I've learned how to make a very decent latte. The milk is foamed to a smooth, rich consistency, and is frothed with cinnamon, vanilla, and a hint of maple syrup. The machine we were gifted makes a delightful growl when it's pulling the espresso shot, and I enjoy my morning routine pouring the milk into the mug, watching the colors blend into a galaxy of browns and ivory. This morning I tried to make those cute little latte hearts. I failed. Miserably. So I determined that, though the hearts were unrecognizable, it turned out looking like a pretty amazing amoeba. It's not cute, but it sure tastes good! And I really do love my little coffee routine. There's something sweet about knowing what to expect in my day, even if it's as simple as a cuppa fancy joe in the morning.
But routine has not been a luxury we've been able to experience much this past year. Sure, there are a few things we've been able to anticipate through our weeks, but each month has held some sort of update and upheaval, forcing us to be flexible and dependent on Jesus.
Yup, this past year has been quite the adventure! It's barely been four seasons since we've been on this Church Planting adventure, and it has been a WILD ride! Even as I write this my stomach is tied up in jittery knots. Not because I'm anxious, but as a response to the realization of how much Jesus has done over the last year, and the weight of all he has called us to.
PSA: I've recapped each month and this is a LONG post. But if you're not in a reading mood, and would rather just get to the summary of the year, click HERE. (I'm including that link for you, my dear reader, if you don't have time for the details. I understand that you may be having PTSD-like flashbacks of trying to get to a good recipe and being inundated by the chef's thesis of personal opinions on a particular ingredient and how their great-great aunt was buried with a jar of herbs because of an old family tradition, all the while you're just trying to figure out how to properly season your pork butt... Anyway, you can click HERE to skip all the details.) If you'd rather walk down memory lane with me, however, welcome! Here we go:
As we celebrated our 16th anniversary this past summer, I was remembering the text Jason sent from his office on our anniversary last year, letting me know that our church needed to cut his hours and his income would no longer be able to support our family. My reply was, "Wow! Another adventure! Let's see what Jesus is up to!" And oh boy, did Jesus have plans!
Jason let the president of his seminary know what was going on, and Ryan Rippee started talking with a few people. Within just a few weeks, we had been presented with the idea of church planting, and on August 10th we visited a tired little church in Calistoga, at the Northern end of the California Napa Valley. The pastor there was retiring, as the congregation was made up of only two older women. As there were no other evangelical churches in the area, there was a great need for a gospel-centric congregation in town.
Though we had never before considered church planting, it was obvious that Jesus had orchestrated every bit of our story to lead to that point. As we discussed it over Calistoga ice-cream with the kids, we understood that everything we had learned, every trial we had grown through, every aspect of our personalities and even how the kids are wired had prepared us to see that missions opportunity and know without a doubt that it was exactly what God wanted us to do.
Calistoga Ice-Cream Date
Ryan had started a church just 4 months earlier, and Trinity's heart was to raise up a church-planting pastor through an intensive training program. Though the church anticipated moving forward with their plan in 2025, they realized our family would be a great candidate, and Jesus orchestrated all the details, allowing Trinity to officially invite Jason to be Ryan's right-hand-man and fellow teaching pastor, in the official position of Resident Intern, and the role of Associate Pastor. We then began the months-long, INTENSE process of applying for the North American Mission Board.
On the 21st of September Jason let our elders in Grass Valley know that we would be moving and we sent out our first newsletter to friends and family. Though looking forward and mentally prepping for the change, Jason was still commuting 2 hours to Vallejo every week for seminary, I kept teaching in our school co-op and in American Heritage Girls, and our whole family continued in our ministry roles at church. I started in on packing the house, and slowly worked through splitting the household we had shared with Jason's mom for the previous 6 years.
We were ecstatic to hear back from NAMB and their church planting equipping arm, SEND, celebrating the acceptance of our paperwork. Our assessment in the Bay Area was scheduled for November.
