Coaching sports has its benefits, such as the enjoyment of working with youth or reliving the glory days of your own varsity years, but these are only temporary. The eternal rewards of coaching can be seen in the lives of the players, parents, and offi cials some Grace Brethren pastors encounter every time they step on the field, diamond, or court.
Bud Olszewski, Dan O’Deens, and Nathan Zakahi are three such pastors who spend much of their favorite athletic season on the bench, coaching. These men are living examples of how to balance leading a church with leading a team. By using their passion for sports, their lives tell a story of leadership in a higher calling.
A community takes pride in its school and even more so, its athletics. Th rough coaching soccer, Olszewski has seen an increase in church attendance, but more importantly, his church is seen in a positive light by his community of Rittman, Ohio.
Dan O’Deens acknowledges that representing Christ is a big responsibility for all Christians. “The challenges I face with coaching are the same as being a pastor,” says O’Deens. “Your reputation as a pastor makes it difficult, but the love I have for what the sport of soccer represents is greater than the challenges.”
“As a pastor,” Zakahi adds, “coaching is a challenge. It is a challenge to motivate players to play better, but mostly it is a challenge to stay accountable.” He has coached baseball of all ages for almost longer than he has been pastor of the Grace Brethren Church in Sunnyside, Wash.
“Baseball is a constant reminder of accountability because people are watching my actions and listening to my language,” Zakahi stresses. However, this has not stopped any of these men from coaching, for as Zakahi said, “your testimony stands out in stressful times.”
“It is fun to coach because it is like leadership and church planting,” says Dan O’Deens, former pastor of Gateway Grace Community Church of Parkesburg, Pa., and current director of CPR 3 Ministries, “First we have to teach the technical aspect of soccer, so that that the player’s foundation is strong and accurate. Then we move on to tactics: strategies of how the game is played.
Practices under Coach Zakahi are hard. He makes sure his players are prepared for every possible situation and, as a result, games are relaxed because the players know what to do.
For O’Deens, coaching soccer is not a “ministry.”
“Coaching is people building and ministry opportunities are built out of the relationships I make,” notes O’Deens.
When he started coaching, his goal was not to evangelize to his players and their parents. The intention was to build relationships based on soccer. Th e results of these relationships naturally lead to kingdom conversations.
Zakahi had a similar experience, but this involved his whole team. During his high school coaching career, a player’s father suffered a heart attack.
“When tragedy takes place opportunity arises for teaching times about life beyond baseball,” stated Zakahi. He took initiative to hold a prayer time in the dugout and was blessed to see the entire team attend. The players left having heard the gospel and having received hope for their friend’s father.
As a church planter in Parkesburg, Pa., O’Deens used coaching to familiarize himself with the community and make contacts. His church started growing and so did the body of Christ. Before O’Deens coached boys’ soccer he worked with a youth girls’ team. During this time, a crisis occurred in the family of one of his players. This girl called O’Deens because she knew he was a pastor and a believer in Christ. The two had many conversations about the crisis and through their relationship as player and coach, O’Deens was able to lead her to the Lord.
“I knew one of the by-products of coaching would be helping young people and their parents, but I was surprised with the impact on other coaches and referees,” admitted Olszewski, varsity soccer coach and pastor of the Rittman, Ohio, Grace Brethren Church.
For Olszewski, many opportunities to share Christ’s love have come through the unseen heroes of athletics. One opportunity came with the sad news of an official who had been diagnosed with cancer. Knowing Olszewski’s reputation as a pastor in the community, the official asked him for prayer. With that prayer he also welcomed the opportunity for Olszewski to visit the official in the hospital along with many more conversations.
One of O’Deens’ personal philosophies is, “The game is the best teacher.” He says that whether in life or in soccer, you have to start playing to truly learn. You can take all the instruction from a coach, pastor, or mentor, but unless you start playing you will never win.
So much can be learned about the Christian walk through athletics. The teamwork of soccer, the individual battles between a pitcher and a hitter, the challenge to stand up again after a loss and the excitement of a victory are not limited to the athletic field.
No matter the sport, soccer, baseball, or curling, if God has created the desire, coaching may be one way to combine your love of sport with ministry. Nathan Zakahi advises, “The Christian life is not a segmented life. You should be the same person wherever you go, church, work, school, or practice.”