It was the summer of 1969 when two Stanford football players (Jeff Siemen and Dennis Sheehan) met Stump (then in his mid-20s) at a summer AIA football camp and asked him to consider doing ministry at Stanford. His story is a great example of the fact that sometimes meeting a ministry need can develop into a ministry calling. He started at the prestigious campus in the early 70s leading a Bible study for the football team, but over the next few decades, his calling slowly began to morph. By 1994, he began focusing solely on mentoring.
“Up until then, I had done mentoring, but didn’t do it week after week after week,” he shares. “I said to myself, I think I’ve gotten a little smarter in my old age. Instead of me chasing them, I’m going to find a place to sit down and let the athletes come to me. And the café owner didn’t mind one bit, saying, ‘Don’t you dare leave—my business has gone up 30 percent since you’ve been here, so it must be a God thing.’ So I always have a table there.”
As soon as players have their class schedule, they call Stump to schedule a weekly time for the semester. “I have 35 time slots, and it’s first-come, first-serve,” he admits. “It’s amazing how consistent the athletes are.”
“The reason I enjoy mentoring people to Jesus is that I can walk them through the process. I’m not trying to rush them into a decision for Christ. Instead, I’m allowing the truths of Scripture to simmer in their spirit. They can assimilate the words of Jesus at their own pace and don’t feel pressured into praying a prayer of salvation before they’re ready.”
Stump uses a simple, 16-page curriculum from Multiplication Ministries. “It’s really good foundational stuff,” he shares. “I don’t care if a guy comes to me and says he’s a pastor’s son. I’ve found that very few of them have Biblical basics. You’d think you’d go through it very quickly, but it all depends on them. The guys are so bright and have a ton of questions, and we spend a lot of time looking at Scripture.”
Stump recalls one star athlete proclaiming they’d set a record that day by making it through two lines. “Other times, I’ll have an athlete come and say, I don’t want to talk about this today. I just found out my parents are getting a divorce and I want to know what to do about it. I do a lot of counseling. Some people call it life coaching.”
The key concept of his ministry approach is all about relationships, not how much theology he can teach them. “I teach them the basics: to help people come to know Jesus and teach them simple truths,” he says. “But that will never happen unless you build a relationship. You can’t force relationships.”
His motivation is seeing peoples’ lives changed. “There’s nothing like it,” he sums.
Though his focus has always been on mentoring Stanford’s student-athletes, in 1978, San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh invited Stump to serve as the team chaplain. He ministered to athletes including Tony Dungy, the future Super Bowl winning coach of the Indianapolis Colts and author of many best-selling books. That year, he also served the same chaplain role for the San Francisco Giants. “It was good for the Stanford guys to see that there are guys at the pro level asking the same spiritual questions as them, and facing the same issues, although exacerbated by money,” he states.
Imagine how encouraging it was for the chaplain, then, to have someone pass along a newspaper article two years ago, about two of the athletes he mentored—Dungy and Scott Frost (Oregon Offensive Coordinator). “They were speaking to over 1,000 men on becoming mentors, and I had mentored both of them,” he recalls. “Tony when he played with the 49ers and Scott when he was at Stanford. To see that go on was pretty special.”
Stump is full of great stories. There’s the story of a cocky freshman from his native Alaska, who challenged Stump to a game of ping-pong. The competitive Stump said that if he won, the freshman would have to meet with him weekly and attend church on Sundays. The player laughed and said it wouldn’t happen. Little did the player know that in addition to being a three-sport athlete at Wheaton College, Stump was also the university’s table tennis champion. A few points into the game, Stump asked if he could switch to his good hand. He beat the red-faced freshman 21-1. The athlete came to know Christ during his college years, and went on to have a successful NFL career.
Then there’s the story of a campus chaplain, whom upon hearing Jim speak about mentoring at a national chaplain’s conference, completely changed the way he did ministry. Just recently, he told Stump, “the most important thing I ever did was start meeting one-on-one with guys like you do. It has not only changed the focus, but the results—seeing people’s lives really changed, instead of just running a weekly meeting.”
There’s the story of a Stanford coach who didn’t say a word to the chaplain for 35 years, only to call him into his office one day and tell him the players that met with the chaplain were the hardest working on his team, and the best teammates. He wondered if he could send more players his way, and said maybe it was about time for him to read the Bible too.
Lastly, there’s the note Stump received the day before the 2014 Rose Bowl, from one of the current players: I just wanted to say thank you with all my heart for helping me develop the foundation of faith that I have to this day. I pray that I can continue to grow with you and maybe one day I can be half the teacher you are, and have a positive influence on a portion of the people you have blessed.”
The countless stories like this could go on for pages, or even a book. In fact, it’s quite fitting then, that a successful literary agent caught wind of Stump’s effective and enduring ministry and encouraged him to pen a book.
