Jan 04, 2023
The Rev. Michael Jones will begin his service as associate conference minister for the Northwest Association on Jan. 23. Michael currently serves as pastor of St. John UCC in Arlington Heights Illinois. A native of northeast Ohio, Michael received a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Indiana University, where he was a member of the swim team, and a master of divinity from Harvard Divinity School. He, his spouse, Blake, and their two young daughters will reside in Eau Claire. In an interview with Wisconsin Conference Life, Michael talked about topics including his call to ministry, lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the ways in which sports shaped his approach to leadership, and his brush with Olympic royalty. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your journey to the UCC?
I grew up in a small, Midwestern holiness denomination that was very different from the UCC. I grew up saturated with church, very involved with the youth group, which met three times a week. During college, I become acquainted with the UCC, introduced to it by one of the “God Is Still Speaking” commercials. The message that you are welcome no matter who you are is something I had never heard before.
Talk a little bit about your path to ministry.
I definitely felt I’d always be involved in church but never thought it would be pastoral ministry. Part of it is what I grew up in – I didn’t think I could be a minister. Then, about halfway through college, two years into a music degree at a prestigious music school, I had an epiphany and realized I wanted to be a local church pastor.
I pretty much love everything about being a pastor. I value the place of spiritual community, growth and connectedness with other people and God. In a culture that’s becoming increasingly divided, the church can be a place where people can come no matter who they are. And in the UCC, whatever your beliefs or whoever you are, you are welcome.
Why do you feel called to judicatory ministry?
I started feeling energy around the work I was doing with the Committee on Ministry. As challenging as it can be at times, I just started feeling energy around it. I knew something was there. I started my discernment and prayer and discussions with colleagues and friends and started to feel called to this kind of ministry. It wasn’t a planned thing. I have really great relationship with my parish here and it was hard to tell them I was leaving. As I went through the process, I felt more and more that it was the right path.
What should we know about your leadership style?
My biggest value is collaboration. I really value discussion and getting people together to figure out the way forward.
Most of my leadership skills come from sports. When you’re on a team, you’re dealing with a lot of different personalities but you’re working toward a common goal, which is winning. But you also learn what it is to lose or fail. You learn to process what it means to not be the best and to pick up and try again. You also learn how to work hard. I spent years and years practicing for hours before the sun was up.
What lessons did the pandemic teach about being the church?
What I learned at my church is that it’s important to celebrate the things that are going well. In times of great change, let alone great upheaval, there are so many things that bring anxiety. For me, it was important to remind the leadership that we need to be honest about the things that are bringing anxiety.
The hardest time for me and my church was when we came back in person and there were so many fewer people. The desire to fix it right then was really high, even more than when we were closed. Now, more people are back, but it’s not just about numbers. I think people are adjusting to what the church is now. We do ministry in the present time, in the community we have now.
Allowing for grief is a big lesson. For many churches, things don’t look the same and may never look the same. We need to allow the space to grieve that. A lot of people have put a lot of time and generosity into their churches, and it doesn’t look the same. But that love and generosity is still something worth celebrating.
You were co-captain of the Indiana swim team. Did you ever compete against any Olympians?
I swam in a lane next to Michael Phelps at a meet. He was already starting to break records. I was a decent swimmer but remember touching the wall and he was already out of the pool.