About a year ago, I received a call from Matt McNelly who pastors at 1st Presbyterian Church in Pullman, Wa. Matt called to let me know that he had been reading about some of the ministry I was doing through my online postings here and some other articles that had come out. He was considering launching his own social enterprise based ministry and also considering going to the Hatchathon at Princeton. I have been asking Matt to work up a post on his ministry that is built around fishing and the Rule of St. Benedict for some time. In the end I shot him some interview questions to give us a flavor of how he is doing youth work. This is a really cool ministry and one that is both risky and innovative. Very cool!
Name: Rev. Matthew McNelly
Church: Pullman Presbyterian Church
Position at Church: Senior Pastor and Captain of the F/V Suzy Q
Number of Years at the Church: 11
Name of Social Enterprise: "Go Fish"
1. What do you call this new ministry and how did it get started?
Our new ministry here at Pullman Presbyterian Church is called “Go Fish!” The basic idea of the ministry is that we use a program sponsored by the State of Washington called the Northern Pikeminnow Sport Reward Program as a vehicle for doing youth ministry. This program, which runs from May 1 through August 31, pays anglers from $5 to $8 a fish to catch and remove approximately 10%-20% of the Pikeminnow population each summer.
The Northern Pikeminnow is a native fish of the Columbia and Snake River systems that aggressively feeds on juvenile salmon and steelhead. When the dams were installed on these rivers it created the perfect environment for the Pikeminnow populations (previously known as the Squawfish) to explode in numbers. State biologists report the Northern Pikeminnow consumes millions of salmon smolts a year, significantly reducing returning salmon populations. So essentially the youth involved in our program become piscine bounty hunters.
Go Fish! equips kids between the ages of 10-15 years old with everything necessary to participate in this fishery. Through a combination of grants and generosity from church families we were able to purchase fishing rods and reels, tackle, lifejackets, boating electronics, and most importantly; a 24ft pontoon boat we dubbed the “Suzy Q” (named after one of our supporters). Twice a week during the summer months myself and other mature Christian adult volunteers from the congregation take kids out on the “Suzy Q” for day-long fishing trips on the Snake River in search of Northern Pikeminnow. Whatever regulation size Pikeminnows the students catch they turn in to the check station and receive the monetary reward.
2. What made you or your church decide to do this?
My wife and I both serve on staff as pastors of our church and it became apparent that the leadership of the church needed to reduce personnel costs. Because we are located in a college town, all of our programming for the year happens when Washington State University is in session. Taking into consideration that our summers are so low-key I volunteered to move from full-time to ¾ time, only working one day a week at the church when school was out of session in the summer. With my schedule suddenly opened up and needing to earn a little extra cash I had decided to try this bounty-fishing program myself.
Then it hit me. I could take kids from the church fishing WITH me on this crazy adventure! The idea of Go Fish! Ministries took off. Instead of structured, time-limited weekly programming with our youth, we are inviting them to do faith and life out on the river in the pursuit of fish.
The “theme” verse for this endeavor comes from Matthew 4:19, “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” What if in following Jesus to fish for people we are being invited to get back in the boat and fish…for fish?
3. What is the overall goal of what you are doing and do you feel you are accomplishing that so far?
The goal of our program simply put is to get kids “hooked on Jesus.” We want youth captured by Christ’s love and become His disciples; and then become fishers of people themselves. We accomplish that through a multi-faceted approach. We don’t simply want to tell kids about the grace and love of Jesus, we want them to receive and experience it through relationship mature Christian adults. The fishing activity is simply a framework for the hours of conversation and incarnational witness as adults and youth do life together. As followers of Jesus how do we deal with disappointment? Success? Conflict? Adversity? If you have ever spent time fishing, you know that there are countless opportunities to navigate all these scenarios!
