We sit down with Gaynor this week, a parent of top-level teenagers to chat about the wrestle she's had with her family on the issue of sport and church.
In an amazingly challenging and uplifting interview, we discuss the joy of spending quality time with her sporty kids, the importance of church and how conversations about priorities have led to wonderful opportunities to speak about Jesus.
JONNY REID: Gaynor, thanks so much for joining us. We recognize being a parent of competitively sporty children has its own unique challenges. You've got three children. James, particularly, a high level endurance runner.
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yeah.
JONNY REID: What's life been like being a parent of such sporty children?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Well, I would say, in the main, it's just been a really positive thing actually. There are some downsides to it, but overall, I think it's brought me loads of joy and us as a family. It's brought us a focus to ... Especially to our week, to our weekends. Yeah, just lots of commitment and it keeps the kids out of mischief, especially James on his training schedule, which is basically six days a week, only one day off. So yeah, it's been a really amazing thing actually. And I would say even through some tough times over the last few years, it's been ... Actually having a child doing competitive sport has been something that's actually kept us going, and something that we've really looked forward to and, yeah, something to focus on. So overall, really good.
Graham Daniels: Gaynor, see, I like this already because I bet most people who are listening in right now were thinking your answer to that might be kind of, “Well it's been a bit of a struggle with this and that and this and that”, because lots of the time, that's what we get at Christians in Sport. So I'm not decrying that it's difficult, and we're going to talk about that. But I have to say, I'm absolutely delighted. We didn't know what you were going to say, but you went in and said, "See, this has really, really been good for us."
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yeah, definitely.
Graham Daniels: Tell us more. Why has it been ... Nail that down a bit. Why has it really been good? Not generalization, why has it been good for you then?
GAYNOR PENROSE: I mean, one thing I've always worried about, especially with teenage boys, is the tendency to just sit on their devices and that kind of thing. So for one point of view, just getting them, so James and his brother, sort of out running regularly. It's just kept them fit, it's kept them healthy. It's meant that we've spent a lot of time with our children actually, it's been a really positive thing for us engaging with our children, particularly with James. He has to do lots and lots of runs, and when he was younger, we would encourage him with those. He soon outran us and we couldn't keep up with him at all.
But even as he's progressed, we've found there are still some sessions that we've been able to help him with. Say or often he's got to train, it's a dark evening, it's raining, but he really got to do it. And we'll say, “Don't worry. We'll put our trainers on as well.” Or maybe one of us, and we'll go up there and maybe we're doing, I don't know, hill reps tonight or something like that, that's something that we can still do with you even though we're much slower. We can do it as well as our own session and that's meant we've just had lots of really sort of positive time with James.
We're just spending time in between those hill reps while we're just waiting and counting the two minutes until we go for our next one. You know, we're chatting about all sorts of different things. And it's just been something that we've shared, lots of car journeys to training, to events. Yeah, just a lot of positive time to engage with your children really.
Graham Daniels: So Gaynor, have me then go a little bit further on that. You're sporty yourself?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Well, to a degree.
Graham Daniels: Yeah, but I mean to a degree because that's enough.
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yes.
Graham Daniels: Now, I don't mean this in a negative way but I want you to talk into it because they'll be others ... There'll be some people who say here's option A, my husband and I, or if it's a single parent, myself, we are really sporty. The risk is we live off the reflected glory that our child could be really good.
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yes.
Graham Daniels: So that's a risk, right?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yeah, definitely.
Graham Daniels: You've got loads of time and they're successful, and then you really want them to be really successful because they're your kids. That's one extreme. Then there's the other extreme of this, which is Mom or Dad have no clue about sport and it's really stressful for them. And they could never talk in the way that you're talking about it. Now, I don't say those things to be awkward or negative, but if you're on one end of that, we'll talk to people on the other end another time, who aren't sporty at all. How do you negotiate this then, with James, that you must really love it when he's good? How do you walk that balancing act if he's not ... If sport isn't everything to you?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Right. I think talking about it really. Yeah, just being really honest. And we've actually probably said those exact words to him, that sport isn't everything and it's often come up in a context of when maybe a race hasn't gone very well and he's disappointed or he got injured or something like that. And that's just brought it up and we've just had to say, “Look, this isn't the main thing at the end of the day. You know, you're enjoying it and ... But really, it doesn't matter how you do in a race, we love you the same. And the really important message that God loves you the same, and in fact your identity has nothing to do with how well you do in sport. God loves you because of who you are. He made you in his image and it's not dependent how you do in your sport.”
So we've just been really honest and that's the kind of thing we've talked around the dinner table or on the way to training or on the way ... Probably on the way back, definitely, from races that haven't gone very well. You know, we've just been very open about it.
