“Huddle Up!” With Sports Ministry Chaplains in the CMA.
By Jonathan Moll, Chaplain, Calgary
Huddle Up! You may associate this phrase with football or even the TSN panel during CFL Football games. There is another huddle prior to and after football and hockey games in Canada. These ones are led by sports Chaplains like Rodd Sawatzky, Brent Kassian and Maurice (Moe) Gillard. Chaplains (from medieval Latin word capellanus) brought church to people serving in the military or in hospitals in medieval Europe. Sports chaplains have a special teams role in ministry. They are pastors for players who are engaged in sports and because of their schedules and commitments are unable to attend their own church. They are small group leaders, who mentor young men and women that are often far from home or families and feel isolated and are under pressure to perform at high levels. The athletes greatly benefit from someone who will journey alongside of them, be present with them, encourage them when they are injured, pray for them and counsel them in life skills. They are ministers going out into the world of sports and taking the gospel to their teams.
Rodd has been associated with Athletes in Action for 25 years this coming April. Through this ministry he serves as team chaplain for the Calgary Stampeders (12th season), Calgary Flames (8th season) and Calgary Roughnecks (7th Season). Rodd was involved in varsity basketball as a coach at the University of Regina and Briercrest BibleCollege and in sports administration. Because of his sports background, he felt he could relate to the challenges athletes face when they are away from their faith communities, families. Sometimes he connects to athletes through a pregame bible study. Sometimes he supports them when athletes and their families face a trauma such as a career threatening injury or loss of a family member. When they are injured they wonder not only what this means for their career in sports but their identity in life as men and women. Rodd recognizes an ache for the Father’s (God’s) love in the lives of athletes.
Rodd has a tremendous compassion for meeting people in these vulnerable places. He mentors those who want to develop their faith and pursue discipleship. He provides support for those who feel the extra pressures placed on athletes to perform or to appear that everything in their life is good. He finds that some face unprecedented sexual pressure, some feel alone in a crowd of others who want to be around them and because of this they have difficulty identifying who they can trust.
Rodd has a very personal approach to meeting these men and women where they are at. They are not just athletes. They are people journeying through intense challenges in life. “You have to love them, understand their world, encourage them, befriend them, look them in the eye and identify with the pain and bewilderment they feel when they blow out a knee and feel as though their life as they know it is over.” Rod recounts 2 Corinthians 5:3 which motivates him to love others because he so intensely and passionately feels God’s love in him. He has a desire to be excellent in his faith and this connects with athletes who pursue excellence in ministry and faith. Rodd reflected, “I love what I do. I love the people. When I am ‘working’ I feel that I was made for this.”
Brent Kassian has been the chaplain to the Edmonton Eskimo Football Club for eighteen seasons and, like Rodd, is an associate staff member of Athletes in Action, Canada. He also serves as the chaplain to the Edmonton Eddies Pro NASL soccer team. He was previously the chaplain to the Edmonton Roadrunners of the American Hockey League (AHL). He has served as a community pastor and works in the field of rehabilitation and sports medicine at Capilano Rehab Centre in Edmonton. Brent is also a former Provincial Champion and Canadian Intercollegiate Medalist in track and field. While Brent grew up in a prominent hockey sports family and had been involved in active campus ministry at the University of Alberta, he had never intentionally considered a role as a chaplain. However, when approached by Athletes in Action (Power to Change), and through prayerful consideration, he became involved with the Edmonton Eskimos and transitioned to sports chaplaincy ministry.
Brent finds his role to be exciting and challenging. In addition to weekly chaplaincy duties, Brent occasionally intervenes in bereavement and crisis situations. He also offers Prepare and Enrich marriage counseling, performs ceremonies, comes alongside team members, and coaches with personal mentoring. Mentoring is the most significant interaction he has with the team members who are often in transition. Brent believes that while our current culture may be defined as a ‘transaction culture,’ where a person’s worth is too often seen as only as good as their last interview or last shift, Christ offers a ‘transformation culture,’ where individuals can see themselves beyond their identity as athletes. He recalls Romans 12:1-2 as his motivation for helping people envision what God will do through them; not only through sports, which is finite, but equipping them for victory beyond competition.