Between work and classes, Jason toured a few homes in the Bay Area while I started packing in earnest. My greatest concern had been housing, but Jesus already had everything orchestrated. I found an option online and scheduled a walkthrough for Jason, and on October 18 he toured a townhouse in Benicia, just a couple miles from Trinity, our church family-to-be. It was a perfect fit... even before we found out that the property management company was owned by Trinity's treasurer!
The first of November was our moving day, and, just as with our previous 11 moves, our church was incredible. Folks showed up to heave boxes (and my piano!) into our moving van, and wave us off. There were tears to be sure, but there was also the excitement of new things and new adventures that permeates every Big Life Thing that Jesus guides us in. We were greeted by nearly a dozen folks from Trinity who helped us offload all our treasures in less than an hour. What a sweet welcome to Benicia!
Packed up and headed to Benicia
Just two weeks after the move, I flew Thea down to SoCal for a grandparent adventure, then came back in time for Jason and I to drop Kaden and Auna off at Pastor Rippee's parents' home while we attended the SEND Network's conference to assess us as church planters. We enjoyed three days of intense critique and encouragement as we were questioned about our family, church, marriage, dreams, and philosophy of ministry, and were given tools and resources and relationships to equip us as we continued along the church planting journey.
Chris and Joni Rippee: Professional Grandparents
We commuted between Benicia and Grass Valley several times, finishing up our obligations in the foothills and collecting boxes from storage to bring to our new home. Jason guest preached at a little church in Sonoma, and we celebrated Christmas in our new little house.
We waited (not very patiently) to hear back from SEND regarding our assessment for over 6 weeks! But we were committed to the church planting adventure regardless of whether that missions organization would support us, though we continued to hope to partner with such a wonderful resource. We finally sat down with Pastor Ryan Rippee and some SEND folks, who outlined some goals for us to pursue, in order to better equip us as church planting missionaries. We created a 5-month plan to pursue those goals, and dove right in!
We started the year off strong and full, with Jason's seminary on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (only a 20-minute commute, rather than 2 hours and an overnight stay), and diving into additional ministries at Trinity Church. We met up with old friends at Wolf Lodge for our first family vacation in a decade, hosted friends and family multiple times, learned which evening to take the trash out to the curb, and even had opportunities to watch our little niece, who is now only a 45-minute drive away.
It was SO sweet to be able to hold onto a favorite tradition of mine, in hosting a ladies brunch for my birthday, and we somehow fit 29 people into our little home, 10 of which were overnight guests! Several friends and their daughters drove all the way from Grass Valley to join me, and it was by far the most sweetest birthday I've had in a while. What a treasure to have so many beautiful ladies in my life, but oh- how incredibly hard it is to live so far away from so many of them! (Yet another reason why I'm so excited about heaven, where distance is no problem, and time will never be an hinderance.)
In between having several church families over for dinner on the weekends, I had a couple trips that took me out of town for 10 days. My writers conference at Mt. Hermon was such an encouragement (and held an amazing amount of affirmation in using my love for words to the glory of God), and my trip to St. Louis for a photography conference with my sister was an incredibly sweet time to enjoy being with one of my favorite people. I came back home excited for all the ways Jesus might use writing and photography to build up our future church.
Our first church family camp was a BLAST! Of our 40 regular members, 30 were able to attend Hartstone in Potter Valley. That's a 75% church turnout. Y'all, that's unheard of! The way our church does life together is something really special.
May 4th Jason and I met over zoom with the SEND folks, for a reassessment meeting to ensure that we had been able to progress in the areas recommended at our initial assessment in November. It was a sweet meeting, and we were encouraged. About this time Jason and I both got sick and thus started 6 weeks of bronchitis, to the point of me being unable to breathe after standing for more than a few minutes, and Jason cracking ribs with the fierceness of his coughing. Neither of us were getting much sleep, and our doctors were unable to ease our discomfort. Thus, when Jason was called upon to preach several times both at our church and as pulpit supply for other congregations, in addition to us leading music together for services every Sunday, Jesus was given EVERY ounce of praise. He truly sustains those who are willing to obey.
