Eric Koontz came to Blue Ridge after a painful experience in another church’s youth ministry. He thought he was done working in a church.
Now, nearly 12 years later, Eric is high school pastor in Blue Ridge’s Student Ministries. He laughs when he considers the “roundabout way” that got him here.
Eric looks back at his first years at Blue Ridge — he began attending in 2006 — and remembers the healing that occurred. “I saw church here in a way I’d never seen it,” he said. “There was authenticity and humility — two big things not modeled to me in the past.”
What he saw led him to want to “plug in.” Eric began serving in Kids Community. After several years, Kids Community asked him to come on staff as a director of serving. He was hesitant, but after a lot of prayer with his wife Mary, Eric felt led to say “yes.”
“That role helped me to grow … all things God was using to prepare me to be a pastor in Student Ministries.”
Eric had heart surgery in March 2013 and while he was recovering he received a call from Pastor Jeremy Wilkinson inviting him to consider joining the Student Ministries staff. Again, Eric hadn’t sought the job, but felt led to say “yes” to the process that would eventually lead to his hiring.
“I was a youth pastor at one point in my life, but I was not expecting God to call me back into that.”
Eric found he loved his new role. “The biggest thing with Middle School was to create a culture that really loved students and where leaders could love students in a way that pushed them to love Jesus more and more.”
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be long before more change occurred. Our two staff High School leaders moved to other states within months of each other. Eric moved in to High School, as the Student Ministries team continued to grow and evolve. He said the last two years have been defined by one transition after another.
Through this journey, God has shown Eric the value of prayer of unity and grace. “When you're in a season of transition that keeps going … there are a lot of challenges in that.”
Though much changed, the importance of pouring into students and pointing them to Jesus did not.
“I've always seen the need for people to take an interest in our youth,” Eric said. “Students are processing through whether or not they have authentic faith and how to make it their own because for some it has just been a journey of riding the coattails of what their parents believe, but never stepping into something that was their own.” At the same time, Student Ministries is on the front lines of issues such as pornography, eating disorders, self harm, gender issues, and peer pressure.
“The church has to be a safe place for them. They have to have a place they can share their lives,” Eric said. He said so many habits and values are formed in high school and middle school that you can’t miss the opportunity to play a role in molding these values through the Gospel.
“At the same time, we are not the hope the students have. The parents and the home they're in are the hope — whether the parent realizes it or not — and we want to partner with parents to help their students to move toward Jesus. If we can do that, we can see God do some pretty important things.”
Eric said he knows a lot of people have seen all the changes in Student Ministries and wondered “what’s going on?”
The good news is that the transitions led to a lot of prayer. The Student Ministries team prays from 9:30-10:00 am most every weekday.
“As a team we've been seeking Christ as much as we can. We’re not trying to do our own thing, but taking time to pray about the future and what that looks like for us,” he said.
And what they’ve seen is God at work. Students coming to Christ at camp, students celebrating baptism — 27 this year! — and students being honest with small group leaders.
“In Life Groups for Middle School and Small Groups for High School … These have been awesome environments for students to talk about their struggles. I want people to know that is a win. When you are creating an environment that allows for students to be vulnerable and they lean in, that’s a major win.”
Eric added, “That's how you know it is God. In the midst of all this transition, it would be easy to look at this and say, ‘How did any life come out of that?’ Because it looks messy. But God is doing great things. He's got this.”