Football and Mental Health

Being a football chaplain is great. One of the few downsides is the close season – not just because there’s no football on, but because there is often a large turnover of players. That means players you’ve just started getting to know moving on, fresh faces coming in, and the whole process starting again. However, that pales into insignificance compared to the uncertainty the close season can bring for many players. Many play the final game on the season on a Saturday, knowing that on the following Tuesday they might be told their services are no longer required. For some, football is their main or only source of income. Many of us would think of that as a great position to be in – but it can be a mixed blessing. One ‘journeyman’ who knows all too well the pain of being let go is former Stranraer striker Christian Nadé. In an interview last month he said that when a club don’t want you anymore, ‘You won’t show it, you’ll pretend that it’s alright, but trust me that when you close the door in your home, you cry’. Then if a player does find a new club, they have to start from the beginning again.

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Unsurprisingly a life filled with uncertainty, but where you cannot afford to be seen as weak, can have a negative impact on mental health. This can particularly be the case when someone’s career ends – through injury, retirement or failure to earn a new contract. If football is everything, take it away and you have nothing. If your life has been based around football for as long as you can remember, if all your friends are involved in football, it can be very difficult to find yourself on the outside. Those who speak out about their difficulties don’t always find a lot of sympathy. Last year, Cowdenbeath striker David Cox revealed that after speaking out about his mental health struggles, he had been taunted by fans and fellow players, who mocked him about slitting his wrists.

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Thankfully though, things are starting to change. In 2016, Chris Mitchell, a former Scotland Under-21 international who quit football after a series of injuries, took his own life at the age of 27. As a result, his family set up the Chris Mitchell Foundation, which they hope will ‘dispel the stigma’ in the game. Last year I had the opportunity to attend a 2-day NHS Mental Health First Aid Course at Hampden Park, tailored towards football and funded by Chris’s Foundation. Last month, the BBC screened a documentary about men’s mental health featuring Prince William and five current or former Premier League footballers: Gareth Southgate, Peter Crouch, Thierry Henry, Danny Rose and Jermaine Jenas. Southgate played over 700 games, but is remembered for only one. Crouch was booed when he came on for his England debut, with his mum and dad in the crowd. Rose became depressed when he suffered his first serious injury, and his team were doing well without him.

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Many of the same pressures are shared by those outside of football. Not so long ago, it was normal for people to be with one company the whole of their working life. Today that sort of job security is a rarity. Nor is football the only environment where people, particularly men, aren’t always encouraged to talk about mental health. However, it is important for them to know that you are not alone, and there are people they can talk to.

If people do unburden themselves to us, we need to avoid simplistic or even damaging advice – ‘cheer up’, ‘what do you have to be depressed about?’. As a minister and a chaplain, I believe that mental health can have both a physical and a spiritual component, but even then one of the first things I would tell someone to do is talk to their GP. However it was encouraging to hear Christian Nadé telling the BBC about how talking to a pastor helped him after attempting suicide.

While mental health struggles aren’t always connected to our life circumstances, and can hit someone when everything seems to be going well, the stories of many footballers show that we are particularly at risk if we find our meaning and identity in things that can be taken from us. Our jobs, health and families are all gifts from God – but they may not always be there for us.

Don’t focus so much on the gifts, that you forget the Giver. Only the Creator is strong enough to sustain us when created things are taken from us.

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 4th July 2019

Irish RP Synod

This past week, Stephen represented the Scottish RP Church at the Irish RP Church’s annual Synod meetings. This year Synod was held in Knockbracken RP Church, where Stephen had worked as an assistant for a year before coming to Stranraer.

The Synod began on the Monday night with a sermon by the outgoing Moderator, Rev. Andrew Kerr (Knockbracken). Rev. Mark Loughridge (Letterkenny and Milford), whose brother Peter is minister in North Edinburgh, was elected Moderator for the year ahead.

On Tuesday night, Stephen gave an update on the work of the Scottish RP Church, before preaching to begin the Wednesday morning day of prayer.