Graham Daniels: Yeah, very helpful. Help us then, we're looking in particular at Sundays and sport in this particular podcast. But of course, some days the outworking of everything you've just said, as parents, it's our responsibility above everybody else to nurture our children. But our church families’ a significant part of that support system for us. Having had so many conversations like that with James for example, how have you worked and fitted in to the wider Christian community, particularly with weekends, how does that work for you?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yeah, so it's definitely has been a dilemma, and of course the better they get at their sport, the more of a dilemma it gets. And some of the time, we're lucky having a sport like athletics where James, say in the track season, he would have a choice ... Maybe a choice of event. So he might be able to do the 800 meters or he might be able to the 1500 meters, and it's often worked that one's early on a Sunday and one's late. So sometimes, we just take the very practical decision to say to the head coach, “Look, would you mind putting James in for the later one?” And that means we can go to church or can go to most of church and get away.
So sometimes we've tried to organize it that way because we do think that church actually is really important. I wouldn't just say church, but meeting with Christians, it's just incredibly important. And I feel like that when I go to church and I worship with my church family and I hear God's word, it is like having a meal, a big steak and chips or whatever. And you miss that if you don't get it, and you're worried that your kids are going to miss out on that as well. And of course, you want them to know the Lord and you want them to love the Lord. And you know yourself how you can get cold if you're not being fed regularly. So we also felt that was really important.
So yeah, we have ... Yeah, there's a few different strategies that we've employed. So the one is what I said. You know, sometimes just see if we can work around it. But there have been lots of times where we have had to miss. So we tried not to be a slave to every single race or whatever, so sometimes we've made choices and said, “This is important. That's not so important.” But we've also been very aware that we're part of a team. So although it's a kind of individual sport, you're also part of your athletics club and often you're getting points for your club and things like that. And especially as we were doing quite well in national competitions and going with the leagues and things like that. Then, you know, we wanted to do well for our club as well, wanted to support our club. So yeah, we just had to work that out, but inevitably there were quite a lot of Sundays getting missed.
So the way we tried to work that out is being, again, really honest with our kids saying, “This is not ideal for us because Sunday's a time where we meet with our church family. We miss seeing them, we miss hearing God's word, we miss worshiping together. But what we're going to do is we're going to ... This evening, we're all going to get together at home and we're going to have a little bible time ourselves.” And one of the things we used actually, we found very, very helpful, was we actually used a Christians in Sport Pray Play Say videos, which talked about lots of things, including Sunday sport. I think you did one on Sunday sport actually. And we went through those systematic because all our children are quite sporty, so they were relevant for them. And we just watched them and then we did the little bible reading, and then we listened to the interview or whatever. And we did all of those and other times, we just looked at another passage and maybe used some of your bible notes or something and read that and prayed together.
So we've just tried to say that this is important.
Graham Daniels: Gaynor, have you ... Can you remember the early days when you really ... Did you anguish over this at all, at the beginning?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yes.
Graham Daniels: Yes, you did. You've obviously landed in a pragmatic place, which is what most people do.
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yes.
Graham Daniels: You know, that's a normal thing to do.
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yes.
Graham Daniels: But you're very thorough on it. Tell me about that wrestling match and how you made the decision?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yeah. I think it was coming to the realization that sport was a gift from God as well, and that gifts in sport was something to be celebrated. And I would say that Christians in Sport helped us with that, understanding that, sort of reading things and watching videos. And also the children going on the Christians in Sport camp, and them learning and coming back and telling us, you know, "I can use sport to worship God, that's part of my worship." So we were looking at that on one hand, but on the other hand, looking at the side that we need to not give up meeting together.
So yes, and I think maybe, probably the background that I was from was very much that Sunday was separate and you didn't do stuff on Sunday. But I think we talked to a lot of people about it as well. And yeah, it was really just remembering that sport was a gift from God, I think, as well and that ... Yeah, probably not ever to compete on a Sunday would mean that they couldn't use that sport to ... You know, they couldn't get to the level maybe they're capable of of getting in sport. Yeah, so it was a pragmatic view. And I must say, it's something that we felt peaceful about. You know, we had talked to lots of people, but we've come to this decision and I would say our church have been very supportive about it.
Graham Daniels: Tell us about that then. Because of one of the questions we get a lot is, somebody might say well Gaynor, one, how did your church support you in this and were you challenged on it? And two, are they adaptable, are you adaptable, how does it work?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yeah. I mean, I think different churches might take different views, but we ... Certainly our church have come to the pragmatic view, the same as us, I think really. Because we have actually talked to them about it and we've said things like, you know, "We're finding it a bit of a dilemma and on the one hand, he's been invited to go to this and he's doing really well. And yeah, but on the other hand, we feel bad about missing church and we don't want to be a discouragement to the rest of the church." But yeah, so we've actually talked to the leaders about it. We've also had discussions in some more informal bible studies and weekdays a bit about this kind of thing as well. And yeah, but they have generally just been really supportive and it's probably helped them to see the other side of it as well.
Graham Daniels: Yeah. And were you ... Pioneers is not quite the right phrase. But when you had this chat with church leaders, a bible teaching church-
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yes.
