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Retired Couple Answer God's Call to Remote Ministry

Greg and Julie Willhoit knew God had placed a call on their lives, but it wasn't until they retired that He fulfilled that call.
Geography, especially in light of God’s calling, is really important. For example, there’s St. Croix, St. Michael, St. Thomas, and St. John — all U.S. islands, but like the lyric goes, “One of these things is not like the others . . .”

Three of the islands are located in the tropical paradise known as the U.S. Virgin Islands; the fourth island reached its warmest weather in nearly a week on March 16 when it topped out at a balmy 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

And according to Greg Willhoit, pastor of St. (traditionally “Saint”) Michael Assembly of God in western Alaska, “The temperature isn’t so bad; it’s the wind.”

Although many might disagree with Greg’s evaluation of the temperature, his point is well taken as that 5-degree high comes with a steady 16 mph wind out of the northeast – making it feel roughly like -13 F.

But unlike those who may be more geographically challenged, Greg and his wife of 31 years, Julie, didn’t have any confusion as to where God was calling them or even if He had called them — they knew and have known for years, this was all part of God’s plan.


“I was 12 years old when I first felt the call of God on my life,” Greg recalls. “Then, when I was about 26, two women from Saint Michael came and spoke in our Sunday School class in Anchorage, and as I listened to them speak, I felt the Lord ask me, ‘Would you go to Saint Michael if I asked you?’ and I said ‘yes.’”

Greg’s parents had originally moved the family from Denver to Anchorage due to their jobs. But when Greg graduated high school in 1978, he moved to back to Denver. Then the Holy Spirit started drawing him.

“I felt God wanted me back in Alaska,” he says. “I moved back in 1982 — I drove the Alcan highway by myself when I was just 21 (a drive from Denver of about 3,200 miles) — and I’ve been here ever since, with a heart to reach the lost.”

However, the question God had asked Greg about Saint Michael remained just a question, so Greg invested himself in the church in Anchorage, working with the youth and involving himself in every type of ministry, and even meeting his wife-to-be, Julie. For 36 years he worked for the electric company, but as he approached retirement, the Holy Spirit started speaking to the couple.

“Greg has been talking to me personally for years about how the Lord put this call on their lives,” says Brad Kesler, secretary for the Alaska Ministry Network. “He took classes through our Alaska School of Ministry and went through the credentialing process to become ordained, praying that God would open the door when the time was right.”


“I was in a meeting with Terry Hull, the Alaska Home Missions director, and he mentioned to me that they needed a pastor in Saint Michael,” Greg says. “The moment he said it, I knew that was God.”

Greg, who turns 65 in April, retired in April 2021. In May 2021, he met with Hull. In August, he and Julie traveled to Saint Michael to confirm this was God’s call. In October, the Willhoits arrived at their new home in Saint Michael and were installed as the new pastors at Saint Michael Assembly of God.

At the time of their arrival, the church had been without a pastor for two or three years, with the AG pastor from Stebbins (about 13 miles west of Saint Michael village) filling in as she could.

“When we first started, there were two people attending besides us,” Greg says. “We’re now running 20-25 people on Sunday morning. Word of mouth and creating relationships have been key to seeing people come . . . it took a couple of years for people to really trust us, but now they just stop by the house to fellowship — so we do a fellowship meal once a month for that very purpose.”

The church is also starting to draw more children by investing in them as well.

Julie, whose parents founded Anchorage Native Assembly, says that on Saturdays they offer kids an opportunity for fun, food, and to learn about Jesus.

“We share stories, play games, and watch videos,” Julie says. “We also share stories from the Bible, sing, and do crafts and I make a light lunch for them including hot chocolate or hot apple cider. And sometimes kids come in and they’re not dressed very well – we have extra clothes and blankets for them, which the kids really appreciate.”

Julie also notes that the Saturday events give kids — some living in less-than-ideal situations at home — a safe, warm place to be and food to eat.

And speaking of food, it is not uncommon for church members to pay tithes with a portion of what they caught or hunted, such as moose or caribou meat and all kinds of fish. Even people who don’t attend the church also periodically offer the Willhoits meat after a successful hunt.