The Moderator and the American RP delegate then travelled across to Scotland for the meeting of our own Presbytery on Friday.

Stephen pictured with the Moderator and other delegates - William Macleod (FCC), Kevin Bidwell (EPCEW) and David Weir (RPCNA).

Stephen pictured with the Moderator and other delegates - William Macleod (FCC), Kevin Bidwell (EPCEW) and David Weir (RPCNA).

The Synod finished on the Wednesday night by commissioning Isaac Berrocal for mission work in Almuñécar and Nerja in Spain, a region where 90% of people have never heard the gospel.

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On the weekend prior to the Synod, Stephen spoke at Knockbracken’s annual church weekend on the ‘One anothers’ of the Bible.

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The most well-known name associated with Knockbracken is Thomas Houston, who was ordained there not long after William Symington began his ministry in Stranraer. Houston spent his whole ministry (1828 - 1882) in Knockbracken and Stephen spent a year studying his life for a Masters thesis in Irish history. Houston was a prolific author, whose book on prayer meetings has recently been digitised.

The current minister in Knockbracken is Andrew Kerr, who was the 2018 Moderator of Synod. Andrew writes regularly for the Gentle Reformation blog. Below is part of an interview he did for a recent documentary on the Welsh minister Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

Mission Update Meeting

A relief team to Romania

A relief team to Romania

Last week, two members of the RP Church’s Relief Committee came to Stranraer to speak about the practical work they do, both locally and overseas. It was a great opportunity to hear more about the work, and think through how we can get involved, both as individuals and as a congregation.

The men did a similar presentation in Glasgow the night before, and you can read a report about it on the RPCS website.

From South Korea to Stranraer!

Stephen has a new ‘Pause for Thought’ page in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press. Here’s his first article for the new format, published in this week’s paper (30th May)

I was at a ministers’ conference in England last month, and was told that a South Korean man was very keen to meet me. It turned out he was bringing a group of people to a World Missionary Conference that was being held in Stranraer, and wanted to know of some local Covenanter sites that he could take them to.

Two weeks ago, over 100 of these Korean visitors arrived for their conference, impossible to miss with their bright yellow jackets bringing colour to the town. Many witnessed them singing in the town centre, with one video of it quickly gathering 15,000 views on facebook.

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In fact, one of my favourite things about being a minister is the opportunity to meet fellow believers from around the world. In my three years in Stranraer, our small church has had visitors from South Korea, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Australia, the United States and Canada – as well as from many parts of the UK and Ireland. Some of these have been fellow Reformed Presbyterians; others have just been looking for somewhere to worship when passing through, and searched online for a Bible-believing church.

There are others in countries such as India, South Africa and France who’ve never visited, but have signed up to receive news and prayer updates from our church in Stranraer.

As a family, we’ve also had the opportunity to travel to International RP Conferences, in North America, Scotland and Ireland, with fellow-attendees from too many countries to count. This time last year we spent some time with the RP Church in Los Angeles, whose assistant pastor is South Korean. He has his own version of the ‘Blue Banner’, flown by the Covenanters in Scotland in the late-1600s, emblazoned with a Korean translation of the slogan ‘For Christ’s Crown and Covenant’. Another friend, a Japanese pastor, has one adorning his motorcycle.

Indeed, despite the differences in language, culture, food etc, the overwhelming impression when talking to these brothers and sisters is not what divides us, but what we have in common.

One of my theology Professors recently returned from teaching in South Korea. He commented that having been privileged over many years to visit some far-flung parts of the world and experience church life in different forms, what has generally struck him is not how different things are, but how similar. It reminded me of a conversation with a couple of medical missionaries in Uganda – two of the biggest issues they face among young men are alcohol abuse and suicide. People are people, wherever you go.

