Faith and Sport Institute offers high school students opportunity to learn balance of faith and sport

High school students work to integrate their faith with sport during a physical challenge at the Athletes in Action Headquarters in Xenia, Ohio. Athletes in Action is also attempting to help high school athletes integrate faith in sport, however, it is not the same as Faith and Sport Institute. | Courtesy of the Faith and Sport Institute

By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor

Balancing both sport and faith commitments is no easy task. Balancing these commitments well and maintaining them as a high priority is even harder. However, there is hope for athletes as they seek this balance in faith and sport. Beginning in June, incoming high school sophomores and juniors from various schools in Central Texas will gather to participate in the first ever Faith and Sport Institute, a George W. Truett Theological Seminary initiative that will help guide high school athletes as they find this balance.

For FSI program director and campus sports chaplain Cindy White, the institute addresses the issues of leadership that athletes can carry with them throughout sports and in all aspects of life.

“The Faith and Sport Institute seeks to engage and form young men and women to become strong leaders in sports, church and beyond. The eight-day retreat, combined with a year of mentorship, will help you ask the big questions, deepen integrity and spiritual leadership, and develop convictions and character to equip you for the ‘race of life,’” White said.

For White and her husband Dr. John White, who directs the Master’s Sports Chaplaincy program at Truett Seminary and serves as faculty director for the FSI, the intersection of faith and sport has been undeniable. It has been the call God has inevitably placed in their lives, and the FSI will serve as an outlet for them to continue this call to ministry.

“I came to Baylor having previously played and coached volleyball at the Division I level. I also have been doing sports ministry among college and professional athletes for over 30 years,” White said. “It has been my passion as a Christian leader and lover of sports, along with my husband, John, to help athletes and coaches on all levels to integrate the gospel in everything they think, say and do.”

Sports ministry may be embedded in the Whites’ DNA, but the inception of the FSI has been a process, and not one that was born overnight.

In August 2015, they applied for a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., based out of Indianapolis, Ind. which funds initiatives like FSI. In December, the Whites were awarded the grant worth $600,000 under Lilly’s High School Youth Theology Institute. Grants given by the High School Youth Theology Institute are always given to seminaries, but this grant that went into effect in August 2016 is the first one to have sports people as the primary audience, in which student-athletes learn how to integrate faith and sport.

White said that she understands the opportunity the grant has given them and that she and the FSI team will not take it for granted.

“We are grateful to Lilly to entrust this project that benefits young people and promotes leadership education and financial self-sufficiency in the nonprofit, charitable sector,” White said. “FSI is the first grant allocated to a seminary that seeks to theologically reflect on and engage in sports at this level. Lilly is anticipating very positive results from FSI.”

One of the major goals of the FSI is to reshape and reframe the way athletes think about the relationship between faith and sports. Historically, sports have not been critically examined from a theological perspective. However, with a proper understanding of sport’s place beneath the realm of God’s sovereignty, athletes can begin to understand how faith and sport work together.

“We believe that sports is an important slice of life, under the domain of God’s governance, where athletes and coaches and all who participate have the opportunity to practice what it means to ‘show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine,’” White said. “All human activities are subject to God and His will ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ If we can understand and live out the love, truth and grace found in Christ in the fully-embodied sport experience, we believe we will then be better prepared to imagine God in all aspects of life.”

As athletes arrive at Baylor for the eight-day retreat and program, they will participate in a combination of teaching through lecture, small groups, worship and competition. The athletes will be joined by top professors from Baylor, Canada and England throughout the week and will participate in an immersion experience with Mission Waco, focused on reconciling the world’s problems with the gospel peace throughout the sport experience.

Houston third-year sports ministry graduate student Aaron Everic, FSI mentor and donor coordinator, said the FSI will help address some of the major life issues that confront athletes.

“Topically, we will discuss and interact with worship, identity, training, suffering and vocation,” Everic said. “Then on the field of competition we will experience how those topics intersect with the desire to compete and how they interact with and against each other both on and off the field.”

One of the other areas that FSI seeks to address is the instability of faith after the “mountain-top” experiences of camps and retreats. Lives can change over the course of a retreat, but can look different once athletes get back into their daily routines.

FSI is addressing this problem by doing practical discipleship through mentoring of the athletes that will continue for a year after the retreat ends, an aspect that attracted Everic to the position.

“The purpose of the mentor is to be a friend or companion alongside the student athlete who can engage in dialogue as the intersection between their faith and sport is continually at play, especially as they experience it upon returning to school and a new season,” Everic said. “I was drawn to it because the model of mentoring that they want to use with retreat-goers. Discipleship/mentoring is the future of the church and what FSI wants to develop now will have huge implications on the next generation of leaders who will be equipping and trying new mentors for people of faith.”

Everic has been the networking catalyst for the institute by reaching out to area coaches, administrators and pastors, getting them to gauge student athletes who would and could benefit from such a program as well as getting them to spread the word throughout the area.

White hopes that through networking and establishing positive, lasting relationships with athletes, families and the Waco community, everyone who wants to participate in the institute will be able to and that fulfilling partnerships can be established.

“FSI seeks to bless young people with the opportunity to learn and grow in a positive and challenging environment. We are especially committed to gender and racial diversity so nobody is left out due to financial reasons or family support,” White said. “It is our hope that a retreat such as this will continue the good work Baylor and Waco are already doing in the areas of community organizing and meeting the needs of young people.”

The Institute targets high school athletes because over the course of 30 years of sports ministry, White said she has learned that it is more difficult to gain traction among high-level college and professional sports programs. Some programs are focusing on character training, including moral, emotional and financial stewardship. However, according to White, many of them don’t realize that good training is grounded in good theological concepts. This is where FSI separates itself from these other programs.

Faith Sport and Institute is still looking for mentors. Mentors can be seniors in college or other college students or spiritual leaders under the age of 30 who have a background or grasp of sports culture and a desire to walk alongside students as they mature in their faith.

If interested in being a mentor or participating in FSI, one can check out the official FSI website for an application and more details.

The Faith and Sport Institute Retreat runs from June 17-24, 2018.