As a professional soccer player turned event planner, Sterling Copeland was playing in arenas before he was planning events in them. But, as the son of Jim Copeland, the lead event planner for Promise Keepers back in its stadium-filling heyday, events are in his blood. Now he is working with his father on a new event, Wildfire Weekend for Men, which is taking off like…wildfire.
Q: How did you go from pro soccer player to event planner?
A: Growing up in Colorado, I played soccer in high school and briefly at a small school called Regis University. But if I wanted to get serious about it I had to go Division 1, so I transferred to Oral Roberts University. [Copeland was named all-conference.] After I graduated, the Major League Soccer team Colorado Rapids asked me to train with them. It was a one-week trial, which turned into three weeks, which turned into the rest of the season.
That’s when I really started to recognize God’s tug on my life. So I started toat the Denver Rescue Mission, we started a Bible study, and then my dad said he was going to come back and help Promise Keepers again. So, after soccer practice I’d help out in the warehouse, loading and unloading boxes. God was preparing my heart.
After my rookie season, the coach took a new job in Europe and the new coach wanted to bring in his own guys. He got rid of 20 players, but it really was a blessing in disguise. When he told me I was let go, within a week Promise Keepers offered me a full-time job. I thought, if I’m going to get a job within a week after I lost my job, I’ll take that and not go looking to play soccer for another team.
When God pulled me out of the Rapids it was before the Promise Keepers conference season, so I spent four months learning the trade with my father. I was getting a crash course from a guy who’s done it for a living, just soaking everything up.
Q: So you grew up around Promise Keepers?
A: Yes, we’re good friends with coach Bill McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers. I was born in Southern California but we moved out to Colorado in the early ’90s for Promise Keepers. My dad went from being an event planner—planning events in arenas, then stadiums—to being the assistant to the president, Randy Phillips.
Everything was just blowing up—we had 100,000 people in stadiums for international events. Then they did Stand in the Gap, which drew 1.6 million men to Washington, D.C., on October 4, 1997, which I still remember going to. I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old.
Q: How was Promise Keepers different when you came back in 2012?
A: Back in the day we had 500 employees, but now it was just 20 or 30. Everyone wore two hats. I was, for the most part, the conference logistics person. In a year I went from being a warehouse guy to putting on conferences. A small cast of people turned Promise Keepers around last year. We went from doing 100-attendee events in churches to 3,000-person events in five arenas.
Q: And this year you joined Wildfire Weekend, another men’s ministry event, and really put it on the map. How?
A: When we started at Wildfire at the beginning of this year, the first thing we said was, if you want to make this work, move it into an arena and get some big-name speakers.
They had been doing it for five years but it had been held in a church, the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. We wanted to bring it into an arena. Also, many of the men don’t even go to church, and an arena is a positive and inspiring environment for them.
The first event, held March 8–9 in Lynchburg, Va., sold out 10,000 seats in six weeks. That’s when we realized we dialed in on the right things.
Q: How did you draw so much interest?
In the main sessions you get to see these inspirational messages from guys that are icons. How many people get a chance to see [football player] Tim Tebow speak? Or get to see the guys from Duck Dynasty talking about their faith?
Then we have tracks—sports, hunting, fishing, motorsports, relationships—the types of things men like to talk about. Within the tracks are breakout sessions for people who want to learn a little bit about their passions or hobbies. You can see former major league pitcher John Smoltz teach your kid how to throw a ball in a kids camp. We have a professional bass fisher talking about the fly fish cast. We had some NASCAR guys talk about building an engine. Men can write their own schedule—what do they want to see that they may never experience again?
The one thing with Wildfire that men need to hear is, don’t apologize for doing the things you like to do. But if you are going to use hunting to get away from your kids, then you have probably missed the point. You don’t always have to be with your kids, but there has to be a rite of passage there.
We love the fact that you can have a motorcycle club at your church. In Greenville, S.C., I know of two different barbecuer groups—Cooks for Christ and Holy Smokers—two ministries that are appealing to guys that like to barbecue.
Then we have what we call “pit row,” which is a line of resources. It is a little bit like a, with booths that are trying to plug men into ministries.
We also do an evangelistic push because we recognize that a lot of guys who are not believers are still going to want to come see Tim Tebow or Duck Dynasty. We are getting guys who are generally not going to church. But when we have an evangelistic push where we can get hundreds of men giving their lives to Christ, that makes it all worth it.
Q: Now you are getting ready for the next one. How is it going?
It’s in Greenville, S.C., June 21–22 at the Bi-Lo Center, and [at press time] we are already half full. Getting these mega speakers are what takes it to a different level—John Smoltz, Tim Tebow, Drew Brees. We are starting to see that snowball effect—once you start to see the big names come in, it opens the floodgates. They all want to be there. It just struck a nerve.
Q: What is it like working with your father?
We have a fantastic relationship and honestly, we’ve gotten significantly closer in these last two years. It’s been an honor to work with him. And we goof around with each other a lot—half the time people don’t know we’re father and son when we come in. And that’s a cool piece of it, being able to say it’s a father-son thing, because we believe you can bring your kids to these events. Ten years ago that’s what happened to me and now I’m walking it. It brings it full circle.