Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

by Jeff Finley

A lot has happened since Brenda Nagunst became the lead pastor of Abundant Life Fellowship in Chewelah, Washington, in January 2020. While the COVID-19 pandemic has created new opportunities and challenges for all churches, this Free Methodist congregation has especially experienced an intense time of spiritual growth and personal loss.

In keeping with The Free Methodist Way value of God-given revelation, Nagunst encourages her congregation to engage Scripture on a personal level rather than making devotions a brief routine. She advocates slowing down and allowing God to speak through His Word.

“I started writing out my devotions in our Facebook group and invited the church to partake in that. I think that’s one of the reasons people say they’re growing so much, because they’re learning about the Scripture — really engaging with it and letting it speak to them and not just reading it and moving on,” she said in an interview with Light + Life. “I have invited everybody to read a chapter a day and then just journal what God is saying to them.”

For people who don’t want to write, she encourages them to still think about what God is saying and if there is something God is wanting them to do.

“I’m sharing with people that God’s Word is a living word, and in that living word, there’s a relationship that you can have with God that you don’t have if you’re not spending time in the Word,” she said.

She said that several people in their 70s have approached her to say they’ve “grown more in the last year and a half in their relationship with God than they have in the rest of their walk put together.” She added, “Just because a person’s in their 70s doesn’t mean that they can’t grow in their relationship with God, and these guys are a huge testimony to that.”

Nagunst said it was hard when the church ceased in-person worship for months because of the pandemic, “but I think God did use that to help us draw to Him in fresh ways and look at another point of view and not hang on to the building as our source. He is our source of life.”

Chewelah is a small but growing city of 2,600. The River Conference’s Abundant Life Fellowship has grown along with Chewelah, which has become an attractive place to live for people later in life.

“A good portion of the people who are new in our church are people who have moved here to retire,” Nagunst said. “We have quite a few California transplants. They wanted to have space and property.”

“Everybody knows everybody in this town, and that can be a good thing, and that can also be a detriment,” she said. “But I think the heart of the people in this town is to really be helpful and to reach out and help out when people need it.”

In a town known for neighbors serving neighbors, Abundant Life especially has a reputation as a place where people can find help regardless of their church affiliation. Instead of doing big outreach programs, Abundant Life members specialize in recognizing needs and doing whatever they can to help people. A member’s friend recently visited and mentioned that she needed clothes.

“A lady went to a yard sale and saw clothes that were her size and bought three boxes full of clothes,” said Nagunst, who also shared about a homeless family that became part of the church. “The mother stood up in church and thanked the Lord for the warm welcome the church had given them and the way that we have loved them and supported them through their difficulties. … Actually she gave her life to the Lord last year because of the way that the church has welcomed them in as part of our family.”

The homeless woman is not the only new believer. Nagunst said that from January to March 2020, “we had seven people give their lives to the Lord, and then COVID hit, and everything fell apart as far as meeting together.”

Sorrow and Support

After months of “people getting really excited about God and giving their lives over to the Lord,” Nagunst said the church experienced a time of tremendous loss and grief. “It was a hard year for us not just because of COVID-19. I kind of think of COVID-19 as the easier part of things that happened in our church that were hard. We lost eight people who were a part of our church in ten months, and our church is only a church of about 60-something people. You’re looking at over 10 percent of our congregation who had passed away, and one of those is my own husband.”

The deaths were caused by health problems unrelated to COVID-19. The official cause of husband Craig’s death was listed as a heart attack, but a doctor told her “it was probably a blood clot that went into his lungs because it happened all of a sudden.”

His unexpected passing came as a shock.

“I had just been meeting with one of the ladies in our church who had lost her husband about his memorial service,” she said. “I headed home after talking to her, and Craig said that something was wrong.”

She asked if he needed to go to the doctor, and he said he did and that she should drive.

“That’s a big thing, because in our marriage of 32 years, the only time I’ve ever driven has been when he was incapacitated. You can count those numbers on one hand,” she said. “On the way to the hospital, he was having a seizure and was not conscious, and so then I pulled over and started giving CPR and called 911.”

