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Finding The Way: Part 5

Call Me Coach!

by Dan Stolebarger, Director of Koinonia Institute


This article is the latest in a series of what will be my Doctoral Dissertation to Louisiana Baptist University. It is my personal pilgrimage of where I have been, where I am at, and where I hope to go! In other words, it is my journey and my attempt to find The Way...

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Starting over and saying goodbye to those whom I had lived with for ten years was difficult, to say the least. Relationships that were formed in a communal crucible stay with you! One in particular was Gordon McDonald. Gordon and I lived together before Sharon and I were married. After being married for three months and living in an apartment, we moved back into Community and eventually started a new household. Gordon came along as one of the core members. Needless to say, we have been through a lot together.

As EastLake was coming to an end, Gordon began listening to some “Firefighters for Christ” tapes, featuring a guy named Chuck Missler. Gordon believed that for many years he had been sleeping his way through Christianity, but because of Chuck’s approach to the Bible, God was using him to arouse Gordon from his spiritual slumber. One thing was for certain-he never wanted to fall back asleep again. He decided that the time had come for him and his wife, Tracy, to make a dramatic change and to see if there was any way to become a support to Chuck Missler and his ministry.

I must admit that I did all I could to dissuade him. I remember many conversations where I chided him and warned him about following after a single “man.” I reminded him about what we had just come through and about how many people were spiritually hamstrung because of putting too much faith into one man! But he would have none of it! He and Tracy soon packed up and moved up to the Lake Arrowhead area to be closer the Misslers, who then lived in Big Bear, California.

Gordon and I kept our relationship over the years, but it was our wives who continued to correspond via the Internet. But one thing I could always count on was a tape a week from Gordon; he was adamant that I listen to this Missler guy, but I would have none of it and simply put the tapes in a drawer.

Sharon and I made the decision to attend Horizon Christian Fellowship and soon after we became a part of this church, we met Chapin Marsh, the new principal for the fledgling Junior and Senior High School that Horizon was starting.

Chapin was a charismatic new believer who was full of unabridged zeal and we immediately hit it off! Both of us were dreamers and had huge vision! This was the beginning of an incredible roller coaster ride that lasted close to ten years.

In order to connect all the dots, here is a bit of background on Horizon Christian Fellowship.

Horizon was started by Mike MacIntosh in the 1970s and over the years has become one of the largest and most influential churches in San Diego. Mike’s spiritual roots are out of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, which provides the foundation for Horizon Christian Fellowship.

As the church began to grow, more and more people clamored for a school, but Mike was adamant not to yield in this area. Year by year, however, Horizon began to “birth” a preschool and then an elementary school and finally, as the children in these schools climbed the educational grade ladders, the time for a decision about a Junior High/High School was at hand.

Mike gradually relented and Horizon Junior/Senior High was birthed, but the one condition that Mike was adamant about was that the school would have a football team and that Horizon would compete against public schools in our area!

When Chapin Marsh painted this picture for me, I knew that I was at Horizon for such a time as this! High school football was one of the passions in my life. As Chapin and I began to brainstorm, I was given a virtual blank check to build an Athletic Program at Horizon that was to become one of the strongest in San Diego in the late 90s and early 2000s! City and State Championships were part of our heritage as we sought to represent Christ through athletics.

One thing that set us apart in our early days was our willingness to take chances on “high risk” kids. Because of Mike’s background, which was very blue collar, a guy that had to scrap for everything, he had a spot in his heart for kids that have been disenfranchised. Horizon became a place where kids who couldn’t cut it in other schools found a home. Many of these kids were from varied racial backgrounds and so the school became very diverse ethnic-wise.

We accepted the challenge of becoming unapologetically Christian. Others in the community, as well as the press, gave us the title “The Jesus School,” a title we loved because it was given to us, not something we came up with. But as we began to grow, we began to encounter space problems. The question that nobody really wanted to ask or to consider was, “How big should this school be?”

When we started, we only took up a small portion of the Horizon campus, but five years into this, we were taking over the entire campus and the typical school/church tensions began to surface. Our “honeymoon” period was coming to an end.

When I started at Horizon Junior/Senior High, I was hired to be the Athletic Director, Head Football Coach and the Head of the Bible Department. I loved all three of these roles and after a year or so I realized how impacting my ministry was becoming! I came to realize how moldable junior high and high school kids were at this stage of their lives!

I remembered that most of the original disciples were closer to their teenage years than the middle-aged portraits we so often see. Statistics bear out the fact the over 70 percent of Christians today made their decision to follow Christ during this time period of their lives.

I enjoyed the challenges that both the classroom and the athletic fields presented. God was using me and I knew that I was right where I needed to be, what became to be known as “my sweet spot.”

Because of my life experiences, I believe that coaches can be very influential in a young person’s development. Today I am in my mid-fifties and if you were to ask me who among all my teachers while growing up do I remember the most, I would struggle to come up with a regular teacher from my Junior of Senior High School.

But the one person that I can recall with crystal-clear clarity is Larry Armbrust. I can remember how he wore his hair, most of his wardrobe, the kind of tennis shoes he wore, and particular phrases in his speech. I can remember him putting his arm around me when we were walking off the field … and, more importantly, how he told me I was going to be somebody in this world! Who was Larry Armbrust? My JV Football Coach at Chula Vista High School-the home of the Spartans and more importantly-The Home of Champions!

I ran into Larry Armbrust a few years ago at a Home Depot in San Diego. When we looked at one another and made the connection, he said hello and do you know what I said? “Hello, COACH!” Not Mr. Armbrust, not Larry, but COACH! He smiled.

