As the Calgary Stampeders prepare for their annual Labour Day Classic against their CFL rivals from Edmonton, team chaplain Rodd Sawatzky’s role is to help the team’s strong cohort of Christian players remember true victory is in Christ. The director of pro ministries for Athletes in Action spoke recently with Convivium’s Peter Stockland.
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Peter Stockland: Rodd, you’re the chaplain for both of Calgary’s professional sports teams, the Flames in the NHL and the Stampeders in the CFL. That must be pretty hectic, especially when the hockey and football seasons overlap. How do you manage that, and how did you manage to take on the two roles in very different games?
Rodd Sawatzky: My life is hectic, but that's okay. I’ve got a pretty high motor. With the Stamps, I've been there 13 years, and I travel with them. I'm at most practices. The integration with the team is really deep and welcomed. There's a lot of hours with the Stamps.
With the Flames, they're on the road a lot. They're probably away about 60 per cent of the time. There are generally two chapels a month with the Flames so most of my work there is individual discipleship, mentorship, counseling, just walking with the individual players and doing what I can with staff and coaches and management.
Peter Stockland: Do you also somehow balance a ministry outside of your work with the teams?
Rodd Sawatzky: I'm full-time with Athletes in Action. I was also the chaplain with the Calgary Roughnecks lacrosse team, but I handed it to someone part way through this season. I'm now the director of Pro Ministries for Athletes in Action as well, which means I oversee all the professional chaplains of professional sports teams that Athletes In Action has (in Canada). I don't have any official other (ministry) role outside of sports, but I preach at churches, do evangelism at conferences, and counseling in my neighborhood. I'm sort of a constant in-ministry mode guy, but my chaplaincy is my work.
PS: Did you come to chaplaincy through sport or did you come to sport through chaplaincy?
RS: They merged, really. Growing up, in grade 10, I started to play basketball, and I ended up going to an Athletes in Action camp. That was my connection to Athletes in Action. I thought these guys that played basketball and did ministry through basketball were the greatest example of cool Christians. They were great athletes, socially apt, amazing people that loved Jesus and used basketball. I thought, "Oh man, that's what I want to do."
My goal was to play for Athletes in Action some day because I had a real faith, and I had fallen passionately in love with basketball. I thankfully had the opportunity, and after graduation ended up at Briercrest Bible College for four years. I played three there. Then I played basketball at the University of Regina. In that process through my connections with AIA, I traveled to over 30 countries playing basketball, coaching, running clinics. I'm a shooting instructor for high end basketball players.
Right now I'm coaching grade nine girls at Trinity Christian School, and loving it. I just love to pour into that culture and see God transform kids using sports culture and coaching influence to let Him really move these kids to good self-worth and identity.
My sport was a passion and I have always been a guy who shares my faith. I don't enjoy saying this, but I am an evangelist at heart. I can't help myself. The word has so much weight and can be ugly for some people. I wish there was a cooler word, but I've been a guy who has helped people, counseled people, led people to Christ, from when I was 14 or 15, and it just grew more and more.
I ended up going on a tour with Athletes in Action to the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia at the time) in 1990. I got married that year. I was doing other jobs working hard, providing for my new marriage. My wife was in school.
At every job site there would be people coming to Christ, sometimes daily. All my friends would say, "You're not going to be in your sweet spot until you're in full-time ministry." So, eventually I joined AIA and worked at University of Calgary for seven years with the sports teams there just being, for lack of a better word, a missionary. I don't like that word either. A lot of people will read that word and see, "Proselytizing guy." What I mean by it is that I go involved with the U of C culture. I was doing pre-game chapel and, yes, lots of athletes would come to Christ. We would put on events that were super beneficial to the athletic department: pre-game parties and healthy family endeavors. We were pouring into the athletes in such a way that the athletic department loved what we were about. We were value added times a lot and being liked.
After seven years with that, I moved to Regina. We were there from 2000 to the spring of 2006. I was an assistant coach with University of Regina in basketball. Then I was the [CFL Saskatchewan Rough] Riders’ chaplain for three years, before being asked to come back to Calgary. I started with the Stamps. Five years into that, I was asked to do the Flames' chaplaincy.
