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Nobody’s Nola: Where Ministry and Writing Meet in the Heart of a Pastor and Spouse

Ministry has been turned upside down over the last few years. COVID accelerated what was already in play. Some courageous, pioneering pastors are asking the hard questions of what it can look like… how it can be sustained… and what it means to live out the Gospel in a way that brings Jesus to marginalized lives. Here’s one of those stories.

Last month we published a list of self identified PLI family authors likely not known to most of the PLI family. One of those books was a touching children’s book called Nobody’s Nola that Gail and I picked up and read as a favorite to our grandchildren. What’s resulted is an interview with half of the Emil and Heather Gretarsson writing team and the story behind the story. (You can buy Nobody’s Nola on Amazon.)

Jock: Emil! Our grandkids loved Nobody’s Nola….but there was a moment where Gail and I held our breath with wondering what was on the next page.

Emil: The book is for ages 4 – 10. I heard the other day about a preschool that read it. They started to get upset but in some sense it’s a “dreams come true” story. It does stir things, even for us adults reading it. We all need to belong…to have a place to belong. 

Heather and the kids had the idea for Nola. We played with the story. She wrote. I wrote. We had an editor. She made us better writers. Eventually we had a first book we’re excited about.

Jock: Are there more books coming?

Emil: I can’t say too much, but I do know that Nola is getting ready to take a trip with the family!

Jock: Gail and I highly recommend the book you and Heather have written. But, let’s look behind Nobody’s Nola. Let’s get to what’s behind this adventure.

Emil: Ministry is really challenging for so many of us as pastors right now, but I believe God is up to something incredible. Maybe the church is in the process of becoming what the church has always been meant to be. Paul traveled the world. He used the technology of his day, the Roman roads. It’s possible to reach far more people and be the leaven of the Kingdom.

There’s tremendous pressure to try to keep maintaining what we have and what we’ve done in our churches, and sometimes that means churches end up looking more like institutions than they do churches. It can be so subtle. Our motivations. And, what if our churches looked more like the Gospel, more like Jesus… People might be more attracted to them. Underneath the surface, we can end up with employees serving customers rather than being discipled to be sent!

There’s a homeless man who sleeps on the bench behind my office. Axle. He’s dried out. Lucid. Trying to get help. He comes to church. And I think, what if the church was full of Axles? Do they not get the Gospel because they can’t afford to pay for it? I believe what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9 and yet Paul chose not to be paid.

What does it look like if the Gospel is going to flourish and we don’t have churches that can pay full time pastors? It’s here! And, it’s coming! And, could that be good news? 

Jock: You’ve been wrestling with this for a while?

Emil: It started in a McDonald’s. I was leading an early morning retired men’s Bible study. A lady stepped in. After telling a tragic story, she explained that her son was serving in the military and looking forward to his retirement and being able to receive his pension and then live out his dream of being a missionary with no need for his work to be financially supported! And, it challenged me to start thinking differently!

As we look to the future, do more and more of us as pastors need to be thinking about other streams of income (Nobody’s Nola!) so we can experience more financial freedom to lead and serve where God is calling us?

It could be that the churches that remain through all of this find themselves giving themselves away. Reggie McNeal wrote that institutions have to act in ways that appear to be not in their own best interest.

I know it’s uncomfortable for most us to even think these things, for me to say them.

When we received our ERC, Employee Retention Credit, our leaders decided to use half of the monies for building needs and give half of it away! I think that’s acting in a way that feels like it’s not in our best interest.

(Editors Note: If you’re not familiar with managing the complexities of ERC, you can contact Pastor Nathan Hausch at 916-997-8745.)

Jock: Let’s talk PLI for a minute. You and Heather did Leadership Essentials and D2MC. You’ve had a bunch of young adults in 1,000 Young Leaders. And I know someone just finished Multipli’s Genesis Leader. You’ve been a tireless champion for investing in Kingdom leaders through PLI.

Emil: PLI has been huge for Heather and me. We’re better today because of PLI. The church we serve is better. The mission is better. The people that participate are strong as a result. 

For us personally, we did PLI through some of the hardest times in our lives. PLI kept me in ministry. We found a group of people that cared about me, Heather, and our family. PLI wasn’t afraid to challenge me in some big ways, ways that I could receive. The process was invitational. And the coaching! I found leaders that had been where I was. They understood and they walked with me. What a tremendous resource!

My biggest single spiritual breakthrough came when we started mapping the history of the highs and lows in our lives. What resulted from that experience sent me on a course for which I will be forever grateful. We love PLI!

A personal word! There are so many leaders in the PLI family who are courageously leaning forward, unwilling to define our church’s best Gospel ministry days as yesterdays! Every week I observe leaders wrestling with enormously difficult challenges in such diverse contexts. When leaders get better, everyone benefits! And our ability to be going in the right direction as churches benefits, too! For all of you? Thank you.

Would you forward this to 5 or 10 of the leaders around you and ask them what they think, too? 

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