Tim Newcomb And Rebecca Kruyswijk
“It’s a different world,” says Jeff Ryan about ministering to professional basketball players. “I’m trying to get these guys to study the Bible.”
As chaplain for the NBA Orlando Magic, Ryan makes the Bible relevant to a community of athletes. Since most of the players don’t have the opportunity to attend church, Ryan is their pastor. The arena is their church.
Ryan isn’t just reaching out to the team. He tries to reach out to point guards and security guards alike. “I feel God has called me to minister to anyone in the building. I want to engage them where they are.”
An avid sports fan, Ryan worked in sports marketing and advertising before his call to the ministry. At age 20, he left his hometown of Philadelphia and hitched a ride to Florida with only $20 in his pocket. He rode a free bus to the arena for the games.
Ryan applied for an unpaid internship with Orlando. Through his internship, he met Shaquille O’Neal, who offered him a job working with charities in the Orlando area. After O’Neal left for Los Angeles to play for the Lakers, Ryan again worked for Orlando by helping out with the chapel program. When the existing chaplain left, the players selected Ryan to replace him.
Ryan’s existing relationships within the sports industry have paved the way for his ministry. “I’ve been blessed that I worked there for 10 years before the call to ministry … so I have access where maybe other chaplains don’t. I feel blessed that I can walk into any locker room, go up to any guy, and I’m not going to have a coach look at me funny.”
Feeling a call to full-time ministry, Ryan enrolled in seminary with the support of his wife, Kristi. In 2004, he obtained an M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary. Since 2005, he has balanced his chaplaincy with full-time ministry at College Park Presbyterian Church in Orlando.
Bringing Church to the Arena
The Magic play 41 home games a season, not counting pre-season and playoffs. Ryan runs two chapels for each home game: one for Magic players and the visiting team, and one for Magic staff. With the support of the owner of the Magic, Richard DeVos, he ministers before, during and after games.
Ryan shows up at the “O-rena” a few hours before game time to speak with the support staff. He doesn’t shy away from asking probing questions about their lives. He goes into the players’ locker room before the game and checks in with the guys as they come in—sometimes even pulling them aside.
His 15-minute chapel message takes place in a room adjacent to the locker room. Ryan ties in athletic analogies to impress his message upon players and “tap into their world.” He will say things like, “Are you playing for wins and losses on the court, or wins and losses for the kingdom of heaven? You’re representing Orlando, but more importantly, you’re representing Christ. Do people know that?”
Ryan challenges the players: “If you can channel all that energy and all that focus into your career, you can do it in a Bible study.”
“I say to the guys, ‘You had to work very hard to sit in this room right now—an NBA locker room. You had to put time in. You had to sacrifice. You had to suffer a little bit because you had a goal, and you were going to get here.’ And then I say, ‘Why don’t we do that in our spiritual faith? Why aren’t we in the Word of God as much as we’re in the gym? You take 100 jump shots a day. How long do you take to pray a day? You break down film every day. Do you study the Bible every day?’ ”
Bible Study as the Best Defense
Ryan says he tries to show the players that “there’s a method to studying God’s Word on a daily basis. There’s a way to take the Word of God and have it be your best defense, and your best offense—to protect you from the oncoming attacks of the devil.”
He follows up with players who want to talk on a personal level. Often, he will meet one-on-one with players to support, challenge and pray with them. He approaches each player with a different game plan to help them study Scripture. With young guys, Ryan creates a monthly plan to discuss a proverb a day. To keep them on track, he puts together a check-off sheet. He also suggests books to foster future dialogue.
Ryan involves his family in building relationships with the players. He says the call to ministry isn’t just his. “It’s neat because my wife and I have been able to do Bible studies with players and their wives. [It’s] been exciting to dig into the Word of God and try to help young players and their spouses understand some things.”
Meeting the Challenge
As elite competitors, the players are always up for a challenge. Ryan says he was given advice when embarking on his 11-year chaplaincy. “One of the guys said to me, ‘Everybody caters to us. God doesn’t cater to anybody. We want to feel like we get a punch in the gut, spiritually. We don’t want you to tell us how great we are. Tell us the truth of the gospel.’ ”
Ryan makes a point of getting real and raw with the players. “You can say, ‘Did you go to that strip club in Milwaukee?’ or ‘Did you look at that girl?’ ” He says it may be difficult to deal with these issues in a Bible study or a church “unless you’ve really got a deep, deep group. In some ways, these guys respond to that challenge more passionately than regular folks because they know what it is to give everything they have. So when a guy commits to the Lord, he commits to the Lord.”
When the team is on the road, Ryan keeps in touch by texting. He challenges players to read short New Testament books and be ready to talk about them when they get back. “I know of personal situations they’re going through and just want to let them know that we’re still praying for them; we’re still wanting to serve them.”
One player on the team has been struggling personally, and Ryan has been regularly meeting him for breakfast. This past year hasn’t worked out well in terms of the player’s NBA career, but that isn’t his focus now. “The player says, ‘I am as happy as I have ever been because I know that God’s Word is true and that God’s Word will guide me. I read my Bible every day and find comfort and peace in that my identity is not found in what I do but [whom I belong to]. I belong to God.’ ”
“I think they respect the authority of Christ,” says Ryan. “I’m trying to show them the [value of the] lordship and kingship of God in all of our lives. His Word is freeing. It’s empowering. It’s real. It helps them understand [that] basketball is what I do; it’s not who I am. Who I am is a sinner saved by grace, a child of the Kingdom.… I think that these guys respond to the challenge of God because [to them,] it’s a challenge. God is challenging.”
Sometimes players are challenged in ways they don’t expect. He remembers one young player—who is now out of the NBA and a full-time minister—who wanted to evangelize to his team. When the player and his wife personally invited every teammate to their house for dinner and an informal Bible study, only Ryan and his wife came. “They had the best spread of food you could imagine, so this player was really kind of downtrodden. I told him, ‘Maybe it wasn’t about them coming. Maybe it was about you asking. Maybe it was just about you showing your faith.’ ”
“As I tell the guys, there are a whole lot of guys in church, but not a whole lot of church in guys. There’s a difference—and they need to understand that.”