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

Chris Smith sensed an unexpected call to ministry at age 17 while attending the International Youth Conference (now known as FMYC) in Colorado.

“There was a time where they had just an extended period of prayer, and I knew that something was up because I was awake, and normally I fell asleep during a time of prayer,” said Smith — now the lead pastor of Emmanuel Free Methodist Church in Alton, Illinois — during an interview with Light + Life. “I felt God call me very specifically. It was like God was saying, ‘I want you to go be Les Rovenstine to a next generation.’” (Rovenstine — who recently died at age 58 after battling COVID-19 —served as Smith’s youth pastor at Moundford Free Methodist Church in Decatur, Illinois.)

That evening, Smith found a pay telephone and called his parents to share what happened. They suggested that the three of them discuss it more when he returned from Colorado. When Smith got home, they revealed, “Well, when you were a little kid, you used to play church pretty regularly with the neighbor kids. You were always the preacher, and they were the congregation. We had kind of sensed a call to ministry for your life.”

Smith’s parents also revealed to him what they’d been told by an evangelist who led a revival at the Bethany Free Methodist Church, which the family attended during his childhood years.

“That evangelist said to my mom and dad, ‘You keep an eye on him, because God has a plan for him in ministry,’” said Smith, who added that other people had given his parents similar messages. “My folks, to their credit, had not said anything to me about any of that all growing up.”

Instead, they opted to let Smith hear directly from God first. The teen had not been thinking about entering ministry until he sensed God’s call during the conference in Colorado.


“When God called me into ministry, I had no clue where to begin.”


“Nobody in my family had ever graduated from college, so I figured I would go get a job. Everybody on my mom’s side of the family are carpenters, and everybody on my dad’s side of the family are truck drivers, so I thought I’d either go into the military or do one of those two things,” Smith said. “When God called me into ministry, I had no clue where to begin.”

Rovenstine and Moundford’s then-Lead Pastor Bob Smith began involving him in different ministries of the church.

“They let me do little things. Les let me lead youth group and teach a lesson one time. Pastor Bob let me pray a few times in church,” Smith said. “The summer after my senior year, I helped out with the youth group’s middle schoolers. They helped me find out my call before college.”

Smith also learned more about Greenville College (now Greenville University) in his home state of Illinois. He explained, “Fortunately, Greenville had come to our church and camp and thrown a bunch of Frisbees out and given us a bunch of ice cream. Who wouldn’t want to go to a place with Frisbees and ice cream?”

Smith majored in youth ministry at Greenville and also served at the Centralia Free Methodist Church (now Foundation Church). After graduation, he became the youth pastor at a church in Pennsylvania.

He eventually left Pennsylvania for Nevada to help friends who were attempting to start a new church in Las Vegas, but the church plant never launched except for a few combined services with another congregation. After his friends returned to their home area of the East Coast, Smith thought, “Well, what am I going to do now? I don’t have the foggiest clue where to go next or what to do.”

College Calls Again

Word of Smith’s situation spread among Free Methodist friends, and he received a phone call from a Greenville administrator who said, “Hey, I hear you’re looking for a new place to land. Have you ever thought about being a resident director?” Smith replied, “I always thought that would be a great ministry.”

Smith interviewed with Greenville and was offered a graduate assistant position, which meant serving as a resident director while taking graduate courses through another Christian institution. Because the fall semester was about to start, he was given the option of enrolling within a week at a college in Pennsylvania or at Azusa Pacific University in California. Smith told a Greenville administrator, “Well, I don’t have any money, so I guess I’ll drive to LA. I’m living in Vegas.”

After two weeks on Azusa’s campus, he moved to Greenville and continued his graduate studies through a distance learning program, which resulted in him earning a Master of Education degree in college student affairs from Azusa.

He served for five years as a resident director at Greenville where he began dating Leah, who served as both a resident director and the coordinator of women’s residence education. Smith ultimately became Greenville’s coordinator of men’s residence education overseeing all male resident directors, and, while working at the college, he also served as the pastor of the Coffeen Free Methodist Church in a neighboring county. He and Leah eventually married, and they now have three children — Sawyer, Lucy and Madelyn.

While dividing his efforts between Greenville and Coffeen, Smith began to consider what it would be like to have a pastoral position on a college campus. That consideration became a reality when Smith was hired to be both the campus pastor and the director of residence life at Central Christian College of Kansas. In his third year at Central, Smith was named the chief student affairs officer in addition to his previous duties. After four years, Smith transitioned out of the campus pastor role. Smith acknowledged that it could be complicated to be a student’s pastor and also a college administrator who might need to discipline the same student, but he added, “I don’t think grace is the absence of discipline, so I just tried to marry the two as best we could.” 

