Walk with Christian Leader intern Toby Penner across the Tabor College campus, and it’s easy to see people know who he is. Whether it’s a conversation at the campus coffee shop, shouts of “Toby!” across the front lawn, or a smile and wave in the stadium parking lot, it seems Penner has made connections during his three years as a Bluejay.
The most recent recipient of Tabor’s “Male Athlete of the Year” award and the school record-holder in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, Penner came to Tabor to run track, but his athletic participation only scratches the surface of his involvement on campus.
Whether on the track, in the newsroom or playing drums for a student-led worship band, Penner has embraced an expanding sphere of influence by stepping into leadership roles and seeking to excel in what he does, providing a platform to share what’s on his heart.
“With everything, it’s focused on a love for Jesus and wanting to spread that,” Penner says. “That’s it. That’s what motivates me for everything.”
A million different things
The Tabor junior balances a full schedule as a student-athlete, but Penner says participating in a variety of extracurricular activities in high school helped prepare him for an increased workload in college.
Penner is a 2018 graduate of Berean Academy, a private Christian school in Elbing, Kan., where he played three sports—soccer, basketball and track, was a member of the band and choir and participated in a Christian leadership program.
He says he pursued these activities not only for his enjoyment of them but also for the relationships forged through being part of a team—whether at a state music festival or on the field, court or track.
“I just kind of did every extracurricular thing I could,” he says. “That really helped me, especially this year, doing it feels like a million different things and trying to balance all those.”
While admittedly enjoying soccer the most, it was Penner’s talent on the track that put him on Tabor’s radar. Penner won double state championship titles in both the 110- and 300-meter hurdles in Class 2A his senior year.
“I wanted to run in college and see where it would take me,” Penner says. “With track, it’s more than just a sport for me. It’s a way I worship.”
His recruitment by Tabor head track and field coach Dave Kroeker solidified Penner’s decision to attend the Mennonite Brethren institution in Hillsboro, Kan., a place he says he chose for its decidedly Christian environment—from faculty to students—as he sought to be empowered spiritually as a student leader.
“I came on a visit, and I saw how the spiritual atmosphere came from the top down, from the faculty and leaders down to the students,” Penner says. “It wasn’t all on students to create it. It was getting pushed along by the leaders, and that was really important for me.”
A race to run
Penner’s athletic achievements continued at Tabor, where his participation on the track and field team provided opportunities for him to build relationships and expand his influence.
A two-time national-qualifier in the 400-meter hurdles—the coronavirus pandemic cancelled Penner’s opportunity to qualify his sophomore season—Penner will compete on the national stage, May 26-28.
He bettered his own school record in the 400-meter hurdles at the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference meet May 7 with a winning time of 53.22 seconds.
“(Toby) is a great example of what competition should look like for a Christian,” Kroeker says. “He is quick to congratulate his competitors, win or lose, but he still has a fiery competitive spirit that pushes him toward being the best he can be.”
From his vantage point as coach, Kroeker says he’s seen Penner’s ability to lead.
“Toby is a natural leader and is fearless as a hurdler and in defending his faith,” Kroeker says. “I have observed him in conversations with his teammates that many would shy away from when it comes to controversial social issues and relevant campus issues. He is always respectful but unashamed of his Bible-based beliefs. He also is a great example of hard work and dedication to being the best he can be as an athlete and in everything he does.”
As an upperclassman this year, Penner says he has stepped into more vocal leadership roles on the team.
“I’m at a point, especially with the track team, where I need to be more vocal,” he says. “That’s been kind of hard this year, been a little bit of a stretch, but it’s been really good to step into that.”
Stories to tell
If Penner chose Tabor for the spiritual atmosphere, he stayed because of the people. He’s found a church home at Parkview MB, where he helps with Wednesday night activities for elementary students and serves on the missions committee.
“Even though I only live 30 minutes from home, I don’t feel the need to go home constantly because I feel at home here,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t want to go home or (am) trying to stay away from home, this is where I am, this is where God has me right now. I want to be present here.”