We continued to wait to hear back from the reassessment team, and, after 4 weeks, I mentioned to our SEND associate that we're practicing patience in the matter. Turns out we had passed with flying colors... but they forgot to tell us! We broke out the sparkling cider and celebrated getting the green light. Jason will be attending a SEND conference in Georgia in November where he will be "folded in" and will be showered with tools, resources, fellow church planters, and encouragement, in addition to getting all the paperwork taken care of so that we're officially official with the missions organization.
Meanwhile Trinity had been meeting in an old post office building, sharing the space with another church in town. (They met in the mornings, and we met at 4pm.) At the end of June Pastor Ryan was super excited to announce to the church that our prayers for a new location had been answered. Within just two weeks we would be moving our Benicia congregation!
By the first week of July we were meeting at Heritage Presbyterian Church at 1pm. Our first Sunday together was sweet, and our fellowship afterward was jubilant. Hallelujah for being able to meet in a real church building! We share the space with another church, with the promise that, when they phase out, Trinity would have the first rights of refusal to purchase the property at a fixed price. Oh, the dreaming that's happening! From the fellowship hall to the garden, to the children's play area, there are SO many ways in which Trinity is looking forward to utilizing the property to share the gospel and to love the community well!
A disappointment that we had to give to Jesus was that fact that, after many attempts to pursue the church in Calistoga, that door seemed to have closed. By the end of July Jason and I were still sure that Jesus has called us to church planting in the Napa Valley, but we didn't see where or when or how that might come about. While we waited for God's answer to our desire to plant, we continue to pour into our Benicia community, learning how to reach out to others in creative ways and how to build relationships with folks out of the church, knowing that those skills will be necessary... hopefully in the near future.
I hosted a retreat for the American Heritage Girls from our Grass Valley troop, and was delighted to have 10 girls and their mamas spend the first weekend of August in our home. I was also able to attend the first of three Biblical Counseling conferences (annually in Aug, Sep, and Oct) and was thrilled to bring home new insights in helping real people with real problems using my Bible.
Jason preaching at YCC
We also started a 6-week opportunity serving at Yountville Community Church (Southern Napa Valley), with pulpit supply and music on Sunday mornings, rushing off right afterward in order to serve at Trinity. This doubling up on church services meant that our whole family would leave the house at 8am and wouldn't get back until about 4pm, scrounging food along the way. It's been a wild (tiring!) whirlwind each Sunday, but the people we've met and the relationships we fostered have been SO encouraging! Turns out that there are a number of people at YCC who have a heart for church planting in the Napa Valley, and have secured a property in St. Helena, thanks to the abundant resources the Lord has entrusted them with. The church and land are being revitalized and the board in charge of the project are considering pastors for this plant. Much of August was spent pondering the possibility of God sending us to St. Helena. Our hearts are to church plant in rural California. Wherever Jesus wants us sounds good!
At our midweek group the first week of September, Pastor Ryan shared about a miraculous lunch he had with Don Miller, the pastor of a church up in Calistoga... the very church we had prayed over just one year before! Turns out Pastor Miller lives in Benicia, and has been aching to pass the property along to a church who would love it into a thriving congregation with a heart to see the gospel shared in the northern Napa Valley, (which in is desperate need of an evangelical church in the area). One handshake later, the Calistoga property was gifted to Trinity with the expectation of the building being updated and a pastor being installed as soon as possible. Paperwork is expected to be completed by November, and in the meantime we are working even more intently (now that we have a direction with which to focus) to prepare ourselves for this transition.
