Editor’s Note: This article was derived from the breakout session at the 2023 MBCollegiate Conference by Clint Mahan from Lincoln University BCM and Jon Smith from Missouri Southern BSU. Repurposed with permission.
Every college campus has athletic programs, and reaching collegiate athletes can be a fantastic avenue of gospel ministry. I’ve been working with collegiate athletes for over two decades, and I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Here’s ten pitfalls to avoid when ministering to student athletes—and what to do instead.
#10 Forgetting to pray for your coaches and athletes
Prayer walks are simple, yet effective. Don’t embark on ministry to your campus’s athletics department and teams without prayer.
#9 Idolizing student athletes
They are regular people like the rest of us. They put their clothes on and rush to class like everyone else.
#8 Pretending you know what it’s like
Hint: an elite athlete’s life is not like the glamor of TV. Be intrigued, but also be authentic and initiate normal conversations. Use the S.H.A.R.E. acronym to have well-rounded conversations that revolve around more than sports:
- Home Life
- Experiences with God
Take a few minutes to read this list of 10 things athletes wish we knew but will probably never tell us. But just because you read this to better understand them doesn’t mean you know what their life is like.
#7 Being selectively attentive
Athletes need you to celebrate their victories, but they also need you to encourage them during failures and injuries. Be careful you aren’t only paying attention to them when team morale is high and the spotlight is on. They need to be seen on good days and bad.
And remember, the player who is benched all season needs your care just as much as the star quarterback.
#6 Placing the student athlete on a pedestal
Everyone is already watching them. They face very real everyday pressures. They are recognized everywhere they go. Don’t add to it by putting them on a pedestal. Try to build a relationship of trust and authenticity that allows you to see behind the false pride and masks they’re used to displaying for everyone else. Be someone who is safe for them to open up to, not someone else whose expectations they have to live up to.
#5: Demanding or expecting the same time and flexibility as other students
See the fifth item on the 10 things athletes wish you knew list. Their time constraints are real, and they have less control of their time than you think. Be patient. Don’t give up just because they are focused and don’t have a lot of free time.
#4: Missing their games and events.
Have a ministry of presence at their games and events. When you see them on campus, mention highlights and things you observed. Try to build connections each time you interact with them. And be a learner of their sport so you can engage meaningfully.
#3 Being omnipresent.
At the other end of the spectrum from the above, you also don’t want to seem like a groupie or stalker. Be available but not creepily everywhere! And please, avoid the temptation to photobomb them.
#2 Leeching tickets, gear, etc.
Your job is to ask how you can add value to their college experience and point them to Jesus. It’s not their job to provide you with free tickets, gear, locker room access, private instruction for your kids, etc. If they offer those things, fine. But don’t be asking for them (at least not often). Look for ways your campus ministry can serve the team or partner with them. The goal is to be a blessing to them."Look for ways your campus ministry can serve the team or partner with them. The goal is to be a blessing to them." -Clint Mahan #collegiatedisciplemaker The Not-Top-10 of Ministering to Collegiate Athletes Click To Tweet
#1 Adding to a false identity.
Extend grace beyond their magnified performance and lofty expectations. Sports is what they do and NOT who they are. We all need right identity formation! If they’re receptive, you can help teach them to differentiate between the world’s view and God’s view of their identity. You can use this list of who Christ declares they are in Him as a tool. Walk through it and the accompanying Scripture references with them one by one.