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Dunlap: Learning to see sports as ministry

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"I'm still a big sports fan" said Rod Dunlap, pictured in Bengals gear with his children. Dunlap is the head of Sports Ministry, a new focus for the Archdiocese. (Courtesy Photo)
“I’m still a big sports fan” said Rod Dunlap, pictured in Bengals gear with his children. Dunlap is the head of Sports Ministry, a new focus for the Archdiocese. (Courtesy Photo)

By Gail Finke

When he looked for young people to work with, Rod Dunlap found that a lot of them didn’t spend much time in church. The former youth and young adult minister for St. John the Baptist Church, Dry Ridge, found them playing sports.

“The numbers increase every year,” he said. “Where are the kids? On the ballfield. On the basketball court.”

While St. John had a core of teens who participated in youth activities, Dunlap said a second group was easy to overlook: young people whose sports practices and competitions made it hard for them to attend retreats, talks, socials, and other church youth activities for months at a time.

Dunlap had those young people in mind when he was approached about applying for a new position in the archdiocese: Assistant Director of Sports Ministry (NOT SURE????). He thought of one young woman in particular, a serious swimmer.

“She loved it,” he said. “It was her passion. She really wanted to do high school ministry events too, but she could never make any of the activities. Do we just say to her, ‘No, you can’t do that?’”

Dunlap understood that passion. A high school golfer, he studied Sports Science at Ohio University and still plays competitively. But Christ was another passion, and he went on to receive a masters degree in religion, with a focus in pastoral care, from Mount St. Joseph University. He had found a way to see Christ in his love of sports, and the challenges of youth ministry meant looking for ways to reach the busy young athletes whose dedication and schedules he understood not just the young people who signed up for the events and classes he offered.

He was intrigued by the idea of taking what he had done to reach out to young athletes in Dry Ridge to the archdiocese as a whole. But it would mean giving up the job he loved for a new venture – with a fifth child of his own on the way.

“I said I’d have to pray and discern with my wife,” he said. After talking it over with his wife, Maria (who runs Vivian’s Victory, a non-profit the couple formed to help families who have been given poor prenatal diagnoses), the two decided to pray a novena. Nine days later he applied for the job, and he began work in early January.

So far, Dunlap said, sports ministry is more vision than plan. He scheduled meetings with Lou Judd, director of the Kentucky-based Sport Leader program several area parishes use, and other sports ministry programs around the state and around the country.

“Lou Judd is the godfather of sports ministry,” he said. “But I also want to know – What’s Columbus doing? What’s Cleveland doing? What’s out there? It’s scary, but fun at the same time. There’s no blueprint to follow in the archdiocese.”

Seeing parish or Catholic school sports as a ministry is new for many people, he said, but should be easy to understand. “Say you’re looking for young people,” he said. “There they are! If you take only the ones who come in for youth ministry events, you’re missing the rest. We need to be there. The Archdiocese needs to be there . Nnot just for legal and liability purposes, although those are important. But because it’s a way to ask young people, ‘How, through your passion for sports, can you seek the face of Christ?’

“Let’s not just say to busy young athletes, ‘You’re on your own!’” Dunlap said. “Let’s find a way to realize that sports is youth ministry, and that couches are youth minister. If you work with youth who go out there wearing a jersey that says, say, ‘St. Jude,’ then you are a minister! So how can we, as youth ministers, invite teens to walk together with us and see the face of Christ together?”

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