Into the pulpit at 8 weeks’ notice

It was like drinking from a fire hose.

The chance to live rent-free in a town overlooking the Allegheny River, in exchange for managing a house for missionaries on furlough while completing the last leg of my Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree, sounded like an answer to prayer.

After five years as youth pastor, assistant pastor, and bus director at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Chico, California, I was settling into married life with a then two-year-old boy, Brennan, who was a (delightful) handful. But now it was time to hunker down and finish my studies.

I knew the Lord had called me to preach and teach, and the plan was to be equipped to present the Bible in a deeper fashion, finishing my three-year degree, building on my Bachelor of Theology, and Master of Arts qualifications.

Out of the blue, an opportunity came from Harvest Baptist Church in Natrona Heights to run the missions house. I jumped at the opportunity. I wasn’t on staff, but earned some money managing the Verizon store in the town, and hit the books.

It didn’t quite work out the way I’d planned. The year was 2016 and it turned out to be a bigger year than I could have imagined. Unbeknown to me, Pastor Kurt Skelly, the senior pastor at Harvest, was being led through the word of God to consider moving on after 20 years.

Shortly after his resignation, the deacons asked me to join the staff team on a temporary basis. Basically they said, “Help us with some preaching and administrative functions for six months, and then you’ll graduate from seminary and go off to pastor somewhere if you like.” I said, “Fantastic, I’d much rather do that than work at Verizon.”

Soon I was preaching Sunday nights as the church conducted a search for a new pastor. After a few weeks folks began to approach me and ask, “What are you doing for the next 20 years?” I said, “Look I’m 29, and with a church this size you don’t need a 29-year-old pastor. Just trust the process, it will take care of itself, and God will give you the right person.”

Well the process continued and eventually I was asked to interview for the position. The process took about eight weeks. It’s a big church, runs about 700, with a thriving school, Harvest Baptist Academy. There are many moving parts, and my main concern was that my inexperience would get the better of me. My thought had been, “If was was 40, I might have been more ready.” But 29 it was, and so off to the races we went. What a year.


  • My twenty-ninth birthday was June 24
  • Pastor Skelly’s last Sunday was June 26
  • Our sixth wedding anniversary was August 13
  • Our second baby, Willow Grace, was born on August 18, then …
  • Appointed pastor on October 1
  • Completed my MDiv on December 11 


How did it pan out? A friend asked me what it was like, and I said, “It was like drinking from a fire hose.” It was the busiest year of our married life, and the Lord stretched us. But it was also awesome. 

The biggest surprises were two-fold: I was not prepared for the fact that I would not be able to turn my brain off, nor was I prepared for the infusion of love that God would give me for those I was now pastoring. Almost overnight there was this love for the people I’d been given to shepherd. It was a love I believe is supernatural in origin. I wanted to love them, and pastor them—even people I didn’t know very well.

It’s hard to explain the heartbeat of love the Lord would give. The only thing I can equate it to is the birth of a child when you immediately love him, and then others are born, and your love is not divided among your children but is multiplied.

Some of the best advice I got from other pastors was that I did not have to feel I needed to be older—just to be myself. We thanked our people for taking a chance on us, knowing we would make mistakes, but trusting they would graciously allow us to figure it out.

I couldn’t act as if I had it all together. I had to admit to the deacons that I’d never put together a multimillion-dollar budget, and needed help. I learned not to live in insecurity, but to be honest about that insecurity, to admit it, and seek assistance. I have had to go to people and say, “Hey, I apologize, I did not handle that the right way. I had the right motives and was trying to do my best, but I realize now I should have done this. I should not have done that. I’m sorry you have a front row seat to my inadequacies, but I’ll do better next time.”

My favorite verse for these times was from First Kings when Solomon inherits the kingdom from his father and prays,


O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in . . . give therefore thy servant an understanding heart. (1 Kings 3:6-12)


Sunday evening at Natrona Heights; posing in Pittsburgh with wife Maggie, and children Brennan, Willow, Cruz, and Deacon; a tender moment with Maggie. Photos: Erin Klimkowski.

Progress report: Growing, and burning
 the note

We are still learning, growing, and making mistakes just hopefully not the same ones, and not as many. The Lord has blessed immensely, and I would like to think the church is growing healthier each and every year.

All of our debt has been repaid, our academy has more than doubled, we have more people in a life group or serving than ever before, and there is a steady stream of people coming to faith, then being baptized.

We are in the middle of a campaign to expand our campus in several ways, not the least of which is a new auditorium that will seat 750. We have already seen $2.7 million come in for these projects, and we break ground in the spring of 2024.

We want the church to be as healthy as possible—and healthy things grow. We want to get to the other side of this pandemic be doing more for Jesus than we ever have. Now is not the time kick it into neutral and hope that we can get healthy one day. Communities needs healthy, thriving churches today, and we pray God will use us to that end.