Unfinished Business in the Mile High City

Staff member Bruce Elliott finds the help he needs

  • by Jess Fong

His ringtone is the theme song to Mission Impossible. The tune bursts forth, trumpets and trombones slightly muffled in his pocket, like a pop-up reminder-cum-war cry.

Bruce Elliott has a mission -- bold, yet realistically unfeasible for one man. But that doesn't stop him.

He blends in well with businessmen in Denver, which contains the 10th largest central business district in America. Armed with a black At-A-Glance calendar, Bruce pencils in appointments and circles them, meticulously crossing out the previous day.

Contrary to appearances, he doesn't work the typical 9 to 5. His schedule appears to revolve around food, meeting businessmen over breakfast or lunch almost every workday. Inevitably, the ringtone from his cell phone interrupts a meeting, brass horns blaring, almost taunting. Is the mission impossible?

Yes, for one man.

Making the Connection

Denver is home to Sports Authority, Inc., one of the largest distributors of sporting goods in the nation. With more than 450 stores, Sports Authority employs more than 16,000 people, 900 of whom are at the headquarters in Denver.

And that's Bruce's mission. He dreams all 900 employees of Sports Authority headquarters would hear one clear, relevant presentation of the message of Christ.

Bruce hasn't always dreamed specifically about Sports Authority. Denver houses plenty of other businesses to dream big about. But one day at church, Bruce met Tom.

Tom Hendrickson still carries his Minnesota accent. A graduate in accounting, Tom is an avid sports fan -- 2 factors reflected strongly in his job as Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Executive Vice President, and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of Sports Authority.

"I have a title that could choke a cow," says Tom.

He sought to extend Christ's love, teaching a 90-person Sunday-school class and hosting evangelistic Bible studies out of his home with his high-school-sweetheart-now-wife, Gayle. But Tom didn't know how to integrate his faith into the office, other than modeling a godly work ethic and being kind to others.

Bruce suggested something more.

Putting the Focus in the Right Place

Tom leans forward as he recalls Bruce's dare: "His challenge was, 'Tom, how do you impact people at work? What you're doing is great, but how do you have a bigger impact?'"

Bruce asked Tom to invite coworkers to a Priority Associates Forum, one of the ways Bruce knew God's message could be heard throughout the company. Each Forum happens "off the clock," but is created specifically for businesspeople.

"When Bruce brought it up, my thought was, Great idea," says Tom. But he was cautious. "I'm not afraid to ask and get a bad answer. I just want to make sure I'm asking the right way so people don't feel obligated to come because of who I am."

This worry is a downside of being in the "C-level," the layer of management including the CEO, CAO and CFO. "I just don't want people to view me as a brownie-point thing," Tom says.

Priority Associates takes brownie points off the table because the forums are held both off-site and off company time.

Through forums, Denver businessmen have heard speakers including an astronaut, a former Darwinian theorist and Olympic athletes. More importantly, every event reaches its finale with the story of Jesus and invitations to meet with Priority Associates members.

"We had a table [of 8 people] the first time. The next time the table doubled, and the next time it tripled," Tom says. "People came and felt comfortable."

Seeing Others Respond to the Message

Forums are just one piece of Bruce's plan.

In order to give everyone at Sports Authority a chance to hear about Jesus, another step required is personal conversation. "You have to have some way to engage them in dialogue and hear what they really think," says Bruce.

After several forums, he started a spiritual discussion group with men from Sports Authority, including Tom.

They met in a Chinese restaurant, pushing together 2-seater tables to make a row. Bruce was enthusiastic about the group of 10; only half were Christians, and all wanted to learn more. But conversations were sometimes awkward.

"The Christians didn't know how to talk with non-Christians about their faith," says Bruce. Additionally, the men worked on varying management levels, and spiritual conversations don't always flow when talking to a boss, even outside the office.

"It didn't go as well as I [would have] liked," says Bruce. The group ended after a few weeks, but Bruce didn't give up. The plan just needed adjustment.

Three layers of management down from Tom is John McGrail, who directs transportation of sporting goods. He walks around the office, casually swinging a golf club throughout the day.

Although he became a Christian years ago, John's spiritual life was unanchored, with rare application of Scripture. He met Bruce at a forum, and now they eat lunch together biweekly. He's learning to apply biblical teaching to his life at work, as a husband and a father.

Jared Mosher's office is around the corner from John's, his desk covered with yellow Post-it® notes. Behind him stands a shelf housing a crippled model airplane that fell victim to one of John's stray golf balls. Jared met Bruce after a forum last year, enticed by the stories of 2 Olympic athletes. He prayed and received Christ.

Three months later, Jared is still animated about his changed life. Over burgers, Jared, a manager of transportation, describes to Bruce his surprise when a close friend mentioned his interest in church. He realizes others are seeking out God too.

There's the mission again, Bruce thinks, and so he challenges Jared: "Consider telling other people your story." Jared nods, his burger momentarily forgotten as Bruce continues, "God's at work in people's lives, even when it's not apparent."

Dreaming of the Next Steps

Bruce doesn't say the words lightly. He's been pursuing this dream for almost 4 years now, and God is at work. Ironically, in those 4 years in Colorado, Bruce has never been inside Sports Authority headquarters. He's never seen John's golf club or Jared's crippled plane. He's never entered Tom's office either, where signed football jerseys face each other in their frames.

Yet more than 200 members of Sports Authority have heard a presentation of the gospel. Bruce is a captain, heading up a new team. People like John and Jared are new players, beginning to yoke the dream onto their own shoulders.

Bruce sits in his office early in the morning, when Mission Impossible cuts through the clunkclunks of the fax machine. It's Tom. His voice is excited, audible even across the table from Bruce.

They are meeting for lunch in an hour, but Tom had to call now: 6 men and 1 woman in the same management level are interested in discussing faith off the Sports Authority clock. The group is entirely made up of seekers, trying to discover what they believe about God.

"Bro! That's excellent," Bruce says.

Tom dreams of starting 5 more small groups of seekers; a conservative idea next to Bruce's, but with a fresh twist. New groups require new leaders.

They are homing in on the mission: being careful to not contest company policy while strategically matching people along the same management layer. Both are hopeful for this new group, but not forgetful of the one that dwindled before.

"Ultimately the issue is how God works in their hearts," Bruce says. "I want to get out of the way and let Jesus come through."

No heart-pumping action sequence marks the end scene. Life off the movie screen offers less closure, more uncertainty.

Bruce's mission continues. But he's not alone. And it's not impossible.