By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — In certain situations, the role of team chaplain can have perks and privileges, even prestige.
Darrin Reynolds isn’t interested in any of that.
As chaplain of the Lebanon High School football team, Reynolds prefers to stay behind the scenes, providing support in ways that might not ever be noticed by anyone other than the players and coaches.
“I have really tried to take the approach of being a servant,” said Reynolds, who is the youth pastor at Immanuel Baptist in Lebanon and is in his seventh season as chaplain at Lebanon High. “I go in there looking for ways to serve the coaches and players. And I am not trying to be something that I am not.”
The chaplains of many high school football teams across Tennessee, and throughout the country, share Reynolds’ philosophy: Being a chaplain is about finding ways to contribute to the spiritual and emotional well-being of the players and coaches; it’s not about the fringe benefits.
“To me, one of the most important elements of being a chaplain is defining your role, and making sure that the coaches and players know that you are there to support them,” said Josh Bennett, who served as a team chaplain for eight seasons at multiple schools in the Southeast and is now the pastor of an SBC church plant in New York state.
“One of the things that I always let the head coach know, right off the bat, was that I wasn’t there to try to coach the team or anything like that. I wanted them to know that I was there as a resource,” Bennett said.
The duties of the team chaplain often vary from one team to the next. Generally speaking, the chaplain will lead a voluntary Bible study at least once a week, and will also make himself available to any players for one-on-one conversations about faith-based topics or other issues. The chaplain can also be called on to pray for an injured player, doing so in some cases on the field immediately after the injury takes place.
Beyond that, the amount of engagement that a chaplain has with a team is usually dependent on the head coach. Some coaches essentially give the chaplain an all-access pass — allowing him to attend practices, walk the sidelines on Friday nights, and come in the locker room before and after games — while other coaches are far less accommodating.
Reynolds said the head coach’s receptiveness, or lack thereof, is what sets the tone for the chaplain’s ministry.
“If the boys sense that the coach doesn’t trust you, they won’t trust you, either,” he said. “The boys are going to follow their leader. As with most anything in life, the group will resemble the characteristics and identity of the leader.”
David Evans, evangelism specialist at the TBMB, has served as the team chaplain at Springfield High for the past nine years. Evans said interacting with coaches and players in a non-football setting is paramount.
“To me, it’s less about Friday nights, and more about being available when you see them walking around at Walmart and that type of thing,” said Evans. “They have to know that you are available for them. And that goes for the coaches as well as the players. You (as chaplain) are pastoring both demographics, the players and the coaches.”
Reynolds, who served as chaplain at Wilson Central High for seven seasons prior to his current role at Lebanon High, has found numerous ways to demonstrate the love of Christ.
When the football team was enduring two-a-day practices under the hot Tennessee sun, Reynolds often showed up with buckets of Gatorade, putting a literal spin on Isaiah 55:1 (“Come, all you who are thirsty”).
Reynolds has also coordinated with local churches to provide meals for the football team on Thursday nights and Friday afternoons, and he has played a key role in the development of a food pantry that provides take-home meals for football players and other students.
Reynolds said having a servant’s heart has enabled him to gain the trust of the team. “It’s all about building relationships,” he said. “The players and coaches understand that I am there to invest in them.”
The weekly Bible studies are one of the most crucial parts of the chaplain’s role in terms of connecting with the coaches and players on a deeper level.
“The approach I took (with the football team) is the same strategy that I take with student ministry as a whole — and that is to give them ideas that aren’t just watered-down versions of the gospel,” said Kyle Anson, who is the youth pastor at Highland Park Baptist in Columbia and has served as team chaplain at Spring Hill High. “And even though there are some hard truths, I believe students respond to that. They don’t like to be treated as kids who don’t know what they’re doing.”
Being able to develop a deep bond with the coaches, the players and their families is one of the most rewarding aspects of the position, said Bennett.
“Serving as team chaplain was as fulfilling as anything I’ve done in the ministry,” he said. “You’re interacting with the community on so many levels, and that’s your mission field. You’re with the student-athletes in the locker room, you’re with the coaches on the sidelines, you’re with the parents in the stands at halftime. You have a great opportunity to share Christ in a variety of ways.”
Reynolds said he, too, views the role of chaplain as a gateway for kingdom work.
“It’s hard to be around lost people when you’re sitting in the office in the church,” he said. “Being a chaplain allows me a chance to go into an environment where I can encourage, evangelize and strengthen young people.
“As a student pastor, God has given me a passion for young people — and being a chaplain gives me an avenue to pour into young people’s lives. And that’s what I try to do.”