After struggling to feel connected in church during his youth, a pastor works to engage the church’s youth today.
Kendall Cook, pastor at Trinity, Crete, Ill., has seen firsthand how one solid Christian relationship can change your life. It’s had a profound impact on his career—and his faith.
Drifting in life
Kendall grew up WELS and says his family was “your every Sunday churchgoers.” They were faithful in attending services, even though the church was about an hour away from their home.
Driving to church on a Sunday morning wasn’t something young Kendall was excited about. “When I was in those rebellious teenage years, I saw church as a chore and a drag and it didn’t seem relevant to me,” he shares.
Kendall continued to attend church throughout high school because he had to, but he didn’t feel a connection with the congregation; there weren’t any members his age. He remarks that sermon time became a game of “how long can I go to the bathroom?”
One day, Kendall asked his dad why they couldn’t attend a church that was closer. His father responded that this was the church they attended and that was just the way it was. Kendall was disappointed in this response and continued to drift away from God.
Although he was really frustrated with his parents at that time, Kendall emphasizes that the disconnect in his spiritual life was his own fault.
Circumstances came to a head when Kendall graduated from high school. Two weeks after graduation, the family moved to Michigan, and Kendall had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Even though he did well in school, the future was an unknown, scary place for him. He had hoped for a fun, post-graduation summer with his friends where he could discover what he wanted to do next, but his family’s move up-ended these plans. In fact, Kendall began to resent his dad for ruining his summer and for insisting that he figure out what he wanted to do next in life.
During the summer, Kendall found a job but didn’t make any personal friendships or connections. Once again, the family’s church was filled with people who were not his age.
Kendall still wasn’t certain on the direction of his life, but he knew one thing for sure: He was not going to stay home any longer. He determined his two options were to attend college or join the Marines. He was also pretty certain that he was done with church. He thought at the time that he could still be a Christian without attending church.
All these thoughts were brewing in his mind when he finally met someone his own age—Sam Pappenfuss—at his new church.
Their families got together for a fish fry, and Kendall and Sam became friends. During one of their conversations, Sam shared how he had thyroid cancer at the end of his high school career at Michigan Lutheran Seminary (MLS), a WELS high school in Saginaw, Mich. Because of the effects of his cancer treatment, Sam had to delay his first semester of college.
Kendall saw a stark difference in the reason why Sam was delaying school versus his own reasons. He was grateful for their newfound friendship, though, despite the circumstances that caused it. He and Sam were often at each other’s houses during the summer and fall of 2006. Sam even took Kendall to visit his friends at MLS.
“He was reeling me back toward the church and I didn’t even realize it,” Kendall says. “You don’t realize what God is doing until you look back.”
The January semester started, and Sam went off to Martin Luther College (MLC), WELS’ college of ministry in New Ulm, Minn. They agreed to stay in touch. As the winter of 2007 began to wind down, Kendall questioned again what he should do with his life. “I didn’t want to be the house bum,” he shares. When he was honest with himself, he really didn’t want to go into the Marines either, so Kendall started looking more seriously at other options.
After a lot of deliberation, he decided to attend business school in Michigan. That is, until Sam asked him one day, “Why don’t you come to MLC?”
Kendall replied, “And do what?”
Sam urged him to think about what he was good at. Kendall thought about it and decided that he liked math and could become a math teacher.
He called Martin Luther College and told the admissions office his story. Although it was past the time of enrollment, they accepted his application.
Committing to ministry
It was an exciting time for Kendall as the Holy Spirit continued to work in his heart. He brushed up on his Bible knowledge and read God’s Word before going to bed each night. Kendall was also repairing his relationship with his father, who he is now close with today.
The time came for Kendall to start his first semester of college, and his outlook on life was much better. Some doubts began to appear, however, as he approached the school in New Ulm. He didn’t know anyone at MLC except Sam. In fact, he had never even heard of MLC prior to Sam. Was he crazy to take this leap?
He wasn’t crazy. God had a plan through it all.
Kendall came to love his doctrine course and studied diligently. After his first week and a half of school, he switched his degree from a math major in elementary education to staff ministry.
A couple of mentors saw his fervor for the Word and for helping people and asked him why he wasn’t in the pastor track. “I told them I couldn’t do that,” Kendall says. “I was nervous about the language component.”
But after prayerful consideration, Kendall switched to the pastor track after his first year at MLC. When he graduated from MLC in 2011, he enrolled at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, graduating in 2015.
Connecting in Christ
Today, he ponders a phrase he once heard that states, “You can only live life by moving forward. You can only understand life by looking back.”
If Kendall had gone to business school, there is a chance he wouldn’t even be a Christian today, let alone a pastor at a WELS church. He thanks Sam for the role he’s played in his life. “Had I never met Sam, I wouldn’t be where I am,” he says.
His ministry today has been impacted by his life experiences too. He sees people “going through the motions” and not finding a connection at church. One of his goals is to connect with people and help create valuable relationships within the church.
“I look at Jesus’ ministry, and he didn’t just teach,” Kendall says. “Jesus formed relationships.”
This is most important with young people in the church. Kendall sees how lonely the younger generation is and how they are starving for real connection in a world that doles out lies and fake promises.
In his work, Kendall seeks to empathize with them and understand what they are going through. He doesn’t want someone to be another statistic in the mass exodus of people leaving the church after high school.
“I could’ve been another statistic,” he says. “But God had other plans for me. Just one person taking an interest can make a huge difference in someone’s life.”
Author: Gabriella Blauert
Volume 110, Number 5
Issue: May 2023
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