Robyn Bridgeo, the writer, is a Salvation Army captain who, with his wife, Captain Stephanie Bridgeo, pastors the Salvation Army's church (corps) in East Liverpool, Ohio.
Nicole Fitch had answered the "big three" questions most adults need to answer: "What will I do?" "Whom will I marry?" and "Where will I live?" Nicole had become a successful nurse; she had married a great guy named Sean; and they had bought a nice house in East Liverpool, Ohio.
Nicole was also active in the Salvation Army church in East Liverpool. On Oct. 7, 2001, the same day the then-pastors, Majors Erica Gunther and Dorothy Woods, dedicated a new building, Nicole was enrolled as a member (soldier). The dedication program was titled, "Making a Difference in the 21st Century." That day, an Army leader who was part of the celebration, Colonel Marilyn Francis, said something to Nicole that made her begin to think about whether she might yet have another big decision to make.
Nicole remembers the personal connection the colonel made with her that day. Francis, known throughout the Army world for her commanding presence and passion, cupped Nicole's face in her hands, stared into her eyes, and said, "YOU are the future.... YOU will be the one who leads the way in making a difference in the 21st century." Nicole wasn't sure what the statement could mean, but she sensed it was prophetic.
The missing piece
She had reached all her goals, yet somehow, she felt something was missing.
Meanwhile, my wife and I had become the pastors in East Liverpool, and last year, I had a new vision for the upcoming school year. I had been so burdened by the number of kids that seemed to just run the streets of East Liverpool, and I felt it was The Salvation Army's responsibility to provide a safe haven for them. I knew, however, that I could not do it alone, so I called my wife and said that what we needed was a youth pastor. She responded, "Not any youth pastor—God's perfect fit."
We committed ourselves to prayer, and one day, as I was ticking off my list of "potentials," Stephanie said, "Nicole is the only person that I will consider. God has specifically laid her name upon my heart for this job."
Suddenly peace came over both of us, and we knew God wanted us to make that call.
Not knowing what to expect, Stephanie picked up the phone and called Nicole.
Stephanie said that she knew how important Nicole's nursing career was to her and how many years she had worked to put herself through school. My wife then asked Nicole to consider praying about being our youth pastor. Nicole responded, "Captain, I cannot believe that you just called me and asked me that!"
She began to cry and continued, "The other morning I was praying and asking God what else I could do to serve Him. I told Him that I knew He wanted more from me, and I would do whatever he asked. [But] I don't know anything about being a youth pastor."
Stephanie let her know that being obedient to the Holy Spirit's leading in her life should come first. She then encouraged Nicole to take a few days to pray and talk to Sean. If the Lord confirmed to her that being the youth pastor at the church was His plan for her right now, then we would all begin the journey together.
We all knew that for Nicole to take on this responsibility would be a sacrifice. After working so hard to earn her degree and the lifestyle she always wanted, Nicole would have to take a considerable pay cut. She was also enjoying maternity leave following the birth of her son, Parker, and she had really gotten used to being home with him. She would have to give up time with her firstborn to give time to other children.
But Nicole said yes. When we asked her why she would be willing to take on this new challenge, she said, "because someone did it for me."
She told us about a special woman named Honey Gilbert, who had led her troop of Sunbeams (a group much like the Girl Scout's Brownies). Honey had taught the young girls to sew, cook, set a table, and host a tea party. As part of her job as youth pastor, Nicole would lead her own Sunbeam troop, and she hoped that she would create memories like those Honey gave her.
Nicole says she felt "both overwhelmed and wonderful that God had answered my prayer 'to use me in whatever way He needed me.' " She was overwhelmed, she says, "because I was scared that I would not do a good job and that God and my pastors would be disappointed." But she also felt "wonderful because this was my chance to do what God chose me to do."
...but some confusion
Nicole did have one question about her call. She wondered why God had allowed her to study nursing if she was going to end up as a youth director, something she had absolutely no training to do.
All she could do was pray. There is an old saying: "When we work, we work; but when we pray, God works." That's the kind of help Nicole needed.
God helped supply the answer to Nicole's question as she realized that her relationships at the healthcare center where she had worked would help with her recruitment efforts. Nicole quickly had 40-50 children coming to The Salvation Army every Wednesday for Family Night. The kids eat supper together, then go to YAM (Youth Arts Ministry), where they receive free instruction in music and the arts. After class, everyone gathers in the chapel for chorus, and Nicole teaches a creative Bible study. Then the children split into Boys Club and Sunbeams for activities.
Nicole also works in our Youth Education for Tomorrow (YET) after-school program. She picks up students, serves snacks and supper, helps with homework, and builds bridges between the children to their parents and the church. She even recruited its director, Terry Fitch, who is also her brother-in-law. (See sidebar on page 19.)
Nicole has opened her home for two small groups: teens meet on Sunday nights and young adults on Mondays. She also helped organize and promote a Couples Date Night ministry.
One of Nicole's favorite Date Night evenings, she says, was ballroom dancing night, at which couples received dancing lessons and a chance to meet new friends and get acquainted with the church family. Stephanie and I broke the ice that night with a romantic comedy dance routine. Once the couples saw the "captains" dance without getting struck by lightning, they all joined in; some have started coming to church.
As a former youth pastor myself, I have a great appreciation for Nicole and the work she is doing here in East Liverpool. I remember Nicole coming into my office shortly after she started as youth pastor; she was very frustrated and thought she wasn't doing a good enough job.
My wife and I told her that she was an investment to us and that we were much more concerned about her growth as a Christian than about her job performance.
"Your ministry is to be out of the overflow of your own walk with the Lord," Stephanie told Nicole.
Since then, we have seen growth in Nicole, both in her walk with the Lord and her ministry. I have learned to let her go and let God use the gifts He has given to her, the way He wants to use them.
As for Nicole, seven months into the job, she's still glad she made the choice to become youth pastor. She says she still feels "both overwhelmed and wonderful at the same time—overwhelmed with helping all the children to have a great time at The Salvation Army, and wonderful about the 'end product' and forming lifelong relationships with many of them."
The day Nicole was installed as youth pastor, I told her, "Nicole, your natural leadership will be most effective and influential when you lead with the gifts and strengths that the Lord has provided. So fan into flame those gifts from God."
Today, I pray Nicole will continue to remember, as I prayed that day with her, that she would use her gifts "for such a time as this." (Esther 4:14)
We know that Colonel Marilyn Francis's prophecy is coming true: Nicole Fitch is making a difference in the 21st century.