For several years, Jason and Brenda Byers sensed the Lord leading them to pastor a small church in a rural setting, but they did not know where or when. Though born in Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States, Jason says big city folks can be small town pastors when God makes it happen.
Jason began his ministry in 1999 as youth pastor for Mannford Assembly of God in a town of 3,200 on the western outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma, under then-pastor Don G. Yandell, whose mentorship continues to this day. Jason relished his time in Mannford — a “one post office, one school, one bank town” — which cemented his call to rural ministry.
Jason, 44, and Brenda, 47, wed in 2002, after serving together at Mannford. Born in nearby Bartlesville, Brenda was a widow who served as the church secretary. In 2011, they moved to Broken Bow First Assembly, where Jason became the youth pastor under pastor Terry L. Bradley.
Seven years ago, while serving in Broken Bow, the couple felt God guiding them to pastor a small church. They knew life could be challenging in rural ministry with a family of three children: Braden, now 14; Bryce, 12; and Jalyn, 11. They began to set aside some savings, knowing they likely would need to be bivocational as well.
At Jason’s request, then-Tulsa presbyter Darryl E. Wootton took the couple on a tour of district-affiliated Barnsdall Assembly of God in a town with 1,034 residents 40 miles north of Tulsa. Even though the church had only 15 remaining members all over 60 years old, no salary, and no parsonage, both Jason and Brenda felt at peace and confident the Lord had brought them to Barnsdall.
The tour ended in a little classroom converted to a sleeping quarters for visiting evangelists.
“It had a bathroom with a shower and a little kitchenette — just a sink, microwave, and mini fridge,” Brenda recalls. “I told Jason and our presbyter, ‘Why don't we just move in here?’ And that is what we did."
That room, another where the kids could sleep, and one more across the hall used for a large walk-in closet for the entire family, became their home for 26 months. Jason earned money driving a school bus while Brenda worked as a substitute teacher and baby-sat.
From the beginning, church members became surrogate parents to the couple and grandparents to the children. With the blessing of the adherents, Brenda prepared family meals in the church kitchen and the children played in the fellowship hall. After a year of living in the church, Barnsdall AG started a campaign to raise funds for the church to build a parsonage. The family moved into the new home in July 2016.
“We have great memories of our time living in the church,” Brenda says. “God was so faithful through it all.”
Jason, who attended Southwestern Assemblies of God University, received credentialing through Global University. He is currently enrolled in the Rural Ministry Master of Arts program at Trinity Bible College & Graduate School, based in Ellendale, North Dakota. Jason is part of Trinity’s Oklahoma student contingent working to generate academic theses on the subject.
Jason says that both Wootton, recently elected Oklahoma District superintendent, and retired superintendent Frank Cargill have consistently encouraged him.
“God calls people to challenging locations, but His anointing and His grace is more than enough,” says Wootton, 51. “Always positive and always thankful that God called them to that place, Jason and Brenda have pastored not just the church, but the whole community. Their passion is contagious.”
The Water Tower Leadership Network, started by AG pastor Bryan Jarrett and Northplace Church in Sachse, Texas, also has been helpful. Jason participated in a 2015 cohort, joining two dozen other rural pastors in four all-expenses paid two-day events scattered throughout the year. The gatherings provided resources and training for the unique situations these pastors face. Ongoing support continued after the event ended.
Today, Barnsdall AG attracts as many as 75 attendees on Sunday mornings, with only around 25% older than 50. The church also provides a modest full-time salary for Jason, who leads worship in addition to his pastoral duties. He continues to supplement the family’s income by driving a school bus. Brenda acts as the church secretary, event coordinator, and plays drums.
“There are no small places in God's eyes,” says Jason, who now serves as presbyter of Tulsa 5 West, made up of predominantly rural churches.