PS: I’m intrigued by your uneasiness with the connotations of the words 'evangelizing' and “missionary.” They’re often seen as meaning someone who is trying to force conversion rather than opening conversation that allows God to bring about conversion, aren’t they?
RS: I totally agree. The bizarre thing in my world is that it [conversion] is freakishly frequent. I'm just having those conversations and people are making a real step into faith in Christ and being transformed and plugging into a church. God is so gracious. He uses a donkey. I've seen that's how he teaches me to speak. The harvest, the work of transformation around me has been at a level that doesn't make any sense. I pray that it continues.
PS: I’ve been reading lately about what sports psychologists call “mindset” training, and I’m wondering whether what you do takes that to the next level, to the spiritual level that says, “This isn’t even just about the game anymore. This is about where you’re going to be for Eternity.”
RS: I think it's so in several ways. First of all, I have this incredible privilege to be invited into these situations with athletes and coaches. They have given me such a privilege to be in this culture. I'm humbled by their willingness to let me even be part of the team.
My attitude is one of incredible respect and honour for these guys who are willing to let me be around. I do a regular weekly Bible study. Our attendance is through the roof. You can't believe how many guys come. I've also got a weekly pre-game chapel that I do. Because I travel with the team, I do one on the road as well as one at home.
The power is it makes me a kind of father figure for most of these guys. I'm a friend and a counselor, a trustworthy ear and support. When I'm dealing with the spiritual things, what happens is because I was an athlete, because I am a coach, because I love people and I'm clear on the critical Christian mindset character, what Christ called us to be and live and understand and hold to be true, all of that melds into conversations that start to address what you're asking about.
Take the characteristics of a champion. You start by asking what are the things that make a consistent champion? There’s confidence. But where does that come from? Where spiritually does that confidence come from? If you're religious and you're trying to earn God's favor, you're in trouble because Christ pays it all. Suddenly, on the spiritual level, you have this confidence that you are saved because of that.
Teamwork? Well, if that isn't a Christian perspective, living in a community, I don’t know what is. How are you a team if you don’t work together as a community does? As Christian community, how do we love on each other and play our role in the church? So football becomes the perfect microcosm of Christian culture. We're called to focus. We have a mindset that says to us, "Rest." But in pro sport, here’s the biggest thing that takes it to the next, as you say spiritual, level.
Pro athletes have been told that they are what they do. Their identity is 100 per cent based on their effort on the ice, on the field, on the court. It glorifies them as little mini gods. The problem is they're insecure. If your identity is fully on what you do, then the pressure is through the roof. What have I done for the team lately? If I've been great, can I be great tomorrow? If I haven't been great, am I going to get cut? What happens if I get injured? What happens at the end of my career? What happens if I don't perform on this particular play? There’s the whole pressure that says it's actually you who's the loser if you lose, that you will have no identity when your career is finished, or even that you've been rejected if you get cut from a team.
Obviously, pros can play at that level, but the intensity of the pressure, and how they try to numb the pain and distract themselves, is what can make things so difficult. A really healthy person is able to go, "No, that's not my identity." A Christian would say, "I'm a child of God who happens to play football, and I want to be the very best football player I can to bring God glory and honour with the gifts that he's given me and the opportunities he's given me and the health he's given me. At the end of the day if I get cut or I get injured or my career ends, I'm still a child of God. I'm still loved by my father. I still have purpose. I still live in community. I'm still called to be a leader. There's so much more to who I am. It lets you turn off the noise that says your identity is, in fact, in what you do.
PS: So it makes a huge difference to athletes, even professional athletes, to be able to see themselves as the image of God, carried in the world? It makes a difference to their ability to let go of the pressure?
RS: To be free to be their best. To be courageous. Absolutely. The mindset thing, that’s for sports psychologists who bring guys in to help them understand their own thinking processes more clearly, and so help them perform better. But there's no greater truth of understanding yourself and your mindset than Scripture and the example of Christ. We can learn so much from what God's Word says about it.
PS: And I guess to be reminded that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All have all have fumbled or missed an assignment
PS: How many of the players that you walk with have come from strong faith backgrounds that might have flagged or been in a bit peril and returned to it? How many of them come seeking something they’ve perhaps heard about but don’t really know?