Stump’s book, The Power of One-on-One: Experiencing the Joy and Satisfaction of Mentoring Others (March 2014), highlights a mentoring model of evangelism. “When I first started in ministry, I had no idea how to share my faith,” he admits. “But I found that people were receptive; I kept things simple, talked less, and went from there. And once someone is a believer, I learned to not just leave them there, but to start the mentoring by solidifying the basics of walking with Jesus.”
Stump said he’d been sitting in the sports café one day, and all of a sudden he thought, Jesus mentored his disciples…what did he do? “I started writing down in bullet points what Jesus did,” he says. “And those ended up being the chapter titles. It was the Holy Spirit putting it on my mind.”
One section discusses the concept, “How Would Jesus Bring Your Friends to Faith?” Stump shares that He would accept them as they are, show them that He cared, teach them how to pray, always tell them the truth, and he would be a friend for life. Stump definitely practices what he preaches, as these athletes really do have a friend for life. “Even when guys move on to the NFL, they call, email and text me,” he says. “That’s what mentoring is all about: making time for people.”
Some believers shy away from ministry because they’re not comfortable speaking in large groups of people, but Stump says that shouldn’t stop people from filling a mentor role. “Obviously, not everyone has my extroverted personality,” he sums. “You may be more reserved, but that shouldn’t deter you. In fact, many of the best mentors I know are very introverted and quiet in a crowd. In short, I enjoy developing close relationships with others. I enjoy getting to know them better and allowing them to get to know me. And isn’t that what mentoring is all about?”
Stump plans to retire from his Stanford ministry in a few years, and move to Dallas, where he and his wife will get to spend more time with their family. But anyone who knows “Stumper” knows he will never really retire. For more information, visit http://www.sportschallenge.org.
Sportswriter Jenna Sampson recently completed her first book editing project, 2x Olympian Amber Neben’s “When SHMACK Happens: The Making of a Spiritual Champion.”
SF 49ers Alex Debniak
One of the athletes Jim Stump mentors is the San Francisco 49ers’ Alex Debniak. While playing at Stanford, the punishing linebacker helped lead the Cardinal to a 2013 Rose Bowl victory, but a spiritual victory off the field is what has impacted Debniak’s life the most. “I had heard [Jim] was a mentor for the team,” he explains. “I reached out to him for someone to talk to and connect with, but I didn’t want the Christ-following part. To Jim’s credit he was never one to really push that onto anybody or force anyone to talk about it. When I was ready, he was waiting there patiently for me.”
“Jim has absolutely changed the trajectory of my life and how I see things,” the 6-2 rookie shares. “I think a lot of people coming from a Roman Catholic background get caught up in the idea that you have to be perfect to follow the Lord, and that turns them off. Jim has allowed me to understand realistically, what it means to be a follower of Christ—it’s not by your works that you’re a follower; it’s by your faith. It’s allowing the Lord to take the wheel of your life, and that you’re not in control any longer. With that understanding, it has allowed me to have a much more positive outlook on my life.”
Debniak claims that Stump is the genuinely happiest person he has ever met, and he was hungry to know where that came from. “He was always letting me come to him with questions. It was never about, what can I teach you about the Lord? It was about, what’s going on in your life right now? Now, here I am five years later. I’ve been saved, I accepted the Lord as my Savior, and my life has taken on such a different dimension.”
Born with an auditory processing disorder, Debniak grew up struggling to speak and process information, despite the fact that he is intellectually brilliant. He was bullied by other kids, and even teachers and coaches would treat him harshly. Today, it’s something he’s learned to live with, but in large crowds, he still sometimes struggles. “When you’re younger and you struggle processing words, people say you’re stupid,” he shares. “I think it gave me something I wanted to prove to people. At times, I was very angry, but I’ve come to the point in my life now, that [the struggles were] a blessing for me—and I’ve come out on the other side. I love my position in the world, because Christ is within me.”
And while Debniak has earned a diploma from one of the most intellectually challenging universities in the world, he and Stump are still working their way through the 16-page handbook. “I’ve gotten through maybe three or four pages in five years, because I always have questions for him. I have an hour with him once a week. It’s a conversation that always leads to something, and it’s always the highlight of my day.”
After being on the Injured Reserve list for the 2013 season, the 49ers are moving Debniak to fullback in 2014, so he’s hard at work learning a whole new position and playbook. Debniak is also preparing himself for the spiritual pressures that come along with being a professional athlete.
One of Debniak’s favorite Bible passages is Romans 7:15: I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
“A lot of players in the league say they’re Christians and point to the sky during games, but very rarely do I see someone living that life,” he shares. “I think it’s having confidence in where you are with your relationship with the Lord, and that’s what keeps you strongest in times of temptation. It’s also understanding what triggers you to sin and what causes temptation.”
“For me, I understand what kind of places I need to avoid, I understand what kind of things I need to avoid seeing or hearing in order for me to stay in a straight line,” Debniak explains. “It can be difficult when entering a pseudo-celebrity role so to speak. But if your faith is strong, the rest of your life will carry along with it.”
Thankfully, that corner table in the sports café at Stanford always has an open spot for him when he needs it.