An Interview with Billy Mauldin
You see them every week. Musical hopefuls from all over the country competing to become the next American Idol. Some have never been away from home and most have never been exposed to so many people, (on stage and on the screen), in their lives. Each week they put themselves in the spotlight to be judged by America. Sounds terribly stressful. Fortunately, this year the crew has Billy and Julie Mauldin on their side. I got a chance to talk with Billy awhile back and asked him to share with me some insight on this new adventure.
Each week, Billy and his wife make the journey from Charlotte North Carolina to Hollywood and back again leaving their four children in the care of family and friends. Their mission? To serve as “spiritual advisors” to all of the American Idol contestants. If the title sounds odd to you, you are not the only one. “The whole title of spiritual advisor seemed to wig everybody out and nobody knew quite how to define it,” says Mauldin. “But our approach, Julie and I, is to take our time and just build relationships with them and let them see that we are authentic and therefore, they can trust us. And when they’re ready, they’ll open up to us if they want to or if they are interested in it.”
A “selfie” of Julie and Billy Mauldin
Though this is the first year for Idol to have spiritual advisors on hand, the ministry itself isn’t too new to Mauldin. Billy has been serving in a similar outreach ministry for 15 years: Motor Racing Outreach (MRO).
Pastor Max Helton began MRO 25 years ago as a ministry to NASCAR drivers and ten years into it, Mauldin joined in as a volunteer, eventually becoming the CEO of MRO. So, what does the MRO do? “Probably the easiest way to describe it is that we are a lot like a local church, but we’re mobile,” says Mauldin. “We travel to all the races every weekend. We have a staff, just like any local church does with pastors and assistants. We provide all the same types of services that a local church would have from pastoral care to counseling. We do chapel services, we do children’s programming, we do family events…anything that your local church would do, we do it, but we just have to figure out how to do it in a mobile fashion traveling around the country from week to week.”
Mauldin describes himself as a chaplain, similar to how chaplains are used in the service. “Obviously they serve in much more serious situations than we do, but the lifestyle and the type of ministry is very similar.” Apparently serving with the American Idol folk is too.
Mauldin became involved with AI when he was contacted by David Hill and FOX. Hill had worked with the broadcast team for FOX Sports for NASCAR and during his involvement there, he got a firsthand look at what the MRO ministry was all about. When he was transferred to work on Idol, one thing he noticed right away was that many of the contestants came from church-going families. He also noticed that many were not ready for the fame and pressure that came with the contest. Perhaps they could benefit from the Mauldin’s just like the NASCAR drivers do.
“So, how is serving for Idol different than NASCAR?” I ask Billy. “In many ways, there is not a lot of differences. Obviously in NASCAR we’re dealing with situations where it can be very dangerous, but the challenge of living your life underneath a microscope or underneath a lot of pressure, whether it comes from the media that’s following them or meeting the obligations of sponsors or anyone else, can be an extremely pressure-packed situation. A lot of what we do centers around the art of being good listeners, allowing a place where people can come to and just pour out what’s on their minds or what they might be wrestling with their heart. We give them an opportunity to hear [their own thoughts]. Probably nine times out of ten, just thinking out loud helps them as much as anything.”
Mauldin says that another similarity between the two is that both are fast-paced. “There’s a lot of things trying to grab your attention from a lot of different directions. One of the things that we use with our involvement with racing is developing a lot of non-verbal communication – the ability to just look someone in the eye or offer a simple gesture. By taking your hand and touching your heart while looking at them lets them know that, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you or I’m praying for you.’ In racing you’re hustling to get a car ready or you’re hustling to get ready for a qualifying round or you’re hustling to meet with your sponsors. Whatever the case may be, you can’t always stop and talk. But after over a period of time, you develop the art of non-verbal communication which is actually pretty exciting and fun to be able to feel a connection with somebody when you can’t stop and talk.”
The Mauldin pair don’t operate out of an office or anything so formal. There isn’t a need to. In addition to using electronic media to the fullest, Billy and Julie have been given access to the singers at all times. “We’re fortunate enough to hang around when they are working whether they are whether it be with their vocal coaches or in the green room before performances. That’s really the key to this type of ministry. Just being able to be present where they are.”
How well are the Mauldin’s accept with Idols? Billy says, “I think…you never know for sure but, I would say with all sincerity and honesty that they all have been glad to have us around. They know that we’re sort of a neutral. We’re somebody that they can talk to or at the very least they can get a hug from and a word of encouragement.”
One of the highlights over these many weeks has been the opportunity to pray with all of the contestants before they go out on stage and before the cameras. “That’s really cool. I remember one night, because of some circumstances we weren’t able to be with them in the green room, but they met and prayed anyway. It’s fun to have one or two little things that are kind of institutional to share together as a family of contestants, and that’s become one of them.”
Mauldin says that watching “these kids” seize the opportunity for the things that they long for is inspiring to him. To see them start to grow and mature, not just in their craft, but as men and women is inspiring too. “Their faith plays a big role in it as well. To realize that there is a God who can take care of what they can’t. I love watching them work hard and succeed. It is extremely satisfying to see their dreams come together.”
Just before hanging up I ask, “What do you think Christians would find surprising behind the scenes of racing and American Idol?” He said most would be surprised by how different the people are once you get to meet them outside of the public arena. “In NASCAR, you have “bad guys” and “good guys.” On American Idol, some [contestants] will be loved and some will be hated for whatever reason. And in both cases, they’re usually just a small sliver on who they are. My encouragement to everybody out there is to always keep that in mind. Usually there is more to people than what you can get from television or social media. There’s a pretty phenomenal group of people in both racing and AI.”