This last Spring, a friend of mine for about 8 years had a unique window of opportunity open up in their life. They no longer wanted to teach at a school that they were working at due to the unhealthy leadership culture that they had experienced and needed to move on. For 20 years they had been dreaming of an alternative kind of sports league where low income students were no longer priced out of sport, where teens were taught character and ethics rather than individual aggrandizement, and where student could be engaged with healthy Christian witness and the gospel itself.
The problem at the time was that I was scheduled to go on sabbatical in just six weeks. We had a few conversations (probably too few!) and I met with my board. In just 4 weeks we raised 40K in funds (eventually 55k) and built a class-A weight and strength training facility in the back of one of our church buildings. We chose to do weights because although we wanted to work with sports teams, there was no way to build a sustainable sports model without hundreds of thousands in investment or donors. I also needed to be able to replace my friends teaching salary in a very short period of time.
We are 10 weeks into the program starting and we have 62 students participating. We have also replaced our program directors former salary in that time.
Every time I tell this story, I get lots of questions so let me just do this in bullets.
Who is your coach/how did you find this person?- Our director/head coach at Utmost Athletics is a former D-1 softball coach. He is seminary trained but decided that full time ministry was not for him…and yet that is what he is now doing just through different means. He was tired on the unhealth of D-1 sports and so he stepped away from that. He is well versed in strength training and has connections to the D-1 strength training community.
How does this connect with your overall Forge program/youth ministry?- Well, both models require adult student mentorship and engage life skills coaching. Instead of working for our landscape company or another job in the community, these students pay a fee to participate in a healthy sliding scale strength program. They are allowed to get it at low cost in exchange for participation in life development.
What donor/church/grant support is required to make this run?- Basically none. We needed capital to get started, but it is already self sustaining. We may need donors or grants to expand to other chapters a few years down the line, but right now the revenue that the program generates makes it self-sustaining. The unspoken beauty of this is that all students pay something.
What sets this apart from other weight or fitness programs?- Several things. The first is coaching ratio. All the high schoolers have a 1-4 or 1-5 coaching ratio which is much better than they would get in a normal high school gym. The program is also different because of its atmosphere. It is HIGHLY encouraging and functions as a team. People greet one another (required), they ask a life question, they cheer each other on, and develop community over occasional meals. It also is the opposite of other weight programs in the sense that it’s emphasis is on slow and healthy development of strength rather than machismo. While there are “max days” and lots of cheering, the atmosphere is not about “more, more, more”. You might consider it the opposite of the mental image cross fit. Technique is HEAVILY emphasized. Last, they talk alot about character development. Each session coaches more than the body. It is designed to coach the heart and soul as well.
Who are the students?- They are from all kinds of backgrounds. We wanted a program with mixed socio economics because at the Forge (the umbrella organization) we feel that students need to cross pollinate more frequently across economic zones. We also know that to have programs that are sustainable you need programs that tap into the broad spectrum of economics. We have a significant number of college age young adults as well as high school students. We also have a small but growing crop of middle schoolers who focus on other exercises.
What is your role in this program?- My role is to provide theological reflection on the program and development support. The Forge takes care of all grant writing tasks, donor communication, strategic planning, and book keeping. This way, our program director is free to focus on what he is good at and we have massively increased the startup efficiencies of a new ministry.
Is it all honey and gravy or have their been challenges?- There are massive challenges! The main one has been alignment. Although the program director and I knew each other fairly well, we did not have a lot of time to make sure we were talking about the same things when we agreed to partner. Basic questions about the gospel and mentoring are still getting sorted out. We are having to spend loads of time in a room with others to make sure that we have programmatic alignment. We are also working through decisions about whether all weight students MUST participate in the overall program or whether a certain percentage can just be “customers” who might enter the ministry side at a later time. Second, we are struggling to figure out how to properly train the coaches as both mentors and as coaches. It’s a lot to ask given that they are in the gym 3 times a week for 1.25 hours. That is a BIG volunteer time commitment.
Why Did you Do This?- Over the last year or so I have been reading a lot about the concept of leveraged impact in the social enterprise world. Stanford has been leading the way in this kind of work. Read some of their stuff here. My sense was that I could spend years growing the core ministry of the Forge, or I could leverage our way to greater impact by partnering creatively with other like minded non-profits. Utmost Athletics was one of those non-profits. We made the leap this fall from about 25 students to 75 students. While I am not remotely all about numbers I do want to leverage greater ministry impact and increase the efficient startup of redemptive enterprises. I also did this because I was acutely aware of the need/potential of youth sports. It is both a huge outreach area as well as a massive economic engine. It’s also pretty much an idol. Don’t believe me? Read this.