The little church in Calistoga
WHAT GOD HAS DONE Throughout the year we have seen Jesus lead us perfectly as he brought us out of the Sierra Foothills, provided for our needs as we were vetted by The SEND Network and trained by Trinity Benicia, gave us ample opportunities for ministry and outreach in the Benicia area, he graduated Trinity Church into a church building that better suited our body's needs, gave Trinity a church property in Calistoga in need of some TLC and a new pastor, and expedited our plans from an expected 3 years of preparation down to barely 18 months before potentially opening the doors of a new church plant in the Napa Valley.
WHAT WE EXPECT GOD TO DO
Our hope is that we will start meeting at the Calistoga property as early as this summer. This will allow time for the holdings to be legally passed to Trinity, and the building given the necessary renovations to serve the community well. Whether we move up to the Napa Valley or commute from Benicia is dependent on housing (which is *quite* the cost in that bougie area), but we will be visiting often between now and then so as to start getting to know the people we will be serving.
WHAT WE WILL BE DOING
In order for us to continue to pursue excellence in the areas God has called us currently, Jason will complete this full-time year of seminary (leaving only a few classes to complete by Spring of 2025), and will faithfully continue his role as Associate Pastor at Trinity, while I maintain my positions of tutor for Classical Conversations and Troop Shepherd for American Heritage Girls. On October 1 Jason will be examined by a panel of pastors as they affirm him as qualified for the role of elder, which is a beautiful way in which Trinity is further equipping him to shepherd a church plant. In addition to a lengthy to-do list in church planting prep, we are needing to learn how to write an elevator pitch to explain who we are, what we're hoping to do, and to get others excited about partnering with us in this amazing adventure God has crafted.
WHAT WE NEED
We are ready to start fundraising and team building! We will be looking for folks who want to see the gospel brought to the parts of California where the residents are so circumstantially comfortable that they don't realize they are in need of rescuing. We are inviting our fellow believers to contribute in three primary ways:
YOUR PRAYERS. We are in desperate need for our friends and family and fellow believers to lift up the town of Calistoga before the Lord. There are 5000 people in need of Jesus, and Jesus is even now working in the hearts of those whom we will have the opportunity to care for. Pray for Calistoga. And pray for us. That we might be wise and discerning as we use our time and resources, and that our marriage and family would be strengthened as we seek Jesus first.
FUNDS TOWARD RENOVATIONS FOR THE CALISTOGA CHURCH. Jesus has already gone before us in this undertaking, as He has orchestrated the availability of contractors and designers who are also excited to see this church plant happen. The costs have only barely begun to be examined, though we know there's need for handicap access ramps, carpeting, new chairs, restrooms, office areas, updated paint and windows, in addition to an awning at the entrance, tree removal, and probably a hundred other things. We hope to offer our supporters opportunities to sponsor a stack of chairs, an ADA ramp, and other necessities.
FUNDS TOWARD OUR ABILITY TO SURVIVE. Moving to the Bay Area has been quite the change in the cost of living, and the move to the Napa Valley will be exponentially more so. We anticipate our monthly living expenses to be nearly $9000/month, which just about gives me a conniption! BUT. If Jesus calls us to that area, He will prepare the means to survive there for as long as it takes to be faithful in what He wants us to accomplish. We have been counseled to anticipate the Calistoga church being fully self-sustainable within 5 years, so this category is not a long-term need. And though I am gearing up my heart to be content in a yurt or an RV and selling all my books, I am trusting that Jesus is preparing a home where we can host Bible studies and counseling, and have a place that will allow our kiddos to be comfortable.
A COMMITTED CORE TEAM. The wildest prayer we are expecting God to provide for are a few families who currently live in Calistoga, or who are called to MOVE to the town as members of church, fully invested in seeing this church plant thrive.
Well, my latte has gone cold ages ago, and my little amoeba is now unrecognizable. But the knots in my tummy have eased. Not on account of the caffeine, no! But there is something amazingly sweet about remembering the faithfulness of God. Even in the midst of a jumbly schedule, and a lack of routine, my Jesus is consistent, and I can rest securely in His perfect plan, timing, wisdom, and love.