03 Jan 2018
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Finding Faith in an NFL Locker Room

On and off the field with Chicago Bears team chaplain Jonathan Wilkins (MBA 2007)

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Dan Morrell: Reverend Jonathan Wilkins got a call that the NFL’s Chicago Bears were looking for a part-time chaplain. He was brought in to address a group of rookie players, and talked about low period in his life and how he used his faith to face adversity. A few months later, he was officially named team chaplain. In this episode of Skydeck, the Bulletin’s associate editor Julia Hanna talks to Wilkins about the role of faith in the locker room—and how the challenges of a professional football player aren’t so different from our own.

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Julia Hanna: Professional football players are larger-than-life people, both literally and figuratively. When you think about the role that the sport plays in our culture, given that, what has surprised you most in your role as chaplain for the Chicago Bears?

Wilkins: I think that the most amazing thing that I've realized being here is that we're not that dissimilar, as it relates to the common challenges that they face at their level. These are world-class athletes, right? So they are working professionals. They are experts at what they do. They are compensated and paid for what they do.

But the challenges that they face, as on average 20- 25-year-old men are not that dissimilar to what someone who's just, in general 20-25. They've got families. They've got friends. They've got loved ones. For those of us who are able to make decent salaries, we understand what it means to want to provide for your family. And some of us have not come from the best means, so we're looking to do something to help our families and our communities.

And the challenges that come along with balancing expectations of being an NFL player, along with the expectations of family members, taking care of bills, managing personal relationships, balancing work-life with family. You've got a lot of players who are married, that have children. And spend a lot of time away from their children, and oftentimes are challenged with that.

Those are common challenges for CEOs, on down to middle-management, on down to analysts on Wall Street. And I think that's sort of the biggest wake-up for me. It's been that I can actually speak to those challenges and relate to them. Maybe not in the sense of a salary, but in the sense of trying to balance and manage life as it happens, and the demands that go along with it.

Hanna: Can you do a little scene-setting in terms of your gatherings with players? What is the room like? Are players coming right off the field, or preparing to go on? How do you get them to make the transition to a quieter place?

Wilkins: Transitioning them from the field to the sanctity of that moment, the sacredness of that moment, is generally just a quick prayer and an acknowledgment that we're blessed to be in these roles, and to have these opportunities. But then, we also pivot from the prayer to whatever is on their mind.

I used to, sort of in my first and second year, kind of made-- I wouldn't say a mistake, but I generally came in with what I wanted to talk about, rather than sort of acknowledging what they wanted to talk about. Or ask if there are any prayer requests. So if there's someone who's lost a loved one, we'll put that on the board. If there's a family that maybe has a daughter who's dealing with cancer, as we do, we'll lift her in prayer. So we pray.

And then I pitch a question, just very much like at HBS, to sort of engage the audience. Again, to bring them to the moment. So last Saturday night, the question was what does it mean to thrive as a Christ follower, as a Christian? I asked them to sort of discuss the question among themselves for two to three minutes.

So what you're doing then, after you've prayed, sort of bringing them into the sacredness of the moment, then you are engaging community and pushing them, challenging them to challenge each other on their assumptions, and to hear thoughts. There's a number of people in the room. So you've got a broad range of sort of multi-ethnic, multi-talented individuals in the room to sort of bring their own personal experiences to bear upon that question. And so, as they're responding, I'm literally writing, like an HBS facilitator, on the board, and writing their responses.

What they don't know is, as I'm doing that, I'm engineering, or re-engineering, what I'm planning to discuss as a part of the lesson that I've listed on the white board, so that they feel completely engaged. And when they do, what I've found is they feel invested, also, in the moment. And so it's not just a topic that is aloof and afar from them, but it's something that they can now identify with because they've discussed that among themselves.

And now, they get to hear a spiritual, scriptural reference to what to what they've illuminated. So I end up walking away, as the teacher, that much more challenged in my own assumptions. And I'm able to sort of bring another framework to the next discussion.

Hanna: Speaking of being challenged, I'm just curious, do you ever get folks coming to the meeting who maybe don't believe in God? Who are just kind of curious, or want to challenge you in any way? I'm just wondering who shows up, who maybe is not the typical participant, and what happens then?

Wilkins: Yeah. So what I've encountered is, it's generally not in the open setting that I'm challenged, but sort of offline. And it's not necessarily that they aren't believers in a deity or God, but more so, how does that relate to them?

And then, I get a lot of questions around the notion of suffering. What is the purpose of suffering? If there is this sort of loving God, why are there natural disasters? They're very complex questions that have arisen, as relates to the natural disasters that we saw in Houston, in Florida, and in Puerto Rico. I mean, we were praying for families in real time. Family members who couldn't get out, and family members who were lost. There was a lot going on at that time.

