By Katie Ginn

Chris Kellum was a husband and father who worked in medical sales, served faithfully at his church in northeast Jackson, and did sports ministry on the side. Check, check, check. 

Then a series of spinal surgeries and chronic pain set him back – way back. In 2009, Chris had to give up his job, and he and his wife, Polly, nearly lost their house. (In fact, “We nearly lost everything,” Polly clarifies.)

Years later, God would use Chris’ physical and mental pain to help others push through their own barriers. But back then, Chris and Polly didn’t know that. 

“At the time, you think, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get through another day,’” Polly says. 

Doing ‘that Jesus thing’

Chris and Polly both grew up in churchgoing families in central Mississippi. Polly had accepted Christ as a child. “I probably drifted away a little in college, (but) if anything was wrong, (the Lord was) where I turned,” she says.

And Chris? “Not so much,” he says with a laugh. “I knew the fundamentals of the faith, and then I ended up not really practicing it so much – until I met her.”

The scene sounds like a rom-com:  

“I was on a beach in Destin when I was 24, and I saw this incredibly good-looking girl walking down the beach, and I had to figure out if I could work up the courage to talk to her,” Chris recalls. “I spit a little game.”

“He had too much courage,” Polly says.

After their meet-cute, they found out they lived just a few doors away from each other in Jackson. They went to Sal & Phil’s Seafood Restaurant & Lounge in Jackson on their first date.

As they got married and started a family, Polly and Chris both prioritized taking their kids to church – but with two very different mindsets. 

“(For me) it was more like the ways of Christ, and not Christ is the way,” Chris recalls. “I thought, I want my kids to be good kids. If this Jesus thing is true, I’d rather them know it than not know it. I want their ticket punched.”

One weekend, Polly attended a Walk to Emmaus retreat. When she came back, she started getting up earlier in the morning in order to spend time with God. 

“She is not a morning person,” Chris says. “I was going, ‘What in the world has happened to her?’

“She didn’t use words. She knew I’d heard (the gospel) my whole life and kind of rebelled against it,” he says. “(But) whenever I would say something (about faith), she would talk me through some stuff.”

What eventually made the gospel click for him was the fact that he didn’t have to earn his salvation. “It made sense when it became about a relationship,” he says.

“I always thought, ‘I’ll try that Jesus thing out later when I’m not having as much fun.’ But now that’s kind of funny, because (being a Christian is) a lot more fun.”

For instance, around the time that the Kellums were helping establish Bellwether Church in Jackson, Chris and some friends started a sports ministry. 

Both Chris and his friend Chris Snopek had seen worldly success but found joy and purpose in Jesus. They knew other men with similar stories, including Todd Dyess, Keith Lofton and Dobby Bowdon, and together they and several others formed Ignite Sports.

Every summer for 10 years, Chris and his friends held a four-day, three-night camp, featuring current and former college and pro athletes, sports training, life-skill lessons – and raw conversations with guys from wildly differing backgrounds. (Half the kids attended on scholarship.) 

“By Sunday, they were all just the body of Christ,” Polly says. “There was no line, no racial (division).” 

Many of those young men are still friends today. “And they still come here (to our house),” she says, laughing. “We have a lot of drop-in company.”

Flushing pills and trusting God

Medical sales is a high-performance, high-pressure field, Chris says. “If you don’t meet your number, you’re gone.” 

Starting before he got involved with Bellwether and Ignite, “I had a bunch of back surgeries,” he says. 

“Ten, to be exact,” Polly adds. 

Through seven of those surgeries, he was able to keep working while taking time off to recover as needed. He missed his sales number once during that time – but it didn’t mean a pink slip. His managers knew he was a high performer, and he proved them right, despite surgeries and chronic pain.

Then in September 2009, he felt something shift in his spine. “It felt like a truck fell on top of me,” he recalls. He saw his physician, Dr. Bob McGuire, and discovered that his spinal fusion was collapsing. 

Dr. McGuire ended up putting Chris on long-term disability, and he had to leave his job – not for a few months, but for good. Chris was serving as worship leader at Bellwether, and he was helping run Ignite Sports, but he could no longer do a job like medical sales, which involves lots of driving and carrying equipment. (Even today it would not be advisable, though he’s doing much better.)

One day a couple of years after Chris left medical sales – as he was still enduring surgeries and pain – “Polly had just gone to work, and I was sitting on the couch, I opened the Bible, and I saw Psalm 46:10, ‘Be still and know (that I am God),’” Chris recalls.

“Also, there was this tree frog that had been stuck to the (window) glass, and I had been staring at it for a couple hours, laying on the couch – and as soon as I read that (verse), its eye just made a little tiny movement. There was something about that moment. And then I looked over, and I saw – because I was starting to feel pain again – I saw (a) bottle of pills (I’d been prescribed for pain). 

“And I flipped the pages (of the Bible) and it flipped over to Ephesians (3:20): ‘God is able to do immeasurably more than you can ask or imagine by His power at work within you.’ I saw that, and I flushed those pills, and that was it.”

