Debbie Wetzig serves with her husband, John, in Grenada, California. John is currently the interim pastor at the same church where he served as lead pastor from 1984-2016. Debbie and Chelsea Hall (a Flowers for the Pastor’s Wife contributor) served together as pastors’ wives at that church for several years when John was the lead pastor and Chelsea’s husband was the youth pastor.
Where did you grow up? How did where you grew up help prepare you for small-town pastoral ministry?
I grew up in Nebraska. My elementary years were spent in McCook, Nebraska, where my dad was the pastor of a growing church. I walked four blocks to school and could come home for lunch. My junior high and high school years were in Omaha, Nebraska. Although it was a huge city, we had a close-knit neighborhood and that made it “small,” especially during my junior high years. I was more aware of the city during my high school years, as my high school was in downtown Omaha. Yet smallness also was a reality through friendships and our church. Because we had a large family (five children), my dad supported us by teaching full time on the faculty at Grace University and by pastoring a church that was on the outskirts of Omaha in a smaller town. I remember that we tried to focus on the neighborhood around the church as our target area.
During my last three years of high school, my dad pastored a church 50 miles away in a small Iowa town. We would leave early every Sunday morning, take along our lunch and stay all day through the evening service, and then drive back to Omaha. It was a precious time for me in this “rural” church of about 40 people. I learned to play the piano for congregational singing, as I was their only choice for an accompanist. I remember sitting at the old upright, with my back to my dad who was leading the singing, and looking in a small mirror to see his hand directing up and down to keep time. Our Sundays were spent next door to the church in the empty house that was used for Sunday School classes. We played “hangman” on the chalkboards for hours. My older brother and I would venture out to meet the teenagers in the town, and we made some good friends. If a family invited us for lunch and the afternoon, we would sit with the adults at the table for long hours of conversations. I remember this time as such a blessing, and I grew in my faith.
I think living in a city prepared me for the country by experiencing the contrast. I ended up going to Grace University but attended the smaller church on the south end of Omaha and got involved in Christian ministry there. My husband grew up as a PK in small towns in Iowa, and he preached his first sermons in rural churches. Just answering this question reassured me that God was working ahead of us and preparing us to minister in a rural setting!!
Where have you served in ministry? Can you describe the particular culture in those areas and how that affected your ministry there?
Delano, California, 1974-1976 A few months before John and I were married, one of our college professors heard about an opportunity in Delano for a youth pastor/Christian education position. The church flew both John and me out there, which showed me that they valued me as well. They asked us to come as soon as we graduated and married. This town seemed to have a line drawn down the middle that separated the landowners from the farm workers. This divided culture was an invitation early in our ministry life to reach out to different ethnic peoples. We strove to do that, although at the time, I don’t think we understood it all.
Lincoln, Nebraska, 1976-1981 We next ministered in Lincoln in a youth pastor position for 5 years. This was an amazing time of spiritual growth and ministry growth for both of us. We were mentored by our pastor and his wife, Curt and Claudine Lehman, dear people of God. The culture was a college-town atmosphere, and most people in our church were educated beyond high school. It was a challenge to minister to their children, but God was faithful, and many are still serving Him today in their vocations. We also had our first child toward the end of this ministry. This was the largest church we served in.
Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, 1981-1983 John felt led to attend seminary, so off we went to the west again where he was a student at Western Seminary in Portland. We had the experience of finding a church as lay people, and that helped us think about people who walk in a church door for the first time. Eventually, John began ministry as a part-time assistant pastor at a small church in Vancouver while still attending seminary. The culture seemed rural; many people had small acreages. John had more opportunities there to work with a church board, preach, and minister to adults as well as youth and children. While we were there, the church went through a difficult split, and we had the opportunity to stay on after the pastor and several people left. We learned a lot through this trial about trusting God and not putting our sights on people. Our second child was born there. We remained at the church until a new pastor came and God called us to our next assignment.
Grenada, California, 1984-Present, Grenada Community Berean Church
This is where God has allowed us to grow and mature from young adults into senior citizens! When we first started at this church, it had gone through a difficult split as well and there were only around 40 people remaining. They had recently built a larger auditorium that would hold around 250 people, so we knew there was room to grow. We threw ourselves into the ministry here. We first lived about 8 miles out in the country. That first year was both lonely and endearing for me. Most of my life was spent in the city, and now I was isolated in the middle of nowhere. Every morning my husband would take off in our only car. There were many precious moments, however, as I learned that God is the closest friend and I also needed people friends, too! After 1 1/2 years, the church bought a double-wide mobile home and moved it onto the church property for us. We moved in just days before our third child was born. For the next 9 years, my kitchen window faced the church parking lot, and I could see everyone coming and going. I loved it! But as the children got older, the house felt smaller and the church got bigger. Our church grew to over 250 people, and living in the glass house became less desirable! Some Sundays, our little town of 250 people doubled in size. We started praying about it, and God graciously provided property behind the church for us to personally buy. The church people helped us build the home we have lived in for the past 28 years.
