Praying in the Boot Room (Part 1)

Getting sprayed with beer in the dressing room and dancing with the players after a big cup win over a Premier League Team. Praying in the boot cupboard before a match with a new believer in only his shorts and shin pads. Being approached by the chairman at half time in a game and asked to pray harder, only to be thanked after 90 minutes and a last-minute winner. Praying and prophesying over a weeping manager who has just been sacked after a run of bad results …all in a normal week’s work for an ordinary church pastor who is also the club chaplain at the local professional football club!

No, I’d never heard of sports chaplaincy either, until I was asked by another minister in the town if I would fill the voluntary vacancy at League Two Crawley Town Football Club. I connected with the Sports Chaplaincy UK charity and discovered that around 75 of the professional football clubs in England have chaplains serving them, and now chaplaincy is opening up in non-elite sports of all kinds and even local gyms. Wherever there is a community around sport, there is an opportunity to serve people, many of whom (often because of their sporting commitments) have no real connection with church life or the gospel.

As a church, we’d been praying and encouraging people to get involved in the town, to serve, to bless, to engage in activities, clubs or charities where they had a passion. My wife Caz and I had moved to lead the team at Crawley Community Church and had no roots or friends outside of the church. We were past the stage of meeting parents at the school gate, and so we’d been praying for a chance to make friends. I love football, and I love Jesus – the sports chaplain role seemed like the perfect combination!

I’m at the club by invitation, to serve anyone – people with faith, without faith, or with a different faith to my own. To encourage, build trust, to offer what we would call pastoral care around the club. The training from Sports Chaplaincy UK has been fantastic, and the accreditation and support from them and the Professional Footballers’ Association is invaluable.

I’ve been fortunate to have an open door from the last two management teams, who have asked me to have lunch with the team at the training ground once a week and to be present for those who want to talk, pray with anyone who wants to, and bring some encouragement that’s outside the normal realm of football management. I’m sure some of the players think I’m a life coach or a sports psychologist, but most of them call me ‘Vicar’ or ‘Rev’, and it’s a privilege to share their confidences on family life, relationships, injuries and anxieties over new contracts.

Some of the players are young men who have come on loan from bigger clubs, far from home, without any of the support structure of family life, and so a lot of the conversations and care seem more like parenting. Every week I find myself in the middle of amazing conversations and there are always questions about faith and what the Bible says. It’s a very direct and plain-speaking environment around sports changing rooms, so you have to be quick on your feet, ready to speak and not easily embarrassed!

It’s great to have such access to the players and coaching team, but these guys come and go on contracts, with few connections to Crawley. So it’s a thrill to also serve the staff and volunteers around the club who are all local people and, like us, really care about the town.

I look forward to sharing some exciting stories of what God’s doing at Crawley Town FC in part 2!