April 2011 All In Dave Pond
Nestled snugly along the banks of Illinois’ Fox River, Judson University has long offered its students a chance to follow their athletic and academic dreams in a nurturing, community-minded environment. But for student-athletes at Judson, an evangelical Christian university, there always seemed to be a hidden disconnect that kept them from truly connecting to Christ, each other and the surrounding community of Elgin.
“Four years ago, the Judson athletes didn’t have the greatest perspective,” said Adam Ledyard, the Eagles’ assistant athletic director for external relations, who also serves as the athletic chaplain and FCA Huddle Coach.
Today, much has changed. FCA is Judson’s largest university ministry, and through it God has raised up a dedicated group of athletes willing to wear their faith on their sleeves in order to bring their teams, their classmates and their surrounding community to Christ.
“The leadership has really set the culture here,” said Head Baseball Coach Rich Benjamin. “Judson is very much a mix of Christian and non-Christian students, and our administrators do a great job of keeping the main thing—Christ—the main thing, without going down a bunch of different avenues.”
“The talk isn’t all about baseball or sports anymore; it’s about God and how He is working in our lives. FCA has just drastically changed the landscape of the campus.”
- Ben Palmer, Judson pitcher
In an effort to fuel the faith on campus, university leaders made a decision to give students chapel credit for attending FCA. The decision paved the way for Ledyard and FCA to share God’s love with a large chunk of the Judson student-body: athletes longing to find a place where they felt connected to Christ.
“A few years ago, a lot of the athletes here had trouble going to chapel,” said Ledyard, who, arrived at Judson in 2007. “Our deans and administrators really bought into the fact that athletics is a major part of our campus and that our athletes needed to be ministered to. They really wanted to try to reach the athletes outside of chapel and meet them on their turf.”
In the four years since the chapel credit was offered through FCA, attendance at Judson’s Huddle meetings has tripled, now attracting upwards of 75 students. But, according to those who take part, it’s much more than the credit that draws them.
“I’m sure a lot of students who attend FCA for the first time come for the credit, but, once they warm up to the people there, God changes their hearts and lives,” said Laura Williams, a sophomore on the Judson volleyball team. “Sometimes there are drastic, automatic changes, but other times God takes His time with them. And it’s students like those who spur us on as leaders. We seek to do more work for God and His Kingdom, but it’s not by anything we do. Through FCA, God has gained the glory, and it’s only through Him that all this has been made possible.”
The Huddle has grown so large that, next fall, FCA will rise from club status to become an official part of Judson’s wider-reaching University Ministries.
According to Ledyard, part of the growth can also be attributed to the opportunities FCA offers outside of the larger meetings. In addition to the biweekly, on-campus Huddles, the Judson FCA has held several Fields of Faith events, and it recently started men’s and women’s small groups in hopes of providing ways for athletes to deepen their relationships with Christ and one another.
“There’s always a perception that athletes don’t care about their spiritual lives because they’re so concerned about their sport,” said Athletic Director Nancy Binger. “FCA gives the community at Judson a chance to see and hear how the athletes are growing and maturing in their faith, and it provides a chance for non-Christians to learn from their peers, ask questions and search out what it means to have a relationship to Christ.”
Under Ledyard’s guidance, FCA members have poured themselves into the city of Elgin—their “home away from home”—by getting involved in local churches, collecting canned goods for area nonprofits and serving residents in financially challenged neighborhoods.
“Adam’s done a great job of branching out on purpose,” said Benjamin, who, like Ledyard, arrived at Judson in 2007. “He really has a vision for local involvement. The brand name and marketing of Judson wasn’t good when we got here, but Adam’s been able to get the name out there and really put its best foot forward as a university.”
Just as he would at most small schools, Ledyard wears many hats at Judson: assistant athletic director, sports information director, athletic chaplain and FCA Huddle Coach among them. But for Ledyard, in order to really see God move on Judson’s campus—as well as in his own life—he had to take a step back and evaluate his position instead of constantly looking ahead to what was next.
