Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 4
Everyone always expected RTS senior Mike Forester to play professional football. Let’s face it, when your father is a veteran linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, your uncle plays for the Cleveland Browns, and your grandfather is a Dallas high school football coach who has a stadium named after him, do people really give you a choice?
Friends might have given Mike a hard time, but he never felt an ounce of pressure from his father, Bill Forester — eleven years with the Green Bay Packers, four years All-Pro and a member of two NFL championship teams.
In fact, Mike’s childhood would be a dream come true for almost any young boy in the United States. During the off-season his family enjoyed the advantages of life in the bustling metropolis of Dallas, Mike’s birthplace. And during football season, they could appreciate the cozier confines of Green Bay, Wisconsin (pop. 68,000).
” I grew up around football and from a young age was very influenced by the game,” Mike remembers fondly. “I loved it because I was very athletic. I could name every Packer, where they were from, what college they attended. They were like family.”
Football was indeed in his blood, and by junior high school he had trouble concentrating on his studies. However, after being sentenced to a session of summer school, Mike shaped up and learned to study. By the time high school rolled around, he had learned to keep a healthy balance between school and sports.
A gifted and dedicated athlete, Mike played most sports in high school — basketball was one of his favorites. He was captain of his football team, voted an All-District player, and awarded the All-Sports trophy as best all-round athlete. A leader both on and off the field, Mike was chosen vice-president of his senior class and was very active in his church youth group.
To no one’s surprise, in 1973 he received a full four-year scholarship to the University of Mississippi, lettering each year as a defensive lineman. In addition to football, Mike became a key student leader in campus Christian organizations, first with Navigators, then the last year and a half with Campus Crusade. Yet, despite his leadership ability and his Christian background, Mike’s college years were a struggle spiritually.
“Being away from home and a secure environment really took its toll,” Mike recalls. “I was leading two separate lives — one with my friends in Christian organizations and another with my football buddies who introduced me for the first time to drinking and partying. It was a very hypocritical lifestyle.”
However, leading a double life required an incredible amount of energy. In addition, Mike could not get away from the guilt of his dishonest existence. The crowning blow came during his sophomore year. Mike was the only sophomore lineman on the team, and his line coach developed a severe and unreasonable grudge against him, subjecting him to almost constant verbal abuse; to this day Mike has no idea why he was treated in such a manner.
But God was working in Mike’s life even through this unsettling situation. “By the end of my sophomore football season, I had had enough,” says Mike. “While at a Campus Crusade conference in Dallas, I was driving along one day, thinking about my life, and I saw clearly that I was not where I wanted to be. I pulled off the road and said, ‘God, I really want to straighten out my life, and I need your help to do it.’ That day, I recommitted my life to Christ and decided to change my life-style; the parties and drinking stopped. But I really had to separate myself to live the kind of life I wanted to lead.”
His drinking pals did not understand Mike’s change of heart and became antagonistic, even though Mike witnessed to them. Consequently, life grew very lonely for Mike away from the field. Yet, he had two Christian friends, one of them his roommate, who had seen Mike live a hypocritical life and loved him through it all.
Although working on a degree in banking and finance, Mike had always felt he would play professional football. His father’s ties with the Packers would give him the needed opportunity if he wanted to try out. But again God intervened to turn Mike’s life in a different direction. Mike suddenly realized that playing professional football was grueling work — was he ready for that kind of commitment?
In addition, his last season at the University of Mississippi was disappointing. Although the team was ranked in the top twenty and had one of the best defenses in the Southeastern Conference at the first of the season, the last three games of the year were totally disastrous. Mike was emotionally spent, and the thought of playing pro ball was more than he could handle.
During this time he had become more and more involved with Campus Crusade and, after getting his degree in 1978, decided to go on staff with the ministry. A year later he married his wife Jan, also a Crusade staffer, and they went to the University of Alabama in 1979. They didn’t know it then, but they were about to help build the second largest Crusade ministry in the country and one of the most significant Crusade ministries ever to occur in the South.
A GIFT FOR DISCIPLESHIP
Mike joined a staff of ten at the University of Alabama; the ministry was huge — the first year 450 to 500 students were involved in small group Bible studies. Mike’s area of responsibility lay in the large fraternity ministry; he discipled men and encouraged them to disciple others.
“I worked with five guys, all of whom were both campus and fraternity leaders,” says Mike. “God really used me in their lives. I spent hundreds of hours one-on-one with each of them, discipling them and helping them with the discipleship ministries they were developing. Our personalities meshed perfectly, since we were all either fraternity types or athletes. Today, three of those five guys work for Campus Crusade, and another is an elder at Perimeter Church in Atlanta.”
What makes Mike so effective in a discipleship program? His wife Jan believes it is because he accepts people right where they are — no questions asked.
