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Community and sport: Chaplaincy in modern sport

Sports Chaplaincy UK is celebrating its 25th birthday this year. CEO Warren Evans spoke to Sports Management about the rapid growth the organisation has experienced recently

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 30 May 2016 issue 121
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Warren Evans, CEO of Sports Chaplaincy UK
Warren Evans, CEO of Sports Chaplaincy UK

he adage about having two ears and one mouth works well as far as chaplaincy is concerned,” says Warren Evans, CEO of Sports Chaplaincy UK. “All good chaplains are great listeners and realise their work is not about them but about the individual they’re supporting.”

The number of sports chaplains – independent volunteers not directly employed by the club – is growing rapidly in the UK. Seventy two of the English Football League’s 92 clubs now have one. In Scotland, 38 out of 42 professional clubs work with one. Evans estimates that in the past five years, the number of sports chaplains has increased from 140 to around 400. “I should know, I’ve trained 250 of them”, he says.

SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE
The growth might seem surprising, considering the well-documented decline in people describing themselves as “religious”. According to the latest census figures, the number of people who identify themselves as Christian fell from 72 per cent in 2001 to just 59 per cent in 2011. The increasing popularity of chaplains is, however, less surprising, when you consider the unique role they play in the changing landscape of sport.

“In sport, it’s only become acceptable to talk about issues around mental health and depression in the last three to five years,”  Evans says. “This is especially true in the sports which are considered ‘masculine’, such as football and rugby. We’re there to help, encourage, listen, be empathetic – all those great things which are really hard to quantify.

“To have someone at the club – but not directly linked with the club – who players can trust and who is able to listen and be supportive has become increasingly important in the new landscape where issues are tackled rather than hidden.”

Evans adds that each club chaplain will have the tools to identify and help those who might need further, professional help. “Each chaplain will bring with them a vast range of skills and knowledge and individual experience,” he says.

“Each receives safeguarding training and they will have an understanding of mental health. If they recognise a significant issue, they will signpost the individual to the NGB, direct them to an organisation such as State of Mind or Sporting Chance – or refer them to a medical professional.”

PUTTING GOD IN THE SQUAD
While chaplaincy, by its very definition, has its roots in religion – and Christianity particularly – the guidance and support offered by sports chaplains is less so. “We’re obviously a Christian organisation but we serve people of all faith and no faith,” Evans says.

“I think the service we provide is best described as being pastorally proactive and spiritually reactive.”

The work of chaplains is primarily aimed at the care and welfare of players and staff but also at the wider community of people within the club, including supporters and families of players and staff. The results achieved by active chaplains can be transformative.

“There is no doubt that chaplains perform a very valuable service at clubs,” says Jim Cumbes, a former professional footballer and long-serving CEO of Lancashire County Cricket Club.

“For players, the chaplain almost acts as a mentor. With the rest of the staff, chaplains offer real support for those who have suffered bereavement or just need someone to talk to. In today’s helter-skelter world, a voice of calmness can be inspiring and invigorating.”

One of the biggest advocates of sports chaplaincy is Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary former manager of Manchester United. “Chaplains can be of help to all sorts of people involved with sport, when crisis, need or difficulty comes,” Ferguson says. “Ever since our chaplain, John Boyers, first got involved with Manchester United in September 1992, I became more aware of Sports Chaplaincy UK and its work.

“I’ve been glad to see its influence extending across the UK and to a wider range of sports – especially to Scottish Football and to horse racing.”

INTO THE COMMUNITY
Most professional sports clubs across the big four team sports (football, cricket and two codes of rugby) now have a chaplain available. Evans says that high-profile advocates such as Sir Alex and former New Zealand rugby league star and current Bradford Bulls CEO Robert Hunter-Paul have been instrumental in spreading the good word for chaplaincy. The latter has contributed – through banging the drum – to more than 80 per cent of rugby league clubs now having a chaplain available for players and staff.

For Evans, though, the work is far from done. He says his eyes are now cast across to grassroots sport. “Professional clubs having a chaplain has given the system credibility,” Evans says. “We now plan to build on that and we’ve got a real desire to encourage clubs at grassroots level to look at the benefits of chaplaincy.”

He adds that there are a number of entry points to how clubs can secure a chaplain. “If a club comes to us wanting a chaplain, we’d actively help them find one.

“We also train and equip people who want to be sports chaplains and when they come to us, we encourage them to find a club they want to help and begin the process from there.”

Evans has an ambitious goal. “There are 151,000 sports clubs out there, so it might take a while.”

“The A to G of chaplaincy”

A. Acquaintance
The club chaplain seeks to develop natural relationships and to build trust with the players and staff through regular, natural interaction.

B. Being
The chaplain is there for games and club events, sharing the experiences allowing for opportunities to connect with players, staff, families and supporters.

C. Caring
Caring for people connected with the club focuses on supporting them through life’s events (injury, bereavement, retirement), caring for them through the normal treatment and rehabilitation process, including hospital visitation.

D. Development
With the number of young adults involved in sport, it is important to provide for their personal development. The provision of life-skills training, help with integration into the wider community and advice on the preparation of “life after sport” are areas where the chaplain can add value.

E. Events
Chaplains will also engage to reflect the highs as well as the lows of people’s lives in  celebrating life. This may involve the chaplain in special occasions such as weddings, christenings, or birthdays.

F. Formality
In a more formal capacity the chaplain can provide a vital and recognisable link with the community. As well as church services in which chaplains are involved on the club’s behalf, they can also assist the club with safety and disaster procedures, write articles for the club’s programme etc.

G. God
Chaplains are motivated by a real and dynamic christian faith, but they are available to all people irrespective of faith convictions.

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