In addition to track, Penner is involved in a number of arenas, including playing drums and serving on the leadership team of the student-led worship band SP&D, serving as a resident assistant in the dorms his sophomore year, representing Tabor on the 26-member KCAC Student-Athlete Leadership Team, and serving as editor of the campus student publication, The Tabor View.
Penner says he didn’t consider himself a writer during high school, but hearing his mother express a need for Christians in journalism sparked his interest in the field.
“Where Christ’s presence is, truth and justice and fairness and those things obviously follow,” Penner says. “She kind of helped me see that.”
Penner’s chosen area of study was solidified once he got to Tabor, where he says a track teammate’s passion for the English language and writing caused him to consider pursuing writing and prompted him to submit an opinion piece for publication in The Tabor View.
Seeing journalism as a way to live out his faith, Penner selected a major in communications with a minor in English. He continued to write, adding interview-style pieces his sophomore year, before taking over as editor of The Tabor View this year.
View adviser and professor of communications Aleen Ratzlaff says she encouraged Penner to consider the role as a way to gain experience and build his portfolio, while acknowledging the increased responsibility the role would bring. She says Penner leads by example and has embraced the challenge of meeting deadlines in spite of a busy season.
“He made that commitment, and I’ve seen him step up and do it and hold the standard high for his writers, too,” Ratzlaff says, adding later: “He’s learning some great life lessons, and he’s embracing that. He maintains a positive attitude, a positive spirit.”
From a journalism standpoint, Ratzlaff says she was glad to see Penner place value on understanding sentence structure and punctuation.
“One of the things that I was just tickled about is that he recognizes the value of taking modern grammar,” Ratzlaff says. “It’s really helped him. He’s working as a tutor in the writing center, so he can pass that on to other students. He’s got a great attitude, teaching attitude, towards others that he’s able to meet with.”
Penner sought an internship with the Christian Leader for the spring semester, which he says has allowed him to share his love for Jesus.
“You can directly help spread the gospel through Christian Leader, and other forms of journalism you can’t do it that directly,” Penner says. “You can do it indirectly through relationships and stuff, but it’s nice starting out and just being able to do it openly, just really explicitly. That’s been really awesome.”
CL internship improves skills
This spring, Penner has put in about five hours a week for his CL internship, conducting interviews, writing stories for print and online, editing news briefs, formatting obituaries, proofreading and posting on social media, in addition to a weekly meeting with editor Connie Faber.
Having not grown up Mennonite Brethren, he says he experienced a learning curve with terms and names, although his work with The Tabor View helped him understand the publication process. Penner expressed surprise to see the amount of work done with a staff of two part-time editors and freelance writers, and says the internship has empowered him to learn new things and improve his current skill set.
“It’s just been really special to do this,” he says. “It’s really going to pay off later. You guys deserve so much credit for that. For whoever else comes through, maybe, in the future, they’ll have my full recommendation for (the CL), as an intern.”
Faber says she has enjoyed working with Penner and helping him hone his writing and editing skills.
“Leadership development is one of the USMB core commitments and having the opportunity to work with someone like Toby, who demonstrates leadership in so many areas, is one way we as CL staff can be part of developing the next generation of leaders in the area of communication,” Faber says.
In addition to being recognized as Tabor’s Male Athlete of the Year, Penner has received the Hiebert Merit Award for his academic achievement.
As for what’s next, Penner will travel to Estonia this summer to share the gospel with high school students at soccer camps. When he returns to the Tabor campus, he will continue to serve as the college newspaper editor.
He is considering attending grad school to get his master’s degree and continuing to run track, but says he is keeping the bigger picture open while waiting for direction from God, listing possibilities such as missions work, TV news or working for a Christian publication.
“I want to tell people’s stories and find the people that don’t usually have a voice or aren’t often heard and really give them the opportunity to speak and tell their story, and for other people to learn what’s going on in their lives,” he says. “Living out my faith is just empowering those who don’t necessarily always have a voice to have one.”