Friday, September 27, 2013

Challenges to Long-Term Success

Across my twenty seasons of serving the men and women of sport at our university, in area high schools, and with a minor league baseball team, I have noticed the relatively brief tenures of others who have served in similar roles. I believe there are a number of factors that have led to the brevity of their service. Some of those are listed below as challenges to long-term success as a sport chaplain, character coach, or sport mentors.
Undue urgency – some of us, especially those who are gifted as evangelists or are driven by numerical expectations, may let our sense of urgency for the Gospel override the depth of our relationships with those we serve. When that happens, coaches and competitors begin to avoid us, actively resist us, or find a way for us to leave the team. Beware an overly urgent approach with people, they will feel manipulated and will believe you’re simply using them to accomplish your personal goals.
A utilitarian attitude – this attitude is exemplified by the sport chaplain who tolerates the process of sport; practice, training, study, travel, relationships, and competition, but is committed to delivering his talk. Coaches and competitors smell this attitude like a road kill skunk. They readily perceive that the character coach so motivated is simply using them and it fosters distrust and a superficial relationship. We must move beyond tolerance and fully embrace the whole process of sport if we’re to ever win the trust and the hearts of those we serve.
Personnel changes – in most every sport there is a continual process of change. The coaching staff, the player roster, even the administrative and support staff seems to change constantly. If we fail to build relationships with the newest members of the team or become too nostalgic about those from past years, we stand to find ourselves relationally adrift with no connection to those presently at hand to be served. Ride the occasionally rough surf of personnel changes among your teams and connect as quickly and deeply as possible, even when your friends get fired, traded or waived.
Inflexibility – some of us find ourselves on the outside looking in simply because we will not adapt to new situations. This happens all the time as one coaching staff goes out and another comes in. While we may have had a great relationship with the previous coaching staff, the new one doesn’t even know our name and may not even like our ministry. If we’re too tightly committed to our way of serving with the previous staff and communicate an inflexibility related to changing methods or strategies, it could alienate the new staff and we have no avenue of service at all. Rather than committing to methods and strategies, let’s commit to principles of service and to people.
Entitlement – this pervasive attitude in our culture (especially in the USA) is a blight upon Christian ministry. If we project the attitude that we are owed something, are due a title, deserve a position with a team, or are entitled to privileges with a sports team, we will find ourselves becoming repulsive to the very ones we seek to serve. Rather that acting like we deserve something, let’s seek to earn the trust and develop the relationships which lead to privileges properly received.
I am sure that if we each deal wisely with these challenges to long-term success, we can develop wise, dynamic, and powerful ministries with men and women in sport for years and even decades.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Love Extravagantly / Serve Selflessly

I’m sitting in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in downtown St. Louis, Missouri this morning as the Football Salukis of Southern Illinois University prepare to play the Southeast Missouri State University Red Hawks this afternoon in Busch Stadium. College Football in a baseball stadium, during a pennant race… Someone wasn’t thinking real clearly when this was scheduled. We’ll very likely tear up a good deal of the outfield.
Simple thoughts today.
1)   Love extravagantly.
2)   Serve selflessly.
Neither are easy as not everyone is easy to love, nor is everyone easy to serve. These are, however, the keys to effective ministry in sport. Guard your heart and attitudes. Take the risk to love and serve. Your relationships with the objects of your love and service are not the source of motivation for us, rather it’s our love for Christ Jesus and his admonition to love fuels our love and service. While those with whom we work will vary widely in their responses to us and in their character, our Savior is faithful, steadfast and constantly gives His loving approval to our service of the greatest and the least in the sports world.
Reminder of today’s assignment:
1)   Love extravagantly.
2)   Serve selflessly.

Friday, September 13, 2013

You are Free!

Christian men and women of sport are free to train, to compete, to win, to lose, to succeed, to fail, to be champions, and to finish in last place.  Their lives are kept by the living Lord Jesus and their relationships with Him are unaffected by performance.

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1 The love of Christ will lead the Christian competitor to freedom, not pressure and slavery to performance.  If the coach or player feels pressure, fear of failure or compulsion to perform in a particular way, those emotions are not coming from the Lord Jesus.  They may very well be there, but they’re probably from his own flesh, from her coach, from his parents, from the club or the media or the general culture of sport, but they are not from Christ Jesus.  You are free!

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Galatians 5:13 The freedom we experience in Christ Jesus as competitors must not be turned into an opportunity for selfish indulgence.  It’s very easy for the Christian coach or player who has discovered his freedom in Christ to simply take his freedom and run to his own corner of the sport, isolating himself from teammates and privatizing his faith.  The Lord’s admonition of verse 13 is that our freedom is given to us, in part, to enable us to serve our teammates selflessly.  Our freedom in Christ is the essential quality that empowers us to put down our own prideful flesh, to prefer our teammates’ needs above our own, to love the unlovely ones among us and to embrace those who both perform well and those who don’t.  You are free!

