When a community basketball league was started by Grace Baptist Church in Cedarville, Ohio, something greater was started in the heart of William Payne (’04). Payne was at the beginning of his ministry and saw over 100 men become part of the league. “Around 20 men came to Christ during my time there,” Payne said. “That was exciting and planted a seed in my heart.”
Payne, the son of a retired pastor, is from Evansville, Indiana. He and his wife Melinda have four children, Alexandria, Marcus, Victoria and Alanna.
After graduation from Baptist Bible Seminary in 2004, Payne served at South Baptist Church in Flint, Michigan, under Pastor Jim Vogel (’74, ‘77). While in Flint, Payne became involved in the public schools, sharing the gospel with the high school basketball coach who later brought Payne on as team chaplain. Payne was able to discuss spiritual things with players and hosted dinners at his home for the team. Payne’s reputation led to him being asked to be football chaplain as well.
The positive impact Payne had on local sports teams led to community impact in other areas. The church got behind Payne, serving at team dinners, holding backpack giveaways and offering parenting and life skills classes.
For Payne, outreach was no longer a program, but intentional relationship building through any open door God gave him. He didn’t wait for young men to walk through the doors of his church. He went to them. He met them on the court, in the locker room and in his home. He’s ministered to numerous teams and impact hundreds of players and coaches.
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, Payne continued sports outreach in the public schools while serving at a church. In 2012, he and his family moved to Syracuse, New York, where Payne served as associate pastor at Central Baptist Church under Pastor Milton Kornegay (‘98).
Although Payne has a love of sports and was a student athlete himself, he said what is most important to him is an eternal outlook. “My heart is to make an impact on young men. Specifically, young black men. To be with them, to walk with them, and to build trust with them,” said Payne.
In 2017, the director of Fellowship of Christian Athletes for Syracuse University moved to a different position. Payne’s friend, Cedric Solace, recommended Payne for the job. He became the campus director for FCA at Syracuse in March 2018.
“William Payne was the right man, at the right place at the right time. He is high energy and likes to engage people. He loves the Lord and has a passion for young adults. He is very intentional about his relationships,” said Solace.
Solace was a recipient of that intentionality. “I’ve never had anyone engage me the way William Payne engaged me,” Solace said. “I guess I was on his prayer list. Because there were days in my life that weren’t a lot of fun—days I was struggling. And even when I hadn’t shared that with him, he would call or show up in the office and say something to let me know he knew something was going on and that he was praying for me. He was literally spot on, so many times. I learned to trust Him and to trust His insight, because I could clearly see God was using Him.”
To make a difference in the lives of people, Payne believes he must first build trust and relationship. “Being present is a gift of his,” said Solace. “He doesn’t operate from a pretentious space. He lets you know he’s been there. He can speak to people from many spaces and perspectives and be very relatable. His disarming nature gives him the unique ability to reach all kinds of people and break down their walls.”
“It takes a really special person to do what he does,” Solace said about Payne. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, your ethnicity, your culture or how you identify yourself…He is able to meet people where they are at. I think that in the athletics department where diversity is a reality, not only a diversity of ethnicity, but a diversity of thought and faith…it takes a really special person to navigate those things and engage and successfully collaborate with such a diverse and dynamic group of people.”
Payne has been a safe place for players and coaches who are often under a microscope and whose image precariously hangs on the thread of performance and public opinion.
Payne said many athletes struggle with their identity. Payne tells them, “I love you for who you are, not what you do. I’m with you, win or lose. It doesn’t matter to me. When you’re on the court your responsibility is to use the gifts that God has given you to the fullest. The outcomes are determined by Him. The other team is praying just like you. Your identity is not based on winning. It’s based on who you are and who God made you to be.”
Payne doesn’t say “Good game,” after a win or “Better luck next time,” after a loss. Instead, he says, “Way to compete.” Payne said, “I don’t want them to think my opinion of them changes based on a win or a loss.”
Payne’s persistence in pursuing relationships at Syracuse University wasn’t easy, but it ultimately led to open doors and the opportunity to make an eternal difference.
“I was just being present,” Payne said. “You have to be present. You have to get out the door and show up. Be present for the people you are trying to reach. It’s not enough to have one youth event or give a free backpack. You have to be present in people’s lives and build those relationships. That’s what I’ve learned true outreach is.”
Payne has had opportunities to counsel players after a loss. Not just in the game, but in life. He’s given relationship and marriage counseling. Athletes are under an intense amount of pressure and expectation from others. He encourages them to walk with integrity on and off the court.
Payne travels with the men’s basketball team and is present at 99 percent of their practices. He leads a coaches Bible study on Monday nights. Some coaches have moved on in their careers but still want to attend Payne’s Bible study. Meeting through Zoom, Payne leads a Bible study on the life of David with coaches from Syracuse, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Cornell and McNeese State.
On Tuesday nights, when players are not traveling for an away game, young men can be found on the basketball court of SU’s Mellow Center having Bible study with Payne. They meet there because they outgrew the room where they used to meet.
Payne has led many men to Christ. He’s also had the privilege of baptizing them and seeing them grow in their walk with Christ. “Ultimately that is what it’s about,” said Payne. “It’s not about wins or losses. It’s about Jesus Christ.”
by Julie Jeffery Manwarren