MANCHESTER, England – John Boyers’ gig at the Summer Olympics might seem sensational until you see his normal digs.
His “office” – the home of the Manchester United football (soccer) club – is nicknamed the Theatre of Dreams. For 20 years, he’s rubbed shoulders with the thousands who pay $25 a head 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.
Boyers is a constant in a place of constant turnover, and he will 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.”
Chaplain John Boyers has spent 20 years giving pastoral care to the players and staff of the Manchester United football (soccer) team in England. This month, he’ll also provide it for the athletes at the Summer Olympics in London.
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.”
Opportunities for overt evangelism are very restricted, and a “hard sell” just doesn’t work well in England, 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 does lead 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.”
And, he said, many days they do. A number of players and staff dealing with problems, crises and life questions seek him out to talk. Those who don’t still think of him as a “good guy,” shake his hand in the hallway and know he’s there if they ever did decide to chat.
“At the heart of UK sports chaplaincy is one concept: trusting relationships. When people get to know you and trust you, they open up to you, often when they need help,” Boyers said.
Boyers is invading their space on purpose – and the staff and players value that, he said.
“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,” he said, “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. It’s the reason he agreed 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.
“I have known John Boyers for 25 years and honor him as the doyen of sports chaplains in the United Kingdom. He has a winsome way of opening doors that were previously closed,” said David Coffey, global ambassador for BMS World Mission and past president of Baptist World Alliance. “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.”
During the Olympics and Paralympics, Boyers will manage the deployment of 160 chaplains from the five major world religions – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism – into the athletes’ village.
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.
It’s the same deal as it is at Old Trafford – 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 or not, he said he’ll serve with love and compassion.
For more information about chaplaincy work in the UK, visit sportschaplaincy.org.uk. For more information about ministry efforts surrounding the Olympics, visit morethangold.org.uk.
(EDITOR’ S NOTE – Ava Thomas is a writer/editor for the International Mission Board based in Europe.)