The paramedics arrived and took over, but they were not able to save his life.

“I really just had to depend on God and sometimes the strength and prayer of others. When I couldn’t pray for myself, I knew I had other people praying for me and with me. I was intentional to make sure I was connecting with other leaders and other pastors, so I wasn’t trying to do all this in isolation,” Nagunst said.

Because of the multiple tragedies, Abundant Life members found themselves living out the biblical call to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). As Nagunst mourned her husband, she also connected with other grieving people.

“I think because I experienced that same loss personally, I was able to minister well to those who had the loss,” said Nagunst, who added that her husband’s death helped her “understand better where they were coming from, and they also knew that I understood.”

She said the church members felt like they were soldiers sharing a foxhole.

“You’re all in it together, and you’ve all been impacted by it, and you’re all struggling with it,” she said. “I felt super-supported by our congregation.”

Three weeks after her husband’s death, she led a memorial service for another person who died. She said that God “really blessed me with being able to be fully present with those who are grieving without trying to make it about me. I think the men and women in our church who’ve had loss were able to do the same thing for me.”

In-person church attendance has declined because of the pandemic, but she believes God “is doing a more powerful work now than what was happening when we were a little bit bigger, and I think we’re reaching more people, because even online we have 150-something followers, and every day between 40 and 60 people read the devotional, and 30 to 40 people view the services.”

She and several women in her church are also engaging in cross-cultural collaboration through an online prayer group with women in an Asian country. She said the group met for prayer over Zoom until political unrest made those meetings difficult for the Asian women, “but we still connect through [Facebook] Messenger and send prayer requests back and forth.”

Following the Call

Nagunst earned a master’s degree in spiritual formation from Northwest Nazarene University and a doctorate in leadership and spiritual formation from Portland Seminary, but she didn’t follow a typical path to pastoral ministry despite a longtime call to ministry.

“Technically, the very first time I ever felt God call me into ministry was when I was in seventh grade. I was sitting in church, and they said, ‘Oh, tonight we’re going to have some missionaries share,’” she recalled. “I was telling the Lord, ‘OK, I’ll do anything for you, but I don’t want to be a missionary.’ That evening, when I heard the story of the missionaries, I felt God’s call on my heart to be a missionary.”

When she became an adult, however, she didn’t head to the mission field as a career missionary. Instead, she entered a different kind of service.

“I ended up going into the Air Force and doing 20 years,” said Nagunst, who served as an aircraft mechanic. “Before I retired in 2000, I very clearly heard God say, ‘You will ignite my people in Christian worship.’ I consider that the official call into ministry as an adult.”

Her Air Force work resulted in deployment around the world. She was stationed in Germany for a while and also in the states of Arizona and Alaska.

After retiring from the military while in Alaska, she and her husband stayed there until they sensed God calling them to another state. The choice of their next destination originated with the desire to pray for a church outside of Alaska.

“About 2014 or so the Lord really placed this little tiny church in the middle of northeastern Washington on my heart to pray for so I started just praying for this church,” she said. “Then we bought some land in the area. It wasn’t long after that there was an open position for the pastor [of Abundant Life], and I applied. Since it was going to be my first pastorate, they decided to keep looking, which was fine.”

John Southwick became the pastor, and the Nagunsts moved to the area a few months later with the plan to retire there. The couple built a cabin and began “living off-grid and really enjoying that,” she said.

But Southwick sensed that Nagunst’s ministry was far from retirement.

“He right away started using me, and so I became the associate pastor after being here for about a year. When he retired, that’s when I became the lead pastor,” said Nagunst, whose other ministry experiences have included serving as a prison chaplain in Alaska and as a spiritual director through Soul Formation.

As she leads a congregation with many people who are retirement age, Nagunst encourages people not to let age limit their service to God and other people.

Paul tells Timothy to not discount his age, being young, and I think what I’ve learned by being here is to also not discount your age by being too old, because God still is using people of all ages for His purposes and His work,” she said.


Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.