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Instilling a God Dependency

Leaders at rural Minnesota church help others learn from the drug and alcohol addictions they overcame.

Two Minnesota pastors with drug and alcohol counseling backgrounds and pasts with addictive substances have seen how chemicals can lead to a dangerous dependency. Now, as they’re influencing others in their church and community, their experiences are helping those around them become dependent on God.

Full-time Lead Pastor Zach McNeil’s past with drinking and work as a counselor for seven years have helped him connect with and relate to people beyond the walls of Goodland Community Church (GCC).

“I don’t have the opportunity just to pastor a church,” McNeil says. “I have the opportunity to pastor the whole community.”

Youth Pastor Brandon Torgerson has a decade of experience as a counselor and his prior drug use spurred a passion for reaching youth for Christ. He continues to work full time in the field as the chemical dependency treatment director at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge in Duluth.

GCC, which opened in 2011, is growing and has an average attendance of around 70 on Sunday mornings in the unincorporated town of Goodland, which has a population of 41. McNeil’s wife, Michelle, is administrative and worship team leader while Torgerson’s wife, Angela, leads the children’s ministry. The church plans to plant another congregation in the neighboring community of Warba in the fall.

When the McNeils moved back to Michelle's hometown of Goodland from the Twin Cities five years ago, Zach believed he would continue serving as a full-time drug and alcohol counselor. But then he sensed God’s prodding to start a church. McNeil and Torgerson, who previously worked together in the counseling field reunited.  

McNeil initially determined to be relational as a pastor in the rural community. Word about McNeil’s counseling background quickly spread among the locals, and some began calling him for advice. Now he regularly meets with half a dozen people who don’t attend the church to talk about issues they are facing.

Counseling people in any setting has helped him identify the power of choices, he says. As a counselor he learned to let people be brutally honest with him. This taught him to have thick skin, but also a heart full of compassion, he says.

McNeil’s past with drinking and Torgerson’s history with drugs have helped both men show others they’re not alone in their struggles.

“It gives me common ground to build relationships and point people to the hope and peace I’ve found,” McNeil says.

Torgerson hopes that local teens can make better choices than he did at their age.

“I just want to make an impact on their life and teach them that they don’t have to go down the road I went down,” he says.  “But those going down that road can be reached, too.”

Jennifer Pallikkathayil

Jennifer Pallikkathayil is a public relations professional from Columbia, Missouri, who loves sharing stories of the work God is doing in people’s lives. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Iowa State University.