“I was trying to control what I wanted to do in my life regarding athletics and ministry,” he said. “I wanted to become an athletic director or go into sports information at a Division I school, so I would look at jobs all the time and try to find the next bigger and better thing. Checking out job postings became an obsession, and I wasn’t focusing on how God could use me here at Judson. Finally, it came to the point where I felt like God was saying, ‘Look, I want you to use your abilities to the best you can, but you need to give everything over to Me.’”
With the newfound peace that God had him at Judson for a purpose, Ledyard refocused on many of the same principles he preached to his Huddle members. He began spending more time in the Word and in prayer, and reached out to other Christian men for both counsel and accountability in helping lead FCA.
“There’s an old saying that many tasks can make you lose sight of the vision,” Benjamin said. “Early on, Adam was very much doing it all himself—not because he wanted to, but because he didn’t know any other way. Some of us watching from the outside sat down with him and talked to him about giving pieces of the puzzle to others so that God could grow it and make it successful.”
“Christ is in this place, and we’re going to make Him known without apology.”
– TJ Swank, Judson pitcher
Instead of worrying about every single detail, the group began to pray that God’s will—not Ledyard’s—be done at Judson. Soon, Ledyard began to invest heavily in a team of student-leaders who could reach their teammates and classmates for Christ.
“God has changed things in my life to where I now know what it’s like to be a real Christ-follower—not just someone who is going through the motions,” Ledyard said. “I really started to pray about everything and give it completely to Him. Now, the students we have are prayed into those leadership positions. I know that God is the One who has given me the athletes to lead FCA on our campus, and I can really see how it’s flourished as a result.”
As FCA becomes more mainstream on Judson’s campus, Huddle members have taken on university-wide leadership roles as well, serving as everything from resident advisors to class officers. It’s a game-changer that has not only helped weave athletes into the fabric of the Judson University family, but also helped them reach students who aren’t part of the school’s athletic program.
“FCA gives us a place where we can have fun and talk about Christ, and we’re excited for the opportunities ahead of us,” said TJ Swank, a right-handed pitcher who transferred to Judson after two seasons at Coastal Carolina. “Christ is in this place, and we’re going to make Him known without apology.”
Specifically within the baseball team, junior pitcher and small group leader Ben Palmer, who transferred from Dallas Baptist this year, said the work that God has done in the lives of his and Swank’s teammates is readily apparent.
FCA National College Conference
One of the events that fueled Ledyard’s passion for FCA was the ministry’s National College Conference, held every year over Memorial Day Weekend. Through this event, college athletes from across the country come together for a weekend of spiritual training, worship, physical competition and authentic fellowship.
If you or someone you know is a college athlete who wants to experience a weekend connecting with Christ among a group of likeminded competitors, make plans to attend! This year’s conference will take place May 27-30 on the campus of Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo. For details and registration information, visit fcacollegeconference.com.
“Our small group, which once had five baseball players in it, now has 13, and more guys are asking questions than ever before,” he said. “The talk isn’t all about baseball or sports anymore; it’s about God and how He is working in our lives. FCA has just drastically changed the landscape of the campus.”
While he won’t take the credit himself, Ledyard is the one being cited as the Lord’s catalyst for the dramatic spiritual growth at Judson through FCA.
“Adam has a tremendous heart for students and their eternal future,” said Binger. “He loves to get to know them, and he cares about all the details of their lives. He has singlehandedly taken our FCA program to great heights and has remained steadfast in making sure the program flourishes.”
Regardless of who gets the credit, Ledyard, Benjamin and Binger all desire to see not just FCA flourishing at Judson, but the athletes themselves who pass through the Huddle. And, if the work of God through committed leaders like Swank and Palmer is any indication of what’s ahead, they all have reason to believe that will be the case.
“I’m so excited to talk about how God is transforming our team,” Palmer said. “FCA has been a huge stepping stone for us to get guys to talk about Christ and for us to share our faith. It’s been a true blessing.”
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Courtesy of Adam Ledyard; Corey Burke; Kevin Sherman