Graham Daniels: Form on gospel clarity and church community, were you the first with a child at this kind of level of sport?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yes. Yeah. We're quite a small church anyway, but we do have actually even now, a younger girl in our church who is an elite gymnast coming through. So yeah, so this is very relevant, but yes, I think we were the first. Definitely. But the other thing I would say is that, which our church has helped us with as well, is that if you can't get there on a Sunday, most churches have got other meetings in the week that maybe you can get to. So we've tried to really prioritize that, especially if we don't get there on a Sunday, to make sure we get to the bible study, you know, the mid-week meeting, the groups, the house groups or whatever it is, so that we are getting that input.
And we've really prioritized youth group as well for the children. And so this is important because, you know, especially missing out on a Sunday, God has said that we shouldn't give up meeting together. And so this is the way that we can do that. And in fact, we stopped James going to a longer training session on a Friday night because we felt it was more important for him to go to youth group. So in actual fact, he was still going to a training session on Friday night, but a shorter one. And this was a little bit of a sticking point with his coach for a while because he kept saying, “Well really, I need to have him for longer. Really, I need to have him for longer”, you know, on that Friday night and whatever. But we felt, because we were missing quite a few Sundays, we felt the youth group is just crucial.
And we just made that decision that that needed to come first, that needed to be a priority. Yes, he would still train, it would be a shorter session, but we just leave that to God, you know? And it did also bring ... You know, make some interesting conversations with the coach about our priorities as a family. And that yes, the running was really, really important, but actually, the fact that we're Christians and that we wanted to meet with our fellow Christians and yeah, that we love God, was an even bigger priority. So it actually led to lots of interesting conversations.
JONNY REID: What were conversations like with James, Gaynor? How's he found this tension, this wrestle, himself?
GAYNOR PENROSE: Yeah. He's been really good about it actually. Before he did running, before we realized that he could run well, he was doing rugby. And of course the big day for that is Sunday mornings as well. And so we'd had an issue with that actually, because the matches were usually on a Sunday morning. And in fact, it was just a village club, but they were so keen for James to play and we were saying, “Look, Sundays are a bit of a problem for us”, because it was every Sunday. Sunday mornings are a problem. And we're in a small church as well, so we don't have an evening service, we're a small village church. So that was difficult, so we said to them, “You know, it's a bit of a problem.” And they were so keen for him to play, because I think he could run fast with the ball and you know, he was very fast, that they said, “Right, whenever we're organizing a match, we're going to make it later.” So in actual fact, they were sort of scheduling matches at 12 o'clock on a Sunday rather than 10:30 or something like that, really just for James.
But even then, James said he felt ... He'd sit in church with his rugby kit on and he felt he couldn't concentrate in church, and he felt quite stressed just sitting there knowing he was going to have to go. And so he'd felt that himself, he didn't want to sit in church being sort of stressed. And he was actually ... When we made the switch to the running, in a way that a bit of a relief for him, that it was ... At least it wasn't every Sunday he sat there kind of feeling stressed. He was kind of there or he wasn't there. I think the main thing is just to be really open and honest with your teenager about how you're feeling, and I think that goes virtually anything with a teenager. But especially about the sport and the Sunday sport issue for him. We were just like, "This is our dilemma, you know, God's given you this gift to use. But at the same time, it does mean that we miss church sometimes." But overall, I think taking the pragmatic approach, it has worked. Yeah. Yeah, but sometimes it's difficult.
Graham Daniels: See, what I like about this, Reidy and Gaynor, what I like about it as a parent and grandparent, is you keep saying three things in different ways almost without noticing it, I think. Gaynor keeps saying one, she said it a few times, her children's identity What was clear was that in determination that following Christ is your main identity and the gift to play is a gift from Him and must always be seen in that context. I think that's really powerful because your children will know if you're more of a fan and you're desperate for them to succeed, so that that's the main thing in life. It's a subtle thing. And I can see it, I've got used to seeing it. And Gaynor's way of being shouts loud and clear what the priority in life is. Secondly, it's really clear, three or four or five times where you said, Gaynor, you know, the thing is meeting together, encouraging one another, hearing God's word, singing, praising, eating the food of scripture, having a great meal together, other people.
You're clearly, in the life of your children, saying this is a priority. Now, we've got to balance this gift from God with the importance of meeting together for other people's sake as well as our own. That comes through loud and clear. And as any parent who's gone through teenage years will know, and if some are getting ready for it, think your principle that as much honesty and openness, transparency, asking them to speak into things is so helpful. And that is very loud and clear in the way that you answer the questions here.
So Jonny, I'm encouraged by this and encouraged by Gaynor's front-footedness that this is a gift, it is from God, it can be used in worship, the church family is needed and we commit to the lives of our children and of God. And it's a positive experience, even though like everything else, it's got fractures. It encourages me very much. It's just what I was hoping for from our conversation.
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