Rewind the clock to the spring of 1978, to the day that John Stewart decided to retire from pro hockey, and even he couldn't have predicted where he has ended up today.
"If somebody had given me a list of 1,000 possible careers I could pursue after hockey, I would have ranked 'minister' and 'writer' as the last two," he admitted. "I had barely managed to finish high school, I hadn't read anything other than Sports Illustrated and I had a vocabulary that consisted of 12 words, all of them profane."
Fast-forward to the present day. Stewart, 57, launched two nondenominational Baptist churches ("It sounds like a contradiction, but it really means Bible-based," he said) before he gave up pastoring to focus on writing. In the past seven years, he has published 22 nondenominational Bible study guides through his Lamplighters International company in St. Louis Park. The study guides have found audiences in places as far-flung as Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Zimbabwe and India.
Not bad for a guy who had to talk Central Baptist Theological Seminary into letting him enroll under "special student status."
"Here I was enrolling in grad school and I hadn't even gone to college," he said. "And I couldn't sing or play the piano -- which are two things you pretty much have to be able to do if you want to be a pastor -- so I wasn't qualified in any way."
For the record, he not only graduated but was ordained. Technically, he should be addressed as the Rev. Stewart, but don't try it.
"I don't like being called that," he said. "If you call yourself reverend, you should be reverent and holy. That's not me."
Asked how he has accomplished so much professionally with so little life preparation, he shrugs.
"It's crazy," he said. "There's no other explanation other than God has done something through me."
His study guides are inductive. Instead of lecturing, he asks questions and challenges the readers, with the help of suggested Bible verses, to arrive at their own answers. For instance, in his most recent book, which focuses on Philippians, he instructs readers to study the first part of Chapter 4, which describes how Paul got caught in the middle of an argument between two members of a church. Then readers are asked: "When should a third party become involved in a conflict between believers?"
This emphasis on reader involvement is what sold the Rev. Craig Muri of Parker's Lake Baptist Church in Plymouth, who has been using Stewart's study guides "since the first ones, which were photocopied sheets of paper held together by plastic sheet protectors."
"I like them because they're not just parroting other people's ideas," he said. "They insist that you think it through and find the answers yourself. The way they are formatted, they work very well with people who don't have formal Bible training."
Hockey comes first
Stewart grew up on a farm north of Winnipeg in a nonreligious household. His family wasn't anti-religion, "it just wasn't on their radar," he said. "We never went to church."
But they went to the ice rink. A lot. He was skating almost as soon as he was walking, and he started playing organized hockey before he started first grade. By the time he had finished sixth grade, it was clear that he was a cut above the norm.
"My dad came to me when I was 11 and said, 'Johnny, how would you like to play pro hockey?' If you're going to do that, hockey has to be everything in your life. You have to make the decision to make hockey the most important thing in your life."
He spent his teenage years playing his way up the junior hockey ranks. He was 17 when he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins and assigned to their minor league program.
"I was never in school because I was always traveling," he said. "There was a school in Quebec that had a [correspondence] program for us, but after practicing twice a day, you never got to it."
He was promoted to the Penguins' NHL squad in 1970. During his eight seasons in the major leagues, he also played for the Atlanta Flames and California Seals/Cleveland Crusaders. (The franchise moved to Ohio and, as local hockey fans know, eventually merged with the Minnesota North Stars. He was with the team for the move but not the merger. But he did spend part of a season with the Minnesota Fighting Saints.)
Writing his own ticket
About halfway through his hockey career he started attending church services at the invitation of "several influential people." At first he went along just to be a good sport, but later because the message had taken root.
He spent 18 years as a pastor. His writing career sprang from necessity. He wasn't satisfied with Bible study materials that were available, and he realized that he wasn't the only one.
"You'd hold a Bible study class and after a couple weeks, no one would show up," he said. "Something had to be wrong."
So he started writing his own study guides. When other pastors asked if they could use them, too, he decided to start Lamplighters International and publish them.
That was seven years ago. His 22 study guides average out to three a year, but that's deceptive because his productivity is on a steep upswing. He published five this year, although he is unlikely to match that number in 2008 because he's going to spend January in India leading seminars on his discipleship program.
You don't have to belong to a church-organized Bible study to get his books. They are available at most religious bookstores and are even carried by some general bookstores.
His father died before his publishing business took off, but he did get to see his son play pro hockey, which was important to him. As for his mother, she's still not religious -- but she's proud anyway.
"My mother doesn't understand what I do, but she figures that if I'm going to India, I must be doing it well," he said with a laugh.
He doesn't talk much about his pro hockey career these days, joking that while people used to ask, "Do you still skate?" now they ask, "Can you still skate?" But he uses the occasional sports image to get his message across.
"In hockey, you have practices and then you have the game, where you apply what you learned in the practices," he said. "To me, Sunday church services are the practices and the other six days of the week are the game. Too many people figure that just showing up for practice once a week is enough. It's not. The game is out there. It's life."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392