From then on, he trusted God to handle his pain. He’d take the meds after a surgery – but even then, Chris and Polly would ask the doctor: How long would a “normal” patient (one not already experiencing chronic pain) need the pills? And after that time elapsed, it was bye-bye pills.

“We’d tell the kids, ‘Daddy’s got the flu’ … and I’d go through withdrawals for several days,” he says. A few years ago, he and Polly told their grown children what he’d really been experiencing.

“But they never saw a dad that complained or quit,” Polly says. 

“I didn’t have a choice,” Chris says. 

‘I ain’t putting up with this!’

In reality, Chris did have a choice. He could’ve stayed on a steady diet of pain meds. (“Chronic pain can make you feel psychotic,” he says.) He could’ve defaulted to disability mode.

“Every time I would get ready to get out of bed, I just had this fear – because I would not be hurting that bad in bed, and I knew the moment I got up, that would change,” Chris says. 

“That day that I first flushed the pills, I remember looking at our dog Louie and going, ‘I ain’t putting up with this! This is on!’ So I would sit up on the edge of my bed, and I would see it as a game … me against pain. I created this figure in my head to represent pain. I would stare at the wall, and I would literally visualize myself winning. 

“At one point winning was just making it to the next hour. Then it was making it to lunch. I didn’t understand what was happening in my brain, but now we know the science behind it.”

Chris poured some of that science, his own experiences, and biblical truth into a book called “Igniting Your Purpose: Discover and Become Who God Created You to Be,” published in 2018. 

That book – plus a meeting with former record-breaking Ole Miss wide receiver Shay Hodge – propelled Chris into the next phase of his career. 

“(Shay) saw my book in the back of (my friend’s) truck (at an Ole Miss game), and we started talking. He was in a tough spot in his life,” Chris says. Shay had retired early from the NFL due to an injury. 

“He asked me to coach him, because I was helping coach some other people, kind of like executive coaching,” Chris says. “I took the content I’d been putting together (for the book) and called it Game Plan.”

As Chris prayed through Game Plan, he knew it all had to be backed by two things: scripture, and neuroscience. As he did his research, he realized he’d unwittingly used “scientific” techniques himself while recovering from his surgeries. 

“He practiced (during his recovery) what he’s doing now that helps so many people,” Polly says. “And it’s such a natural, organic kind of health. It’s not something where he’s ‘made’ a self-help thing. It’s real for him.”

Chris’ meeting with Shay Hodge led to a meeting with Mike Espy, who brought Chris in to work with athletes at D1 Sports. That meeting led to another, and another … 

“I didn’t set out to do this, but it’s just a ministry,” says Chris, whose day job now is what he calls “peak performance mindset coaching.”

Polly says when Chris started developing his coaching business several years ago, “he went back in his office, and he’s barely come out since. He’s been writing all this content and helping people every day.”

“(My clients) want to be the best version of themselves,” Chris says. “They get held back, as every one of us does. It can be on a field (or in business). Ninety-nine percent of the time, it doesn’t matter where you are – it’s in your head.”

Wonder Woman

When the Kellums are asked about their callings, Chris says his is in his book title: to help people discover and become who God created them to be. Polly says she doesn’t have a “definite” calling like Chris does, or that she doesn’t have words for it.

“I do. One word: Discernment,” Chris says. “I feel safe when I’m around her. … And she’s protective. She just sees people, places and things that we are supposed to avoid. She has a very powerful spirit of recognizing where the Lord’s moving and where He’s not.

“Also,” Chris says to Polly, “I think you’re very gifted at knowing, what’s the next move?”

When Chris was recovering from his surgeries, “I had the comfort of knowing my kids were taken care of, and my wife was still going to love me,” he says. 

“A lot of times I felt alone. And (almost) every time I had these feelings of loneliness, (Polly) would come in and say, ‘OK, what’s going on?’ I’d say, ‘How’d you know?’ Or, I’d lash out,” he admits. (Polly claims she doesn’t remember that part.)

Polly was working in advertising and marketing during Chris’ recovery. “She was still winning awards at work, and they gave her this Wonder Woman doll. It was really true,” Chris says. “To have three kids running around … And I would still come home to the smell of dinner. And the house was still clean.”

“I don’t think the house was really clean,” Polly says with a laugh. 

But Chris grew up with three brothers, he notes. “Clean looks different to all of us.”

Hope amid the yuckiness

One of Chris’ favorite scriptures is Psalm 18:1, where David writes, “I love you, Lord, my strength.” Polly leans on Philippians 4:6. She quotes it:

“‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything through prayer and petition, lean not on your own understanding’ – (that last part is) a different one (Proverbs 3:5), but they go together well,” she says.

“That’s something you’ve been saying to the kids,” Chris says.

“Their whole lives,” she says. “(And) I get peace in Jeremiah 29:11, ‘For I know the plans I have for you.’ And I for so many years didn’t go on down to verse 12 … where it says, pray about it. 

“We get uneasy about, what is the plan for our life, and what are we supposed to do? Well, we don’t really know. We just hope in the Lord and know He does have a plan for our life, and it’s for good – no matter what. Even if you go through a lot of yuckiness to get there.”