Winds of Change (A long love letter to the people of Westwinds)
11 years ago, I celebrated my last Easter Sunday as a pastor at Lakeside Church in California. As I stood on the stage celebrating with friends and family I had a happy sadness. I had a secret I couldn’t yet tell them. I had accepted an offer to move to Jackson, MI just a few weeks before and was waiting until after Easter to tell everyone the news.
Lakeside Church meant a lot to me. It was there that my young bride and I settled in on the second Sunday Lakeside was in existence. It was a church plant and we had been invited to take part in the new endeavor. We were 19 years old. Here, we learned much of what is still a part of the way we do ministry. Deep-seated beliefs about ministry were formed here.
We stayed there a few years on volunteer staff and then moved back up to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains to run my father’s business and work as volunteers on another church staff.
Ministry was in our blood. And, God was leading me specifically to go in to full-time ministry. I began traveling all over the world playing music and speaking. And, after a few short years, my friend Brad Franklin—pastor of Lakeside Church—encouraged me to go back to school.
We moved to Portland, Oregon and I attended Multnomah University. 2 years in to my program, Brad called and asked if I might have anyone to recommend for a Worship Pastor position they were filling at the church. I jokingly told him to hire me knowing this was not possible since I had two years to go with my schooling. We both chuckled but God had the last laugh. A year later, Lakeside invited me to come back home and be on staff. They flew me to Sacramento from Portland for about 6 months every week while I finished school. Upon graduation, they moved our family to Folsom to once again be part of the Lakeside family.
We stayed at Lakeside for roughly 7 years on staff. Everything was amazing. It was exciting to watch a church grow from a church plant in an Eagles’ Hall to rental space, to it’s first purchased location and building expansion, to owning one of the most desirable pieces of property in the city and constructing multiple buildings from the ground up. It was exciting to watch it grow from a handful of people to a church of thousands.
But, in 2004 change was taking place in me. God was calling us to a new adventure. Not under duress. Not in the midst of turmoil. Not out of financial necessity. Simply because of a calling. A calling to come to Jackson, MI. I had barely visited the Midwest before that time. But, God was stirring things in this particular franchise of His church in Jackson and asked us to come along for the ride.
The first year in Jackson was the most painful year of ministry I had encountered up to that point and remains our most painful ever. But, the next 10 years brought more joy, fulfillment, expectation, and opportunity than I could possibly conceive. We had an opportunity to leave Westwinds in the first year and it was tempting. But, God made it clear to us He wanted us here—not in spite of what was happening at Westwinds—but, because of it.
I could not imagine a better place to do ministry. The town. The people. The vibe. The region. The landscape. The staff. My co-pastor, David. My assistants, Kelly and Michelle. The band. The tech-teams. The artists. The elders.
I am the envy of most of my pastor friends. They come to my church and their eyes widen at the eye candy. Their smiles broaden as they meet the people. Their speech increases in rate and heightens in tone as they gawk about Westwinds. The media is always at attention—local and nationwide—to see what Westwinds will do next for the sake of the gospel. I have seen lives change in dramatic ways as Jesus wrecks and rebuilds people. My house is beautiful (I have a scotch and smoking room for crying out loud). And, some of my most dear friends in the world for whom reciprocal bullets would be taken are right here.
So, imagine our confusion when we were asked to consider moving back to California to take on a roll—once again—at Lakeside Church.
Two+ years ago, I had a vivid dream. In this dream, I was asked by Lakeside’s pastor and my friend, Brad if I would consider coming back on staff and leading beside him.
The dream was weird. Moving back was not an option as far as I was concerned. Life and ministry were too perfect. No need to change it up. Still, the dream plagued me. I told my wife. I told my co-pastor, David. I believe it was way back then that God started softening me to the idea of cataclysmic change.
I didn’t tell Brad about the dream.
In the summer of 2014, we took a sabbatical. Most of that time was spent in California with family and friends. Much of it was spent in Folsom with Lakeside family. We stayed with Brad and his wife, Donna. One evening, Brad and I went outside to chat. The conversation that followed was . . . spooky. I asked Brad what was on his mind regarding ministry. Just about everything he said lined up with my dream and sufficiently creeped me out. My very detailed dream was playing out in front of me. But, he didn’t ask me back.
That Saturday and Sunday, I spoke at Lakeside as a guest. The context was the 2nd chapter of Colossians. The church in Colossae was started by Epaphras—who was sent out to start the church because of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus where he came from. I felt a common bond with Epaphras as one sent out from where he came from. I also felt a common bond with Colossae—a town who had much in common with Jackson, MI. Much of this came out in my message and I celebrated Jackson.
