A Light+Life Podcast

With guests Larry and Deb Walkemeyer

Hosted by Brett Heintzman

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

After 30 years at the rapidly multiplying Light & Life Christian Fellowship, Larry and Deb Walkemeyer are transitioning out of their pastoral positions in Long Beach, California, and becoming the Free Methodist Church – USA’s new strategic catalysts for multiplication.

“We just felt like the Lord was bringing us to a season where we really needed to empower the next generation,” Larry said in a conversation he and Deb had with Brett Heintzman for a new episode of The Light & Life Podcast.

As they began a shift of leadership responsibilities to other members of their congregation’s pastoral staff such as Lead Team Pastors Sean Fenner and Joel Silva, the Walkemeyers received offers of new positions with national platforms.

“As Deb and I prayed, we just didn’t feel like any of those were really what God was saying to us in this hour. At that time, it converged with The Free Methodist Way and this emphasis on multiplication that our bishops were bringing to the forefront. That’s when Bishop Keith [Cowart] started talking to me about this idea of a multiplication champion, what we now call strategic catalysts for multiplication,” said Larry who, along with his local role as a pastor, already has a national platform as Exponential’s director of equipping and spiritual engagement. “Deb and I started praying about this and just felt like, ‘Man, that’s right in our wheelhouse. That’s what we’re passionate about.’”

They began to consider if God is preparing to multiply the Free Methodist Church on the national level in a similar way to how Light & Life Christian Fellowship has multiplied on a local and regional level through its 20 church plants.

“We do multiplication all the time so it feels very natural,” Deb said. “For someone to just call it out and say, ‘Oh, you want to do this as a job?’ can actually be a little overwhelming — at least for me. Even though I do it naturally, suddenly I have to really systematize it and make it operational at a larger level, so it is scary to step into this position, but at the same time, it’s been through the power of the Spirit of God that God has really enabled us to do what we do. We know that within ourselves, we are not able to do this.”

This September, Larry will join the denomination’s Executive Leadership Team (XLT) on a half-time basis, and Deb will join on a quarter-time basis as they transition out of their roles at Light & Life Christian Fellowship. Beginning in January, Larry will assume full-time responsibilities while Deb will work in a half-time position.

Regarding the new role, Deb said, “the exciting part is to be able to influence an entire denomination by, first of all, all of us getting on our knees because it’s so easy to pick up the next strategy book that talks about the best strategy for multiplication, and yet, if the heart’s not there, nothing is going to happen. But once you catch the bug of multiplication, it is so exciting, people get it, and they see God using them and empowering leaders.” 

California Love

The couple met at Azusa Pacific University. They married in 1978 and have been in ministry together ever since. Larry explained that Deb wasn’t a Light & Life staff member until 1999 “but she was certainly a partner in ministry,” and she became the church’s co-lead pastor nearly seven years ago.

Larry, who grew up as a Kansas farm boy, described his wife as “a California beach girl” who now has “five degrees including a doctorate from Fuller in church leadership, but she’s also a licensed marriage and family therapist. That’s been a great help to our marriage but also to our church because churches are family systems.” He added that she is “a multiplier of leaders who has raised up so many of the leaders we’ve sent out from Light & Life.”

He noted that Deb “chose for her doctoral project putting in a community garden in a gang-infested food desert in Compton, California.” He acknowledged he didn’t want her to start the garden because of his concern for her safety, “but God has done such amazing things through her faith and through her courage there.”

Larry attended Azusa as an undergraduate but then left to complete his bachelor’s degree in theology at a Bible college. He returned to Azusa for his Master of Divinity degree and his doctorate in church leadership, and he now serves on the university’s Board of Trustees.

Deb said that while she initially focused on her counseling career, Larry “did a fabulous job taking this church of 60 white folk who were in a very transitional community and a very diverse community” and leading it to become a large multiethnic church. She said the change happened through Larry’s “prayer, seeking God, really being sensitive and putting his ear to the ground of our local community.” 