Says Jan, “Talk to him one time and you end up telling him your whole life story because he is so loving and accepting. Nothing you can do will change that love for you. One-on-one relationships are his best; he keeps in touch with each person he has discipled.”
Through the work of Mike and other Alabama staffers, God poured out His Spirit on the campus during 1979 and 1980, and the ministry grew phenomenally, spreading to other campuses. In 1979, at the beginning of Mike’s ministry, the Alabama Crusade staff held a Greek conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for Southern fraternities and sororities. They met in a house with about fifteen to twenty people in attendance. Three years later they had to book a large Atlanta hotel to accommodate the 500 to 1000 Greek members who showed up. For the first time in the South, Campus Crusade had been able to penetrate fraternities and sororities with the gospel.
A CALL TO SEMINARY
After three years at Alabama, Mike felt God calling him to seminary. In the fall of 1981, he entered Denver Seminary, and for the next three years he worked toward a degree in counseling. However, nearing graduation, the couple’s second son was born, and finances became very tight. Also, both Mike and Jan wanted to be sure of their call from the Lord.
“We felt we needed to make sure that we had the spiritual gifts necessary for ministry,” explains Mike. “The only way to do that was to get experience; then we could go back and finish seminary.”
Providentially, a church in west Texas offered Mike a position as the Minister of Education and Youth, and he took it. Instead of one year, however, he and Jan stayed almost three — and God taught them perhaps more than they wanted to know!
“I stepped into a war between the congregation and the pastor,” recalls Mike. “The congregation wanted me to go against the pastor, to whom I felt I needed to be loyal. Also, it seemed we were in a spiritual wasteland; very few people sincerely wanted to grow in their relationship with Christ.”
And then Mike realized his personal life was suffering. Trying to be a savior of the church, he had put the ministry before his family; now a wall was growing each day between Jan and himself.
“I was one of those guys who is married but didn’t act it; whenever I wanted to do something, I just did it,” Mike says ruefully. “In the past, Jan had always been interested in my life and job, but when I did not return any of that interest to my family, she lost interest in my life. But at the same time that she gave up on me, God began to transform me into a committed husband and father. I discovered that no ministry is worth my wife and my children. I also realized that I had deep needs that only Christ could meet; as He met them, I could then meet my family’s needs.”
Finally, when the church asked the pastor to leave, Mike felt it was time to go also. That’s when the Lord led him to RTS. Ironically, the turbulent ministry experience has made his seminary classes more meaningful.
“I know what can go wrong in a ministry, so I listen carefully to professors when they outline methods to avoid pitfalls. When I came to RTS I did not realize it, but I was struggling theologically. I had begun to doubt the credibility of Christianity. But I found real answers at RTS for my mind and for my heart.”
A HEART FOR MINISTRY
It seems that everywhere Mike goes he has a ministry, and Jackson has been no different. Last summer he worked as associate director of Twin Lakes Conference Center in Florence, Mississippi. Also during the last two years, he balanced studies with preaching in Utica, Mississippi. This year he is supplying the pulpit for Pickens Presbyterian Church in Pickens, Mississippi, some forty-five miles north of Jackson. This stable, seventy-member church has been a proving ground for RTS student pastors for almost ten years. And the congregation is exactly like Mike — accepting and loving.
“Mike is one of the best young preachers I have ever heard,” says Carolyn Bridgforth, who has attended the church for thirty years. “He makes the Scripture come alive and is able to apply it to our daily lives. He also has come up with creative ways to make us open up and participate more in the worship service.”
Mike is also combining his God-given gift of discipleship with his natural ability to coach football. During his first two years in Jackson he coached fifth and sixth grade football at First Presbyterian Day School. His main purpose was to teach the kids a Christian perspective on football.
“We tried to show them that our primary purpose is to glorify God in all that we do, both on and off the field,” explains Mike. “We stressed giving one hundred per cent to be successful. We defined success from God’s perspective as the ratio between the talent given and the talent used. Whatever talent God has given you, make sure you use all of it. Winning is not defined by the score, but by the effort the child gives and why he is giving it — he should do his best, not to achieve awards and praise for himself, but to glorify God no matter what the scoreboard says, whether sixty points ahead or behind.”
“Our teams were not always successful on the scoreboard, but then many of the boys had never played football before. They were up against guys who were larger and had more experience. But they did their best and got better, and were even winning games by the end of the season.”
This year he is still coaching — but at the junior high level at Jackson Academy. His focus is still the same, teaching the kids that success is not in the kind of car one drives or the numbers on the scoreboard, but in godly character and Christ-like spirit.
As multi-talented as Mike is, choosing a ministry is going to be his greatest problem. Wherever he goes, though, you can be sure three things will go with him — a deep love for his family and fellow man, especially for those who are hurting; a gentle acceptance of their shortcomings; and a steady, unwavering proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.