Adam Burt had trained his whole young life for this moment. It was the first time the NHL draft had ever been held in Burt’s hometown of Detroit, Michigan, and at the age of 18, he was finally eligible for it. He’d moved away from home to play for the North Bay Centennials in the Ontario Hockey League two years earlier.
This was a big deal for Burt, for his family—his father was there, and this was his moment, too. He had worked at Olympia Stadium, which is where Burt grew up as a rink rat, learning to skate on the ice used by the Detroit Red Wings. Now, Burt was set to go 12th overall in the first round of the 1987 NHL draft.
“The St. Louis Blues select from the North Bay Centennials…Keith Osborne.”
Not Burt, but his teammate—it felt like someone had kicked him in the soul. The entire first round passed by without a team calling Burt’s name. He ended up being drafted in the second round, 39th overall, by the Hartford Whalers.
Burt had been a religious guy before, and says he had given most of his life to God, but he still wanted to party every now and then, check out girls, typical teenage guy stuff. Especially after moving out on his own at the age of 16, he’d been experiencing a back-and-forth internal struggle of living for God versus himself. But at that moment, feeling the weight of his own failure in the Joe Louis Arena in 1987, he gave his whole self to Jesus.
“Ok God, I’m done screwing around. I’m all in. You can have all of me,” Burt remembers saying. He didn’t do it hoping to bring luck in his hockey career. “It was more of, you know, I really suck at doing me. You take the reins.”
Burt said that it takes the right circumstance for a person to realize where he stands—that, like all people, he is a needy sinner, requiring God’s love and grace. The 1987 NHL draft was that situation for Burt.
A Hell’s Kitchen pastor
That was 26 years and a 14-season NHL career ago. Now, Burt is a 45-year-old pastor living in New Jersey, where he also serves as chaplain for the New York Jets. At 6-foot-2, he’s maintained an athletic build. He points to his gray hair and calls himself an old guy. His brown eyes lock on you when he talks, and he’s the kind of person who says your name frequently during conversation.
The first time I met Burt, he wore a loose blue and gray striped button-up and slim jeans. We met at Renaissance Diner in Hell’s Kitchen in the outdoor courtyard, which he referred to as his office. Later that evening he was meeting a couple there for pre-marital counseling, one of his pastoral duties.
Burt is currently the pastor of two non-denominational churches—Every Nation NYC, West Side and the newly started Every Nation Church, New Jersey. He’s served as pastor at the 11 a.m. West Side service since it began in 2007, but the 5 p.m. service in New Jersey is really his church plant baby. Both are affiliated with the global Every Nation Ministries, as are two other locations in the metro area—East Side and Lincoln Center. Previously called Morning Star New York, the churches recently changed names to reflect their diverse congregations and the opportunity they have to reach people from nearly every nation by ministering in New York.
Burt thought he would be the sidekick athlete who could help out, give money and attract the sports audience; instead, he was thrown right into the pastorate.
On Sunday mornings, Burt takes the stage in the auditorium at Park West High School on the Upper West Side to preach. He peppers his sermon with words like “bro” and refers to the apostle Peter as “a bit of a knucklehead.” His 200 or so congregants—who range from formerly incarcerated young break-dancers to 60-something Upper West Side residents—regularly nod and murmur “amen.”
American Idol for preachers, church for NFL players
Burt got his position as the Jets chaplain by accident. A few years back, he says, a big, athletic-looking guy walked into his New York church.
“The dude’s like 6-5, 24-inch biceps, and I’m like, ‘Hey, man. What do you do?’ And he wouldn’t tell me.” After the service, the man introduced himself as Kenyon Coleman, defensive end for the Jets at the time. “He was like, ‘Bro, you should be our chaplain,’ and I’m thinking he’s just kind of talking, and then I actually got a call to come in, and it was literally like a tryout. It almost felt like American Idol for preachers.” Burt gave a 30-minute sermon on mankind’s hunger for a hero in Jesus. The team voted. Burt got the gig, and has been the Jets chaplain, an unpaid position, since 2009.
