By KATIE EUBANKS
Michael and Julie Estes
Finding a ministry home at Ridgecrest
In 1998, Michael Estes finally worked up the nerve to ask out Julie Stone. They’d both grown up in Clinton, and probably met on a Clinton High School choir trip, Michael says.
Now it was the summer after graduation. On their first date, they had dinner at Xan’s Diner and then went to see “Armageddon” at the movies.
Three years later, Michael and Julie were married and living in Starkville, where Michael studied history at Mississippi State University, while Julie studied nursing at Mississippi University for Women in nearby Columbus.
“My plan was to be a teacher and a coach,” Michael says. But about halfway through his master’s program at Mississippi State, Michael felt called to ministry.
“I started telling people about it, and nobody said, ‘That’s a terrible idea.’ Julie was on board,” he says. After he finished his master’s, he and Julie moved to North Carolina, where he attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest.
“Since then, it’s been on both our hearts to be in ministry in some way, shape or form,” Michael says. But it took a decade for him to find a full-time ministry job.
“When he graduated (seminary), it was basically when the recession hit,” Julie says.
So Michael taught high-school English and philosophy.
Their older son, Jackson, and their daughter, Lorelei, were born in North Carolina, and Julie got pregnant with their younger son, Micah. Meanwhile, Michael looked for ministry jobs in places like Maine, California, Hawaii and Washington.
“We just believed God was calling us somewhere else (besides Mississippi),” he says.
Then he got a call from The Veritas School, then located in Ridgeland, Mississippi, and took a teaching job there. The family moved, and Julie found a nursing job. Michael also found part-time ministry positions at churches.
Then four years ago, he and Julie saw a part-time college ministry position open up at Julie’s parent’s church, Ridgecrest Baptist in Madison.
“We started praying about it. I’ve been a fan of Ridgecrest for a while,” Michael says. He got the job and was able to pour himself into one of the things he’s passionate about: small group discipleship.
“We’re small anyway (in the Ridgecrest college ministry), because there is no Ole Miss or Mississippi State or large university nearby,” he says.
At the same time, he continued teaching, moving on to Provine High School in Jackson and then Germantown High School in Madison County.
A year and a half ago, Phil Walker, senior pastor at Ridgecrest at the time, gave the church a year’s notice that he was going to retire.
“I talked to friends, and Julie, and prayed about it,” Michael says. “I applied (to be senior pastor), and originally I was told no, which I understood.
“I knew I was called (to ministry),” he says, but “I got the opportunity to minister to my students at school. (I knew) it’s better than OK if God says no (to the pastor job at Ridgecrest), because that means it’s better for Ridgecrest and better for me.”
By the time Walker retired, the church still hadn’t found a permanent replacement. They first brought in an interim pastor, but then decided to let staff members take turns preaching. Michael was one of them.
“That kind of opened the door,” he says. “About a year ago, the chair of the search committee asked if I’d be willing to reapply (for senior pastor). I said yeah, and if it doesn’t work out again, that was OK.”
This time, he was offered the position.
“We sat our kids down (to talk about it),” Julie says. “It’s a big adjustment.” But the kids were excited. Their main concern was whether they’d have to ride the bus to school once dad quit teaching. The answer: Yeah, probably.
Michael became senior pastor at Ridgecrest in December 2019 and finished up his school year at Germantown before becoming full time at the church on June 1.
Pastoring in a pandemic
During spring break, the Estes family went to Tampa, Florida. “I took the boys to a spring training game, and Julie and Lorelei went to Universal Studios,” Michael says.
Then he got pulled into a long-distance staff meeting to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic.
“(While on vacation) Julie and I produced a video explaining why we were closing the church, and got that sent to the right people.”
At press time, COVID-19 had killed nearly 1,000 and infected more than 22,000 in Mississippi alone. Both the virus itself and the related social distancing have caused a lot of fear and anxiety. But it has also helped folks love their neighbors and kids more intentionally, Michael says.
“We’ve had lay people reach out to each other. We’ve had families disciple their children more. There’s no longer an expectation that the church would do it for us. We are the church, and we should do it anyway.”
Fortunately for Julie and the whole family, she works in cardiac rehab, not on the COVID-19 floor, at St. Dominic. “Some of us had to take off a week at a time (during quarantine),” she says. “It’s picking back up now. We check temperatures when people come in, and we have to wear masks all day.”
Since Michael wasn’t teaching in person during quarantine, he was able to spend more time on church responsibilities, he says.
“But one thing that was hard was feeling like I had no closure — the inability to say goodbye to my students (and) coworkers (at the end of the semester), some of whom I had worked with for seven years.”
On Sunday, June 7, Ridgecrest implemented the first phase of a multi-phase reopening plan.
“It was harder to reopen the church than it was to close it,” Michael says. “There are all these hoops you have to think about and prepare for. Matt Cloyd, our executive pastor, has done a great job helping us plan.”
Ridgecrest is holding two Sunday morning services and cleaning the sanctuary in between. Worshippers register to attend via EventBrite and sit on every other pew. The most vulnerable members are encouraged to attend the (generally less crowded) first service. All staff and volunteers wear masks and get their temperatures checked, and worshippers are encouraged — but not required — to wear masks as well.
Services got trimmed from an hour and 25 minutes to just one hour, “so we can get people in and out and clean (between services),” Michael says.
Other changes include opening only one entrance and exit; adding hand sanitizer stations; keeping an offering box in one place instead of passing a plate; and showing plenty of grace to parents of squirmy kids, many of whom will sit in “big church” as childcare remains on hiatus.
“If they make noise, that’s perfectly OK,” Michael says. “I’m used to preaching and teaching with distractions.”
“I remember as a young parent being concerned (about my kids making noise in church),” Julie says. “It always seems 10 times louder (to the parent) than it is.”
Michael says he doesn’t know how long this first phase of reopening will last. At any rate, “I think people will appreciate the opportunity to gather more,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll see (people skipping Sundays) for a while.”
Treasure in jars of clay
Quarantine made it tough for Michael to get to know the people at Ridgecrest better — and he only knew so many of them as college pastor. “Julie and I have been calling and reaching out, checking on people,” he says.
“Even as a senior pastor, while I am in front of everyone, my desire is to see individuals grow. When I prepare to preach or teach, I’m always spending time with individuals. What is it they need in order to grow closer to Christ?”
As a teacher, Michael had goals for all of his students, though he saw 150 a day, he says. “If they’re not doing well as people, they’re not going to be able to learn.”
One lesson he learned from teaching and ministering to young people: Don’t put on airs or try to be someone you’re not.
“It’s important for me to be transparent. My students can see authentic (vs) fake pretty easily. That’s one of the things I try to carry with me into the pulpit,” he says. “2 Corinthians 4:7 says we have this treasure in jars of clay. I’m just a guy, an ordinary person that (God) is using.”
Julie brings up another lesson: There was a student Michael ministered to in North Carolina who, after she got married several years later, wrote to Michael with her husband to express their appreciation for Michael’s influence in their lives.
“You might not know the impact you have for a long time,” Julie says — and that is true for teachers, nurses, pastors and everyone in between.