Sometimes our greatest moments of progress are birthed from being knocked to the ground and refusing to get back up.
It was just over a year ago that I read the email in my inbox. The university I work for would be sending students home early to finish remotely for the remainder of the semester. If that weren’t devastating enough, we were also encouraged to work from our homes due to our governor’s stay-at-home orders in an attempt to #flattenthecurve of the new COVID-19 pandemic.
So imagine: One of the most people-oriented, high-energy extroverts you know is told to isolate himself at home for an extended period of time with no end date in sight.
Naturally, I got depressed. It was the first time I ever felt a crippling anxiety that simply trying to do some morning yoga knocked me to the floor, curl up in a ball, and cry, because it was too strenuous for my body at that moment. I had no desire to work. I slept 10 hours at night and barely was able to get out of bed. And the perfectionist demons that have haunted my whole life spoke lies that I couldn’t shake: “What do you think your doing? You’re better than this. Don’t show weakness. You have goals to meet. You have people to please. You have projects to finish. You’re letting everyone down.
This lasted for 4 months. Some days were better than others. Most of them really, really sucked, though. There were several pages in my journal that were torn and ripped by the ferocity of scribbling pen in sheer anger of the thoughts I was desperately trying to get out of my head. Praise God for my wife. I had no idea how she dealt with me so well.
On top of all this, I was at the beginning stages of questioning our decision to move to Marion, Indiana to work in this new position I took up several months prior. Previously, I was pastoring at a phenomenal church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After being there for 3 years, I was given my dream job of overseeing a spiritual formation department at a church with preaching and teaching opportunities. I was always curious how I would do in the university setting, though. I was convinced that the only thing that would cause me to move back to Indiana was if something opened up at my alma mater, Indiana Wesleyan University, to teach theology and ministry. So when this job opened up, it seemed like a very strategic career move. If there was any possibility that academia was where I needed to be, I had to jump on this. I had to take the risk.
Needless to say, from the moment I arrived in my new position at IWU in October 2019, I was grieving my departure of pastoring in the local church. Yes, technically I was still an ordained pastor in the Wesleyan Church, and yes, technically I was still serving the church by recruiting high school students called to ministry. I figured these feelings were a part of the longings for the good things I had before, a natural part of any transition process. So I tried to force those feelings down and push them away. But those feelings never left.
A few months later, in December 2019, I went with a group of ministry students to help with a massive youth conference for the Wesleyan Church. It was there I realized that 10 years ago, in December 2009, I received my call to vocational ministry at one of these exact same youth conferences as a sophomore in high school. I cried. A lot.
So, when COVID hit, it disrupted the state of my soul. And when your soul’s disrupted, it forces you to the barebones of your desires, priorities, life ambitions, and desperations. It only magnified my yearning to be back in the local church. I just had no idea how to get there.
The Dirt Road
During the Spring of 2020, Kasey and I began tossing around the idea of moving back to Sioux Falls, South Dakota some day. We were expecting our daughter, Amelia, at the time, so it weighed even heavier on Kasey’s heart for us to be in close proximity of her family again. Plus, I loved Sioux Falls. It was the first place I called “home” outside my hometown in Richmond, Indiana, or college. It was where I served in my first pastorate, lost 40 pounds, developed one of the best group of friends I ever had, fell in love, bought my first house, worked as a barista in my favorite coffee shop of all time. It was an incredibly valuable place representative of the most transformational season of my life. Of course I dreamed about going back.
But there were two issues I kept running into:
- Was my desire to be back in Sioux Falls just a desperate attempt to escape my current dry season? Not so different from when the Hebrews cried out that they’d rather go back to the captivity of Egypt than wander aimlessly in the wilderness?
- If we did go back, I felt like the only ministry career option I had was if something magically opened back up at my former employer, of which the likelihood was very small.
So I felt stuck. Of course I wanted to move back. But was my heart right? What if we were meant to stay here and I was just being irrational? I flipped back and forth every other day, not sure what I wanted or what we were suppose to do.
