A Conversation with Tony Merida about College Athletics and Christian Ministry*

Dr. Allen: Today we have in the Spurgeon Room Dr. Tony Merida. Tony, it is a joy to host you here on campus and to visit with you and talk about different matters of interest to us: preaching, pastoral ministry, and biblical theology. It will be a fun conversation as well.

I want to talk about college athletics and Christian ministry. Those two topics may seem oxymoronic to put together, but as I have gotten to know you in recent days, we have a few things in common. We both are tall, well . . . maybe not. We do have a couple of things deeply in common though. Some are convictions about preaching, the local church, and theological affinities. Also, we both were converted in college; we both were called to ministry in college; and we both played college athletics. You played college baseball at Cumberland College there in Kentucky. I played college basketball at Springhill College in Mobile, Ala.

I have found time and time again in my ministry how things I learned as a college athlete actually help me in Christian ministry. Not how to shoot a hook shot or put a zone-press defense on, but matters of self-discipline, matters of focus, matters of camaraderie, matters of trusting colleagues and building bonds of trust with them, intentionality, and focus. College athletics helped me become the man I am, no two ways about it. I tell folks our country would be much better if everyone had to either be a college athlete or join the military. Certainly there are other arenas than college athletics and military service, but those two do just force you to grow up. It forced me to grow up as a young man and has helped to frame my ministry in 1,000 different ways.

I would love to hear your story a bit—your conversion and call to ministry—and how that segued with college athletics and to unpack a little bit of what you learned as a college athlete that you found transferrable to Christian ministry.

Dr. Merida: I will go brief on the testimony. I was born in Detroit. My parents moved to Kentucky, and my dad was a baseball coach growing up. We are big Detroit Tigers baseball fans. I wore number 6 for Al Kaline all through high school and college. That was the number my dad wore and the number my cousin wore, so we are big Tigers fans. I would spend all of my summers in Detroit, and we would go watch the Tigers play every year. So, baseball was huge, as was basketball, living in Kentucky. I went to Cumberland on a baseball scholarship. I started for four years at shortstop. When I went, I just wanted to party and play baseball. I was the typical college kid. I was not there for academics and certainly was not there for Jesus.

We had a second baseman on our team that was just a wonderful witness, he and another guy who was a pitcher. The second baseman was named Steven, and we were together all the time doing workouts, etc. He just “gospeled” me all the time. Eventually, in my sophomore year, he talked me into coming to an FCA service. And I had been to FCA one time before and I got in a fight because I thought they were hugging my girlfriend excessively long and hard. Steven said, “Now Tony, you can’t get in a fight. It is not Fighting Christian Athletes; it is Fellowship of Christian Athletes.” I said, “Okay.” So I went and I heard the gospel. I do not even remember much of what was said. I just remember the Lord met me, and I was really dealing with a lot of deep issues that I had told Steven about so he had been really working on me for a year and a half.

I surrendered my life to Jesus and became the campus outreach leader of the school and my whole life changed. I met Jim Shaddix, who was a seminary professor in New Orleans and watched him do expository preaching three nights in a row and I said, “I want to do that the rest of my life.” I graduated, got a degree in teaching, sold my car, packed a trunk, got on an airplane and went to New Orleans to go to school. I had to sell my car because it was an old beat-up Chevy. I didn’t know anybody, and I was barely Baptist. I became a Baptist and when I got to New Orleans, I did not know what the Cooperative Program was or who Lottie Moon was. All of that was new to me. It was through baseball and through the faithful witness of a couple of players that brought me to Jesus.

Dr. Allen: That is so encouraging to hear. Mine is similar. I was reared in a Christian home, but I had been in church 1,000 times and never submitted my life to Christ. I was a freshman in college who had been under conviction. I was thinking I was going to college to get away from the conviction, and boy it sure followed me there. Funny how that happens. It intensified there. Early in my freshman year of college I submitted my life to Christ. A radical change entailed—a new set of passions, priorities, ambitions, all of that was restructured. I began to hear biblical preaching, too, a couple of years later. I remember a similar thought—“I want to learn to do that”—and God stirred in my heart a desire for ministry.

I felt throughout college a decreased passion for basketball because I was being called to the ministry. Many people are Christians and have a call to ministry that do not experience that deceased passion. The Lord has them in that sport for that season of life. But for me, it was just a decreased passion. I kept feeling like, “Why am I bouncing a ball when I should be preaching the gospel?” It led to me leaving our team my junior year to pursue ministry service and ministry preparation.

Now, here we are a number of years later. I look back on that time as a college athlete, and I loved so much about it. Even though my desire for this round ball that bounces diminished, my enjoyment of the camaraderie is still very clear to me. My enjoyment of the self-discipline is still appreciated, and so many other aspects of it. I discovered as a student that my grades were actually better during basketball season. It forced me to be intentional with my time because we were practicing several hours a night and traveling cross country for games and all that goes with that. It is a very toilsome undertaking, and it made me be more disciplined. But when the season ended in March, and I had a couple of months in April and May before the semester ends, I found myself slacking up in my studies. Though, theoretically I should have more time and make better grades, I found myself lacking that discipline. I learned so much about the ministry and about being disciplined, about structuring my time, about a sense of goals and working to achieve those goals. I trace that back to hot gyms and humid August days. What about you? Take us to the baseball field, and what did you find transferable to the pulpit and to the local church?