Though his services are voluntary, Burt says the team this season has been really receptive, which he attributes to the wealth of new, young players. He refers to the strong believers as “Kingdom Guys”—athletes like offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and inside linebacker DeMario Davis, both of whom have joined Burt onstage at Every Nation. The three also appeared together last summer on Trinity Broadcasting Network’s “Praise the Lord” program. Burt calls the Pro Bowler Ferguson a class act and said he jokes with Davis that the reason he’s so vocal on the sidelines is because God made him to be an evangelist.
“You combine these two guys, they’ve just been a great catalyst for us on the team,” Burt said.
Typically, around five Jets players attend his Monday afternoon Bible studies at the team’s practice facility in Florham Park, N.J., though he’s had weeks when 14 guys show up. Bible studies last about an hour, though Burt shoots for 30 minutes—“we keep it real tight,” he says, since the players’ schedules are managed from the moment they get up in the morning. Even his services are included on their itinerary, though only the guys “going to the next level” go on Mondays.
Tuesday morning Bible studies for coaches are even more strictly timed. “Their time is much more precious,” Burt said. “Not that the players’ isn’t, but these coaches work insane hours.” About eight coaches show up for this more traditional Bible study, where Burt leads the group through a close reading of Scripture.
The main event is the chapel service that Burt preaches the Saturday night before a home game—upwards of 20 players attend, as do a few coaches. Since the players are otherwise occupied on Sundays, this serves as their church. Burt, also otherwise occupied on Sundays, isn’t able to be at MetLife Stadium on game days, though some chaplains do join their teams on the sidelines, praying with them in the locker room and at the 50-yard-line after games. While most chaplains don’t travel with their teams, they are responsible for arranging their replacement when the team is on the road. Since Every Nation is part of a family of churches, Burt said he always has the team confidently covered by someone he trusts as a spiritual steward.
“You smack somebody . . . because you’re representing Christ”
For Burt, plays on the field are just as much a form of worship as singing praise songs during church. He says God is the one who made a 6-foot-6, 300-pound guy who can catch a ball. Playing football is glorifying God on the field.
“The Lord says, whatever you do, do it heartily as unto him, so, I’m like, ‘You said it’s better to give than to receive, right?’” he says, laughing and throwing a slow-motion punch. “I absolutely tell them, ‘Bro, you smack somebody. Pound them in the name of Jesus. And then when it’s done, you just can’t have any malice in your heart. You don’t want to injure the guy, but you do want to give him a great shot because you’re representing Christ on the field.’”
He said it goes against the stereotype that general managers tend to have of Christian athletes—that they’re soft. He thinks the reality should be the opposite. One player that he said exemplified the Christian ethic was Tim Tebow, who played for the Jets during the 2012 season. “Here was a guy who didn’t just talk his faith, but recognized that whatever he did was about the glory of God on the field,” Burt said. “So he took whatever skill set he had, and he’s definitely wringing the most out of what he had.”
“What are you doing for the kingdom of God?”
Burt calls his own religious upbringing apathetic. He grew up a CEO—Christmas and Easter Only—Catholic, going to Catholic school only because his father liked the quality of education it offered. When he was 11 years old, his parents divorced and his dad got custody of him and his two younger siblings. Devastated, Burt’s mom, an agnostic, found herself drawn to “a crazy Pentecostal church” where she heard the Gospel and received salvation.
Burt always felt his heart had been naturally drawn to God. After his mom’s conversion, she wanted her kids to have the new life she’d found, so she brought them to her church. That day, they were showing a film about the end times.
“From doing sports to doing whatever, I realized that God—he sent me to this team as a missionary.”
“I mean, I’m freaking 11, so I’m like, ‘Yeah, sign me up,’” Burt said, remembering his fear after the movie, which asked questions like, “What would happen if you died tonight?” It was then that he accepted Jesus as his personal savior and moved away from Catholicism.