“While they were at Muldoon Community Assembly (MCA), they always had a real love for people,” says Kesler, who also calls MCA his home church. “As they’ve gone to the village, they’ve carried that same love for people with them and that really goes a long ways there.”


The call and response by the Willhoits may sound simple and rosy, but it’s important to understand that some “open doors” truly require an indisputable calling to step through.

Although much of Alaska’s coastal and mountainous regions are unquestionably picturesque and the wildlife a unique mixture of awe- and fear-inspiring creatures, there are reasons the state is ranked 48th in population despite being larger than the next three largest states — Texas, California, and Montana — combined.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the isolation. Saint Michael is a village of approximately 450 people that is only accessible by boat or plane. It’s located about 125 miles southeast of Nome and 415 miles northwest of Anchorage. Jutting out into the Bering Sea, it has a large river separating it from the mainland to the south.

The isolation isn’t just about being separated from friends and family — it’s also knowing that the only city of considerable size, Anchorage (Nome has only about 3,600 residents), and what a large city can provide, is so far away . . ., which can be especially intimidating during the long winter months where sunrise to sunset can be less than five hours.

“One of the biggest challenges I have, when something breaks down or something happens, I don’t have the skills to fix things,” Greg says. “When we have a problem with a vehicle, the house, or the church if we need something, we have to get things through Anchorage, which could take weeks.”

His concerns could also be extended to the availability of elite medical care.

Saint Michael does offer some incredible natural views, but the community itself has limited amenities — no hotels or fast-food restaurants . . . or paved roads. The Willhoits’ vehicle is a side-by-side enclosed Polaris two-seater with a pickup-style bed on the back — and with the Willhoits now also ministering in Stebbins as it no longer has a pastor there, it makes for interesting and not always overly safe travel during the winter months.

“It’s difficult for me to get out during the wintertime, it’s very difficult to walk – there’s so much ice (Saint Michael averages more than 6 feet of snow per year),” Julie says. “We bundle up good in the winter and rely heavily upon the side-by-side.”

And for those interested in the cost of living: eggs are $10 a dozen, a 12-pack of soda pop runs $16, a half-gallon of ice cream is also $16, and gas is $8 a gallon — to list a few. Greg says that for the most part, they order quantities of items from Anchorage (for both the selection and price) and have their purchases flown into Saint Michael, which takes time and no little expense.

“Pastoring in Saint Michael, you are giving up the comforts of the city,” Kesler confirms. “Living out in that environment requires someone with a hearty mindset . . . it’s remote, it’s cold, it’s dark. And in the middle of winter, if their side-by-side breaks down going to or coming from Stebbins, it could become a life-or-death situation — they can’t call Triple A . . ., you don’t have a lot of resources available, but they’ve made it work.”

Then there are the local customs to get used to. For example, when someone dies, the casket and body are placed in the home for three days (there isn’t a mortuary).

“You go to the home and share stories with each other about the person, eat, and sing,” Julie explains. “It is a great way to really get to know people.”

However, as food is life and not always easy to come by, being offered food during visitations is a significant honor — refusing to eat it is taken as a great insult.

“I really had to pray for God to help me with that,” Julie admits. “Seal meat . . . if you like liver, you probably won’t have a problem eating seal meat . . . I really don’t like liver, but God has helped me with that.”


The Willhoits are praying for someone to accept God’s call to pastor the Stebbins Assembly of God as that village of Alaska Natives, which is comparable in size to Saint Michael, needs a pastor. They also have one work team already scheduled to come this summer and are hoping for others, including one to do VBS.

“What’s really nice, aside from the work they accomplish, is to just sit and visit with the teams,” Greg says. “We appreciate them praying over us and we’re open to some guidance on things they may see that we don’t.”

The Willhoits also express a deep appreciation for the Alaska Ministry Network.

“I know I may be biased, but we have the best network here in Alaska,” Greg states. “They are the most supportive people — I can’t begin to tell you how blessed we are because of them.”

Yet, as Kesler has observed, the Willhoits don’t shy away from being a part of that blessing.

“Greg and Julie are encouragers,” Kesler says. “Often they are the ones who call other pastors and give them words of encouragement.”

To view a Facebook post of the Willhoits’ appointment to pastor Saint Michael Assembly, click here.

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.