Student-athletes have their hands full with courses, studying, practices, games, and more. Add in the challenges of a global pandemic, and you have a recipe for a full and challenging year. Honestly, don’t we all feel like it’s remarkable that we accomplished anything in 2020?
Despite the adversity of this pandemic year, two student-athletes from Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, were able to demonstrate the heart of servant leadership by incorporating their faith in God with athletics through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Both young men are now investing their free time in service to the youth ministry. God is on the move, directing paths and making provisions!
Although Austin Brenner was raised in a Christian home, it wasn’t until his senior year of high school that he began to take his faith seriously. In the middle of his parents’ divorce and a breakup with his high school girlfriend, Austin surrendered his life to Christ.
“What I was like before that moment was just sad, and after, it was joy—I just remember being so overwhelmed by Christ’s joy and peace and hope—it changed my life,” Austin shared.
As soon as he was on campus, Austin connected with FCA and their Ashland campus director, Joe Maggelet. Over the last few years, Austin has led Bible studies, served as a huddle leader, and grew in his faith.
After redshirting his freshman year, Austin started his sophomore year as the third-string quarterback for the football team. “Being the #3 guy was such a battle of identity for me. That’s when God made it clear to me my identity needed to be in Jesus. That spring and fall God helped me grow through that.” Despite beginning the season as the third-string quarterback, Austin ended up starting seven games and was named the 2020 Conference Freshman of the Year.
When he needed hip surgery in June 2020, Austin thought he’d have to miss the fall football season. “Lying on the couch reading Kingdom Man by Tony Evans, I really felt like God was urging me to volunteer somewhere. So much of my time has been spent with football guys and playing football, but without being physically on the field and playing, I figured I’d have some extra time,” said Austin.
Little did Austin know, God was already working behind the scenes. It just so happened that one of Austin’s friends from home had a roommate from Ashland who knew about an opportunity to help out with youth ministry at his home church, Southview Grace Brethren Church. Austin started volunteering over the summer. In the fall, when an intern left to go back to school, Austin took over as the part-time Director of Youth Ministry. “It was such a God thing,” Austin said. The thought of volunteering somewhere just crossed Austin’s mind, and “next thing I know, I’m volunteering and leading a youth ministry.”
Austin discovered how much leading a group of people strengthens you. “I’m only going to be able to take them and lead them as far as I am. I want to learn more about the Lord to be able to share with them more.”
“The biggest thing that I’ve learned this year and experienced is our calling to ‘go and make disciples.’” said Austin. “That has been something I’ve been encouraging the kids in the youth group and on our team to do. It’s been really cool to see God work.”
Austin graduates this spring as a K-12 Intervention Specialist, but with two more years of athletic eligibility, he’s planning on enrolling as a graduate student at Ashland Theological Seminary to pursue a degree in ministry. Austin isn’t sure where God is leading him after this, but he knows God will lead him. “He’s laid on my heart what I care about and what I’m passionate about. I see so many kids who have parents who are split up, and maybe only have one parent if any in the picture. My heart really goes out to those kids. I can see them searching. I know from personal experience they’re not going to find anything until they find Jesus,” said Austin.
Alex also grew up in a Christian home, surrounded by people who modeled Jesus to him. “The person who taught the Good News Club at school lived in our apartment complex – she’d gather all the kids in the apartment together even when I was four. I remember asking before I was even in school to accept Christ,” Alex said. “No one believed I really knew what that meant yet, but finally, at six, I was allowed to accept Christ into my life.”
Without the constant presence of his parents and his grandmother, Alex sought a place to stay connected and grow in his faith as a new student at Ashland. Right from the start, FCA was that safe landing. Alex was recruited to help with sound and slides the very first meeting the fall of his freshman year. Alex connected with his track teammates and others at FCA who walked with him as he continued to grow in his faith.
As a sophomore, Alex started to attend 5 Stones, a church that meets on campus at AU. He began to meet with Pastor Bill Ludwig on a regular basis. At some point, Bill said, “I think you’d be awesome at youth ministry.”
“After experiences I’ve had with teaching, if doors keep opening like this then I think that’s where God’s calling me to go,” Alex shared. Alex now serves as the youth pastor at 5 Stones, cultivating relationships with junior and senior high school students.
Alex has learned a lot about trusting God with his plans the last couple of years, especially through his time serving as a summer camp counselor, where schedules shift quickly and physical and emotional energy reserves can be pushed to the limit. Alex had to rely on God to give him the strength to keep ministering to kids at camp, and he did just that.
Alex carried that same reliance on God over to his spring job pursuit. “I was applying for tons of jobs and wasn’t hearing back on them, and then all of a sudden, God just started giving me things that I hadn’t even applied for – people approaching me out of the blue,” Alex said. “I guess I just have to wait on God and keep praying. I did all this planning, but in the end it was God that provided, God that brought me through.”
Alex sees many parallels between spiritual and athletic development. “As an exercise science major, the way your body is actually working and how your body responds to trials and endurance in athletics is very similar to how we approach and attack our faith,” Alex noted.
Alex is finishing up his Master’s in applied exercise science and hopes to find a position at a university helping athletes with strength and conditioning. He sees the opportunity to work on a college campus as an excellent way to build relationships with athletes and coaches, and to model the love of Christ to them. “I’d love to work somewhere and bring ministry into whatever I’m doing,” said Alex.