Dr. Merida: It was baseball and basketball. I was going to walk on to the basketball team at Cumberland. I was invited to play at Cumberland and ended up not. I did not know life apart from practices. When I was a freshman in high school, I was on the varsity basketball team, and I was also on the freshman and JV team. After school, I would not get home for dinner until about 8:30. That was my whole freshman year. When I was in eighth grade, I was the starting shortstop for the varsity baseball team. So, even as an eighth grader, I was already in deep. There is a danger of idolatry, as you know, about all of that, but it did teach me discipline. I often tell people now, I am not that gifted. I am not that talented. I just work hard. I get up early. Sports, I think, have a lot to do with that. I have a high bar; I do not tolerate excuses and attitude. So, I think sports have been huge. Obviously, there are a lot of pastors who never played sports, but I know a lot of my friends are really driven, hardworking pastors and they also come out of this background. It has been really shaping for them. As you said, it could be the military or other ways to learn this type of work ethic, but we do have a generation who I think does not know how to work very well.

D. Allen: I want to pick up on that, first as a personal anecdote. I still remember where I was in a gymnasium, and I was a sophomore and there was an upperclassman that was two years ahead of me who was more mature physically—two years means a lot when you are at that stage of life—and he was frankly more gifted. I was sensing from the coach his favor of me over that player. I just made the comment, I said something like, “Do you really think I could start?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, what about this person?” The coach said, “Jason, you playing at 100% beats him playing at 50% any day.” I remember thinking then that if I work hard I can produce here.

Then, you come to the local church setting, and not just the local church, but culture in the 21st century, and you have a generation of men, especially, who are often passive, sluggish. Their life ambition is to sit in front of a television or to be accomplished at Xbox. That lack of discipline and lack of virtue and life-focus or life-stewardship is besetting in any area of life, but it is all the more besetting in the local church and injurious to the cause of Christ.

It is a pet peeve of mine because a generation ago, perhaps, the propensity of the minister was to do so many hospital visits, so many outreach visits that it undermined his family. So, in seminary I was taught, as you were, not to forsake the family. Kudos to that. I say that myself. What often happens is, for the sake of one’s family, guys justify not knocking on doors, not rising early to prepare sermons, not working hard. Whether it is the military or college athletics, the Boy Scouts, or some other arena of life, you look at the people who are used mightily by God in ministry, and most all of them in an early stage of life develop a sense of self-discipline, self-purpose, and a sense of focus. Sports is one of those incubators for these disciplines.

Dr. Merida: I agree totally. I love in II Timothy 2, Paul gives some analogies for ministry, and he uses an athlete, soldier, and farmer. I love them—all of those. With the farming one, I often tell church planters, “When you think of church planters, do not think rock star, think farmer.” What does a farmer do? He gets up early, he works hard, and he begs God for rain. That is more the picture of ministry. It is not glorious; it is planting seeds and tilling your crops. A farmer is not bragging that he grew a big pumpkin; it is just part of what it means to be a farmer. That kind of work ethic is the image that Paul is using for ministry—athlete, soldier, farmer, and the teacher ahead of that. It is very important for guys to instill this vision in their mind because I do not know what kind of vision they have of ministry in their mind.

Dr. Allen: That is excellent. Another aspect of this that I have found to be very fruitful is that I played with coaches that were hard and overbearing. I played with a college coach who was incredibly overbearing with what he said, what he did, and how he challenged. Looking back, it cultivated within me a certain thickness of skin, a certain ability to check my motives, a certain ability to filter and process what someone says to me or does not say by way of praise or criticism.

So, I got into a deacons meeting or a local church setting, as so many guys do, and there is a church member who is ungodly and cantankerous, who has a sharp tongue, or perhaps a forked tongue, and if you have never been in a context of life that you have had to deal with that, it can rock your world. For me, I am thinking, good grief, I played for Bobby Knight—not literally Bobby Knight—so this is like cupcakes here. For other guys, they have never been in an arena of life where they have been challenged in an aggressive way, so it can be a major life trauma and a major trauma to their ministry having to work through that.

Dr. Merida: Yeah. I do not want to minimize what a guy might be going through who is listening to this, and some criticism obviously hurts, but I just sort of laughed at some guys when they would talk about so-and-so saying something because in sports I was just used to that. I remember letting a ball go between my legs on a pick-off play at second, going into center field, and our coach was from California; and he enunciated everything perfectly. He got on the ground and starts throwing dirt all over himself. He said, “Tony!” I forgot the language he used, and he was just railing on me. I did not know it then, but that is great training to be a pastor.

