Pastoring the pros: Two Briercrest alumni are chaplains for professional sports teams

Posted: August 13, 2012

Professional athletes often appear tough, and able to take care of themselves. Briercrest alumni Rodd Sawatzky and Barret Kropf know first-hand that these athletes need support like everyone else, and they’ve made taking care of these needs part of their life’s work.

Both men are chaplains for professional teams. Kropf is chaplain for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Sawatzky is chaplain for Calgary’s three professional teams – the Stampeders, the Flames, and the Roughnecks.

“I love so much of what I do,” Sawatzky exclaimed. “Some (athletes) are just getting feet in their faith walk, and they need mentorship in this process. These athletes are men of influence, so if they become godly men, they have huge kingdom impact. It’s pretty exciting.”

“The biggest thing is just being able to provide a faith adventure challenge for the guys,” Kropf said. “For the most part the majority of the guys in the locker room have had some sort of church experience. But as chaplain I think it’s our role to give them more than a touch of what church might be and to dive deeper into what faith looks like.”

Both chaplains followed childhood dreams into their current jobs.

“I always wanted to do Athletes in Action ministry,” Sawatzky said. “I used to go to camp and thought the coaches were pretty cool, so I thought, ‘You know what? That would be a great job and ministry.’”

“I grew up and played junior hockey and never had a chapel program,” Kropf stated. “I knew that was something I wanted to help other athletes understand – that they could have their faith with their athletic performance.”

Providing this spiritual leadership is a full-time job. Both men work with Athletes in Action (AIA), and raise their own support each year.

“The genesis of chapels in the Canadian Football League (CFL) has always been player initiated – right from the mid-seventies all the way through until now” Kropf explained. “It’s always been something the players have wanted. Because the players want it, management has allowed it.”

Sawatzky says he has a wonderful working relationship with the general managers of all three teams and is grateful for the amount of favour they have given him. He is at almost every home game and often travels with the teams. He is regularly found on the sidelines with his team.

“There’s been a real acceptance of the head coaches on each team of what I do,” he said.

During the season both chaplains lead several worship/chapel services for team members.

“Every week with football and lacrosse I have a pre-game chapel with my team as well as one with the opposing football team,” Sawatzky said. “I have a mid-week Bible study with each of the three teams during the season.”

Because of unique challenges the players face, these chapels can often be a spiritual lifeline for those who want to grow in their Christian faith.

“Sometimes when (professional athletes) go to a normal four-walled church on a Sunday, what happens there is they end up being worshipped,” Kropf explained. “They still try to get out and fellowship at a home church but. . . we try to create that environment in the mid-week service so they can just kind of abandonedly worship the Lord.”

The attendance level at the chapels indicates that Sawatzky and Kropf are providing a valuable service.

“More than half the athletes on each team are involved in some way,” Sawatzky said.

“We’ve always relied on our key leaders,” Kropf said explaining how athletes begin coming to chapels and special services. “If you’ve got five key leaders you can usually expect to see about 15 guys out for Bible study. Those numbers are fairly consistent through my years. . . It’s just helping (the athletes) be a better witness in the locker room and helping their faith adventure be one that’s multiplication-minded.”

Aside from leading the chapels and worship services, both men provide a pastoral presence for the teams as they need it.

Sawatzky admits that being chaplain for three teams this last year was “very intense.”

“I do tons of crisis and relationship counselling and lots of life coaching,” he said. “I am privileged to have one-to-one discipleship with several key athletes whose faith walk is more solid. I am invited into many of the highs and lows of sport and life with the athletes, support staff and their families. I am a pastor to the entire organization of each team.”

Kropf is quick to name the aspect of his work that brings him great fulfillment.

“The one-on-one and the mentoring,” he said. “Being able to see the guys grow in their faith.”