My ministry years have been spent wearing many “hats,” often several at the same time! Because of the rural setting, this culture lends itself to many opportunities. I’ve often thought about how individuals in the city often focus on just a few things, but in the country, we stretch ourselves thinner by trying to do it all. I know I did, sometimes by my own strength without relying on God or asking Him for wisdom. But as frustration set in, I realized I needed to confess my sin of self-reliance and submit again to God’s guidance.
How did God bring you to a place of serving in small-town/rural ministry? Did you have any sort of “calling” in this?
My calling had to do with being a pastor’s wife, not necessarily in a rural setting. I thought that God wanted me to go into nursing, and our Bible college had a program for that: one year of Bible school, three years of nursing school, and then one more year of Bible school. As I was applying for the nursing segment, my dad asked me if that really was what I wanted to do and if that was what God wanted me to do with my life. I answered him with my heart and said, “I would really like to be a pastor’s wife.” I actually felt drawn by God with that desire. My dad wisely counseled me to pursue my heart, and that day I changed my major to Christian Education but had no “pastor” in sight to marry! However, God honored that desire: John and I were married the day after we both graduated, and we moved to our first church a month later.
How did God bring you and your husband together to serve in this way?
John and I were good friends during college. At the end of my sophomore year, we were both put on the “Spiritual Life Committee” for the following year. He was the president, and I was the secretary. That summer, he came to my apartment to begin talking about our committee. I had just made some “cherry delight” dessert and gave him a piece. I can still see us standing on the porch talking! As we did the committee work together that next fall and into the winter, we got to know each other more. One night, he asked me to meet him in one of the classrooms for committee work. Strangely, the vice president and the treasurer were missing! I sat in one of the old wooden desks and took notes, and he paced about talking. Then he would stop and look at me silently. After a few times of this, I realized something was happening. He asked me out soon after that and actually asked me to marry him about a month later! I said “no” at that time because it was so soon. Thankfully, another three months later he asked me again, and we were married eleven months after that in 1974. It’s funny now that we have that same relationship as before–he walks around thinking and I take notes!
Did you have any particular areas of ministry in which you served in your church and community, and what led you to those decisions?
In college, I had excellent teachers in my major of Christian Education. It truly became a God-given passion for me. As John and I were married and went off to our first assignment, I jumped in and soon was teaching junior high Sunday School and organizing children’s ministry events. Throughout my life these two areas have been a huge focus of ministry for me. I have loved leading VBS and organizing camps and have truly enjoyed teaching junior high young people. I also love recruiting and encouraging others to fill the needed roles of teaching children and youth.
As far as the community is concerned, I have had the privilege of being an accompanist for our local high school choir and have played for many musicals. I even had a dream come true of playing the piano for Handel’s Messiah with our community orchestra. Through these events, God has given me many opportunities to impact people for Christ.
What has been one of your greatest challenges in this ministry context and how did you persevere in it? What did God teach you through it?
My greatest challenge has been to “enjoy the moment” and to not look forward to the ending of something that I have spent a great deal of time planning and preparing for. I realized that I was counting the days to the end of VBS or an overseas missions trip before these events even started. One day I was walking home from church after a lot of prep time for VBS and realized that I was dreading the start but looking forward to the last day. God revealed my sin in that walk home. That was a turning point for me as I confessed the dread to Him and asked for excitement over each moment, start to finish, of these opportunities to share Christ!!
What has been one of your greatest blessings in this ministry context, and how has that affected your perspective of small-town and rural ministry?
One of the greatest blessings has been the opportunity we have given to many of our young people to experience ministry at a young age. Our own three children had many opportunities to serve, including leading children’s choir (Cindy), leading primaries at VBS (Jill), and being an interim during a summer when we did not have a youth pastor (Randall). They and many others also had opportunities in worship leading, teaching, preaching, missions trips, and in many other ministry areas. As our young people went on to college, several of them went into full-time ministry. The hard part has been that many of our young people move away to the cities and even around the world and never “come back” to our rural area. But it has been a blessing to be a part of their training and to see that a rural church can impact the world for Christ in a huge way!
If you could give a piece of advice to other rural and small-town pastors’ wives, what would it be and why?
Never give in to the temptation to believe that rural ministry is substandard or less important than a large church or city ministry. With God, each person is of great value. We come to Christ as individuals, not as a mass of people. God has a place and a purpose for each of us, and we are pleasing Him best when we are serving Him where He places us! Only He knows the eternal impact we have on others as we faithfully serve Him!
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