Staff Stories: John

Apr 6, 2017

Everyone’s story is important, and here at Hill City we want to celebrate people, where they’ve come from, and what they’ve been through. As a church, we challenge our team to share their stories because it helps us relate to and empower others.  Our stories represent how a life with Jesus has changed our own passions, purpose and hope.

These are the stories of our staff.

John is the Head Pastor here at Hill City. His job description is to “lead the leaders, create vision, and be sensitive to where God is taking us.” Speaking with people who are skeptical about Jesus and helping develop leaders are what he loves most about working here. “I love when people say they’ve found a home here. Any point when someone takes a step forward really excites me, because I know what God is doing in their life.”

Born in upstate New York, John made his way to RVA in 1994 to play baseball at University of Richmond. After graduating with a degree in Sports Science, he worked in sales until he and Lacy, his wife of 15 years, stepped into full-time college ministry in 2006. John, also known as “Wags,” loves new sneakers, has had the same haircut for the past 20 years, and once was on BET. John and Lacy have 8 year old twins, Max and Neveah, and are expecting another child in September. John and Lacy started their ministry here at Hill City Church in 2014. You’re used to seeing him preach, and on the rarest of occasions, you’ve witnessed him bust a move on stage.

Q: So you started a church. What was that like? What fears came with that decision?

A: Thinking about and deciding to start a church was really shaped over a three year period. I never wanted to be a Lead Pastor until 2010 when I heard someone share about the impact their church had on their city. They asked the question “Would your city even care if your church closed its doors?” and that really resonated with me. From then on I became more consumed with church and leadership development. In March of 2013 I woke up out of a dead sleep at 4:00 a.m. and felt like there was an audible voice from God telling me “It’s time to go.” That had never happened to me before, and hasn’t really happened since. That started the process.

We eventually had a moment where we finally felt like we just needed to obey God. So we made the decision to carry out what he was asking … and we meant it. We had to be willing to do whatever God called us to do, and that really freed us into thinking differently about things. That being said, we made a leap without anything to leap to. We emptied our 401k and only had a small group of people who wanted to do this with us, so we really had to trust that starting a church was what we were suppose to do. That was a faith and life shaping moment for us. It caused some fear and we often wondered if we were listening correctly. I feared letting the core people on our team down.  We truthfully needed godly intervention to help us stay confident through it all. We prayed for affirmation. That’s what pushed aside any fear or doubt we had.

Early on in the decision, I was speaking at an event where Lacy and I hadn’t told anyone that we were doing any of this yet. A guy walked up to me and said “You’re suppose to go do something, and that something is to start a church. Are you about to start a church?” I awkwardly said, “Well, apparently I am now.” There was another moment when a woman at church, who I deeply respect, said that she had a dream. In the dream God wanted her to tell me that I was going to do something great in Richmond. 

There were a lot of random confirmations of what we felt God had put on our hearts to do.

Q: In terms of your faith, where did it all start?

A: I was raised in the church, I was just short of being born and baptized at the same time. I believed as a little kid, but it didn’t become transformative until I was 22. At that point in my life, I was wrestling with who I really was as a person. My life revolved around drinking, women, and making as much money as I possibly could. There had to be something more for my life. The questions I ended up asking myself were “Is it possible God has something far better than this? Would I be willing to let Him shape how I think about work, relationships, fun, etc.? Is it ok to actually question things with God? Can I trust that God’s plan is better than mine?”

That was the turning point of understanding that my entire life was not about me and what I wanted, which had led to temporary fun or pleasure. That was the first time I truly considered that there was another option. I truly began to see what it meant to let God shape my life, and what it meant to surrender anything to God. When people ask when my life changed with Jesus, I always just say 22. That’s when it was real to me and when I saw my life tangibly change because I chose to actually care what God said about things.

