A recent conversation went something like this:
“What do you do?”
“I am a sports chaplain. I serve as chaplain for a professional football (soccer) team.”
“Is that a real thing?”
It’s not the first time that my current vocational calling as been brought into question. It’s a curiosity for many people — inside and outside of the church world. What is a sports chaplain? What does a sports chaplain do? Is it a real job? Are we legitimate?
Sometimes the questions come from a bit closer home. My daughters, asking, “Daddy, what’s your job?” “Where do you go when you go to work?” “Remember when we used to clean your office (at the church)?…That was a nice office.”
Or, sometimes the questions come from the people I serve — especially when I was a hospice chaplain. “What are you preaching this Sunday, Rev?” “Where’s your church?” “Are you a priest?”
And sometimes, maybe the more painful, the questions come from colleagues and other pastors. “Are you still working with that soccer team?” or “When do you think you will apply to be a senior pastor?” “Let me know when you want to come back and be a hospice chaplain.” “Hey, I heard such and such church is looking for a minister, you should consider applying…”
It’s nothing new. I have been serving the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer for over 15 years as a chaplain. The legitimacy of my role has always been, minimally, a curiosity. And many don’t understand — some think I am employed by the club. Some think that we are contracted by the leagues we serve. Most don’t have any idea what a chaplain is or what a chaplain does.
Professionally, sports chaplaincy is not recognized as a bona fide subclass of chaplaincy. There are few graduate programs. There is little in terms of academic research or writing. Few even carry designations of “board certified chaplain” or have graduate level-theological training. The typical organizations that endorse and maintain chaplaincy standards of proficiency don’t count sports chaplains amongst their number. But things are changing.
A recent article, Finding the right key: An examination of global sports chaplaincy credentialing models and their implications for credentialing sports chaplains in the United States* by Steven Waller, Lars Dzikus, Robin Hardin, and James Bemiller speaks to the changes that are on the horizon. Academic program development, certification tiers, and more — all with a view toward moving forward a legitimacy of sports chaplaincy as a profession. Global groups from New Zealand and Australia, as well as the UK, are pioneering efforts at sports chaplain training and development. The time is coming (and perhaps is now come) for the wide sports landscape in the United States to examine sports chaplaincy in similar ways.
Please, pray for us as we move forward in this conversation. Pray that we might discern the right next steps within the field of sports chaplaincy. Pray that we understand and embrace the nature of our legitimacy — for the sake of those we serve and for the sake of the kingdom of God.
*This article appeared in the journal Sports Chaplaincy: Trends, Issues, and Debates