Pastor. Chaplain. Olympic dog sitter.
That’s Ryan Schneider, pastor of Saranac Lake Baptist Church in upstate New York near Lake Placid. Lake Placid is home to the Olympic Training Center where elite athletes come to train as they pursue their Olympic dreams.
Ryan Schneider, a Southern Baptist pastor near Lake Placid, N.Y., and representatives from the sports ministry Athletes in Action have found ways to encourage Christian athletes and share the Gospel during their time in South Korea. Schneider, left, is pictured here with U.S. bobsledder Nic Taylor in PyeongChang.
In addition to his role as the church’s pastor, Schneider ministers in a variety of ways to the athletes in Lake Placid. Because of his role there, he’s working as a chaplain at the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. His family is keeping U.S. skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender’s dog while she competes in the Olympics.
“Team USA has graciously given me passes for most of the days that I’m here, to go in and mingle with the athletes,” Schneider said. “And then they have a daily worship service for the athletes just outside of their cafeteria. So I’m partnering with that and teaching a Bible study with them when I have opportunity.”
Schneider isn’t alone in his Olympic chaplain duties. Carl Dambman and Tim Pitcher of Athletes in Action (AIA), the sports ministry of Cru, are also on-site at the Winter Olympics helping to serve athletes in whatever ways they can and encourage the Christian athletes who are competing.
“The nations gather, and it’s a place where you can share the love of God across borders because sport is an international language without borders,” Dambman said.
Schneider, his wife Molly and their children have been in the Lake Placid area for several years, first at Lake Placid Baptist Church, then since 2013 at nearby Saranac Lake Baptist Church. Both churches are Southern Baptist congregations.
He teaches a weekly Bible study at the Olympic Training Center, where he has gotten to know a number of Olympic athletes well. His church, and some other churches that partner with them, help to provide housing for the athletes staying in Lake Placid on either a short-term or long-term basis. Though housing is available at the training center, many athletes prefer living with families.
In South Korea, Schneider is able to meet up with several of the Olympians he knows from Lake Placid. He understands the challenges they face and their unique needs as athletes. For example, athletes are ingrained with a performance-based mentality in practically every aspect of their lives. They are watched by a coach and by others around them. They are watched at the starting house (for sliding athletes) and when they get off the track.
Everything they do, Schneider said, is based on their performance or lack thereof. Then he gets to teach them that the gospel is the exact opposite of that – that they can’t get to heaven on their own, and they can’t live a Christ-centered life without a desperate reliance upon the gospel.
He remembers one athlete a few years ago who the Bible study group had prayed for regularly – for four weeks in a row. Then one night, she showed up at Bible study and asked Schneider a question.
“I know where I’m at, and I know where God is at,” she said. “And I don’t know how to bridge that gap.”
“I mean, it was like throwing a pastor a softball pitch,” Schneider said. “There’s always that drawing work of the Holy Spirit that we see in people’s lives that’s evidence. And so, it’s figuring out when to speak and when to not speak into that.”
Pitcher and Dambman spent much of their time in South Korea visiting with Olympians at the athletes’ village, where most of the athletes stay during the Olympics. They met Kenyan skier Sabrina Simader, the only athlete from her country at the Olympics, and found out that she needed a lot of help with her living arrangements since she was living in an apartment away from the village.
The AIA representatives helped Simader get pots and pans, groceries, an extra bed and other items to make her stay in South Korea more comfortable.
“We have become part of team Kenya,” Pitcher said.
Dambman, a former Olympic wrestler, and Pitcher typically hang out in the dining hall at the village and engage with the athletes and coaches as they come through. AIA has a sports Bible in Russian, English, Korean and Chinese, so they distribute those to anyone who wants one.
“Carl is like the mayor of the village here,” Pitcher said. “Everyone knows him, and him speaking Russian and German and a couple other languages, he is always engaging in conversations in the dining hall with people who are amazed that he knows the language or he knows people that they know.”
Dambman and Pitcher also help lead chapel services at the village. Sometimes athletes will come to chapel because it’s a good luck charm, Pitcher said, and something they think they should do right before they compete.
“So hopefully we are going to give them a Bible, give them resources to further explore, and as the conversation goes, potentially they will hear the gospel as well.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Ellsworth is a sports correspondent for Baptist Press and associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is covering the Winter Olympics in South Korea for Baptist Press, previously having covered four Olympics – 2008 in Beijing, 2010 in Vancouver, 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.)