On Sunday evening, I met with another pastor on staff for dinner. He confided in me that he believed God might be bringing us back to Lakeside. I laughed. He told me he felt very confident that God might be opening those doors and that I would be part of the future of Lakeside. He was overwhelmed with that sentiment during my message on Sunday. A few minutes later, his wife entered the conversation and told me she had the exact same feeling when I preached on Saturday and didn’t share her feelings with her husband until he spilled the beans Sunday afternoon.
I decided to tell Brad about my dream. It was all beginning to feel unsettling. I thought that maybe if I told him, he would convince me that God was NOT calling me back. We laughed together and Brad thanked me for sharing the dream. He told me God was not speaking to him about me coming back but, if God ever did speak to him he would be excited about that potential and he is glad to have me as a friend and comrade in ministry. It felt good to put that uneasy feeling to rest.
In late September, I was on a trip with some team members in Chicago. There, I received a called from Brad. Brad isn’t a big phone guy so I thought there might be an emergency and took the call. He started by telling me, “John, I had a dream.” He laughed and said he was lying but that God was indeed speaking something into him. While on a planning retreat, he told God that Lakeside was in need of new creativity, ideas, and energy. While in prayer, he believed God impressed upon him to invite me back on staff. He didn’t know what that would look like but believed God was wanting us all to consider it.
Part of me thought there is no possible way God was saying anything about us going anywhere. A larger part of me was familiar enough with God’s voice to know this is exactly the kind of story that he tells.
We prayed and talked for 4 months. And wrestled. And cried.
And God did indeed give us peace and clarity.
July 26th will be our last weekend at Westwinds. We will be moving back to California where I will serve alongside my lifelong friend, Brad and another wonderful pastor named Sean in a shared leadership model like we have enjoyed for over a decade at Westwinds. I will once again be one of three lead pastors.
I will not be doing music every weekend. That will be the biggest change. Still, I will be leading in the area of the weekend experience, outreach, and communication. Still intimately involved with the things I love. I’ll be working closely with other longtime friends besides Brad.
When people ask me, “How do you know God is speaking to you with this move?” The best answer I can give is, “I’d know that voice anywhere.” His is not always an “easy” voice to listen to. Though, it’s always worth it.
We are not leaving because anything is wrong at Westwinds. We’ve had plenty of opportunities and offers to move elsewhere—in good times and bad—and we never entertained those offers. David, Ben, and myself have often joked about opportunities that come our way. There are Christian church headhunters that look at places like Westwinds as a gold mine. We have all turned down multiple offers. For warmer climates. Bigger budgets. More influence. More money. We don’t believe God is in the business of calling us “away” from anything. He calls us “to.”
We are not leaving because of Michigan. It’s not too cold. We dig it. We like extremes. We love the seasons. We love the snow. We love the landscape. We love the opportunities. We will miss Michigan desperately. AND we are very excited to start this next leg of the journey back where we started.
We are not leaving because of Jackson. It has been our mission to breathe life and energy in to the city of Jackson since we got here. We believe God is alive and well here and Jackson is worth fighting for. We love her people. We love her vibe. We have stood strong against naysayers and take it personal when anyone puts her down. On top of that, our kids and grandkids live here. It will be painful to leave them. We love Jackson. AND we love what God is doing in Folsom. We have continued to pray for her over the last decade. We’re looking forward to getting reacquainted with her.
We are not leaving because we think we are done here. That’s a popular question when anyone leaves a ministry position. The fact is, we didn’t feel “done” with Folsom when we left her to come here. And, we certainly don’t believe we exhausted all opportunities to reach Jackson here. Are you done is not the right question. “Is God still doing things here?” is a better question. YES. He is. And you are part of that. Another bad question is, “Will Westwinds be okay?” The better question are, “What is God doing and what does God want from us next?” or “How will we rise up?” Westwinds has always been okay. It has gone through hell and back. God has never left. God has more invested here than any of us put together.
We had the same questions on the other side over a decade ago. The best way we could explain why we left Folsom 11 years ago is that that God was doing something new. It’s the same now. We don’t have all the answers. We’re a little scared. We’re sad. And, we’re thrilled. We know God is calling us back to Folsom.
I never pictured us leaving Westwinds. But, here we are. I have served for over a decade here with my friend David as one of two lead pastors. And, for a few years with our friend, Randy who is cheering us on from heaven. Over that time, I have shared responsibilities with them as well as leading the area of the church we call “Experience.” It’s the “what you see, smell, touch, feel, breathe, hear” area of the church. As one of your pastors, there is one thing I want to drive home and I pray it rings incessantly in your ears:
There are moments we create with our teams. I’m routinely thrilled by stories coming out of The Hub from Ben and his team. I think Ben may be the best person I know when it comes to making and seizing moments. Every time he’s together with kids and/or with his staff, he’s leaning in to the moment. Engaging them. Encouraging them. Laughing with them. People want to be around Ben.
