anchor to which we tied all our communication throughout the season. At times I would deal with these by drawing sharp contrasts between what men do and what boys do. Boys are selfish, men love. Boys avoid responsibility, men take it up. Boys are self-serving, men serve others. Boys are passive, men take initiative.

For chapel talks, I majored on narrative texts that demonstrated a person acting on one of the four “A Man …..” statements. I would introduce the talk, recite all four statements, ask someone to pray, and then launch in to my talk. We would wrap up with prayer and I would be finished.

For the letters at pregame meals, I spent a good deal of time during a July study retreat writing devotional thoughts focused on the four statements. I would start with a story of a player or coach from the program’s past who was emblematic of that day’s statement. I would outline his story in one paragraph. The next paragraph would introduce a Bible passage that spoke to the statement as well.

The third paragraph would apply the ideas illuminated from scripture to the team and to the earlier player’s life, and the final paragraph would be a direct challenge to do as directed by the scripture and as modeled by the player or coach. I would insert a salutation, date, sign, and print the letter on my office stationery.  I make photocopies and have one copy at each place prior to the pregame meal, 4 hours prior to kickoff. These devotional thoughts, being in letter form, feel very personal to the reader and are well received.

During the preseason, each senior player and each coach on the staff was given time to deliver a 5-7 minute talk to the entire team. I created a set of questions to help the players gather their thoughts about how their experiences at the university had shaped the kind of men they had become. I created a separate set of questions for the coaches with more information about their childhood and their life experiences. The results of these talks was amazing. Rather than posturing or simply stringing clichés together, they opened their hearts and spoke vulnerably. This was a strong factor in building the team’s culture and its cohesion.

You may be wondering how the team did this season? We started with strong expectations, quickly discovered our weak spots, competed strongly, lost several very close games, finished well, and had a 4 win, 7 loss record. The remarkable thing was that through a losing streak, our cohesion never broke down, the coaches and players all stayed together, and we never abandoned the program values or goals.

In a text message to the head coach during the last week of the season, I said, “Coach, you are doing the right things and holding to the right values. Press on. Recruit to the culture you are building. I am proud of you.”


Our society is full of men who never love, never take responsibility, never serve, and never take initiative. I hope that our work together in Saluki Football, produces young men who do love, take responsibility, serve, and take initiative. I also pray that the introduction of scripture and prayer to their lives takes root in their hearts and comes to full fruition as they become men who love Christ Jesus.