I wonder if he had any idea of the impact that he has had on my life! All I know is that when I was at Horizon, none of my kids in my class or those who were on my teams would ever address me as Mr. Stolebarger or Pastor Stolebarger. Do you know what they called me? They called me COACH! And I am very honored to have that title! Sadly, I realized that I had more influence in shaping their values and leading them than I ever did over the previous five years when I held the title of Pastor!

As the years went by and our reputation as a school grew, I began having a lot of professional athletes wanting to get involved in our programs. I realized that God was bringing these guys to me for the purpose of discipling them. Athletics is a tough field because of the bottom line; no matter what you may hear, you have to deal with the importance of winning! Even though we know that it should not be all about winning, what I have learned is that, in the end, it is what people outside the sport remember the most. Those inside the sport understand the camaraderie and how athletics can build character unlike many other experiences in life.

God brought me a half a dozen former pro-athletes and used me to groom them for the ministry. Four of them moved into the pastorate while the other two continue to coach. I look back honored and blessed on these times because of how God used me to plant His Word into the hearts and minds of these young men, who in the beginning just thought they were volunteering to help coach a football team! Obviously, God had bigger things in mind. These brothers found “The Way” and are being used in mighty ways today for the Kingdom of God!”

One of those coaches that helped one year was Miles McPherson, a former San Diego Charger. Miles came to us already as a Youth Pastor and was given the Sunday Night services at Horizon Christian Fellowship. We coached a couple years together before his ministry exploded into an evangelistic youth ministry called Miles Ahead, which God has used to bring over 100,000 kids to Christ through various city-wide crusades! Soon, the Sunday evening service attendance at Horizon numbered in the thousands and the time had come for Miles to say goodbye and he left to plant a new church in San Diego called The ROCK.

Eventually Chapin Marsh left Horizon to care for his mother on the East Coast, and when Chapin left, part of the original vision left with him. When the new Headmaster was introduced, I realized right away that my time at Horizon was also coming to an end. However, because of the exodus that was created when Miles left, I did not feel that it was right for me to leave at that time, so I continued on for one more year, using that time to mentor my replacement, Chris Johnson.

Chris Johnson was one of those ex-professional football players that God had brought to me, who just wanted to volunteer his time. Little did he realize that the past four years of his life would be filled with seminary classes, which enabled him to receive his Masters of Divinity degree, but also his “on the field training” that would eventually land him as the Athletic Director and Vice Principal (as well as the Head Football Coach) of Horizon Junior/ Senior High School. [On a side note, during my last year at Horizon our football team won the Division 4 California State Championship. God was good to me; I was able to leave with a blessing and, of course, a ring!]

When I was confident that Chris was ready, I made an appointment with Mike MacIntosh because I felt that the time had come for me to move on and Miles had a position that needed to be filled at the Rock. I believed that God was leading me in that direction, but because of Mike’s personal commitment to me and the years we spent together on the athletic field, I felt it necessary to have his blessing.

Lessons and Insights From My Time at Horizon

1) JUST CALL ME COACH! I learned that you don’t have to have the title “Pastor” to lead and shape Christian principles in others. And over the years my respect for Mike MacIntosh has grown, not only because of his friendship but because God has used his ministry to launch most of the larger churches in San Diego. Many of these came about unplanned; in other words, pastors grew their congregations while at Horizon and then, when they felt God’s leading, they left (along with their new congregations!) Horizon would potentially be five times its size if Mike had “held on” and refused to let these men leave “peaceably” with his “blessing.” But he did and for that I will always admire and respect him!

2) GOD HONORS “RISK TAKERS”: Not all the kids who were major risks at Horizon made it-but some did! I am glad that I was part of an organization that gave second and third chances!

3) I WILL ALWAYS LOVE THE GAME OF FOOTBALL: For in it I see great opportunities to teach young men the value of teamwork and sacrifice. I love Chris Johnson, James Gordon, Darryl Lewis and will never forget the seasons we coached together, the places we traveled and the State Championship that we won together! God bless you guys!

Also while I was at Horizon, I had the privilege of coaching all my sons in high school football, which was a blessing, but there was one weird thing that caught my attention.

When I ended my football career at Chula Vista High School, I had not yet become a Christian. I had a couple colleges that had expressed interest in my coming and playing for them. One of those colleges was Azusa Pacific University. I had never heard of them before and, once I became a Christian, I decided not to pursue the sport any longer. Now here’s the symmetry of the story; my youngest son, Jesse, was his high school team’s MVP and was recruited by a school called Azusa Pacific University. Needless to say, Jesse went on to play for Azusa Pacific and graduated in 2005.

One last thing happened during the time I was at Horizon: I can remember becoming very dry spiritually and the Bible seemed to be “old hat.” The Word became commonplace-I felt like I knew it all and, since I had read it all, I could just pull it out whenever I needed to teach; in other words, it no longer had a daily impact on my life.

Then I remembered this Chuck Missler guy and all those cassette tapes that I had just thrown into Nike shoeboxes. Gordon McDonald and I still communicated and by this time he had moved up to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and hooked up with Chuck Missler at Koinonia House! So one day when I was getting tired of snacking on “old manna,” I decided to pop in one of these cassettes.

I chose the Book of Isaiah, and once I listened to that first tape, quite honestly I have never been the same since. (Here at K-House we find it interesting that most people who are attracted to our ministry all remember where they were and what they were doing when they listened to their first Chuck Missler tape! Sort of like how everyone in my generation knows where they were when JFK was shot!)

Needless to say, God used Chuck and his tapes to revitalize my spiritual life and I became passionate once again concerning the Word of God! And one thing that I do know is that part of “Finding The Way” has to do with falling in love with the WORD OF GOD!

Next month, Part 6: “Making the BIG Church Small.”


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