It’s now July 2020. I was set to preach at a local church an hour away from Marion, and then Kasey and I would begin the 12-hour venture westward to spend the week in Sioux Falls and catch up with friends and family. Goodness. If there’s anything I do that puts me right in the center of God’s will and calling for my life, it’s preaching the Word. I can’t explain it. Preaching for me is one of those things that when I’m doing it, I know it’s what I was put on this earth for. I come alive. After I finished preaching and we got on the road, Kasey and I were in agreement: Whatever is next for us, and wherever it is we go, I have to be preaching. It’s a fire within my bones that I cannot contain, to echo the Prophet Jeremiah.
We pick up one of our friends, Julia, in Indianapolis who, coincidentally, needed a ride to Sioux Falls to be in a wedding that same week. At some point along the drive, we started talking about ministry, preaching, and sermons. Julia brought up the time when I preached in IWU’s chapel in January (before rona hit). She recalled that when I was preaching, she looked to a couple of her friends she was sitting with, and asked, “Why isn’t Jake leading a church? Why isn’t he preaching more regularly?”
I bring up this detail not to toot my own horn. Far from it. But that was an affirmation I didn’t even know I needed at the time, little to her knowledge that Kasey and I were wrestling with very similar thoughts. I tucked it away for safekeeping. The Lord has a tendency to work in my life through recurring patterns and themes.
We get to Sioux Falls. We have a great time catching up with Kasey’s family and dear friends of ours. I stopped by Coffea Roasterie and Espresso Bar on multiple occasions. It was great. I made it a point, though, to stop by Ransom Church and see my friends and previous co-workers, and catch up with Pastor Cody, a mentor of mine.
Just before Cody and I were about to meet, my friend, Jared, who pastors at The Ransom, asked, “So are you still dreaming about planting a church?”
I laugh and shake my head, and say, “Oh, absolutely not.”
Back in 2018, I walked away from a winter retreat for my denomination’s district with a huge conviction that I was being called to plant a church someday. The city that originally rose to my mind was planting in Seattle, Washington, because of the high levels of loneliness reported in the city and how much that resonated with my work on the loneliness epidemic and spiritual friendship. But after Kasey and I got married, the opportunity to move to Marion to work at IWU and be an hour and a half away from my family was a much better—albeit, safer—option. If we had to choose between Seattle or Marion, we chose the one that was safer, more familiar, and by far more financially stable.
Because of the move, I completely wrote off the dream of church planting. I thought that dream was gone. I didn’t even think of it as an option anymore—hence my quick “no” to Jared’s question.
Cody gets to the office, and we sit down to meet. I tell him everything I had been feeling and thinking up to that point, including our desire to move back to the area. And I kid you not, this was Cody’s response:
“Well, if you move back around here, you’ll either have to lead a church or plant a church, because you need to be preaching.”
There it is again: preaching. Third time’s a charm. But the major component this time was that I didn’t even think about church planting being a reason to come back to the area. Kasey and I already gave God our “yes” to church planting; we processed through that the year before. What was God up to?
We went back to Kasey’s sister’s place to hang out for the rest of the day. A lot was on my mind at this point, so I decided to take a walk down a dirt road in the South Dakota country. And I just poured my heart out to God about everything. My depression. My desperation to preach. My yearning to pastor in the local church again. My confusion with my current work. Wondering what could possibly be next for us as a family.
Then it all hit me: What if I actually listened to my yearning to be back in the local church? What if it wasn’t birthed from a desire to escape a difficult season, but rather my soul seething at being away from the calling and conviction the Holy Spirit laid on my life during that youth conference in 2009? And, further, what if we were meant to plant a church… but in South Dakota?
We left South Dakota that first week in July and headed back to Marion, pondering all of our options. “Where should we plant?” “Is there a need in Sioux Falls?” “Are there any potential towns to the north closer to Kasey’s family?” And there were also plenty of, “What in the world are we doing? Shouldn’t we just stay here where we can be more established?” (I think every church planter wrestles through those questions at some point in her or his journeys.)
