Chaplains Stand In The Gap For Professional Athletes When Life Gets Messy
Tim Burke is the National Hockey League’s Chapel Coordinator based out of Denver, Colorado.
He knows, more than most, how confusing life can be for professional athletes.
The former Montreal Expos baseball pitcher is currently the sole chaplain of the Colorado Avalanche, while also overseeing chaplain duties of 11 other NHL teams.
“Most people don’t understand Chapel,” Burke said. “You know what, chapel is probably a bad word for it. It’s such a religious term, but our chapels and sessions really aren’t all that religious.”
While chapel times have a Biblical theme, their work is more akin to counselling.
“It’s actually funny, because quite often guys will come in and be like “oh man, I didn’t realize chapel was like this.” It is usually quite casual and laid back; it is just a chance for the guys to talk about what is on their mind, the problems they are dealing with, and their own personal battles.”
Luckily for these players, Burke’s services extend far beyond the weekly scheduled half-hour chapels.
“There are a lot of different players on a team, so it does become a bit of a 24-hour-a-day thing where I’m available whenever to these guys,” Burke said. “Sometimes they will text me or call at 11:00 P.M., and whenever I catch it, that’s when we’ll chat.”
“For me, it’s just about caring for these guys. I’ve been around professional athletes my whole adult life — after being one myself for thirteen years — so they know I’m not in awe of them or anything. They are just humans — people like you and I who are all messed up to some degree and need some form of help. I just know that the Lord is the ultimate help and hope for all of us.”
A reliance and strong trust in the Lord is what turned Burke into a believer, while going through what he called the most difficult professional season of his baseball career. Since coming to the Lord, changing his ways, and now leading chapels in the NHL, it is safe to say that Burke has witnessed his fair share of rewarding experiences.
“There was one player who came to me at a time when his life was kind of falling apart,” he reflected.
The player and his wife were really struggling, he explained, with Burke and his wife ended up getting together regularly.
“We got to know them and walk with them through a lot of really difficult stuff. They are now long gone from here, but we still talk every week,” he said. “Their life was very messy, but that’s just the way it is. It isn’t that unusual for life at this level to get messy. We all need people who are going to love us at our ugliest. I have understood and experienced that from the other side too, and there is just nothing better than loving someone where they are at.”
Of course this kind of relationship isn’t common ground for all of Burke’s players, but he knows that when he fully holds the trust of a player, and potentially his family, that is where he lets the Lord take hold of the relationship and run with it.
“This type of thing is exactly what we are built for,” Burke said. “My wife and I still get together with that family very often, and it has turned into a life-long relationship. It has been fun just watching God do all of that work while using us right in the middle of it. It is really fun to tag along with God and watch him do amazing things in people’s hearts… I love that, because I loved it when he did that with me.”
Although many can say that they have had the experience of turning to God as a non-Christian, few can say the life-changing decision came through sports.
Lorne Korol — current Chaplain of the Winnipeg Jets, Manitoba Moose, Winnipeg Blue Bombers and formerly of the Winnipeg Goldeyes — is one of those lucky few.
“Growing up as an athlete, I had no idea that chaplains even existed,” Korol said. “It was only after I became a believer in 1998 that I saw an Athletes in Action display at an American Hockey League game and became interested in some of those materials.”
The people at the booth explained their work and development with Christian players, which Korol said he found intriguing.
Soon after he began helping out with the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball team, and was eventually mentored there for three years. Since then he’s added the Moose, the Bombers and the Jets.
“It has been a very rewarding ride,” he said. “one that I know God’s hand guided me to.”
Between Bible studies for the players and coaches of his three Winnipeg-based professional sporting teams, Korol also manages all of the one-on-one meetings with coaches, players, support staff and front office staff in relation to their own personal needs.
“It’s just like guidance counsellors in schools—these athletes absolutely need someone to open up to and listen to them while providing advice,” Korol said. “Many athletes will not want to go to their coaches with some of those emotional, mental or spiritual needs, but they can come to me and talk to me about it. They know it is in strict confidence and we share that trust.”
He explained the key is building high-trust relationships with the athletes, as they often need an outlet where they can just talk to somebody about what is going on in their lives.
Whether Korol’s conversations with these athletes are in relation to personal struggles, family difficulties or even simply a lack of playing time, it’s his goal to smoothly transition the relationship from a plain professional standpoint to a trusted personal friendship.
“I try to break down that barrier between professional and personal as soon as I can,” he said. “If I can go from being their chaplain to being their trusted friend, I know that I am doing my job well.”
Obviously at times there are things beyond his abilities, Korol explained. Those times he refers players to Christian counsellors and trusts God can put the right people in place to help with their problems.
“Again, my duties extend further than just meetings and chapels, as sadly I’ve had five funerals in the last eight years with the Bombers,” he said. “Although they can be extremely difficult times, it is then where I see the team draw so much closer together through the adversity, but it’s also a time where they need me more than ever.”
Nobody said it was going to be easy, but it sure has been rewarding for Korol, who is now in his ninth season as the Chaplain of the Bombers and eighth with the Moose/Jets.
“One of the greatest Christian signs that we have in professional sports happens in football,” Korol reflected. “You will see the guys go head-to-head for 60 minutes, banging and crashing, but then at the end of the game they will put that all aside, take a knee, join hands and pray together at centerfield.”
“Of all the sports I know, football is the only one that does that, and it is a testament and witness to our faith. They understand that they have to play hard between the whistles, but after that they are leaving it all on the field for God, and leave all of the animosity there as well.”
Tim Burke and Lorne Korol both remind us that we all need to find that person or those people who we can talk to openly and share meaningful conversation with, no matter our age, level of education, or status.
If professional athletes are allowed to have problems, we most certainly can have problems too.