To help guide our communal life we actually look to the Rule of St. Benedict. There are so many parallels between living in a monastic community and being part of the crew of a boat. In both situations order is necessary for the safety and well-being of the members of the community. Particularly on a boat, safety is paramount. And like a monastic community there is a hierarchy in place to keep order and the members all on task. A boat is not a democracy; the captain is in charge. Period. The role of the Father or Mother of an intentional faith community operates in much the same way. We seek to have two adults on the boat at a time for the maximum of 5 kids per day. Throughout the day we have times of prayer and scripture reading, a simplified form of praying “The Hours.”
This summer of 2016 was a pilot season for the program. We took out kids 3 separate days and the initial results are very promising. The kids who went on our fishing trips had an overwhelming positive response. We caught a lot of fish (only 3 keeper money fish) and the kids were engaged. There is great anticipation for this coming summer when we will offer fishing trips twice a week for 8 weeks.
4. Risk is a part of gospel faithfulness and a necessary part of doing anything missional. Where have you seen God’s faithfulness in this journey and where have you had to radically trust God?
When we started this journey we had no money, no boat, no fishing experience, and no model to draw from in launching this ministry. The entire venture has been one of risk without the possibility of reward. And there were many days when I was fishing out on the river by myself trying to get the hang of it and simply failing. And failing hard. As in, spending the whole day on the river, costing gas, time away from family, bait, and catching one $5 fish. My wife at times was starting to get very anxious because I was supposed to be making all this money catching fish and we were losing money.
But there were a number of instances when it became apparent that God and the people of our church were heavily invested. The congregation paid for me to attend the Hatch-A-Thon put on by the Princeton Institute of Youth Ministry. I was able to learn so much about how to get started with entrepreneurial ministry endeavors. I came away from that experience with a boatload of ideas (pun intended). Our Presbytery gave us a grant of $5,000 to purchase equipment for this missional initiative! A couple families from our church donated the money to purchase a used pontoon boat for $4,000. This pontoon boat has a great story behind it. The boat was used the previous season by a local fisherman in our community who made $21,000 with this boat the summer of 2015. Meeting this fisherman was also very much a “God thing.” He showed me the ropes of fishing and saved me hundreds of hours of frustration (beyond what I was already experiencing).
5. What kind of folks are accompanying you on this journey? Who have you had in the room helping you plan and envision where this is all headed?
We are so blessed to have a number of people supporting this endeavor. First we have men in the congregation who have volunteered their time to be on the boat ministering to the kids. Guys are taking days off of work to join kids on the river. We have the families that have donated the money towards the purchase of the boat. We have a farmer in our congregation who has donated space on his property for us to store the boat during the winter months to save money on moorage costs. We are so fortunate to have folks in marketing and advertising that are helping us put together a website, logo, and branding so we can get the word out on the ministry. And of course all the parents and congregants who have supported this ministry through their prayers.
6. What would you say to others who are trying to envision different ways to do youth ministry? How can they begin a process of trying something different?
Start by asking yourself what you are passionate about. What do you love to do? How might you invite youth into some endeavor you have been itching to try personally. What are the needs of your community? We have a number of kids whose parents both work but cannot afford the day camps available during the summer. Most of these kids end up wandering the local streets and or spending all day in the library on the computer. We are able to provide an opportunity to get out into creation, make some money, and encounter God’s love.
7.) What are some things you are learning through all of this project and what about it is life giving?
I am learning that you cannot be afraid to fail. A lot. I don’t think it was an accident that Jesus chose a group of fishermen as his first disciples. Fishing is full of disappointment and failure. And to make money at it you have to really be able to navigate the failure and continue to pursue the prize even when it is really hard. Discipleship is an exercise of the will, a decision to follow Jesus even when you don’t feel a deep connection or emotional/spiritual high.
I am an aspiring mystic and simply cannot get enough of witnessing the wonders of God’s creation. Fishing on a daily basis gets you to marvel at the genius of God’s created order. Having the chance to introduce others to this way of seeing the world is a gift. I love to fish and I love a challenge. I love to build things and this endeavor has fed all those elements of my person. Most importantly, I love Jesus and was blessed during my adolescence with significant adult mentors and spiritual fathers who left a lasting impression. I want to pass on that to the youth of our community; starting with my own four kids.