Chaplain Billy Cerveny Brings Calm, Comfort Amidst Chaos of Season
NASHVILLE - It's two hours before kickoff and First Tennessee Park is slowly coming to life. Gates have yet to be opened as Nashville SC front office staff and gameday workers scurry around the park putting on the finishing touches before fans walk in to enjoy another Saturday night soccer match. The pitch is pristine, waiting for 22 pairs of cleats to sink and cut into the grass to decide another win, loss or draw in the USL Championship.
Meanwhile in a quiet corner of a batting cage, inside the recesses of First Tennessee Park where one can't quite make out the bustle of Nashville SC pre-match festivities, a small circle of chairs rests on the artificial turf.
In one of the chairs sits Nashville SC chaplain Billy Cerveny. A Bible is gently cradled in one hand, and behind circular rimless glasses, comforting eyes match the message he conveys to calm the nerves before the intensity of professional competition. Not all of the seats around the chaplain have occupants, but on this Saturday night, a handful are filled. The conversation rarely raises above a murmur as Cerveny delivers a brief devotional through Scripture and prayer. The faces inside the circle might change match to match, but Cerveny is always present, always available to ease the tension that comes with three points at stake in front of thousands of home fans.
"Before the game is an intense time," Cerveny says. "So I try to remind them that who they are is not at stake with the outcome of the match, that the Lord is with them. That they step on the field with eyes for each other, knowing that their brothers are going out there, not just on a team, but also in their Faith. They are doing something they are created to do, and when they do it, they bring glory to God. However it goes on the field, that they know they are loved, and they are not alone."
Cerveny's background is atypical of a pastor or club chaplain - once a political journalist in Washington D.C. turned touring singer and songwriter who published studio albums turned co-author with 90's boy-band Hanson. Now though, he is a married father of three and a Presbyterian pastor, holding the position of Nashville SC chaplain since the club's entrance into the USL Championship prior to the 2018 season.
"A year and a half ago I was pastoring a church in downtown Nashville, and I was praying about what the Lord had to the future of my ministry," says Cerveny. "I knew that I had a real heart for being a pastor, but also for stepping beyond the walls of the church and into contexts where I could minister to folks. I got an email from a friend of mine who had been told about a chaplaincy role, and I loved the idea, even though I didn't know anyone directly at the club. I guess it was towards the end of 2017 that I decided I was going to go for it and jump right in."
It's a unique and difficult position for Cerveny, or any chaplain of a soccer club. How does one connect with players and staff from around the world, growing up in different socio-economic circles, with various faiths or no faith at all?
"Lots of cups of coffee, lots of meals, and lots of off-site get-togethers," Cerveny reminisces, "I get to know who they are, their families, the people they are dating. Find out what they're wrestling with, some of the struggles in their careers. I try to walk with them and bring a little order to the chaos. Guys that get injured, I try to draw close to them and help them know they are not alone as they navigate recovery. For people that have babies, I will bring meals for their family or bring a box of diapers.
"I think generally speaking, it's, 'How do I love these guys where they are, and how they are?'"
While Cerveny is visible around the club on matchdays, often standing next to the pitch in a suit watching the players warm up and chatting with front office and technical staff, most of his role is behind the scenes during the course of the week, a part of the players lives when no one else is. He is a guiding force in a long, grueling, mentally exhausting season. The friend, the confidant, the counselor, Cerveny is more than just a pastor to the club.
"The question I ask is not, 'How can I convince or sell somebody on what I believe?,' but I ask the question, 'God, what are you doing in this guy's life, and how can I agree with it?, How can I love them well?'" Cerveny says. "Most of the time that means they need a friend, they need someone to listen or give them wise council. They need someone to sit with them and listen when they have been through the intensity of the meat of the season. When they don't have anyone they feel safe to talk to, they can talk to me. What they say will stay safe with me. They can share the hard things, and I try to pull alongside them."
After the match, the scene is much different than the quiet circle of seats before the match. As players exit the pitch up two flights of stairs to the locker room, Cerveny waits at the top. On this particular Saturday, jubilant shouts fill the stairwell as Nashville SC players come off the high of celebrating a victory over Memphis 901 FC with the home fans. To a man, each player acknowledges Cerveny on the way inside the locker room. He offers a smile, a congratulations, a quick hug, but stays to the side, a visible, comforting yet unobtrusive presence, there to remind each player that he has a friend, waiting just for him.
"When I stand in the tunnel when they are walking out to play or at halftime or as they are going into the locker room, it's to remind them that they are not alone in this," says Cerveny. "That there is someone that is there for them and loves them and celebrates with them in their victories and grieves with them when things don't turn out the way they should. My presence in their lives doesn't go away when things go bad or when things are difficult. I am in it with them now and for the long haul.
"At the end of the day, a lot of people say about pastors, 'They are doing the Lord's work.' I am not. The Lord is doing the Lord's work. My job is to listen and to agree with it. It's been a joy, and I have loved it. This is where the Lord's called me now, and I have been blessed by the relationships I have built through this team."
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