RS: Most of the American players have some church history. Their mom, their grandma, their auntie generally took them to church until they were 12 or 13 and got into sport. Most of them have a real faith and yet almost all of those have really struggled in following with a real passionate clear heart. Through the college years, they kind of lose their way. Not all of them, but most of them. There's certainly this deep faith in God. There are no atheists in the foxhole, so think about football where your next hit could end your career or your ability to walk, or even your life if it's a really bad hit. There's a sense of God for almost all of them.
The deeper thing is the confusion. I had a player come to me and just say, "I'm totally lost. I don't know what to do with my life." He'd never been to a Bible study until he got to the Stamps. He came along with his roommate. Then he came to chapel. He liked me. I mean, the next thing you know, he wants to know who this Jesus guy is. I share that with him. He gives his life to Christ, and he goes, "This makes sense to me. This gives me peace. I understand. This is true, and I need to figure this out."
I've had tons of guys who have known it but didn't know how to put it into practice. How do I live my faith in sport? How do I live my faith while I'm in another country? All people want to belong. I believe all people have the sense of God. All people have the sense of needing a relationship with God, whether they know how to get there, whether or not they've seen it in reality. Some have been hurt by a religious experience versus a relationship with Christ. And there is all kinds of media that says don't explore this because here are the bad things that Christians or religious people are doing. But the reality is that in your soul you want to know who God is. You realize it. Given an opportunity where there are people that are trustworthy to talk to, people want to have those conversations.
PS: How does outside expectation or judgment affect that process? Remember when Tim Tebow was name in the news people were saying, "Well, it's ridiculous. Both teams are praying to God to win. What's God supposed to do? Is God going to make them both win?" It was that mocking, snide treatment of faith. How can athletes who are committed to faith deal with that ridicule of being faithful and athletes at the same time?
RS: Well, to be a pro athlete makes you uncommon. You have made choices and sacrifices. You’re obviously are talented, and you have chosen to commit yourself way beyond the level of other people. You've chosen to work out when you don't want to, to feel the pain, to go through injury and survive, to persevere through all kinds of difficulty. Already a pro athlete knows an awful lot of what it means to be uncommon, to stand alone in some manner. They're used to being ridiculed. Not just for their faith, but the trash talk, the jealous kids in junior high. Anyone who's in the public eye that gets praised is also going to get ridicule. There's no end of critics.
So the pro athlete has an advantage in that he has learned that if he thinks it's the right thing, he should just do what needs to be done to get where he wants to go. I like that in pro athletes. All people are affected by negative pressure. All people. We all want to belong. We don't want people to not like us. I'm not on social media, but we're seeing the damage of posting something and having people attack it. We see the hurt that people feel.
But when you know something is true, and when you've chosen to go somewhere, as a pro athlete, you’ll do everything you can to get there. So athletes of faith are willing to say, "Christ matters to me. My faith matters to me.” If you come into a community, it's like being in a family. If you have a healthy family, even if your family gets mocked, you stand together.
If you've got healthy relationships with other players that have faith, if you have a healthy relationship with your chaplain, if you have a sense of belonging, even if you're a fringe guy but you see that the basic Christian thought is giving you peace before the game or after the game, that's what strengthens you. Your own personal faith, but also the community of faith that strengthens you to go, "No, this matters more to me. This a far greater truth to me than any fear of people mocking me." No one wants to be mocked, but if you believe what you believe, you're going to stand in there. I think that the pro athlete has, in some ways, a thicker skin.
PS: You used the word sacrifice. Obviously, it's a very appropriate word to use in a Christian context. Yet, at the same time you're dealing with folks who, by virtue of what they do, have got to have very healthy egos. If you're going to line up across from somebody, you'd better believe that you're capable of beating them.
RS: Without question. Without question.
PS: So how do you help them strike a balance between that naturally healthy competitive sense of “I can do this, I got this,” – the willingness to make the physical sacrifices you alluded to – but also an immersion in the greatest sacrifice of all: the sacrifice of our Lord's life for us as sinners. How do you bridge those without tipping the balance?
