As a youth ministry major at Texas Lutheran University, I had to complete an internship in youth ministry as one of my graduation requirements. In May of 2010, right after I finished my sophomore year of college, I became the new part-time Youth Director of St. John Lutheran Church in Marion, Texas.
I never had an interview with Pastor Jim. He hired me without meeting me face-to-face. His church needed a Youth Director, I needed an internship, and I lived close enough to the church that the commute wasn’t a pain. I don’t know how much he actually knew about me before he hired me, other than what my professors told him.
The first time I ever talked to him was over the phone. I called him to set up a face-to-face meeting before my internship officially began. From the first time we spoke, I knew that working with Pastor Jim would be a new experience for me. St. John Church is located in a small, rural south Texas town with a population of just over 1,000. I didn’t grow up in the country. I grew up in suburbia. It was a new world for me. From the moment I started working at the church, I knew I would learn a lot from Pastor Jim.
I discovered that Pastor Jim had this incredible gift of being in relationship with people. Everyone in the town knew him even if they weren’t a member of his congregation. One day we walked into the bank to make a deposit and he could greet every teller by name. He was more than the pastor of St. John Church. He was the pastor of the whole town. Pastor Jim had the personality and heart to not just minister to a congregation, but to an entire community.
Pastor Jim also had this incredible way of relating with kids. I remember sitting in on my first chapel service with the kids from the daycare connected to the church. Pastor Jim attempted to explain the Ascension to a group of toddlers, and it wasn’t quite working. It all went right over their heads. It didn’t matter to the kids, though, because they always came running to him with hugs and smiles, and they always looked forward to their 30 minutes a week in chapel. The youth in our Confirmation class and youth group loved hanging out with him; he even stayed up all night with us at our first lock-in. Even though he couldn’t always physically keep up with the kids, he had this amazing way of being the presence of God in their midst.
Last January, just before I moved to Philly, I received word that Pastor Jim had suddenly died from a heart
attack. His death shook the entire community of Marion. The youth and families of the church definitely took the news the hardest, but when I visited the community the weekend after his passing (I was no longer working in the congregation at the time) I could tell that everyone was affected, even those who didn’t know him very well. His relational ministry had a significant impact on the community as a whole, and even people who weren't parishoners were saddened that he was gone.
I learned so many lessons from Pastor Jim. The biggest lesson I learned from him was the importance of relationships. He taught me that although relationships with your youth group, parents, volunteers, and congregation are important, it is also important to be a presence to an entire community, too. He taught me that it doesn’t matter whether or not the kids “got” the lesson you were teaching; what matters more is that you be the presence of God in their midst. He taught me how relational ministry can transform a community, any community, and bring it closer together, no matter how different all its members may be.
I think about Pastor Jim a lot. I am so thankful that I was given the opportunity to work alongside him in ministry. I learned so many things from Pastor Jim. He helped me define my ministry to young people, and for that I will forever be grateful.
Victoria Hoppes is the Associate for Youth & Camping Ministries for the Diocese of Pennsylvania.