Christian Coach, Trainer or Club Manager – you are free.  You are no more pleasing to the Lord when you finish the season undefeated and champions as you are when you go winless and finish last in your league.  Neither are you less pleasing to Him whether you succeed or fail.  You are free!

Christian Player, Athlete or Competitor – you are free.  You may experience pressure, compulsion or guilt related to your performance, but you can be sure that is not coming from the Lord Jesus.  You are free.  You can live with a daily assurance that you were created in Christ Jesus for good works which the Lord prepared beforehand for you to walk in (Ephesians 2:10) and your life in sport is a part of those good works.  You are free.  You can fully offer your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, it is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1-2)  In each day’s training, competition, rest and recovery, in all of life, you are free!

Sport Chaplain, Sport Mentor or Character Coach – you are free.  You will feel the emotions and pressures experienced by those you serve, but you are free.  You will experience victories and failures with your teams and individual competitors, but you are free.  The Lord is no more pleased with your ministry when your team is successful and winning as He is when your team consistently underachieves and regularly loses.  He is no less pleased with you and you are no less valuable to Him when you serve in a seemingly obscure place as when you serve with a “high profile” team or a “celebrity” status player.  You are free!

Men and Women of Sport – You are free!!  Live in the liberty afforded you by the Lord Jesus.  Let your freedom lead you to serve selflessly and to love extravagantly.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Nineteen Years of Privilege

In the middle of the last weeks’ super-busyness, I have had some time to reflect on how remarkably blessed I am to be in the position I hold, to be with the people I serve, and to be in the places I go. I  began this role with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes nineteen years ago after nineteen years in the building materials industry. When I drive past a lumber yard or a home center, I offer a prayer of thanksgiving like, “Thank you, Lord. I don’t have to do that anymore.”
I have walked the halls of dozens of schools in our areas to meet with coaches and student-athletes. Most of these meetings are very pleasant and encouraging. Occasionally they’re peppered with pain, grief, loss and challenges. They are always valuable because I believe these to be the most influential people in our culture and therefore to invest in their lives makes a difference, not only for them, but in the community at large as well.
I have stood on the sidelines of college football and college basketball as well as by the dugout of college baseball through a wide range of results. We have experienced great success and abject failure. In most instances, there are opportunities for ministry whether the team is undefeated, winless or even middling with its winning percentage at .500.
The last two seasons I have had the privilege of serving a Frontier League Baseball club as its chaplain through Baseball Chapel. I have enjoyed my interaction with these young men, the club’s manager and the coaching staff. Their love for baseball enables me to appeal to them to love God through knowing Jesus Christ in a unique way. Thursday night’s game concluded their regular season and as they were eliminated from the playoffs, the atmosphere at batting practice was loose and relaxed. As I stood watching b.p. the player who was pitching said, “Rog, jump in there.” I picked up a bat, took a couple of practice swings, and jumped into the cage. For not having hit live pitching in twenty-five years, I did pretty well. Then I shocked everyone by turning around and hitting some balls left-handed. It was the highlight of my week. To feel the pure vibration of a baseball well-struck by a wooden bat reminded me of my youth, now only resident in my heart and in my memory.
Last Saturday I stood on the 50 yard line of Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois just before the opening kickoff and soaked in the sights and sounds of college football. It was near 130 degrees on the turf that day, but it was still a marvelous atmosphere. I had earlier delivered a chapel talk from Nehemiah chapter 6 and challenged our players to compete like this wise and powerful leader of Israel. I had spoken and prayed with my colleagues who serve our opponent and enjoyed marvelous fellowship with them. Our team fell just short of a comeback win, but showed great heart and perseverance. The three hour bus ride home was quiet, but full of hope for the future.
Last night I attended a local high school football game. One of the players who came through our university, through our ministry and whose wedding I officiated, is the head coach in his first job. He has inherited a program which has four wins in the last seven years. Given his schedule and his team, finding a win in this season and changing the culture of the program will be a major undertaking. We celebrated the simplest of accomplishments with the gathered friends and family. First downs, defensive stops, a score, tackles for loss, and completed passes were each and all greeted with shouts and applause. After the 48-6 loss was complete, I sent him an encouraging text message and he confessed that this is the hardest thing he’s ever done and really has no answers for his players. I simply affirmed that he’s doing the right things, that he should remain committed to the process, and must continue to be a transformational coach. He is making a difference, it’s just hard to see the results on the scoreboard.
As I sit here this morning, I’m anticipating another game day with another strong opponent for our college football team. I have a coaching friend coming in for today’s game day chapel talk and I can’t wait to again experience the sights, sounds, aromas, and emotions of sport. I fully embrace the rich opportunity that is mine to love God, to love sport, and the people who live in sport. Please join me in this passionate pursuit of God’s purposes for those of us who are so gifted.