Shortly after we got back, I talked with several more mentors about what we were thinking, and every single one of them affirmed that we should move forward with planting. So far, so good—we were getting the green light. Next, I setup a meeting to talk with the Northwest District’s superintendent, Revered Wes Smith. I caught him up to speed on our story and everything we were thinking. He was incredibly supportive, and said, “If I were your age, there would be nothing else I’d recommend more than church planting. It is the most exciting journey you could ever embark on.” That was encouraging.
We then went on to talk about possible locations. The main thing on our list was that we could be within an hour radius of Sioux Falls to be near Kasey’s family. Wes listed a couple of options, one of which was Vermillion, South Dakota. That immediately piqued my interest. Vermillion is a college town home to the University of South Dakota. There are a couple of mainline churches there with a few other modern expressions of church, but otherwise, Vermillion is ripe to have a fresh church planted there from our denomination. The possibilities are endless. Brookings, the other major college town in South Dakota, has a church called Gracepoint that’s doing amazing things for the community and ministering to the students of South Dakota State University. If we could have a church doing similar things for Vermillion and the University of South Dakota, then we would have two strong missional communities in both of South Dakota’s major college towns.
In the following weeks, we weighed all the options Wes laid out for us, and Vermillion was the one that kept coming back up. I love college students. I served as a student body chaplain to my peers when I attended Indiana Wesleyan University, I naturally connected with young adults and led a team to hold occasional Young Adult Worship Nights when I pastored at The Ransom Church in Sioux Falls, and college students are who I primarily minister to in my current role at IWU. I’ve had a conviction to pour into the young adult demographic for awhile. To plant a church in a college town resonated deeply.
A few months passed, and we setup a weekend trip to pray through Vermillion to discern if this were to be where God was leading us. I prayed and fasted leading up to this trip, asking time and time again for the Lord to clearly show us that this is what he wanted us to do. We drive through Vermillion, and it’s a beautifully college town with quaint shops and local restaurants. We had met with several different people, including our future rental property manager, two of Kasey’s good friends from high school living in Vermillion, a waiter at the restaurant we visited for lunch, and a barista at a local coffee shop. We asked them what their favorite parts were about Vermillion, to which they all replied “the people.” The community is unlike any other. And we got that vibe, too. We really could see this town having the potential for Kasey and I to plant roots for a long period of time.
But then we also asked their opinions on a new church plant coming to town, to which they all affirmed that it’s highly needed, and would most likely go over well.
Let’s just say the Lord did his job during that trip. We were locked in.
And there you have it. My last day at Indiana Wesleyan will be June 1, and then we’ll move out to Vermillion that first week of June. I will participate in The Ransom’s 1-year church planting training, commuting to Sioux Falls a few times per week, while starting to build relationships in Vermillion. We’re still working through vision and names and church planting approaches and fundraising goals and such. I mostly have more questions than I do answers. And there are still occasions when I think we’re crazy. Those irrational fears from the devil pop up into my head, saying, “There’s no quicker way to kill a ministry career than church planting.” Spiritual attack is real. But that’s just all the more affirmation that this is what we need to do.
Sometimes our greatest moments of progress are birthed from being knocked to the ground and refusing to get back up. I’ll never forget that time when I curled up in a ball on my living room floor, frozen in the weight of my depression, wondering what the heck was going on with my life. Hitting rock bottom was the beginning of discerning this next season in our ministry journey.
In a time I thought I was regressing from God’s will for my life, it ended up being a pivotal moment in progressing forward to what he has for us. Thanks to the help of my counselor, I’ve come to learn this crucial lesson:
The will of the Spirit is never wasted.
The Lord did incredible things in my life during these 2 years at IWU that stretched me and broke me in the best ways. I’m more whole and have a greater sense of the Lord’s providence in times of struggle—not to mention the incredible new friends I made, training future pastors, teaching classes, and being a part of a new church community. Though it’s taken me a long time to arrive to this conclusion, we would not be ready to do what God has next for us had we not gone through this season. And for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.
Here’s to what’s next.