There are moments we create with our people. One of the greatest examples of this on our staff is Terri McGarry. She has an infectious laugh. Sometimes obnoxious. But always infectious. Every time she’s engaging kids and families it’s a life lesson. It’s a story. It’s a relationship she’s inviting them in to. The weekends are sweated over. The big events and special activities are designed to have lasting impact—where families fall in love with Jesus together.
There are moments we create with our community. Once upon a time, the Citizen Patriot told me they were going to have to stop writing about Westwinds. People were starting to talk. There were so many things written about Westwinds that it felt like they weren’t being fair to other churches. The fact of the matter is, nobody else was doing anything.
There are many who make the magic happen around here. Dianne Stevens, Frankie Yee, Betsy Klein, Dave and Leta Howard, Dave and Ann Midkiff, Jan Wohlgemuth . . . I could go on and on. People who own this place. Bleed for her. Westwinds, you’re a rare breed.
THIS is how I know Westwinds will thrive in the future. Westwinds is THIS spirit. The spirit of cooperation and collaboration. The spirit of “this is MY church.” The spirit of “that won’t happen on MY watch.” The spirit of “Of course we can do that!” The spirit of “Who said we can’t do that?” The spirit of “Jesus changes lives and I’m going to love you until you see that.”
Westwinds is my church. It is in my blood. I plan on visiting. I plan on following the story. I plan on cheering from the sidelines. When I tell stories about her I will say:
She is resilient. Tough. Strong. She has stick-to-it-tiveness. She won’t be silenced. Her grounding in Jesus keeps her unwavering and the powers of hell cannot destroy her though they have tried in the past and will try again.
She is loving. You can’t out-love her. She has faults. Plenty. But this is the place people come to be loved. No matter who they are. How much money they make. How they look. How crazy they are. We are going to love the hell out of people. Literally.
She is proactive. Westwinds is the most creative place on the planet. Not just because she has artists, and great music, and neat experiences. Where else are people like Rob and Wendy Wight putting their finances and lives on the line to rescue children and families? Where else are churches creating communities for youth that feel that they have nothing to do besides steal from WalMart and have sex?—They certainly aren’t going home to their families. Westwinds has a work ethic and can-do spiritual-spidey-sense unlike any other. She has a knack for well-designed and appropriate controversy in order to further the gospel.
DON’T STOP creating moments in our community. Moments where we pay attention to detail. Moments that are so special that people wonder why you love them so much. Moments that meet needs. Moments that are ripe for conversation about Jesus. Moments that get the town talking. Moments that honor people and value them and esteem them. Moments where you invite the Holy Spirit to be part of the planning through fruition. Moments that invite all of Westwinds in to the story.
Get out of the house. Invest in our city. Go to the Michigan Theatre. Drink coffee in one of the many local coffee houses. Go to the parades. The car shows. The art, beer, and wine festivals. Ella Sharp. Check out the local music scene. Because you know who is out there? People Westwinds has yet to meet. People who are looking to be part of something special. People who need you. Jesus’ last command should be our first concern. Go.
Welcome the new guy or gal. We aren’t replacing my role as co-pastor with David. We will however, find an Experience team replacement—music, aesthetics, etc. Don’t just share stories of the good ol’ days. Embrace change. Make the new person feel like a rock star. Trust them. Lean in.
Invest in Westwinds. Your time. Your money. This is YOUR church. When you’re new to Jesus, it’s cool to just show up. After years of walking with him, he requires more. If you’ve been around and just kicking back, this is your time. Invest.
Protect the precious things God gives. Love your family. Make every moment count. The enemy is working overtime in Jackson MI to destroy everything you love. Surrender to Jesus. Everything.
Take care of your leadership (and their families). Protect them. Honor them. Love them. Encourage them. Pray for them. Send them notes. Ask how their kids are. Invite them to dinner. Send them out on a date night.
Teach contentment. It’s Godly. Talk less about what you don’t have. Quit the comparison game. Be the change in your world. Spread that good cheer. Discontent is epidemic in Jackson—be the anti-venom. Vaccinate the region against discontent.
Continue to be inventive. Imagine Westwinds and Jackson 5 years from now. 10 years from now. What does she look like? What crazy idea will you see through to fruition? Will you be a cast member in this play? How will Westwinds be the biggest benefactor to our city? Where will the kingdom leave its mark through Westwinds? And, if you aren’t someone who creates things ex nihilo, jump on board with the crazy ideas Westwinds is imagining. Don’t be a critic.
Make yourself available to build in to others. Mentor. Take people to coffee. Lead sideways on the teams you are serving on. Meet new people at the Winds and take interest. Westwinds needs grownups. Grownups who invest in our not-as-seasoned followers of Jesus.
Shadow God. Build the Church. Heal the World. This is the mission. The mantra. The battlecry. The sieve through which your every decision should be made. The impetus to every radical prophetic reorientation.
We love you.