Commentary: The coach who is a minister and the minister who is a coach

By Russ Pulliam

A couple of centuries ago an aspiring church pastor didn’t go to seminary far away. He found an experienced pastor, learned on the job with him, visiting homes, preaching and reading theology.

Russ Pulliam is associate editor of The Indianapolis Star.

The Indianapolis Theological Seminary is trying to recover some of that history in enabling pastoral candidates to stay in a day job in Indy and take seminary classes at night. Many of the students have the advantage of being immersed already in a local church and may have started families, making it harder to go off to seminary. Others are associate or assistant pastors wanting to upgrade to a seminary degree.

Launched in 2015, the seminary has gone from eight students in the first year to 67 current students. Some classes run every evening for three hours for a week. Other classes are spread  across several weekends with visiting professors. At $165 a credit hour, tuition is much lower than most other seminaries, or under $500 for a three-credit-hour class.

With no big building expenses, the seminary’s annual budget is low, about $300,000 in the current school year with just two full-time employees.

The seminary has found an influential new friend, Indianapolis Colts Coach Frank Reich. He’s   known more for football than theology. But the former star quarterback has been a seminary president in Charlotte, in between playing in the NFL, then coaching.

He described his appreciation of theology at a recent fund-raising dinner for the seminary.

Reich grew up in what he called an evangelical Roman Catholic family, hearing the good news of Christ from parents and church. Then as a player he heard an NFL chapel message that emphasized grace and justification by faith alone.  He asked for more information and wound up with a gift of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. “There I read a man whose heart was on fire for the Lord in all parts of his life,” Reich said. “He was real sophisticated, but he was also down and dirty in the streets.”

When he was playing for the Carolina Panthers, Reich and his wife Linda lived down the street from a branch of the Reformed Theological Seminary branch. They started taking classes. “I went to seminary for personal growth,” he said. “I had no plans to graduate with a seminary degree.” 

Later he became seminary president, as the leadership there recognized his unusual gift in revealing the practical importance of theology for the average person.

Without claiming all the answers, the coach can give a good talk on the priority of winning in the NFL, the sovereignty of God and identity and success in Christ not in performance. He has a book in mind, Created to Compete.

The seminary plans to expand to include day-time classes. Right now the average student would need about five years to finish a traditional seminary degree, the M.Div. With classes during the day that pace could accelerate to the traditional three years. Students can also take a year or two of their credits to either Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville or Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, but most students are planning to finish in Indianapolis.

The foundation of the seminary is the Bible, with a bent toward what is often called Calvinism or reformed theology. The training would emphasize pastoral care of people as opposed to an emphasis on academic scholarship.

That sort of training, Reich says, can turn almost any job or position into a pulpit.

“There’s not a day that goes back that I don’t use my seminary training as a coach,” he says.

Russ Pulliam is associate editor of The Indianapolis Star.


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