Feb 09, 2015


6 Keys to Discipling Student-Athletes

FCA’s Roger Lipe shares keys to discipling student-athletes based on his 20+ years in ministry to people of sport.

Collegiate ministry leaders are often a little puzzled when they encounter student-athletes. They expect them to be just like other college students, but their lives in sport often present obstacles to their involvement in ministry events that are a great fit for the general population.

I have been serving student-athletes at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale for over twenty years. In that time, I have learned a lot about effectively engaging, serving, building relationships, and nurturing the faith of those in the sports community. I’d like to share six keys that I’ve found to discipling student-athletes:

1. Respect their time constraints. Being a student-athlete is like going to school full-time and working a full-time job, at the same time. They have practice six days a week, they often spend extra hours in voluntary work on the mental part of the game, they have to study just like any student, and they want to have a social life like any other student. Add in on-season travel, injury rehabilitation, off-season workouts, and mandatory community service projects and their lives are crowded and complex. The ministry point here is to respect the value of their free time. When we do events, I limit them to one hour. If they want to hang around longer, good, but if they need to get in and out, they are free. Be sure to ask lots of questions about their schedules and design your activities for them to fit their needs.

2. Embrace their sport’s culture. Too often, we in the Church tolerate sport culture and try to relate to student-athletes while firmly entrenched in our church culture. Sports people are not against Church culture, they just don’t understand it. They have lived in and are deeply immersed in their particular sport’s culture. Too many of my sport chaplain colleagues endure the culture of sport just to get to their opportunity to speak. Student-athletes and coaches can sense that distance and are hesitant to respond to those of such an attitude. The way to break through this issue is to heartily embrace the sport culture, warts and all, and thereby communicate unconditional acceptance to those who live therein. Beware the temptation to simply add sports clichés to your vocabulary. Poorly applied sports language raises the red flags of “phony,” “jock sniffer,” and “wannabe.” As we learn to speak their language, to fit into their schedules, and to understand their values, we are more able to serve and to speak effectively.

3. Communicate directly. Occasionally I will invite a local pastor to address our team in a pregame chapel. I give them a time frame to fit, a general idea of theme or topic, answer their questions, and then turn them loose. That usually goes fairly well, but occasionally it does not. The errors are usually a matter of not fitting sport culture or a clumsy importation of church culture into the sport setting. Sport is a culture of direct language. Time is always at a premium. Communication is always straight forward. There is no room for dropping hints, for being subtle, or for being overly artful in one’s speech. There is no need for elaborate introductions, for jokes, or for allegory. Speak directly with student-athletes. Get to the point. Ask direct questions. They will not take offense or find you pushy.

4. Demonstrate genuine interest in them, not just in the results of their competitions. For far too long the Church has been pleased to “use” sportspeople for their ministry ends and to trade on their celebrity status for institutional gain. Such a utilitarian attitude leads many student-athletes to keep the Church at arm’s length. When our first interaction with a student-athlete is to ask about the results of their most recent contest, their defenses go up immediately, especially if the results were less than good. To only ask about results or prospects for upcoming games is to diminish them as people. Ask questions about family, about school, about practice and teammates, or anything related to the process of being a college student-athlete. This demonstrates an understanding that he or she is more than an animal in a uniform. Love the student-athlete, not his or her celebrity.

5. Love extravagantly. People of sport are often less than lovable. Much of the life of a student-athlete is less than lovely. It often smells bad and sounds coarse. It requires extravagant love. It is not safe or convenient, and certainly is not normal. It is, however, very rewarding. When one invests deeply, loves big, and pays the price to care for student-athletes, they respond in faith with the same passion they bring to sport. It is dynamic and worth every moment.

6. Serve selflessly. Whereas student-athletes grow accustomed to people asking them to do things, we must be the ones to serve them with no thought of receiving anything in return. They find this both refreshing and endearing. This builds trust. This opens hearts. To perform the most menial tasks with and for them is a profound relationship builder. Serve without fanfare. Don’t take selfies with them and post it on line. Don’t ask for autographs, free tickets, or sideline privileges. That is the essence of selfishness and they find it repulsive. Give yourself away in helping them to life and you will find a loyal friend and an inquisitive heart.

Student-athletes are unique in a number of ways, but they are similar to others in that they are all positioned on a launching pad. They are all going somewhere and it only takes a persistent nudge from a loving, wise leader to eternally influence the trajectory of their lives. I would challenge you to lovingly, respectfully, and directly nudge the hearts of student-athletes on your campus toward a commitment to Christ and a lifetime of being transformed by His Spirit.

You can read more of Roger’s thoughts on sports ministry at his blog for sports chaplains and mentors. His books are available at many online retailers and through his publisher, Cross Training Publishing. You can also read his full bio by clicking here.

about the author

Roger Lipe

Roger is the Southern Illinois Representative for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He is also the author of several books including Free to Compete, Heart of a Champion, and Transforming Lives in Sport.