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Returning to Stranraer’s recent visitors, the fact that our town has a church sent out from South Korea is a local example of a trend academics describe as ‘reverse missionaries’. It is becoming more and more common for countries which we traditionally think of as missionary ‘targets’ to instead be sending missionaries here. So people from Africa come to start churches in England, and South Korean Presbyterians are sent to the mission field of South-West Scotland. Reverse missionaries come either because they think there aren’t enough churches in an area – or they perceive that existing churches are no longer proclaiming the message that once enthused traditional missionaries to travel the globe.

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In 1950 an estimated 80% of the world’s Christians were in Western countries. By 2025 it’s estimated that at least half of them will be in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia.

While some may feel threatened by this trend, I actually find it refreshing. As the UK moves further and further away from being a Christian country, those who follow Jesus find themselves in a similar position to that of the Apostles in the first century. The Apostles were regarded as ‘atheists’ (as they didn’t believe in the pantheon of Roman gods). They were outsiders whose views were misrepresented (the Lord’s Supper sounded a bit too much like cannibalism). They faced persecution, increasingly by the state itself (once it became clear that Christianity wasn’t just a Jewish sect). But all this combined to mean it was fairly clear where people stood. When people rejected the Apostles’ teaching, it wasn’t because they had been brought up in the church, and thought they knew it all already. And as people heard their message about Jesus with fresh ears, many found in strangely compelling. 

Perhaps some will hear South Koreans singing on the streets of Stranraer as an invitation to listen to an old message with new understanding.

The Tomb of Alexander Linn - Shepherd, Covenanter, Martyr

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Alexander Linn was shot on the spot on Craigmoddie Fell, a remote part of Wigtownshire, in 1685 after being found with a pocket Bible. In May 1827, 142 years later, the Stranraer minister William Symington preached a sermon at the spot. A stone wall was built around the grave, its stone placed in the wall, and a new stone added.

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According to one contemporary account, ‘it is so remote a place, that nothing but the hottest spirit of persecution could have pursued its victims into such a wild. It was a matter of surprise, that a congregation could be collected there to hear sermon. Yet, says an eye witness, we had a large and most attentive audience, people having gathered from a wide circle of the surrounding country’.

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‘It was with great difficulty that Dr. Symington could find his way to the spot on the Sabbath morning; but as he approached it, he perceived people streaming towards it from all quarters. A temporary pulpit was erected near the martyr’s grave. The audience listened with much pleasure to a long and moving discourse from Jude 3’.

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The Dumfries & Galloway Courier (29 May 1827) reported that there were at least 1000 people there - and that Symington spoke for four hours!

‘The preacher and his audience, which could not be under 1,000 souls, had to travel through bogs for many a weary mile, and when the voice of the Psalms rose in the wilderness, and matrons, maids, and reverential men were seen streaming from every neighbouring height, the spectators had a living example before them of a conventicle held in the days of persecution. We need not eulogise the talents of the preacher. As a divine he has very few equals, whether among Dissenters or in the Established Church; and although he spoke for four hours, a more attentive and enthusiastic congregation never assembled on a hill-side. The inscription on the humble tomb of Linn furnished the Rev. Gentleman with a text, “contending earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints,” and never was a text more interestingly illustrated. The remoteness of the spot — the tent planted in the open wild — the monotonous aspect of external nature as contrasted with the pious worshippers around — the burn stealing through the heathery waste, and the curlew complaining that her wilderness had been invaded — all contributed to subdue the mind to a holy calm, to banish for a time every worldly feeling, and produce impressions which only the poet could have adequately described’.

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One tradition states that Linn was from New Luce, and would have been a parishioner of Alexander Peden’s - however it is more likely that he was a fugitive from elsewhere.

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Further memorial services were held in 1887, 1911 and 1912. According to another source, ‘additional commemoration services were held at the tomb in 1972 and 1985, the latter marking the 300th anniversary of the death of Alexander Linn. The 1972 service was recorded by an addendum to his original 1685 stone in which two numbers in the date were transposed, reading 1927 instead of 1972’.

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“Contend for the faith that was once for all given to the saints” - Jude 3

“Happy is that people whose God is the LORD” - Psalm 144:15

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