Switching Fields: Professional Soccer to Pastoral Ministry
Twenty-two years after scoring in a game against Manchester United, now and then I’ll watch the highlight and hear the commentator on the video.
“Clarke with the shot…It’s off the keeper’s hands…Peacock driving in…GOAL! Chelsea take the lead!”
I can still feel the electricity and euphoria of the moment. It’s the kind every boy in England dreams of experiencing. The goal gave us the lead over Manchester United, a lead we never relinquished. We beat them 1–0 both at home and away that season (1993–94)—a rare feat against the best team in the country—and I scored the winning goal each time. God made me a Christian, but he also made me a footballer. And when I played, “I felt his pleasure,” as the great Eric Liddell once said, “God was good that day on the field in 1994. And God is good now, far away from it.”
Football (what North Americans call soccer) is a microcosm of culture. Professional footballers reflect trends and often set them: haircuts, tattoos, cars, and clothes (think David Beckham). Moreover, you have massive highs and lows squeezed into a week. You’re healthy one minute and injured the next. You have abundant money in your pocket one day and lose your career the next. You taste the happiness of working together toward a thrilling goal, then witness the dissolution of marriages, and even lives, around you. It’s high-stakes stuff, and a man’s character is laid bare in the arena.
I was blessed to have a fulfilling career with teams like Chelsea, Newcastle, and QPR for more than 18 years and 600 games as a professional. After calling time on my career in 2002, a new adventure opened up: six years of broadcasting for BBC Sports. It was a second dream career. Huge sporting events like European Championships and World Cups were the icing on the cake of regular Premier League shows.
The Premier League is the most exciting soccer league in the world. The world’s best want to play there for the prestige and the pay. While 115 million people watch the Super Bowl, a Premier league match between Manchester United and Liverpool pulls in a global audience of 500 million to 600 million. Most players say the two best post-soccer careers are coaching soccer or broadcasting it. It was a thrilling privilege to go live to 4 million across the UK each week, giving analysis and staying involved in the game I loved.
But the Lord gave me another calling still: to be a minister of the gospel. I’ve been a Christian since I was 18, but the call to pastoral ministry came 10 years ago. The church affirmed it and, after a time of consideration, I gave up my work with the BBC. In 2008, with my wife and two kids, I left the shores of England for anonymity in Canada.
There I entered a season of study and preparation. It was quite a change, going from prepping for a global broadcast to studying for an 8 a.m. Hebrew final. Eight years later, now I serve as a pastor of Calvary Grace Church in Calgary and Director of International Outreach for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
As much as I loved football, I love preaching the gospel more. It’s the best news in the world. Once you were condemned as a child of wrath; now you’re free and adopted as a child of God. But the good news pushes farther and leads to Spirit-empowered ethical behavior in areas such as our sexuality. Through the preaching of John Piper, I began to see how two passions—gospel and gender—are tightly connected. The first sermon I ever heard Piper deliver was on biblical manhood. I remember thinking I’d never heard preaching like it. It was electric. It made sense. I’d seen a disintegration in manhood firsthand. When I began as a young professional footballer in 1984, we apprentices were given all the hard jobs no one wanted. Clean the dressing rooms, pick up the sweaty clothes, polish others cleats, and so on. And you were expected to do these chores without complaint. If you moaned or showed disrespect to the senior pros, they’d sort you out.
I saw change over the years, however. By the end of my career, many young apprentices who hadn’t been fathered or mentored came in with a sense of entitlement. They wore nice designer clothes and drove prestige cars before they’d achieved anything. If asked to clean cleats, they did the job halfhearted at best. And they were defensive if criticized. Resistance to authority, lack of discipline, and diminished self-control mark many young men today.
But manhood isn’t about being macho; it’s about being mature.
Many in our day have lost the script for manhood and womanhood. And though sports can point to certain traits of mature manhood, we must finally go to Scripture to find the source of godly manhood. We can recover it—for our joy and God’s glory—only by going back to God’s Word, as Owen Strachan and I write about in The Grand Design (Christian Focus, 2016). Complementarity is a creation issue (Gen. 1:27), a redemption picture (Eph. 5:32), a consummation hope (Rev. 19:7–9), and a trinitarian reality (1 Cor. 11:3).
God’s Greater Call
When I left football in 2008, I knew athletic success isn’t what finally brings joy. Football is way too shallow to captivate the heart. Only the Son of God does that. Only he can bring true happiness and lasting hope.
And God’s Word will reorient us to his glorious vision for men and women. It’s a vision of gospel-centered manhood and womanhood that changes marriages, helps men to fight lust, serves and strengthens women, and makes churches passionate for the glory of Christ among the nations.
Scoring against Manchester United was great, but ministry in Jesus’s name has been better.