Jim Lyonais had no idea he was about to reenact the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Two years ago, the retired Army intelligence officer was in war-torn Afghanistan, conducting source operations, interrogations and debriefs as a government contractor.
Today, the freshly minted minister presides over the Open Door Congregational Church, which, according to the Deer Park Historical Society, is Deer Park’s oldest house of worship. “It’s been a whirlwind, just amazing,” said Lyonais. “It was a complete, 180-degree change in my life.”
The neophyte Lyonais won the position over several qualified, experienced candidates. “He was just a good fit, like it was meant to be,” said the vice moderator Jeff Wolfe. “I’ve never seen a guy like him just walk into a church and (it) feels like he’s home.”
Lyonais replaces Rev. Dan Berg, who retired in August 2016. “This church is strong,” Lyonais said. “Normally when a church goes without a pastor for a year, you get a lot of splintering, a lot of fracturing.”
Frustrated with their indifference to the search process, the congregation voted to end its 60-year affiliation with the United Church of Christ. “Nobody really knew what (the UCC) did for us,” Wolfe said. “If we’re a congregational church, why not go back to what we had?”
The Open Door has always been deeply embedded in the Deer Park community, from serving as an infirmary during the 1918 influenza epidemic to housing the Deer Park public library. Every Easter the church hosts the town’s largest Easter egg hunt, and every Christmas members travel the city streets, singing carols from a cart pulled by church member Mike Sardinia’s Clydesdales.
Church members are involved in a raft of local charities, including the We Heart Deer Park initiative, a cooperative effort among the town’s churches to provide school supplies for local elementary school children. “Recently the same initiative was involved in getting money for shoes because there was a need,” Lyonais said.
The church’s reach extends well beyond the Deer Park city limits. “We started going down to Haiti about 10 years ago,” Wolfe said. “They built a dormitory down there, and they’re building a church.”
Sardinia, a veterinarian, goes down twice a year. “Mike is teaching them how to (treat) their animals,” Wolfe said, “and be self-sufficient.”
“We’re trying to get where the system is self-supporting, so that I can stop going down, and they can do it themselves,” Sardinia said.
Lyonais, whose oldest brother was a pastor, spent two years in a Christian school as a child. After several tours of duty in the Middle East, however, he had drifted away from his faith. “War is nasty,” Lyonais said. “Dealing with a lot of negativity weighs on you after a while.”
“There were a lot of things that I experienced and encountered that maybe shaped me for (my calling), but I think a lot of what I did actually pushed me further away,” he said. “I questioned all the time, how could there possibly be a god if stuff like this was happening?”
One Sunday in 2015, Lyonais’ Afghanistan roommate invited him to come along to the Army chapel. “I said ‘I don’t have time, I have work to do,’ ” said Lyonais. “But he wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
So Lyonais went. And he had an epiphany.
“It was a punch in the gut, is what it was,” he said. “Where am I going in life? What is my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing?”
“A week later I went again,” he said. “And then I called my wife.”
Lyonais told her he was coming home to enroll in Whitworth University’s Master of Arts in theology program. “She said, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ ” said Lyonais.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I’m just going to go to school and learn, figure out what I’m missing.”
The Open Door was an independent congregational church until 1957, when it joined forces with the UCC. The affiliation was loose, to say the least.
“It’s a nature of the congregational policy that the local church is superior to a national body,” Berg said. “The (UCC) could pass resolutions, but they’re nothing more than suggestions for the local church.”
When Berg retired, the UCC showed little interest in the search for a replacement. “I was on the board for finding an interim pastor,” said Wolfe. “Eight months went by and (the UCC) had not given us anything to work off of.”
The natives were already restless. “Before I left, I was getting a feeling that they were unhappy with the conference, that the conference wasn’t responding,” Berg said.
“It just seemed like everybody wanted to get back to a more independent church, like they used to be,” moderator Bob Syron said.
“The congregation voted, I think 98 to 2 or something ridiculous like that,” Wolfe said. “So we got hold of the UCC and said we’re … going our own way.”
“Their reaction was, ‘OK, have a nice time,’ ” Wolfe laughed. “I guess they’re not too torn up about it.”
The newly independent church had already begun their independent search for a new pastor. “When the time came that we were looking for another minister and we weren’t finding a lot of applicants from the UCC,” said church secretary Eileen Perkins. “It was a lot easier to get a good applicant pool by opening it up to the area in general.”
In the meantime, the church reached out to Whitworth University, asking for pulpit support – guest sermons from the school’s theology students.
“I’d been in (the program) just over a year when the program director sent out an email,” Lyonais said. “There’s a little church up in Deer Park whose pastor has just retired. They’re looking for some people to provide pulpit supply, if anybody’s interested.”
Lyonais nearly deleted the announcement. “I’m not a preacher,” he said. “I get nervous and uncomfortable in front of people.”
“But I called them anyway,” he said. “That night, I was sitting in front of the council, meeting people.”
Lyonais performed a handful of guest sermons – the first he had ever performed – while the church sorted through pastor candidates. “He became very popular,” Wolfe said. “People wanted him to come more often, and speak more often.”
Even though he had no previous preaching experience, Lyonais stood out. “The search committee had a set of criteria of what they were looking for in a point system based on experience and education and background,” Perkins said. “Pastor Jim came out with the highest point score.”
“Quite honestly, he blew their doors off,” Wolfe said. “Everybody on the board was in agreement.” The church named Lyonais interim pastor on June 11, and removed the interim tag 90 days later.
“His previous experience working with people, I think it’s been very good for him,” said Perkins. “He’s very good at recognizing when somebody is excited and enthusiastic and … empowering them. If somebody is uncomfortable, he’s able to draw them out and get them talking.”
“He’s willing to listen to what people say and he’s got lots of great ideas of his own,” said Perkins. “I’m really tickled that we settled on him.”
“I didn’t see myself becoming a pastor or a preacher,” Lyonais said. “I was actually just studying for myself.”
“People always ask me where I see myself in five years,” he said. “I really can’t see past tomorrow, and being here.
“Nothing else is pulling me.”