“Sometimes a lot of the ritual stuff,” Burt said, doing the Sign of the Cross hand motion, “it just kind of left me a little empty. I was like, ‘God, if you like this, cool, but it seems like there should be more.’ So, that’s when I really started getting into God’s word.”
Though he’s had a number of faith-deepening experiences, one in particular that really shifted his view of the world occurred when he was a young professional. An NHL goalie-turned-pastor called him out one time.
“Adam, what are you doing for the Kingdom of God?” he asked.
“Well, listen man. I give money to the church. I read my Bible. I love my wife.” Burt said he rattled off a list of religious duty to the pastor.
“No, no, no. I didn’t ask you about your morality. I said, ‘What are you doing for Christ and his Kingdom?’” The Kingdom is referenced in Matthew 6:33, where Jesus told his disciples to “seek first his kingdom and righteousness.” The goalie-pastor was asking Burt to be specific about how he was working to fulfill God’s will on earth.
“I was like, ‘Get out of my face, bro,’” Burt said. He started to get mad at the former goalie, but Burt decided he was right—God had created him with a mission. “You connect the dots and it just adds so much meaning and depth to the mundane things we do, the day-to-day,” Burt said. “From doing sports to doing whatever, I realized that God—he sent me to this team as a missionary.”
“We did everything wrong, and it grew”
Toward the end of his career, when Burt was playing defense for the Carolina Hurricanes, he hosted an event for the athletic ministry Champions for Christ. When “all hell broke loose” in his home that day (the typical chaos—cleaning house, making food, picking up three guys from the airport, all at different times, and having two young kids at home), he got on his knees and prayed: “God, I’m doing this for you, so you’re going to have to fix some stuff because this is ridiculous.” When he got up, the phone rang.
“Hey, Adam. You don’t know me, my name’s Ron Lewis, and I’m a local pastor here. Is there anything I can do to serve you or help you?”
Burt said he didn’t know how this dude got his number, that it was completely random. Usually, he’d do the polite thing, but he was so stressed that he had Pastor Ron pick people up and run errands for him.
“Little did I know he was going to be my boss. I would have been nicer to him,” Burt says. He began attending Ron’s church, and stayed in touch when he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers. After he retired, Burt followed Ron to New York in 2003 to help him start Morning Star New York.
“We sold everything,” Burt said, of his family: wife, two daughters and two dogs. “Sold our cars, sold furniture and just came up in a U-Haul.”
Burt never thought he was coming to be a pastor. He thought he would be the sidekick athlete who could help out, give money and attract the sports audience; instead, he was thrown right into the pastorate. “We did everything wrong, and you know what? It grew.”
His wife, Susan, says it was “a very weird transition,” Burt shifting from NHL player to pastor. It wasn’t easy, and it took an emotional toll on the family, especially his newest project: planting Every Nation New Jersey.
But Burt is not done planting churches. Not yet. He has plans to start a church with former Jets defensive end Mike DeVito when the 29-year-old retires from football. DeVito, who played six seasons with the Jets before the Kansas City Chiefs signed him as a free agent this year, said he and Burt hit it off right away.
“During the off-season, I would call Pastor Adam up and just preach a sermon to him, and he would critique it,” DeVito, who plans to go to seminary when he’s done in the NFL, said. “He would let me preach at his church, and really helped to show me the ropes when it comes to being a minister. We’ve really been working intensely together for the past three years, and he’s taken a lot of time and devoted a lot to me.”
He says a few years ago, about 20 kids who were part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes from his high school came to see a Jets game, and they went to Burt’s pre-game chapel service. DeVito says he could tell the profound effect that it had on the high school students from his hometown of Cape Cod, an area he called very “liberal” and “non-churched.”
“Not only did they get to see professional athletes worshipping God, but Pastor Adam preached a sermon and it showed you don’t have to be a geek to be a Christian,” DeVito said. “I was so thankful for it, because those kids don’t ever get to see that. So solid.”