Nestled between the Chugach Range and the Talkeetna Mountains sits Palmer, Alaska, a city of around 7,200 people just 40 miles northeast of Anchorage. Palmer might look similar to many small towns throughout the United States, but its challenges are unique.
While Palmer is small, the city—and the state of Alaska—has the highest teen suicide rate per capita in the whole nation. As if that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, many Palmer residents face extreme poverty, abuse, hunger, and drugs. That’s where Palmer Church of God, led by Pastor J. R. Stepp, comes in.
Palmer Church of God reaches hundreds of people in the community daily with its food bank, which processes an average of a thousand pounds of food per week. The church offers free lunches as part of its missional emphasis on feeding the community.
The church isn’t large by any standards, but its members are active and engaged in serving. With only two employees (Pastor Stepp and a kids’ minister), a lot of the ministry is shared among church members. For example, the food bank is run by a team of four volunteers, and it’s located at a facility donated by a church member. Laypeople lead ministries for men, women, and seniors. Plus, the seniors’ group serves together for the local women’s shelter.
Another thing you’ll notice at Palmer Church of God—the church’s membership are mostly white, while Pastor Stepp is African American. He says, “People on the East Coast are still surprised that a congregation would bring a person of color to be their pastor. But I have history here, and they brought me here because of my love for Jesus and the love for the people.”
You can see that love for people in the way Pastor Stepp leads Palmer Church of God. Pastor Stepp served in the US Marine Corps for 20 years before becoming a youth pastor in Fairbanks. After caring for students for 17 years, he accepted the call to be a lead pastor in Palmer.
Pastor Stepp brings his youth pastor sensibilities to his lead pastor role at Palmer Church of God, where he also runs the youth group. He likes thinking outside the box, even sometimes telling his congregation, “It’s too beautiful of a day to be inside. Let’s go outside this morning for worship.”
Another way Pastor Stepp applies his youth ministry experience is in considering how his church stays engaged throughout the week. With a small church and a small youth group—most of which attend other churches—he relies on Faithlife Groups to keep everyone in touch. Pastor Stepp also serves as the regional pastor for Church of God, and he’s able to easily stay connected with other churches across Alaska and other Church of God regions on the Pacific coast using Faithlife Groups.
Because Palmer Church of God is so reliant on volunteers, Pastor Stepp loves how Faithlife Proclaim makes collaboration easier—and the church’s worship team is stronger and more confident since they’ve started using Proclaim.
Palmer Church of God is part of the Church of God movement, which is now leading many of its churches through a pilot program using the entire Faithlife ecosystem.
As with all new technology, Palmer Church of God’s transition to using Faithlife’s church tools has had its ups and downs. But what impressed Pastor Stepp the most were the people who supported the church’s transition. He worked with Faithlife product managers to get everything from the church website to online giving set up just right. Pastor Stepp says, “Jim and Kristen walked us through how to set up our website through the pilot program. They shared their life. They wanted to be family. They jumped into the weeds of things with us.”
Pastor Stepp was also surprised by Faithlife’s founder and CEO, Bob Pritchett: “What tickled me was Bob because he’s the president of that company. He knows his product. He knows what’s going on. Some people in that position forget the nuances of what’s going on—he hasn’t. It was encouraging to see the man that’s in charge—he and his brother (Dan)—know the product.”
With Faithlife’s church software, Palmer Church of God is in an excellent position to grow in its ministry and deepen its connections with the entire Church of God movement. “Unity is so important for us as a movement,” Pastor Stepp says. “We want to see unity in our church and unity in the Church of God movement, and I’m excited to see how Faithlife will help us come together in a way we’ve never seen before.”