01 Dec 2017

Turning Point: The Dark Season

by Jonathan Wilkins (MBA 2007, MDiv 2009)


illustration by Vahram Muradyan

A few years ago I went through a sort of wilderness experience, where nothing was lining up. I had to sell my car and move in with a roommate to cut costs. There was a moment of realizing, “I have two master’s degrees from Harvard, but I’m unemployed.” Yet every day I was leading a prayer conference call for hundreds of people from across the country. The feedback was that my words were extremely encouraging and helpful. So there’s a sense of envy in realizing God’s divine magic is working for others, but not for you.

About six months into unemployment, I was doing a lot of soul-searching and praying to figure out what I was truly trying to do, which was get into real estate and community development. Then my mother came to visit in Chicago and said she was praying for me. The next day, I connected with an HR rep who was a member of my church, which led to a position at Jones Lang LaSalle.

About a year later, the Chicago Bears were looking for a part-time team chaplain, and the head of player engagement called his pastor in Denver, who happened to be my former youth pastor. He recommended me, and I came in to teach a lesson to the team’s rookies called “The Desire Within.” It was drawn from that dark season I lived through and centered on this question: What does it mean to have a desire for something beyond what we can see and touch? I had tasted what it was like to be on the edge of impoverishment. But I eventually found my way. By the time I was done, some of the players—who had also faced adversity—were in tears. Two months later I was named team chaplain.

The NFL is all about production and productivity. When things go well, everyone in the world can see it. When things don’t go so well, the same is true. Last year, the Bears were 3 and 13. I’ve never talked so much about anxiety and adversity in my life. Our weekly meetings are optional, but we usually get about 45 players from a 53-man roster. In some ways it’s similar to an HBS case discussion in terms of how it’s structured—I open with a prayer, pose a discussion question, and write responses on the board, shaping the conversation around what comes up. It’s a trusted space to talk about life and spiritual principles while engaging with each other as a team—building unity, being transparent, and applying scripture to everyday life. What I offer is a source of peace and recognition that we don’t have all the answers all the time, but that an answer will come—not from our circumstance, but from within us, through a higher power. The dance, if you will, is to know when you’ve come to the end of yourself, and when you need to have faith for the things that are literally out of your control. To have the ear of the team in this way is humbling and inspiring.

There are some things that only trials and tribulations produce. When you suffer and have to draw from the depth of your personal resources to overcome adversity, it gives you the language of compassion—the ability to relate to others who are suffering or who have suffered. So while I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone, I wouldn’t give it back, either.

Chicago Bears Team Chaplain Jonathan Wilkins also serves as a motivational speaker for sports and corporate teams.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2007, Section A

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