Empowering Others

Miracles are possible, according to the Walkemeyers, when we have a multiplication mindset that builds a platform for others rather than for ourselves. 

“The more that you empower others, the more you give away, even though it’s painful in the moment, the Lord takes that and blesses it,” Larry said. “It’s a process of really shifting from hero to hero maker and not really caring that your name is in lights but that the spotlight gets turned onto others.”

“So many churches that are in survival mode or plateaued, they focus on addition only like ‘If we don’t add some people, we’re going to die,’” Larry said. “I understand that mindset, but what research has found is that if those same churches will begin to think externally, think missionally, think on what can we produce for the kingdom’s sake … it releases something in the local church. There’s a seed there that the Holy Spirit takes a hold of and begins to bring harvest from.”

For multiplication to continue, mentoring and discipleship must take place.

“One thing we did wrong at the beginning with our church plants is we didn’t teach ‘now you’re going to go and plant and reproduce as well.’ It was a one-stop shop,” Deb said. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t reproductive. It was addition.”

Now Light & Life Christian Fellowship sends people to plant a church with the mindset that the planted church will continue to plant churches.

“We don’t say how many people can go with the next church plant,” Larry said. “Some of our church planters go with a handful. Some church planters go with as much as 20 to 25 percent of the congregation going out the door with them.”

Larry shared that after planting several churches, Light & Life Christian Fellowship decided to send another team to plant a church, and approximately 20 percent of the congregation decided to be part of the new plant. Light & Life leaders celebrated the enthusiasm for the church plant, but they became concerned about the loss of volunteers and giving. Indeed, after the planters left, Larry said, “our finances showed it. It was tough.”

Light & Life held a baptism service while the congregation was experiencing a $30,000 deficit. As Larry grumbled internally during the service, he sensed the Lord saying to his mind and spirit, “If you take care of the poor, and if you give as generously as I call you to, I will take care of you.”

Finances unexpectedly rebounded. Larry recalled, “We ended that year exactly not $30,000 in the red but $30,000 in the black. God just showed off.”

The Walkemeyers would like to see a kingdom-minded culture of bold faith sweep the Free Methodist Church – USA.

“I can really believe for God to multiply every healthy Free Methodist Church over the next decade,” Larry said. “By multiply, I mean plant one church that is also dedicated to helping another, and notice I used a modifier, healthy, because we don’t want to reproduce unhealthiness.”

Shifting the Culture

A cultural shift can help a local church return to health. One area where a congregation’s culture may need to shift is in the treatment of women in ministry.

Deb highlighted “the great need for more females to be launched into higher levels of leadership and to be multiplied into church planting opportunities and into more pulpits.” She said she is “excited to see women leaders get excited rather than thinking, ‘I’ve been diminished. My voice has been lost.’ … I’ve had those thoughts and those moments, but it’s a new day.”

Larry concurred, “Our church planting mentality has got to begin to spread wide enough to embrace different models of church planting that our sisters will be more adept at and really will lead us.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainty for churches, but Deb believes it also has leveled the playing field for ministries and caused church leaders to pray and rely on God more.

“If you have a spiritual bone in your body, it’s forced you to your knees to say, ‘God, help in this. I don’t know what’s next,’” Deb said. “We have to help change the culture. We’ve got to fall in love with Jesus. … The world is so broken, and it needs what we have to offer.”

The Atlantic magazine recently published an article, “The Fastest-Growing Group of American Evangelicals,” reporting on Latino Protestants. The article begins with a focus on Obe and Jacqueline Arellano who are new Light & Life Christian Fellowship staff members, and the accompanying photos are from Light & Life.

“I just love how ethnic diversity is so front and center to the birth of the church and the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is what unified and transformed those Acts 2 believers as they were all together there,” said Larry, who noted how Light & Life’s growth initially started with “a handful of white people, and now we have a whole bunch of people and 30 different nations, and if you saw our staff now, less than 20 percent of our staff is white. It’s just a beautiful mosaic of the kingdom in our own staff.”


Larry and Deb Walkemeyer

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.