Did you know that Manchester United has a chaplain? As do many teams in the UK, including rugby union, rugby league, cricket, athletics, and horse-racing in addition to football.
A chaplain is usually an ordained priest who serves a group of people who aren’t organised as a church, on a range of issues such as stress, change and uncertainty. And there’s certainly plenty of that in the world of sport!
In the UK, a registered charity called SCORE provides chaplaincy services to sport, including major events (for example, the 2000 World Rugby League Finals, the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games).
Currently, about 70 British football clubs have a chaplain, and a person above them is employed by SCORE to support, train, and encourage chaplains in any of the 92 clubs in the professional English League. Much of the funding for that post comes from the Professional Footballers' Association, the Premier League and the Football League Trust—who must think chaplaincy is important, or they wouldn’t want to pay for it!
According to an article in the Independent newspaper, 25 years ago there were just two or three such chaplains. “But the Heysel Stadium and Hillsborough tragedies in the Eighties left some players and fans looking outside football for answers to more important questions. Corruption, drugs and violence on and off the pitch have left the game's reputation damaged. The Premier League is tackling football's problems partly by encouraging teams to appoint pastors.”
Jack Charlton, who was a popular manager of the Republic of Ireland's national squad, was instrumental in helping to promote club chaplains. As a player he pushed for one at Leeds and as a manager he initiated a chaplaincy at Sheffield Wednesday. When he took the Irish team to the World Cup, a chaplain had to be part of the team.
So what does a sports chaplain do?
- They get to know the athletes and staff, developing relationships and building trust
- They share the experience of events such as training, matches and socials
- They care for the athletes, staff and their families on a day-to-day basis and support them through life events such as injury, bereavement and retirement
- They assist with the personal development of younger athletes, and offer advice on the preparation for life after sport
- They help to mark or celebrate the highs and lows of life, including special occasions or seasonal events such as services for Remembrance Day and Christmas
- They provide a vital link with the community
- They assist clubs and teams with safety and disaster procedures, and write articles for programmes, newsletters, etc.
- Whilst chaplains are motivated by their faith, they are available to all people irrespective of faith convictions. They do not impose their beliefs on others.
However, it must be said that divine intervention on results is not part of the chaplain's role!
It may be surprising to know that Premier League football clubs have a Christian priest among them, serving and caring for them. But clearly they think it’s important—and it’s a growing field. The need for the love of Christ is everywhere.