Miracles abound for youth pastor

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The first miracle for the suddenly unemployed man with a child and a pregant wife was that his wife didn't freak out.

The second, of seemingly regular miracles, was that the phone rang moments after they said "Amen."

When John Lehmberg abruptly resigned from a church in Baltimore, his only plan was to inform his wife, and pray.

Five years had been enough Lehmberg said he felt God had said, but he hadn't done as much as circulate a resume.

"We had a 1-year-old, a house payment, a car payment, and no money saved, and I quit," Lehmberg said.

As Lehmberg sat in the cafe of Prospect Church several days ago, he reflected on the last 16 years where he's built or revived youth programs at two area churches, "retired" from youth ministry for a few months, and ultimately realized that his calling is a life that combines youth ministry and website design.

Lehmberg, who lives a stone's throw from Suwanee, owns Make It Loud, a web design, print, brand and social media company. He's also contemporary worship and youth pastor at Prospect Church in Lawrenceville. Lehmberg also serves as a board member of the Suwanee Business Alliance.

The meshing of Lehmberg's careers began in 1989 after he graduated from Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., with degrees in youth ministry and history. It was on a Young Life leadership weekend that Lehmberg, who had taken computer science classes at the University of Maryland, realized that a school offered a degree in youth ministry.

A native of Randallstown, Md., Lehmberg moved to Georgia in 1996 to join Crossroads church, which later became 12 Stone. Dave Ronne of Crossroads was the person who called as the Lehmbergs finished their prayer, which was shortly after he resigned, to ask if John was available to fill his vacancy for a youth pastor.

"By some coincidence I am," Lehmberg said. "Twenty minutes ago I quit."

Lehmberg then started the 12 Stone student ministry and stayed until 2004, when he started a house church ministry.

The rapid growth of 12 Stone, from 600 to 3,500 attendees, Lehmberg said, caused his job to shift from being hands-on to more of an adminstrator.

"There's a loss of relationship in that, and that's why I kind of swung the other way from this mega-church to doing house church," said Lehmberg, who is ordained in the Wesleyan church. "Relationship was really important to me, and how I'm wired."

Lehmberg's introduction to leadership in ministry came as a sophomore in high school when a senior who was part of a Young Life group he attended suggested he learn how to play guitar. Eventually, Lehmberg became a leader at Young Life, and he said he thought God told him this is his calling.

"I don't know that I ever sought out leadership positions, but they always seem to find me," said Lehmber, who has four children.

His wife, Glenda, said youth pastoring is his calling.

"It's been instilled in him from years ago," she said. "He's more passionate about youth because they're more receptive."

Because the mega-church size and growth didn't fit, Lehmberg stepped down to start a house church for about five years.

But three months into the house ministry, a self-made millionaire who agreed to pay Lehmberg's salary announced his company was going "belly up," Lehmberg said. Without a steady salary, Lehmberg cobbled together some skills making business cards and his old computer classes to begin the makings of a company.

The first website he developed was for the husband of his longtime friend and colleague, Amy Rocamora, who he had worked with at 12 Stone.

About a year and a half ago, Lehmberg was asked to interview for the contemporary worship leader position at Prospect Church. After the folks at Prospect saw his resume, they said a youth pastor position was also available. But Lehmberg thought that in his late 30s, he was too old.

"He has a real heart for youth," Glenda said. "It was put in front of him again, and he said, 'No,' and God said, 'You need to think about this some more.' He feels more alive."

About six months into his new position, Lehmberg reached out to Rocamora, who was working a six-month stint as a fill-in at his company.

Looking to fill a void, Lehmberg said to Rocamora, "I can't do this by myself, it's full time, but we could do it together, if we share it."

Rocamora initially declined, but a week later changed her mind, and the duo proposed that the church divide the responsibilities between them to cater to boys and girls in the youth group.

"It's really been, for the two of us, like putting on an old glove that fit really well for a long time," Lehmberg said. Since the revamped student ministry started in October, Lehmberg said it has nearly tripled in size, from 12 to about 35. The contemporary service has also experienced similar growth.

After she watched him develop a network of volunteers at 12 Stone, Rocamora knew Lehmberg could do it again at Prospect.

"One of John's greatest strengths is team building," she said. "I was a volunteer (at 12 Stone), but I always considered myself on staff, I just didn't get a paycheck, because my opinion was valued and appreciated.

"His experience in the past, that's a plus," Prospect senior pastor Eddie Herring said. "He knew what to do, he knew all of the pitfalls before. I'm believing that he's going to take this youth program to bigger things."

Longtime members have noticed too, such as Joe Gaunt, who has been a member of Prospect for 18 years.

"Having 20-25 years of experience brings a lot," Gaunt said. "He has the passion to understand where (teenagers) are at, and has elevated them."

Lehmberg and Rocamora then helped revitalize a part of the church, founded in 1830, that hadn't been renovated since 1952. The church renovated the Youth Worship Center to hold the contemporary worship service. The ceiling was painted black, and two back rooms were converted into a cafe and an audio/visual area."Lightning does strike twice, we've had two really blessed experiences," Lehmberg said. "We could have never predicted that."

Ironically, the profession Lehmberg thought he had left midway through college has reunited with the profession he retired from nearly 10 years ago. Because he works for himself, Lehmberg has the flexibility to work at the church as needed.

Working with businesses, the website design company allows Lehmberg to engage people who are not necessarily connected to the church.

But his computer background also keeps him current on technology over the years, from AOL Instant Messenger, to MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

"You cannot do effective youth work without having a foot in (technology) in some kind of way. It is the means of reaching into the lives of kids and know what's going on," he said. "They both serve the same purpose, which is connecting people and building and forging relationships. My life is given for one purpose, and that's to help people connect with God, and to help people connect with each other. That's what I do best."

Looking back on the family's monumental job changes and her husband's stops and restarts in youth ministry, Glenda said life's path is not always clear and straight.

"God's not in the business of making everything happy, but he makes you whole and complete," Glenda said. "It just all came together. Not necessarily how we planned, but that's the way God works."