McGugin Ministry Moves In

Church Finds Place in Athletic Department

The Vanderbilt Hustler Online/November 13, 1998
By Neil Vigdor

Regardless of whether they win or lose each Saturday, members of the Vanderbilt football team often engage in a team prayer at midfield following a game.

By contrast, it is the off-field religious convictions of athletic department staff, as well as those of several student-athletes, that have sparked an in-house discussion of what behavior is appropriate when promoting one's faith. "I don't think we should use undue influence to promote anything that is not specifically related to what we do (professionally)," said Senior Associate Athletic Director of External Relations Jeff Compher, regarding the influence his staff has over the lives of various student-athletes.

Compher and other athletic department officials have recently been drawn to investigate the Nashville Church's role with student-athletes. Last year, University Chaplain and Director of Religious Affairs Gay Welch was prompted by her own research to ban the religious organization, a branch of the International Church of Christ, from becoming officially recognized by the University.

The athletic department's examination of the Nashville Church was prompted by a letter sent by the mother of a student-athlete who transferred from Vanderbilt last summer. The former track team member became involved with the Nashville Church as a freshman, and was subsequently pressured to commit more heavily to the group, according to her mother's letter.

"The daughter I took to Vanderbilt seemed lost to us for a very long time," the mother, who wants her family to remain anonymous, wrote to Athletic Director Todd Turner.

In the letter, Lead Academic Advisor Bobby Powers is specifically mentioned by the girl's mother, and she indicts him as having some negative influence over her daughter because of his position in the Nashville Church. Powers said his interaction with her was limited to when he saw her from a distance at Nashville Church services.

Assistant Track and Cross Country Coach Fran Hoogestraat, who is also an academic advisor, reported that Powers did interact with the former student-athlete while at McGugin Athletic Center.

"I think he probably has very hard decisions to make every day because of the position he is in," Hoogestraat said of Powers' ability not to create a conflict of interests. "He is a presence of the Nashville Church (in the athletic department)."

Compher would not comment on how the athletic department handled the mother's complaint of Powers' influence over her daughter's well-being. At no time last academic year, Compher said, was he aware of this particular student-athlete's predicament.

"He knows what's expected of him," Compher said of Powers, who academically advises members of both the football and basketball teams. "He's very well-respected by the student-athletes and members of this staff."

Because Powers is a Nashville Church member, Hoogestraat said, other members instructed this particular student-athlete to consult with Powers for academic advice. In response to the situation, Hoogestraat said, the athletic department told Powers to cease any promotion of the Nashville Church while on the job. "I'm very professional at what I do," Powers contends. "I've got to keep my personal life out of this (job), especially when I'm dealing with students." Whether or not Powers actively promotes Nashville Church theology in the workplace might never be known, but Peabody College senior and former football free safety Teremy Banks said he has seen Powers host church members for Bible discussion in his office. Banks, who was injured during a practice in 1996 and hasn't played since, sits immediately outside Powers' office, where he "helps out."

"He recruits people (to the church), but does it in a way so it doesn't interfere with his job," Banks said of Powers. "I don't think you should recruit anybody for a church."

Engineering senior Damien Charley and Peabody senior Jamie Watkins, football cornerback and free safety, respectively, both asserted that the Nashville Church does not in any way have recruiting expectations of its membership. The two Nashville Church members quickly attested to Powers' integrity, and said that anyone who loves his or her religion is going to openly promote it.

"In the Bible it talks about going out and making Christians," Watkins said. "I can't physically force somebody to go to Church."

The structure of the Nashville Church reportedly has most members being "disciples," while a few receive the honor of being church "elders." Powers was chosen by the Nashville Church to become an elder because of his access to student-athletes, according to Hoogestraat.

"Any college campus is a great market," she said. "They have sought out high-profile student-athletes. There's truly a targeting that goes on."

Associate Athletic Director for Internal Affairs Brad Bates, who, like Powers, played football at the University of Michigan, said that religious groups perceive greater opportunities for ministry among student-athletes.

"Access to religion in athletics is probably much greater," Bates said in reference to all religious organizations, including Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action and the Nashville Church.

Powers, who was involved in FCA while he was at Michigan, said that the Nashville Church does not seek out student-athletes because of their high-profile nature.

"It's not about the people," he said.

Powers said he was attracted to the Nashville Church because its members could explain God's will thoroughly through specific passages of the Bible. His involvement in the Nashville Church, of which he and his wife have been members for three years, is the best opportunity for him to live by God's will, he said. Prior to his arrival at Vanderbilt, Powers said he was involved in the Chicago branch of the International Church of Christ.

"I fear God," Powers said of his religious beliefs. However, referring to the Nashville Church, he said, "There was nobody pressuring me. There was nobody holding a gun to my head."

Watkins said he admires Powers' lifestyle and his abstention from cursing. "It's demanding to be a good Christian," Watkins said.

Charley resonated his teammates' thoughts of their religious affiliation. He also speculated that membership in the Nashville Church might receive a negative stereotype because of its demands to carry out God's will.

"It intimidates people how seriously we take serving God," said Charley, who added that his involvement in FCA during his freshman year was not a worthwhile experience.

Charley said that as a student-athlete, he has what others perceive to be a positive, full social life "at his fingertips." He added that members of FCA can put "God in a box" on weekends, and lead a "hypocritical" lifestyle of "still sleeping with their girlfriends and getting drunk."