During 11 years at Central, Smith’s duties varied with periods of overseeing admissions, athletics, and financial aid. He said working as a college administrator “certainly did impact my life in a tremendous way, and it, in some ways, did change my wiring, but one thing that it never did was take away my pastor’s heart. I processed almost everything that I did as a college administrator through the lenses of being a pastor. In fact, the entire time I was there, the students called me Pastor Chris even when I wasn’t the pastor.”

He also served the McPherson Free Methodist Church by teaching adult Sunday school for nine years and helping with children and youth. Smith said, “Those experiences had a profound impact on keeping me grounded in my pastoral roots.”

As he worked with Central students and helped them explore their calling, Smith drew upon the wisdom of Parker Palmer’s book “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.”

“In that book, he talks about allowing certain markers in your life to speak to you about who God’s created you to be and what God’s created you to do. He talks about things that stirred our souls when we were small before we put on the masks that the rest of the world wants us to put on,” Smith said. “Oftentimes, God speaks to us in our early years in even things like our play.”

Palmer’s writing reminded Smith of his parents telling him about playing that he was a pastor in his childhood, and he realized, “God had really spoken to me at a young age.” In his work with college students, Smith asked students about their natural areas of gifting and what interested them from a young age.


“When you’re lying in bed, either before you wake up or after you go to bed at night, where are your thoughts drifting?”


“Also John Eldredge, in his ‘Sacred Romance’ book, talks about the importance of listening to God in the quietness and stillness of the morning and the quietness and stillness of the night —sort of before we put on the mask that we’re forced to wear during the rest of the day and after we’ve taken it off,” said Smith, who encouraged students to consider, “When you’re lying in bed, either before you wake up or after you go to bed at night, where are your thoughts drifting?”

If a student had an interest in ministry, Smith would encourage the student to take a ministry or theology course “and see if that lights you up.”

Back to Illinois

At Central, Smith worked to increase connection between Free Methodist congregations and the college. While searching the Free Methodist Church USA website one day for a list of local churches, he stumbled upon the Human Resources area where he spotted a job opening for pastor of family life at Emmanuel FMC.

“I said to my wife, who had spent a couple of years as the early childhood director at the Free Methodist Church there in McPherson, ‘This would be a great job for you,’” Smith recalled. “She said, ‘No, this would be a great job for you. You should apply.’”

Smith said that during his time at Central, “I never felt like I stopped being a pastor. I still spoke in chapel a couple times a year and spoke in churches when I had the opportunity.” He also enjoyed “pouring into the lives of young people, especially young married couples, and helping them to lead their families.” He realized the Emmanuel position would be “an opportunity to do something that I think I would be good at and that I feel like God has really given me a passion for.”

He joined the Emmanuel staff in 2017 as the pastor of family life, and he worked under the leadership of Mark Scandrett who had served as lead pastor since 1985 and led Emmanuel during a time of tremendous growth. Last year, Smith became Emmanuel’s lead pastor, and Scandrett became the pastor of connectional ministries.

“Doing the transition during a pandemic might have needed some extra thought, but, by and large, it’s gone really well,” Smith said. “I’d say the biggest thing we’ve dealt with, like a lot of churches, is: How do we maintain connection to one another as we grow and develop?”

Emmanuel is known for supporting other congregations in the Gateway Conference and around the world. Smith credited the example of Larry and Deb Walkemeyer, longtime pastors in Southern California who now serve as the Free Methodist Church USA’s strategic catalysts for Christ-compelled multiplication, with inspiring Emmanuel’s approach.

“Emmanuel has been a church that has been intentional about trying to be a river church,” Smith said. “We have seen God do some pretty neat things through the financial generosity as well as the people-resource generosity of the church. Sometimes it’s been difficult; sometimes some challenging things have crept up in subsequent years, but, for the most part, things have taken place as the result of this church holding people, finances and giftedness loosely. I think there are some really beautiful things that are happening here.”

Emmanuel started The Restore Network that has become a major force in changing the culture of foster care in southern Illinois. The network now partners with many churches while continuing to have its offices at Emmanuel.


“Emmanuel’s always been a wonderful place of healing for people who maybe have experienced some religious trauma.”


The congregation also has a reputation for connecting with Christians who have been hurt at other churches, and Smith also wants to ensure Emmanuel is known for reaching people without a church background.

“Emmanuel’s always been a wonderful place of healing for people who maybe have experienced some religious trauma. We’re seeing the opportunity to provide care for people, and that’s great,” Smith said. “We’re also sensing God’s call in our lives in a renewed way to experience conversion growth, to see people led to Jesus.”

Emmanuel means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Smith has experienced God with him as he pursues his calling and helps other people discover and pursue theirs.+

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.