RS: I'll tell you how this rolls out of my mind. First of all, the greatest way to be humble, which we're called to, is to just have a clear picture of who God is and quite frankly what Christ has done for you. As long as that's front and center, you'll always be humble. You're not a self-made anything. Christ has forgiven you. God has created you. Your standing before God is a gift. If you start there, you're going to be humble in everything you do. But we're also called to be excellent. Through all of Scripture, God wants the perfect sacrifice. If you give him a lamb, he wants the best. Bring your first fruits. There's this call to take everything that God has given you and use it well and bring him glory.
Line up what have you been called to do. Colossians 3:22, “whatever your hand find to do, do it with all your might like you're doing it for God, not for man.” What I'm called to at this moment beyond being Christ's ambassador is to be the very best blocker, the very best pass rusher, the very best route runner, the very best running back or line backer. This call, this play, whatever I've been asked by the team, I need to do this to the best of my ability and get up and do it again and get up and do it again. I need to have confidence that I can do it, but the glory goes to God. If you are clear in who God is, then humility and confidence stay in balance.
You believe you'll be able to do it. The sacrifice for your teammate comes in doing this hard thing, doing the unglorified thing. Then if you get glory, if you're the receiver that gets the 100-yard touchdown, obviously that feels great, so you put your hand up and the crowd goes crazy, well, it took the offensive line, it took a great throw from the quarterback, it took the running back who chipped in on the pass. You're aware of the sacrifice of others to get you the glory, to make the sacrifice that brought you praise. The humility/confidence thing, I think, is based on this: if you have a healthy walk with the Lord, you have it. You want to be like Christ, so you sacrifice for your teammates. You want to be like Christ, so you have confidence to do what he's called you to do by believing. That concept, I think, is a foundation of growth for the Christian athlete.
None of us doing it perfectly. Nobody. I mean, I was once a competitive athlete. Sadly I'm a competitive person. I still trip on that. The balance comes from walking in the Truth.
PS: Recently a friend of mine said after a race we’d run together, "One of the things that I so love about running is it's incarnate nature. It reminds you constantly that you're a body, that you are a physical being. It constantly reminds us that God’s creation is substantial. Substantive, real." Is an important part of helping players stay grounded in the faith a recognition that what they're doing, while it's considered a game, is actually the incarnation of Christian faith? That the physical of sport is a real thing, just as our Lord was really here on Earth and walked among us, doing real, physical things.
RS: All things are spiritual. And we all use our bodies. There is something powerful about what is physically real. We have a growing fantasy world that is taking us out of reality. Video games, social media, computers everything. There is something super healthy about just moving your body, sweating, making contact...
So, for professional athletes, yes, there’s the physically real part of what is also just a game. But it's what they are gifted in. They love to do it. People are passionate about sport. For those doing it, it's very real. There is this value of being fully alive.
A mentor of mine once said that when people are doing what they're most passionate about, that's when they're closest to God. I think there is something about being physically, emotionally, mentally focused on whatever it is that you're doing. And when your body is in motion and you've been gifted to do it, I do think you have a deep sense of God, that this physical joy leads you to worship. I really do.
The sad thing is we worship athletes and not the God who made those athletes. I think the athletes, when they're real and honest with themselves, when they lift their hands after they’ve scored a touchdown, they want to celebrate, it's a kind of worship, whether they realize it or not.
PS: And you as a chaplain help guide them to celebrate Christ, to raise their hands to God?
RS: In my job as a chaplain, I'm called to is to love these men as Christ would, to authentically step into their lives and be an authentic friend, a mentor, a guide. I think as Christians we're called to love whatever community we're in fully. We're to love all people, but the place that you can express that is in your circle of influence. I have this privilege of being with these guys. I truly love them and want the best for them, regardless of where they are on their faith journey. I pray for them and with them when I can.
It is a privilege to play that role and to watch these young guys excel on the field, but obviously for me the more when they get who Jesus is, when they feel forgiveness, when they... Maybe it's a hug at chapel that is the embodiment of God's hands and arms. When they understand that they're loved by God, that their identity is not in what they do, there's joy for me, but my calling is to be authentically loving. I think that's what I do. That's why I do what I do. It’s what I feel called to do.
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