Hoogestraat said that since the Nashville Church has become prominent among student-athletes, Hoogestraat said, organizations like FCA and Athletes in Action have drawn more members. Hoogestraat, who also participates in FCA, said an "underground movement" of concerned student-athletes has cropped up at McGugin. These student-athletes, she said, inform freshmen and others of what they perceive the Nashville Church represents.

"I think it's very cultish," Hoogestraat said of the Nashville Church. "I don't see the authenticity of their faith."

One of Hoogestraat's former track star athletes, Ryan Tolbert, now works at the International Church of Christ's headquarters in Los Angeles. Like Tolbert, who graduated last year, Charley said he may work as an evangelist for the church in Los Angeles after graduating.

Compher said that Tolbert's decision to work for the International Church of Christ should be perceived in the same light as if she had gone to work for any other church organization.

"I don't understand why we should be getting a signal or sign because she went to work for a church she believed in," he said.

Unlike the particular student-athlete who transferred, Hoogestraat said, Tolbert was successfully able to balance the rigors of academics, athletics and her religion. The woman who transferred, Hoogestraat said, showed signs of fatigue as early as the first semester of last academic year. For the 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday weight-lifting sessions of the track team, Hoogestraat said, Nashville Church members would have to wake up at 5 a.m. to begin Bible study. "I started to watch her confidence deteriorate," Hoogestraat said of a track team member, who she found on one occasion lying down in the hammer throwing ring before practice even began. "She was really physically spent most of the time."

Consequently, the coach sent her student-athlete home. Similarly, Hoogestraat said that there were occasions when the track team member did not want to participate in church-related activities, but was sought out anyway by other members.

"The group came to her dorm and got her, making her feel guilty and lost to God," the mother wrote to Turner in her letter.

Hoogestraat characterized that behavior quite negatively, saying, "That's somewhat similar to stalking."

Conversely, Charley said that there are always two sides to any story, and that it "tore his heart out" that his fellow church member transferred for such reasons. In addition, Powers said that it is ludicrous to attach such notion to church membership.

He gave testimony that if all of the representations of the Nashville Church rang true, he would not have time to carry out the responsibilities of his job effectively.

"I make a conscious decision to do what I want to do," Powers said. "If there's a big basketball game, I need to be there."

As a Nashville Church member, Powers said, he has services he should, but is not forced by any means to attend on Wednesdays and Sundays. Like any other religious affiliation, if a member is missing from services, other members call to see that nothing is wrong, he said.

"People see my life every day," said Powers, who travels with both the football and basketball teams to road games. "If I was in a cult, I'd be weird." Additionally, because of the demands of his job, Powers said, it would be impossible for him to recruit any type of "quota" on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis.

"I never ask students to go to church," he said. "I'd be kicked out then (if I exerted undue pressure on anyone to join the Nashville Church)."

Both Banks and Watkins said they couldn't understand the rationale behind Welch's decision not to recognize the Nashville Church as a campus organization. "What is she afraid of?" Watkins said.

Dean of Students Larry Dowdy, who received a similar letter from the former student's mother, said that "some people thought there is some pattern" in the fact that student-athletes comprise a significant portion of membership on campus. Yet Dowdy refrained from labeling the Nashville Church as a cult. Banks said he fells uncomfortable when Powers gathers Nashville Church members, both from the Vanderbilt community and outside, in his office. He added that he recently felt awkward when his teammates are in the company of other church members - so much so, that he left.

"They try to change your life," said Banks, who now attends Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Jefferson Street in Nashville. "You become a different person." Although Nashville Church membership doesn't divide team members, Banks still said some "guys get frustrated with their (Nashville Church members') actions." One football team member, Peabody senior and strong safety Jamail Carter, offered few comments for his former religious affiliation with the Nashville Church. Hoogestraat said Carter met some strong criticism when he decided to cut his ties with the group.

"I want them to get out of it, too," Carter said of Charley, Watkins and fellow strong safety and Peabody College junior Ainsley Battles. "I think it is just a phase."

Charley said he didn't have any hard feelings toward Carter's decision to leave the Church. Yet he added that he felt upset that Carter was turning away from something positive in his life. Hoogestraat said that Nashville Church members threatened to discuss Carter's "sins" among the entire membership when he left the affiliation.

"It bothers me to see young people controlled by guilt," she said. "That's blackmail."

Football Head Coach Woody Widenhofer said he has never heard of the Nashville Church. Additionally, he said a chaplain accompanies the team to games, and that FCA provides the chaplain's services.

"I don't get involved in their religious views," Widenhofer said. Bates said Widenhofer, like most coaches, does not present any religious convictions to his players because he is in a position of authority. "It has created much more dialogue with the University Chaplain's office," Compher said.

Both Charley and Watkins expressed their disappointment concerning the situation that prompted the former Nashville Church member to leave Vanderbilt and the church.

"When (she) was here, we loved her," Charley said. "She was our sister. Here (at Vanderbilt), we're a big family (members of the Nashville Church). We've got each others' backs."

During the spring, Bates said, the Athletic Department will add some literature regarding personal convictions of employees, both of a religious nature and non-religious nature, to its manual of policies and procedures.

Hoogestraat hopes her colleagues own behavior will emulate her, not only at the Athletic Department but throughout the University. She and two other track coaches meet once every three weeks before work to discuss the Bible.

"We feel strongly about that (Bible studies) being before work," she said. "That would be abusing the workplace (if we did Bible study during work hours.)"

Powers said he will make no changes to the way he goes about his job because he has done nothing in the past to warrant a change.

"If I was I parent, I would be concerned for my child," he said in reference to the letter that which mentioned him.

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