Surfing teaches pastor new tools on how to lead a church
By Lindsay Peyton
Few might guess that, when Rev. John Stephenson isn’t in the pulpit, he can be found in the sea, paddling atop his surfboard. Surfing has been his passion since childhood, and when he’s out in the water, he truly feels connected to God. He prays while waiting for the waves.
John Stephenson, lead pastor at Faith UMC, Richmond clearly remember when he caught his first wave. He was 7-years old at the time, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, who both surfed. At the time, he was on a mission trip in Baja Mexico and swam into the Pacific.
“The feeling of riding a wave was the very best thing I had ever experienced,” he recalled.
By the time Stephenson was 11, his family moved closer to the ocean in his native California. “Our house was half a block to the water,” he said.
That’s when he really learned to surf. After a couple of months, he was able to stand up on the board.
“I surfed almost every morning and every afternoon,” he said. “I would go before school – and after.”
Stephenson continued surfing through high school. When he headed to Colorado for college, he would return home in the summer and head to the beach right away.
Then his parents moved to Texas – and that put a damper on his oceanic pursuits.
“The first time I went to Galveston, I was sorely disappointed at what I saw,” Stephenson said. “I thought, there are no waves in Texas.”
Then, five years later, one Saturday before his marriage to Amy, a friend from California flew down for the wedding. “We went to Galveston, and it happened to be a day when there were waves,” Stephenson said.
He realized that with the right weather patterns, waves were indeed a possibility on the island. “I started learning how you can be a surfer in Texas,” he said.
Now, he knows that if the weather is muggy, there’s a chance that a cold front could cut across the coast and stir up some action.
“I keep an eye on the web cam in Galveston, and I look at it every single day – maybe multiple times,” Stephenson said. “If I can make it work, I’ll be down there, and I’ll surf.”
There’s another option, as well, he explained. “A lot of shipping comes through Houston,” he said. “And a channel goes through Galveston Bay.”
When the trench was dug into the ocean for the large vessels traveling to-and-from Houston, the excess dirt was dumped on the sides of the channel, resulting in shallow waters surrounding the deeper lane.
When a ship is in the channel, and is traveling more than 10 knots, there’s a chance that a wave will form.
Stephenson made a friend serendipitously on the Walk to Emmaus who is also a surfer and who owns a boat. They take turns dropping each other off at just the right moment when a tanker is traveling through the channel – then getting out of the way so whoever is surfing can ride the resulting wave.
“Those waves can be as tall as me – or even taller,” he said. “That’s been a fun thing to do.”
Stephenson also discovered a wave pool in Waco, designed for surfers to hone their skills. Sometimes, he likes to drive out and hit the pool.
“It’s common to run into professional surfers there,” Stephenson said. “It’s almost like going to the driving range. The waves are consistent.”
Stephenson also recommends the waters by South Padre Island. “It rivals almost anywhere,” he said.
Stephenson went into ministry full time in 2003. He majored in music in college and afterwards headed to the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery to learn to build guitars. He played electric bass.
After moving back to Texas to be near his family in Clear Lake, Stephenson started making violins and stayed in the profession for nine years.
One day, he was out trying to surf waves in a canoe, and his Jeep got stuck in the mud. A family stopped to help him, but no matter what they tried, they could not get the vehicle to move.
It was too late to call a tow truck, so they convinced Stephenson to stay with them until the morning. “They showed me so much hospitality,” Stephenson recalled.
It turned out that the father of the family was a pastor. “It connected me back to the church,” Stephenson said. “It reminded me of what the church can be like at its best.”
He had been first called to ministry at age 14, but ignored it until this point. Now, he was ready to answer that call.
Stephenson’s first post was as director of singles ministry at Clear Lake Methodist in 2003. “That’s how I met my wife,” he said. “I was interested in being in singles ministry, because it had benefitted me.”
Two years later, he became student pastor. After graduating from seminary in 2007, he started leading two services.
Stephenson served at the church for nine years, before he was appointed as lead pastor at Pasadena UMC in 2012. He remained at that position for four and a half years.
Stephenson has served Faith UMC faithfully since 2016 and continues to enjoy leading to congregation. He sees a lot of parallels between running a church and surfing.
Whenever he is in the ocean, waiting for a wave, he uses that as time for prayer. “There’s a lot of time that you spend sitting and waiting,” he said. “I talk to God the whole time.”
Stephenson explained that one of the biggest challenges of surfing is not riding the wave – but being in the right place to catch it.
When a surfer paddles out into the ocean, there are smaller waves that try to pull the board under, that push the suffer off course.
“The best approach is to take a deep breath and go underwater,” Stephenson said. “Then you come up and keep going.”
There’s an allegory for life in general in that image. “There’s always conflict and always strife,” Stephenson said. “Don’t lose sight of the wave. Just keep paddling and keep moving.”
Surfing has also taught him that you can’t preplan for everything. “You have to respond to what the wave is doing – and what it will let you do,” he said. “It’s give and take.”
One of his best memories was body surfing on the Sea of Galilee 10 years ago on a trip with a group of pastors.
“They get these wind storms, and it whipped up these waves that were big enough,” Stephenson said. “I remember thinking this was the same water Jesus walked on.”
And there he was, jumping up onto the water and letting it carry him across.
“Churches are a gift, people are a gift, waves are a gift,” Stephenson said.