Meet pastors to be commissioned at TAC 2022
By Lindsay Peyton
During the Annual Conference, Bishop Scott Jones commissions pastors with a special ceremony and they become provisional members of the Texas Annual Conference as they continue toward their ordination. Commissioning pastors signifies the commitment candidates make to proclaim the gospel, as well as the church’s affirmation of each individual. The Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry recruits, nurtures, evaluates and supports clergy as they embark on a long journey towards this honor.
Let’s meet a few of the 2022 candidates:
Jennifer Gros, Associate Pastor at Faith UMC in Spring
Jennifer Gros was called to ministry after establishing her career elsewhere. “I never imagined myself as a pastor,” she said.
She also never imagined herself as a Methodist. But God had other plans.
Originally from Louisiana, Gros worked in advertising, marketing and public relations. Her husband’s job brought the couple to Texas. Not satisfied with churches in their own denomination, a friend recommended Lakewood UMC. It was love at first sight.
“I fell in love with Methodism; I joined Bible study,” Gros recalled. She was even hired by the church as director of communications.
Then, on a Walk to Emmaus, her life changed. “I felt a calling to use my spiritual gifts, but I wasn’t clear,” she said. “I heard God telling me, ‘I have something I want you to do.’”
As time went on, that directive grew stronger and louder. After talking to pastors, her District Superintendent and praying on the matter, she became a Stephen Minister, a lay member trained to provide care during difficult times. She also began preaching once a month at the church.
Still, walking away from her already established career, into an entirely new one was a difficult decision. “God made it very clear,” she said. “I felt a call to help people reach a deeper relationship with God.”
About three years ago, Gros completed her training as a local, licensed pastor and was appointed to serve Faith UMC in Spring. Then, she enrolled in seminary at Perkins in SMU’s Houston-Galveston extension. She graduates in May, before being commissioned.
This summer will mark her third as Associate Pastor at Faith UMC. “I’m at peace,” she said. “I love what I do. I can see the Holy Spirit working not only in my life but in others.”
Gros finds that she often uses her communications skills gained from her former career, just in new ways in this post. Only, instead of writing ads, her creativity goes towards sermons and social media campaigns to promote the church. She also designs graphics for the congregation.
“Merging faith with career has just been a dream come true,” she said. “I feel privileged and honored to be commissioned. I’m just trusting in God and following where He leads me.”
Drew Essen, Executive Pastor of Memorial Drive UMC in Houston
Drew Essen’s first job was at Christ Church Sugar Land, right after his 16th birthday. He became a member of the church a year earlier when his sister joined. The siblings were both raised in a different denomination, but they felt welcomed in an entirely new way at this United Methodist congregation.
“That was the church that became my own and not just my parents’ church,” Essen recalled. “It’s where I began to understand God.”
Besides, the church was located literally right behind their house. “That place became our second home,” Essen said. “We got totally involved and went on mission trips.”
And then, he became a facilities worker as a teen. He also was invited to lead worship in the youth group and to use his musical talents there. “That’s what I really think the Methodist church does well,” Essen said. “They’re very intentional about seeing the gifts in people. Instead of just seeing me as a kid who played guitar, they saw it as a way to bring glory to God.”
At age 17, his parents divorced. Again, the church was there for him, providing the support he needed. “My pastors helped me process what was going on,” he said. “They loved me through it.”
When Essen enrolled at the University of Houston the following year, Christ Church offered him a full-time job in youth ministry. By age 20, Pastor Daniel Irving, then at Memorial Drive UMC, offered him a job as worship leader for the contemporary service, the Journey.
Later, an opening in the communications department was announced, and Essen soon added that to his job description. He was leading both worship and the department for a couple of years. Still, he felt a pull to do more.
“I took time to talk to those who I loved and to the pastors who mentored me along the way,” Essen said.
That soul-searching led him to understand his calling – to become an elder in the church. At first, he became a licensed local pastor, and then he enrolled in seminary at Perkins. He graduates in May.
Last summer, Essen became the Executive Pastor at Memorial Drive UMC. “It’s been an incredible journey,” he said. “I’m starting my ministry at a great church. And I’m excited to serve the Conference that raised me.”
Essen eagerly awaits participating in the commissioning ceremony at the Annual Conference. “I view it as a culmination,” he said. “Your calling is being confirmed by the church. Everything I’ve felt like God has pushed me to do is being affirmed and celebrated.”
And he is beyond grateful. “It’s going to be big,” he said. “That’s the nature of the Methodist Church, raising people up, creating disciples. I’m excited to do that for others.”
Dr. Ralph du Plessis, Associate Pastor at Christ Church in The Woodlands
Dr. Ralph du Plessis comes to the commissioning ceremony after having served as a pastor for a couple of decades in another denomination. His calling to ministry came in the 1990s in his home of South Africa. He was 15-years old, reading his Bible at camp.
His pastor supported du Plessis and asked him to build up the youth ministry at the congregation. The experience further confirmed his calling.
His father, however, worried that a life in ministry would be a struggle and wanted his son to pursue another path. du Plessis entered law school. After a year, he realized it was not for him. He went back to the church, with his father’s blessing.
Then, du Plessis began mission work, traveling throughout Africa. He felt drawn to returning to the local church and started to serve as a volunteer. After two years, he became a full-time student minister.
In 2000, du Plessis accepted a senior leadership position, where he remained until 2017. During that time, the congregation thrived. Two churches were planted and a third was brought under its umbrella.
“The leadership team was fantastic,” du Plessis recalled. “They were really supportive. They allowed me to be creative and innovate.”
He felt empowered. “They were like, ‘Play hard, and we’ll support you,’” he said.
While leading the congregation, du Plessis also pursued his doctorate at Duke University Divinity School. He would travel from South Africa to North Carolina for a week of studies at a time. “I would arrive on a Friday, work on my time zones over the weekend, and on Monday, start going to classes,” he said. “If I timed it right, I could be home to preach by Sunday.”
After his graduation in 2017, the bishop of his former denomination asked du Plessis and his wife Kirstin to move to Boston and lead a church there. While the couple did not want to leave South Africa, they considered the position and prayed.
By April 2018, the couple landed in the U.S. Du Plessis was ready for his new role. The church in Boston, however, had a change of heart after about six months.
All of the sudden, du Plessis was faced with making a decision he never expected. “I had to kind of put the vehicle in neutral and wait to see what would unfold,” he recalled.
He started knocking on doors. Then, he received a phone call from the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC.
“I said yes,” du Plessis recalled.
By then, there were other offers on the table – and ones that would not call on him to change denominations. But he felt like God was leading him in a new direction, one he would have never entertained had he not left South Africa.
In June of 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, the du Plessis family traveled to Texas. The appointment at Christ Church in The Woodlands would start the following month.
By the time du Plessis arrived, the church was back to holding services in-person – but not at a full capacity. He watched the church navigate COVID.
At the same time, he was adapting to a new church culture. Both were opportunities to learn. “Challenges help us grow and remain flexible,” he said.
In July, du Plessis will celebrate two years at Christ Church and two years as a Methodist pastor. Being commissioned is the next step. “For me, it’s a question of coming into the family – and asking, ‘Will you accept me?’” he said. “I feel blessed to be invited to this table and given the opportunity to be part of this family.”
Now, after spending 25 years in ministry, du Plessis is looking forward to the next chapter of his journey. “All I want to do is love people, spread the good news and preach God’s word,” he said. “We’ll see what unfolds and let God lead the way. I will be faithful and follow His path.”