CTL co-founder, Liam Flint caught up with Andy Searles, the chaplain of MLS franchise Orlando City about what his role entails and the growth of soccer in the US.
Liam: Andy thank you so much for giving us your time, we really appreciate it.
Andy: “No problem, I love what you are doing.”
Liam: So Andy I suppose the obvious question to kick off is how did you come to be a chaplain for Orlando City?
Andy: “Through a lot of serving! A part of my story is that I grew up in England and came to the US when I was 21. Football was a huge part of my life growing up. I was an Ipswich Town supporter, and you know that if your team wins you’re happy, if they lose you’re not. So, being an Ipswich fan, I wasn’t happy too often! Your identity is kind of wrapped up with the club, so when I moved to the US I moved to California in 98, and because the internet was only just starting, I really had to cut off much of my connection with what it meant to be a soccer fan. I think in that process God really killed an idol in my life, so now 16 years later, God’s letting me minister into that thing that used to be an idol. On one level, getting involved was a process that God was working in me for a long time, but practically, Orlando City has only been in existence for five years. My friend Corey who was the real leader in the chaplaincy program and let me shadow and follow him around, initially we just kind of went to the front offices and said, “how can we help”. We started off with holding a faith and family night to help the club bring in some new fans and then one thing led to another and my friend was given access to the players and started holding bible studies and chapel services before games. Corey moved to California and so I kind of just moved up to his position.”
Liam: So give us a bit of a taster, what’s a general week consist of for you?
Andy: “Well my full-time job is a Pastor, starting a church about 20 months ago, and I’ve been in ministry for 15/16 years. I probably give about ten hours a week to the club and to the players. It’s a volunteer position, which is good, as it means I can have access to the players as an “insider” but they can be open with me as an “outsider”. They know that I’m not going to tattle their personal issues to the management. I try to go to training once a week, for an hour or so, then I will normally have lunch with the players in the cafeteria. We’ll then break into our bible study for an hour or so. Before every home game we have a chapel service, we’ll pray together and it’s mainly focused on inspirational/motivation kind of things that focus them on the game ahead. There are also things that come up during the season, like having some of the players over for dinner or providing some support and counsel if there’s family issues or players are struggling with injury or a personal struggle.”
Liam: Do people in and around the club treat you differently because you are ‘the chaplain’?
Andy: “That’s a great question. There are probably three ways people in the club view me – those who understand what I’m doing, those who are benevolent to what I’m doing and those who have no clue what I do! The more I show up, serve and support, the more I make friends and once you become friends that really breaks down a lot of the barriers. Ministry is always relational. Trust is such an important part of the soccer culture, to be given it by the club and to reinforce that with the players, I hope, helps overcome any negative religious stereotypes that may surround my role.”
Liam: What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Andy: “I think one of the things I’ve had to learn is that in my role, I’ve got to be a friend rather than a fan. In order to serve we need to put being a fan on the side, which was tough at first, but when you do that it really allows you to join in the culture as a friend. The thing I enjoy most is probably that I get to become friends with some interesting, fascinating and great people and hopefully am able to add some value and support to their very unique life! Again, ministry is always relational. I love how open they are to being shaped in positive ways. I love helping the players to build a platform to grow and share their faith, but I just enjoy serving. It has been an incredible experience that I consider a real honor. When we signed Ricky Kaka, the whole place just went crazy! I knew he was coming, I knew he’s a follower of Christ and he’s going to be in our bible study and I was wondering, “what’s the Lord doing here”?
Every time I walk by this quote in the Orlando City HQ, it reminds me of why I love being a part of the soccer… http://t.co/4K1eeuyiN7
— Andy J. Searles (@AndySearles) August 4, 2015
I remember that pretty early on we were having one of our pre-game chapels and Ricky missed it because he had some media work to do. He came up to me afterwards and said, “Hey Andy I’m sorry I missed chapel, can we pray?” So we sat in this corner and I laid my hands on his shoulders. Ricky and Aurelien Collin and myself were praying, and I’m thinking to myself, “God I can’t believe I’m praying with Kaka!!”. Then, it was as if God whispered to me, “You idiot!, it’s not that you are talking to Ricky that’s so cool in this moment of prayer, what’s great is that you are talking to me – The God of the universe!”. This was a significant moment for me as I realized how much greater God is than our society’s view of celebrity and success. God continues to remind me that he’s in charge, not me.”
Check out Orlando City’s first EVER goal in the MLS:
Liam: So what is it like to work with Ricardo Kaka?
Andy: “He is incredibly humble. He’s one of the lads in the dressing room and enjoys the banter with the players. At first, we were all intimidated by him because of all that he has accomplished in the game and I think that even on the pitch other players initially passed him the ball even if he isn’t the best option because they held him in such respect! He handles his fame really well, with incredible humility and he has really become part of the team. He’s a quiet guy, he’s very disciplined and knows how to use his influence in positive ways. He protects his time but he is incredibly generous with it as well. Sometimes he stays hours after games signing autographs – for everyone. Humble is the word to describe him.”
Liam: Who’s the most impressive footballing contact that you have, outside of kaka?
Andy: “It doesn’t get much bigger than Kaka in the global game, but we have many great players in the locker room and people connected with the club. Adrian Heath, our coach, was a player I watched growing up in the UK and he is an incredible manager who knows the game inside and out. He commands respect from all around the soccer world because of what he has achieved and his discipline and character. In terms of the locker room the other guy I have become close with is be Aurelien Collin, he has quite a lot of profile in the US because he’s been in the league for five years and was MVP after the championship game a few years ago. I’m proud of how he’s allowed Jesus to shape his story, and is really seeking to follow Christ in every area of his life.”
Liam: As a man who is involved in the MLS, are you excited about where it is headed?
Andy: “Yeah, it’s really been incredible! This year attendance numbers are up, the quality on the field is up and its very fast and very strong league. I have no doubt its on the rise. I know it has a reputation in the UK as being a retirement home for older players but I think we are starting to move away from that. Giovinco, who signed for Toronto, at like 26-27, has had an incredible season! Kaka was 32 when he came to Orlando but his call up to the Brazilian team for their World Cup qualifiers demonstrate he still has it! The emphasis put on youth development is also astounding – it’s definitely a league with a big future!”
Liam: Lets finish on a personal note; do you have a favourite bible verse that encourages you?
Andy: “It depends what is going on in my life. I try to be very disciplined in my study of scripture but I’m not a big believer in Christian superstition, which often follows when we don’t put scripture in its correct context. I think the only plaque on our wall at home is 1 Corinthians 13 because our family is a big believer in the necessity of the kind of love portrayed in these verses. My favourite scripture verse really depends on the struggles, hopes and season that I am experiencing.”