As we have just completed our fifth Youth Week at Quest, and I am now over midway through my fourth year as St. John’s Youth Minister, I find it important to me to share my faith story and how I came to full time youth ministry through the writing of this blog called “The Road to Ministry.”
In 1969, my family, which included an older sister and a younger brother, moved to Savannah, GA from Jacksonville. I was nine years old. I have to say that Savannah is where I have my fondest memories of my childhood. Savannah is where my involvement in UMYF began. After moving to Savannah my family almost immediately found a church home at White Bluff UMC. My parents inserted themselves and their three children into the life of White Bluff UMC. My parents were very active in the church from teaching Sunday School and helping at church dinners. My mom was in charge of all the crafts at Vacation Bible School, and my dad was active in the United Methodist Men. My mom even directed a womanless wedding play at the church.
I was a typical child, but I did cause my parents a lot of grief with my choices and my antics both at school and at home. I was a terrible son as I was rebellious and mean spirited. Then in July 1975 things changed. I was 15 years old and had just completed the 9th grade when I attended a high school Summer youth camp called Epworth-by-the-Sea at St. Simons Island, GA. The week I was there would begin to change my life. The week started out being boring to me, but little did I know that on Tuesday, July 15, 1975 I would feel the presence of God and that night accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I was so on fire that my mom noticed something had changed in me. I told her I had accepted Jesus as my Savior. She was happy and relieved because for a long time she had been fervently praying for God to come into my life and wake me up. Things were good for about 11 months after that. Now I still had my faults and sinned every day. Then in April of 1976 my parents announced to us that my dad was being transferred from Savannah, GA. to the Birmingham, AL area. I was not happy, not at all. I was active in UMYF in Savannah and had a girlfriend that I would have to leave now. We moved in June or July of 1976 to Montevallo, AL just south of Birmingham. I got my first job with Pasquales Pizza, a restaurant owned by Pat & Dottie Reynolds. Pat and Dottie Reynolds were the parents of Cindy Sudderth, who would 6 years later become Cindy Kenney, my wife of 34 years. That is another story in itself.
After we have moved to Montevallo, AL, we found a church to join but it really didn’t work well for us. You see, I was working 40 hours a week then and on Sundays. So after moving I wasn’t involved in UMYF at all. So let’s jump ahead to when I was 19 years old (1979). I started volunteering with the middle school youth at Central UMC in Alabaster, AL. My interest in the youth program was partly due to my 13 year old brother who wanted to be with his school friends at youth group. This is where I first felt my call to youth ministry. I acted on that calling by going to the church administration and said, “I feel called to youth ministry and would like to lead the youth.” The answer I received was not the answer I expected or wanted to hear. Their answer, “You are too young!” I was completely devastated, hurt and yes even angry. So much that I walked away from that church dejected, beaten and deeply hurt. Looking back though, after many years, I can see God in that saying, “You were too young.”
I joined the US Navy in February 1981 and spent four really good years on active duty. But something was still missing. Cindy and I married in June of 1982 and I was Honorably Discharged in 1985. I immediately went to work for Pitney Bowes, Inc. in Jacksonville, FL. My dad had worked for them in Birmingham. Something was still missing in my life. In 1985, Cindy and I joined 1st UMC in Jacksonville, FL and almost immediately felt the call to help with the youth group as a volunteer. There was a younger man at 1st UMC who was the youth minister. He welcomed both Cindy and I into the youth group as adult volunteers. We were there for 3 years and loved helping with the program. In 1988 I transferred to Tampa, FL from Jacksonville with Pitney Bowes. Cindy and I immediately found a church, St. Paul UMC in Largo, FL, to call our church home for our young family. Eleven years later, in 1999, I felt another stirring in my soul for youth ministry but did not know how to act on it at that time. You see I then was in the 14th year of a career in the copier industry and was moving up the ladder towards upper middle management.
Now fast forward to January 21, 2005 the worst day of my life! I was let go from my job just three weeks short of 20 years. I was completely devastated! I had poured my heart, soul, tears and blood into my career. But this loss was about to put into motion the ride of my life. After losing my “career,” I took a job at Auto Zone, which I had gotten through a friend and brother in Christ. But working retail was not what I was use to after 19 years as a copier technician and manager. I then took a job at Office Depot in the print shop. One particular day, I had a really bad day at work. I went home and changed my wording on Monster.com looking for a job back in my field of expertise. I found a job listing with Konica Minolta that would require me to move to the Carolina’s. Konica Minolta paid for my move. We found our home in one visit to Rock Hill. We also found St. John’s after visiting three other churches in the area and knew as soon as we walked into St. John’s that we were home. I started helping with Quest in August of 2006. Austin Bond was hired as the youth minister at St. John’s in July 2007. In August 2011 Austin announced that he was moving back to his home area to be the youth minister at Belin UMC in Murrells Inlet. After Austin Bond told the youth he was leaving, a couple of youth responded, “is Val replacing you?” Looking back that was the first affirmation. I promised Jenifer that I would definitely pray about the opportunity. The next day as I was traveling to Knoxville, TN for work every church I passed had on their signs the same scripture, Jeremiah 29:11. Every song that came on the radio was about trusting God and stepping out of the boat. Looking back I can see God putting everything into motion by my losing my job of 19 years. Konica Minolta paying for my complete move to Rock Hill, finding St. John’s and finding Quest. God does work in mysterious ways.
Words cannot describe the joy I feel daily since Chaplin Spencer called me on November 15, 2011 to offer me the position of Youth Minister at St. John’s. I am blessed beyond measure each day to be in ministry with each of you, to be in ministry with amazing people on staff at St. John’s, and to see youth grow in their faith and come to the knowledge of God’s immense love for them. Thank you God for telling me, when I was 19 years old, “You’re too young.”