I was filled with questions and doubts. I always had questions about Scripture. I still do. Through the whole process I was all over the place, in thoughts and actions, and had many emotions when it came to this whole Jesus thing. So, when someone says “I’m making poor decisions in my life,” or “I’m trying to find deeper purpose in my life,” I resonate with that. It was never cut or dry for me and I appreciate the process. This is what has always gotten Lacy and I going – seeing people who have had bad church experiences or big questions and helping them along through their journey. When we felt God leading us to start a church, that became the focus on who we wanted to reach.

Q: What’s been the biggest challenge to your faith?

A: When Lacy’s brother was killed in a car accident in 2002. It was difficult for many reasons: from asking why it happened; to knowing how to process it; to truthfully then figuring out how to help others. That was incredibly tough. Looking back, that was also the springboard for us to get into ministry. Certainly not why it happened, but as a result, we got into youth ministry to honor Lacy’s brother, Adam. Then something really shifted in us. We couldn’t get enough of helping students think through family, life, relationships, faith and their future. That was never a part of how I thought about faith. It was much more on the individualistic side and then I started to see how amazing it was to be in community with people and help others grow. The side benefit was we always felt like we were a part of their crew and young enough to hang…but if we are being honest, we were probably the only two people thinking that [laughs].

At the time I was working for an Engineering firm and was in charge of Business Development for the Mid-Atlantic Region. I loved it. I worked for their Sports Division which was a lot of fun and the people I got to work with and meet were really great. I had never wanted to be a pastor before, so it wasn’t even on my radar. Slowly things began to shift and I thought about being bi-vocational and eventually that turned into going full time into ministry.

Q: What makes you qualified to be a church leader?

A: The spiritual answer is that God does. Aside from that, I have management experience though business, as well as a marketing and development background. We’ve done youth ministry, college ministry, small group ministry; I’ve always been in leadership positions in my life. One of the things that allows me to connect with people on a different level is my business background. When we started in ministry and again when we started Hill City, I took pay cuts. I understand what is like to work both in business and in ministry. I can relate to most people because I’m not speaking from the position of never having a job outside of church.

Q: Do you feel qualified?

A: That’s a funny question. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  As we continue to reach uncharted territory as a church, there are moments when I feel unqualified, but I’m quickly reminded that if God did not think I was qualified, then we would not be in this position.

Q: What’s it like doing all of this with your family?

A: It’s the best. One of the greatest joys about this is doing ministry with Lacy and seeing my kids have fun here. For my kids it’s not an annoyance, they don’t dread coming to church, they ask to come to church and to be a part of things. Cultivating a heart of serving people is great for our kids, but the fact that I get to do it with my best friend [Lacy] has helped shape and develop our marriage.

Q: Where do you see Hill City in five years?

A: I see us having more sites, helping plant other churches or possibly more Hill City sites. I’d like to see us as a leadership-development hub for the community, or get into some ties in Athletics, and be a place where kids ask to go to church. My greatest dream is that when people think of a place they can safely figure out their faith, the first place they think of is Hill City. It’s a tough question to answer though, because God’s got a great sense of humor. At times we think we know where things are going and then He’s like “Ha, you’re hilarious. We are actually going to do this…”

Q: You don’t shy away from talking about tough things, which seems rare in church. Why do you think that’s important?

A: Talking about tough cultural topics is something I really enjoy, and not just from stage. I love discussions with people that I may not even agree with. It helps me learn and see what makes people tick. I think it is critical we address topics like sex, politics, war, race, refugees, greed, etc. in church, because where else would you want to? We have a responsibility as a community to dig into what the Bible speaks to, and to let that set our standard. Unfortunately, too many people let other people or culture do that for them. My hope is that we develop a culture where we want to have those conversations and learn together. I feel it is my responsibility to help cultivate and model that kind of thought process, so I enjoy letting people in to what I’m wrestling with too. I think most people think the Bible is just a cookie cutter read, but if it doesn’t offend you, challenge you, and make you question some of your decisions, then you aren’t reading it right. There’s so much beauty in the process of working through more difficult topics. We need to appreciate, embrace, and desire that as a church.

Q: Name 3 things you think are in heaven:

A: Fenway Park, Pearl’s cupcakes, and chocolate that replaces fruits and vegetables because that’s the way God’s always wanted it.

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