It takes a lot of people to run a football team—more than any other Columbia sport, in fact. And while the program boasts a large staff to meet its athletes’ needs, coaches often enlist the services of outside volunteers to provide students with even more support. In recent years, this network of volunteers has included a Christian chaplain.
The decision to bring in a Christian chaplain to fulfill the spiritual needs of some players may seem odd given Columbia’s lack of a religious affiliation. Yet Bryan Scott, special adviser to the University Chaplain on athletic life, emphasizes that it is not meant as an imposition on students and is strictly a volunteer position. “There’s no money involved,” he says. “The privilege [they] have is more or less access: email, an ID card, access to buildings.”
The office of chaplain is not a permanent fixture of Columbia’s football or other athletic teams. Coaches or team captains create a position if they see the need. Scott served as a football chaplain from 2004 to 2005, at which point Columbia hired a coach who didn’t prioritize the role. The office was resurrected in 2015, when the football team brought in Jim Black to perform chaplain duties.
Black is not employed by Columbia but by Christian Union, an organization focused on developing Christian leaders at Stanford and all the Ivy League schools. (The “Mission & Vision” page of its website states “At present, these eight [sic.] very influential universities export spiritual darkness into our culture through secularized leadership. It will take prayer, effort and financial resources to reach these future leaders for Christ”.) Black joined Christian Union’s Columbia ministry in 2011, where he directs a ministry on campus called Columbia Faith in Action. In years since, this role has afforded Black “really beautiful relationships” with students, many of them athletes.
After the news broke that Al Bagnoli would be leaving an extremely successful coaching career at the University of Pennsylvania for Columbia, Black wrote him a quick email thanking him for coming and offering his help if needed. To his surprise, Bagnoli responded the next day and asked if they could meet. After a short conversation, Bagnoli asked Black to become the volunteer chaplain for the team.
Black now attends practice once a week and spends time with “a large group of the guys” afterwards. They gather in a circle, pray together and share what’s going on in their lives. They meet again prior to pre-game meals.
“We’ll read a part of the bible together and talk about it, about how it might apply to their role on the team, and then we’ll pray in that context,” Black explains. On Sunday nights he holds bible studies that normally draw between fifteen and twenty players. “It’s a really remarkable amount of guys who are involved.”
In addition to these duties, the chaplain often meets with players one-on-one. Disentangling athletes’ sense of self from their performances is usually a focus, but conversational topics pertain just as often to coursework anxieties, disagreements with coaches, internship and job prospects, dating woes and the like. In this regard, Black’s work not only consists of being a spiritual mentor, but also “just being a friend."