Gospel Influence in the NFL
By: Becky York
January 8, 2016
Chaplain Tom Lamphere has been ministering to athletes and coaches on the Minnesota Vikings for 24 years. He has seen his fair share of ups and downs during his time in the league but his faith in God and passion to share the Gospel with others through the platform of sport has remained constant.
Formerly a wrestler for the University of Minnesota, Tom went on to compete both nationally and internationally with Athletes In Action.
“That’s where I learned to compete for the Lord,” remembers Tom. “On the wrestling mat.”
While training for the 1980 Olympics, Tom and his teammates were invited behind the Iron Curtain by the Eastern European National Teams to train for the upcoming Moscow Games. When they were not able to cross the Curtain with the other athletes due to border restrictions, they did so through the underground church, teaching and sharing the Gospel through Russian interpreters.
“It was pretty intense,” says Tom, with a sense of amazement at the memory of it all. “As we shared our faith with the underground church, some of our interpreters weren’t Christians so that was a cool way to share the Gospel.”
“He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’” – Mark 16:15
Tom’s wrestling career prepared him to minister to athletes in all sports today.
“My wrestling years really helped me understand what it meant to be a Christian athlete, competing for the glory of the Lord,” Tom says. “This helps me to relate as I teach and mentor athletes and coaches today.”
While he is no longer facing intimidation and denial of entry to the places in the world still hostile to Christianity, Tom does face opposition in his ministry.
“Many see any sort of spirituality in football as a distraction,” he says. “We pray that God opens more doors so we can have an even greater impact in the NFL.”
Tom and his wife, Jeannie, lead weekly Bible studies for Vikings players and their wives. But over the years, the consistency of player participation has waned due to players being let go and traded as well as the regulations put on chaplains limiting their time in the locker room with the players. But Tom and Jeannie’s faithfulness to the ministry has stood firm.
“It’s about speaking God’s language to these young athletes,” he says. “As our society changes, it has changed the athletes who come into the NFL as well. The way we relate to athletes now is different from how it used to be. There’s the same need for the Gospel but a different approach needs to be taken.”
Tom has found new ways to challenge and grow the athletes in their faith by bringing in new speakers and organizing a variety of outreach opportunities both during the season and in the off-season.
“It’s all in the Lord’s hands,” says Tom, when reflecting on the challenges and victories that he’s faced over the years of his ministry to the athletes. “We just need to be faithful.”
In addition to his role as the Vikings chaplain, Tom, along with former NFL coach Tony Dungy, has been leading a ministry for NFL coaches, which they began 16 years ago.
“The NFL Coaches Fellowship connects twice a month,” Tom says. “This is a time for us to grow together, share prayers and praises, and update each other on our ministries. Many coaches’ careers are unpredictable and unstable but we are always there for each other. Our group motto is ‘Encourage and pray for each other.’”
In addition to their twice-a-month conference call, these coaches connect during the NFL Combine (the yearly event held for coaches to scout for the upcoming NFL draft) and get together each June for a weekend of fellowship and bass-fishing competition.
“It gets really competitive,” Tom says with a grin.
Other leadership in the NFL has taken notice of the NFL Coaches Fellowship and wanted to join in. Three years ago, the NFL Executive Fellowship was begun. It offers a place for General Managers to support and challenge one another, and grow together.
“God puts people who are strong in their faith in places of influence,” says Tom. “We’re trying to get more people of faith in the NFL network.”
Tom continues to stand strong in his faith in God and his perseverance to spread the Gospel through sport.
“Apart from Him we can do nothing,” Tom says, with clear conviction. “The Lord is taking us deeper in our faith and trust in Him than we’ve ever been before. I’m excited to see what the Lord has for us in the new year.”
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.” – John 15:5