Affectionately known to his teams as “Chappy,” his passion is making disciples.. He regularly witnesses the Holy Spirit breaking through into men’s lives whether through a weekly Bible study, pre-game chapel at Commonwealth stadium, small group mentoring, or in individual connections. He is committed to long term relationships with the athletes he has served. Brent shared about a recent experience when a former football player showed up in Edmonton, three years later, and thanked Brent for being an important influence in his life after sports. The former player now has a new direction and is pursuing post-graduate Old Testament Greek Septuagintal studies and international ministry opportunities. Brent recognized leadership and ministry potential in him before the athlete fully saw it in himself.
Rodd and Brent acknowledge that football and faith were more integrated than hockey and faith. There was a stronger presence in the U.S. College program, such as Yale Divinity School, to integrate the two. Hockey was seen as a no man’s land: faith was not part of the story.
Moe is passionate to take church to the hockey rink. Players now have practice instead of Church on Sunday mornings and they miss the spiritual part of their lives. Moe has been involved with Hockey Ministries International for the last 11 years. He moved to St. Catharines to be on the pastoral team at the Westburne Alliance Church at the same time that the Niagara Icedogs had been sold and moved to St. Catharines. Through a meeting with Hockey Ministries International, and the team’s general manager, he was invited to lead the chapel program for the team. It was hit and miss at first, with several times no one showing up for chapel.
Moe said a turning point occurred when the owner’s father passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer and he supported the family. On another occasion, the captain of a different team died suddenly and the team owners asked him to speak and pray with the team. Moe supported the teams and families in their grief and suffering. Moe is recognized as the team player liaison. The Ontario Hockey League and the team want to ensure that when someone is struggling, a person like Moe is available to meet with that individual. Each year at the team’s “Meet and Greet” with the new draft picks, Moe is invited by the Icedogs management to speak to the players and parents about what the chapel program is all about. A typical chapel will see the players meet in the team room after practice on a designated day. The team provides pizza, the players take part in some hockey trivia, and the chapel concludes with a devotional and a time of prayer. The devotionals focus on life lessons from the bible addressing topics like unity, dealing with adversity and making choices. Moe is present for the team, players and management, to listen and encourage them and, at times, to pray with them as they deal with the pressures of life. Sometimes he has players ask him questions like, “My uncle says science proves there is no God. What do you say about that?” Moe has been able to develop a bond of trust with the players, their families, the coaching and front office staff.
Now through the support of Hockey Ministries International, twenty-two NHL teams have chaplain support and sixteen of twenty Ontario Hockey League teams. Sports Chaplaincy is growing in Canada and this trend continues to gain momentum in other countries such as Australia where they have mandated chaplains for sports. Moe says, “ I love hockey. God has allowed me to be there for these kids who are quickly growing to be young men.” Whether it is in times of grief, injury, slumps in their games, or finding out they have been traded, Moe has been given the opportunity to encourage the players. As Moe begins off each year he shares with the players that “We all love hockey but life is bigger than hockey.” Moe cites Luke 2:52 and shares with the players that Jesus grew physically, intellectually, spiritually and socially. In chapel they are going to be challenged to look at their spiritual life.
There is a saying in sports, “defense wins championships” but there is a common trait Rodd, Brent and Moe exhibit. All three go on the offense in their ministry. They go out into the arena or stadium locker room to the heart of the issues their teams face. They bring church to the people. They live out the great commission with hearts full of love, compassion and empathy for the athletes, administrators and families they serve. They are called to excellence in faith and in athletics. As Brent encourages, “Everyday is an audition – Let’s make this count for glory”