And so those are all questions that never sort of have easy, simple answers. But they are questions that need to be addressed. And I do the best that I can, but I also understand the importance of-- with these players, they can tell when you're being authentic and when you're not. And so, if I don't know the answer, I've just learned to say I don't know.

And the reality is, there are moments in all of our lives where we just don't know the answer. And I think it's OK to be puzzled with a question that you have to live with. But also, to challenge yourself to attempt to answer it over time. Some things we come to understand immediately. Other things take time to underscore and relate to.

Hanna: A few businesses are starting to investigate the benefits of meditation training and awareness for their employees. Can you foresee a future where large corporations have a designated CMO, or like a chief mindfulness officer, who would serve in a role similar to your own with the Bears?

Wilkins: I think that would be incredible. And I think I'd sign up for that immediately. I think it is necessary. When you think about, outside of football, life continues to happen. There are rumors of wars as we speak. There are challenges on and off the field, between different communities. There are conversations now happening between the haves and the have-nots. You've got these communal challenges.

And you've got these personal challenges, as it relates to finances, or health care, or physical health. There's a lot that happens in our communities that affects employees, managers. The deadlines, the stress, the responsibilities, the leadership requirements, the demands. And I think there's something to be said about every one of us having a sense of release, or an outlet, or something that allows us to release the pressure that we may be feeling in our minds, and may be carrying around each and every day.

It is a reality that we are all under stress. And I'm a firm believer in things like counseling. And having someone that you can literally talk to, that is not directly connected to your situation, but that can help you find the door that you're walking past. And help you realize you don't have to stay where your thoughts are, but you can actually leave that scene and create better and new normals.

And so, I think there is a space. And I actually think that it's necessary. I've lived and worked in corporate America. And I know the stress, and the demands, and the rewards that come with it. But if you don't have that outlet, it can be overwhelming. I've got friends who are at the highest of the C-suites, who talk a lot about the demands and the stress of being in those seats.

And things like exercise, and meditation, and counseling, and family, and things that we sort of take for granted at times are very, very important. So I would absolutely say yes, and emphatically. And I think that's a part of the notion of work-life balance, too. We spend 80%, 90% of our lives working in some capacity, whether you're an entrepreneur, or running a business, or running a major corporation, you're doing something. And so, I think it's important to have something that alleviates the pressure.

Hanna: Well, these players are lucky enough to have you as a source of feedback and support. But how do you recharge your spiritual batteries?

Wilkins: I have a church that I attend that helps to inspire me. That's one. Two, I would say I've really-- and this might sound a little corny, but I really love classical music, whether it's Clair de Lune, by Debussy-- classical music. I love all of that. I love those choirs that have no music, like physical music, but it's just their voices. That helps me to meditate.

Every day, I do this sort of 3-for-5 exercise, where I'll sit quietly for five minutes, and just allow my thoughts to be at peace. And then I will pray for the next five minutes, both listening and audibly praying. And then, thirdly, I will literally write in my journal for five minutes. And sometimes, one of those five minutes goes longer than the others. But what I found is, by the end of the minimum 15 minutes, I feel much more prepared for whatever is coming because I've just sort of put my body and my mind at peace with those intervals.

And then, I work out. So I will try to get to the gym early. If not, 5:00, 5:30. I've just found that getting up early starts my day off right. You sort of feel the sense of victory when you've worked out by 6 o'clock. But I'll tell you, if I don't do it in the morning, it doesn't generally happen. So I try to force myself, even on days when I really, really don't want to.

Hanna: Did you ever think you'd be the chaplain of a professional football team?

Wilkins: No. And if you told me at Harvard Business School that I'd be doing this, I would have suggested that you were out of your mind. You should see the vantage point in the locker room when I get to pray with the team. You got everybody standing up. And this little guy in the midst of everybody. And they're all listening intently for what I have to say.

I have always sort of felt this bi-vocational call to business and ministry. But never thought that an opportunity of any sort related to this would come open. But I'm thankful for it. This is my third season.

And it's just an eye-opening experience to have conversations with all extremities of society. I'll volunteer at a local shelter, interact with people who haven't had the best circumstances or come from the best means, but are great people who are thankful for life.

And then you pivot from a shelter to Halis Hall, which is where we are now, with the Chicago Bears. And have conversations with individuals who are from that background. You know, impoverished communities or impoverished blocks. And how grateful they are to have the experiences and exposure that they have now. It's incredible to see things come full circle, and to have these kinds of experiences.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2007, Section A

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