Dr. Allen: I have so many of those stories. It is funny, a guy I played basketball with who I have literally not talked to in 15 or 20 years since we left college emailed me just a few weeks ago. He had come across my website and reconnected, and he knew I left the team to pursue ministry. He does not get who we are and what we do fully, but he gets, “Well, the guy followed his dream and is successful now, so congratulations.” He was being very kind, and we actually had a phone conversation. It was a very sweet thing to do, to talk about my life and my calling more—why I am doing what I am doing for the Lord Jesus Christ. It was an encouraging conversation, but our minds immediately went back to those stories and how, in his own context as a businessman, it helped to shape him.

So many things now, looking back, you don’t know whether to smile or cry or cringe over what was said and done. I can remember us winning games and still having to go out and run in the gym because coach was displeased with how we played. The other team would say, “Y’all won, but y’all are being punished?” They did not get that it is not about what the scoreboard says. It is, sort of, but it is also about whether you played to the best of your ability. Not to over-torque college athletics, but whatever the area is—if it is intellectual challenge, physical challenge, different arenas that help men, especially, to mature and grow up and face life—that can be preparatory for great things for the gospel.

Dr. Merida: I get so frustrated with my own kids. I would literally play all day outside by myself. I would shovel snow and play basketball, come in and eat, and go back out and play. I would play Wiffle Ball by myself. I would announce my own games and just hit all day long. You cannot get kids to even go outside today.

Dr. Allen: We have a secret way to get them to go outside. You put them out, and you lock the door behind them. This is one of my pet peeves. I was the same as a kid, and it became an idol. I do not want to glorify all of this, but say that in God’s kind providence it helped me in certain ways to mature me to be a person who is ready to seriously serve Christ. I still remember being in my driveway every day, even when it was raining. I was shooting baskets and running. I would wear ankle weights to school every day underneath my uniform pants. It is just what it is. I slept with a basketball. My dad bought one of the camcorders for the shoulder that was like an old bazooka camcorder to video. We would set it outside to film our shooting and all of that. I would watch the Pistol Pete instructional videos and all of those things.

It is just interesting to see how all of us have our own stories, our own sense of calling, and our own testimony of conversion. Whether you are talking to John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers, or whoever it is, who has done much for the cause of Christ, when you begin to dig into their story, you often find a person who excelled in sports, who excelled in the classroom, who excelled in some civic responsibility, who worked hard and developed their chops for life and ministry in a serious way. I want to say as loudly as I can from the platform God has given me as a seminary president to our students and beyond, in a holy way and a sweet way: the world is a rough place, the church can be a rough place, and the gospel does not need mild-mannered men who are going to seek to engage in a mild-mannered ministry. It needs people who are strong, people who are committed, people who are ready to take the best this world can throw at them, process it, and throw it back.

Dr. Merida: One other thing I would just add quickly is that I think sports give you a sense of responsibility. Let me frame it like this: I think men, in general, going back to the fall, are either abusive or passive. Those are the tendencies that we have. I think the gospel solves those problems in that it makes abusive men tender and loving, and it makes passive men courageous and zealous. I think we need more men not just working hard, but defending the weak. I used to love the show The Rifleman.

Dr. Allen: I grew up with that. My kids love it to this day. On Saturday mornings, we let them watch it.

Dr. Merida: I used to sit in my dad’s recliner and watch The Rifleman.

Dr. Allen: Chuck Connors—he played for the Boston Celtics.

Dr. Merida: That is right. That show was about the strong defending the weak. Almost every episode was about how he did not really want to fight. He did not want to get in this gun fight, but he was protecting. That type of manhood is almost lost. When I speak at orphan care events, or I go to human trafficking events, there are a lot of women that run a lot of that effort. I praise God for the women, but we really need men in defending the weak and speaking up for the voiceless. If whoever is listening is not a preacher or pastor, we need Christian manhood in so many different circles. Sports in some ways did help me learn how to defend the weak, how to take up for those who are in need and that sort of thing, and that was very important as well.

Dr. Allen: One other footnote here: one of the things that my coach did, which was brilliant, and I am trying to figure out a way to incorporate it on campus—I kind of can now—but it was when we would run. If we did not make our time, everyone would have to run again. We were running sprints or laps and whatever the time expectation was, if one person missed it, the whole team had to run again. It put within me a deep sense of commitment to them. I was never the slowest guy on the team. I was not the fastest, but I was not the slowest. I was not the guy who was likely going to cause us to run again, but we would do everything—cajole, drag, whip, whatever we had to do—to make that guy better. We did not have to run again, right? At the same time, if you were prone to be the last, you would raise to new heights because you did not want to cause your team to run again. If a guy missed curfew, guess what? We were all up at 5 a.m. running, not just him. That sense of community was so strong. I would love to see stronger community in the church whether it relates to sin, accountability, accomplishment, or growth. In the seminary community we work hard to rejoice together, to weep together, suffer together, grow together, and celebrate together. We are not communistic about it, but we are intentional about seeking to cultivate that sense of community because it is a gospel thing. It is a book of Acts thing—caring for one another and living together.

This has been a great conversation, Tony. Thank you for joining me here. Perhaps we will have to play some ball together some time or throw a baseball or something and let our kids do the same.

Dr. Merida: Awesome. Thank you.


*Recorded 12 February 2014 in the Spurgeon Room


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