MANCHESTER, ENGLAND (BP) — John Boyers’ gig as interfaith chaplaincy coordinator at the 2012 London Summer Olympics might seem overwhelming, if not for his normal digs.
His “office,” home of the Manchester United soccer club, is nicknamed the Theatre of Dreams. For 20 years, he’s rubbed shoulders with thousands who pay $25 each to tour Old Trafford, one of the world’s most visited stadiums. And that’s not counting game days, when 76,000 fans show up.
During the Olympics and Paralympics, Boyers will manage the deployment into the athletes’ village of 160 chaplains from five major world religions of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism.
On any given day, Boyers is a constant in a place of perpetual turnover, and he’ll tell you that’s just the way he likes it.
“Being sensitively present in people’s lives and being found trustworthy over time are so important,” said Boyers, chaplain for the 647 full-time staff members and players of Manchester United. “I come alongside people to be a supportive friend, providing spiritual and pastoral care when they need it.”
He doesn’t proselytize. He has his reasons.
“It’s different from being a chaplain in the United States,” Boyers said. “In English sports, a secular culture, people are suspicious of keen Christians.”
In England, opportunities for overt evangelism are restricted and a “hard sell” just doesn’t work well, he said.
“So chaplains are accepted by clubs as those who serve, offering pastoral and spiritual care sensitively to all people employed by a club,” Boyers said. “That’s the deal. If you don’t like the deal, don’t sign up.”
That means there are no organized prayer times before games or chapel services for players, but near Easter and Christmas he leads Bible studies for Christian staff. As for his regular weekly work, Boyers said, “I pray that the Lord will go before me, be with me and direct me, causing people to ask the questions which produce significant conversations.”
A number of players and staff dealing with problems, crises and life questions seek him out to talk. Others shake his hand in the hallway and know he’s there if they ever did decide to chat.
“At the heart of U.K. sports chaplaincy is one concept: trusting relationships,” Boyers said. “When people get to know you and trust you, they open up to you, often when they need help.”
Boyers invades their space on purpose, an effort he said staff and players value.
“Chaplaincy is incarnational ministry, what Jesus did to identify with us,” he said. “The church can’t hide behind its lovely windows and doors. It’s got to get out there into the wider world.
“It’s messy work, but if the incarnation of Jesus means anything to us, we have to identify with people as He did and meet them where they are.”
It was that truth that got Boyers out of the church and into chaplaincy in the first place, and motivated him to pilot the nation’s chaplaincy program on behalf of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. The program now has 230 chaplains of different Christian denominations placed in professional sports from soccer to horse racing.
David Coffey, global ambassador for BMS World Mission and past president of Baptist World Alliance, has known Boyers for many years and considers him UK’s doyen of sports chaplains.
“He has a winsome way of opening doors that were previously closed,” Coffey said. “The fruitfulness of his ministry over the past 21 years is a testimony to God’s faithfulness and John’s persevering spirit. His considerable experience will be a great asset to the chaplaincy at the London Olympic Games.”
There, Boyers and other Christian chaplains will hold optional services and lead Bible studies for athletes and others working in the village, as well as be available to talk or pray with anyone who requests it.
Proselytizing is prohibited in Olympic areas. “But when people ask questions, we have every right to respond,” Boyers said.
So he keeps praying that same prayer, that God will prompt questions that allow him to tell how Jesus Christ changes lives. And whether those opportunities come, he said he’ll serve with love and compassion.
Ava Thomas is an International Mission Board writer and editor based in Europe. For more information about chaplaincy work in the U.K., visit sportschaplaincy.org.uk. For more information about ministry efforts surrounding the Olympics, visit morethangold.org.uk.