Senior Jolee Paden speaks at a September chapel. Since arriving on campus from St. Joseph, Illinois, Paden has taken on more spiritual leadership roles. She's contemplating a life after graduation that she hopes includes touring and speaking to young people. (Photos by Michael Sheeler)

Runner, leader, speaker, writer: senior Jolee Paden considers the future

Whether you’re playing soccer, cross-country, tennis or golf, a strong core is key. There’s no avoiding it: athletes of all kinds have to work their abs.

ABS is a convenient acronym, then, for the weekly Athlete Bible Study that’s begun meeting over lunch on the Eastern Mennonite University campus this semester – and just one manifestation of senior cross-country runner Jolee Paden’s efforts to enrich the spiritual lives of her fellow athletes and classmates.

Jolee Paden with fellow Bridge House residents after the Oct. 31 ODAC cross country championships: (from left) Brooke Lacock, Jolee Paden, Hannah Chappell-Dick, Juni Schirch, Louise Krall, and kneeling, Alicia Poplett. Bridge House is an intentional community adjacent to campus where residents host social gatherings designed to bring together upper- and underclass students.

Last January, she also helped launch a monthly event called Athletes Speak, during which students gather over pizza to hear athletes and coaches talk about their lives and faith. Both events are affiliated with EMU’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), in which Paden has been a leader since she was a first-year student.

At the time, FCA didn’t have a particularly large or active presence on campus, and so, just as she’d done previously at her high school in St. Joseph, Illinois, Paden threw herself into the task of building it up.

“FCA is for athletes and coaches to have the opportunity to encounter biblical truth and authentic community,” said Paden, a double-major in business administration and recreation leadership. “Over the last three years and going into the fourth, it’s just done a complete 360 in terms of getting people involved.”

One of the ways she’s promoted the ABS and Athletes Speak events was dropping any reference to FCA from their names. She decided to do so after discovering that some student-athletes didn’t understand the purpose of the group or had developed negative impressions of it in high school.

Jolee Paden greets well-wishers after her chapel presentation: (from left) head cross country and track coach Britten Olinger, campus pastor Brian Martin Burkholder, and physical education professor Sandy Brownscombe.

This decision, said EMU athletics director Dave King, “demonstrated her sensitivity and creativity” as a leader.

“Jolee has provided the most critical ingredient for any successful program aimed at student athletes – student leadership,” King continued. “Sustainable programs have quality student leadership and Jolee has provided that.”

Paden is also a pastoral assistant with EMU’s campus ministries, and spoke in chapel in late September. (Audio of her talk is available here.)

“Jolee brings energy and focus to spiritual life on campus. She is always noticing and discerning opportunities for ministry among her peers,” said campus pastor Brian Martin Burkholder. “She presents with confidence and poise. There’s no doubt that she will continue to develop as a keynote speaker and preacher.”

In addition to her work on campus, Paden is an intern at Grace Covenant Church in Harrisonburg, and helps lead the congregation’s ministry for college students. She has also published a running-themed devotional book, Spiritual Runner: A Runner After God’s Own Heart, writes a blog, and begun accepting more public speaking invitations.

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Jolee Paden signs a copy of her book “The Spiritual Runner,” for a fellow student.

“I think God has just really blessed me with the capacity and the grace to do so much, because I still find time to relax and have a weekend sometimes. It’s kind of amazing,” said Paden.

As the fall semester slips by, she’s thinking more and more about life after EMU. Perhaps she’ll enter seminary. Maybe she’ll go back to Washington D.C., where she lived last summer and loved working for Back on My Feet, a nonprofit that uses running to empower people experiencing homelessness. As she weighs those options, she’s also intent on making sure that the FCA and affiliated events that have been so important to her time at EMU will continue to thrive after she’s gone.

“I’ve put a lot of my heart and hopefully the Lord’s heart into this,” said Paden. “Building up other people who are passionate about it is really, really important to me.’”

As a practical matter, that’s meant handing over more and more responsibility to students who will return next year. One of them is Amanda Williams, a sophomore soccer player who helps schedule speakers for the Athletes Speak events. Williams hopes that she and her peers will continue building on Paden’s efforts to enrich the spiritual lives of EMU athletes.

“I think Jolee has an authentic relationship to God and displaying her faith just comes naturally to her,” Williams said. “She has a different perspective on the Bible – it’s refreshing to me, just to hear the things that God reveals to her.”

Regardless of what, exactly, next year might bring for her, Paden plans to continue on the same general path she’s followed through EMU – sharing, speaking, encouraging and nurturing the spiritual lives of the people around her.

“My dream would just be to tour and talk to young people and athletes,” she said. “But it’s just a matter of how the Lord is opening those doors.”