For EPC Teaching Elder Jeff Ryan, who planted Three Timbers Church in Bennington, Nebr., in 2015, reaching his Omaha suburb for Christ means taking a holistic approach and embracing the church’s entire sphere of influence.
On May 12, Ryan will find out how far that influence extends when voters consider him for a four-year term in the Ward 2 seat on the Bennington City Council.
“People need to know that you care before they care what you know,” he said. “You have to be visible before you can be viable. Visibility shows people the love of Christ before having a conversation is a viable option for them.”
While Ryan wants to promote his campaign, he’s been acutely aware that the coronavirus pandemic has shifted many voters’ focus away from things like elections toward basic everyday needs.
“This is not at the top of the minds of people right now—it’s ‘How can I pay my bills? Do I have enough food? Am I safe?’” he acknowledged. “I have political signs out in the community. I’ve done two Facebook posts, and I’ll do one more, but I’m trying to be sensitive right now.”
Ryan noted that only one other member of Three Timbers actually lives in Ward 2, but he emphasized that the church’s leadership supports his decision to run.
“It’s not something that I have stood in front of the church and said, ‘I have made this decision,’” Ryan said. “Our elders gave me their blessing. Others who have found out have been very supportive. I think that’s because they know that my heart is for the gospel and to make our community as strong as it can be. I don’t talk politics, and I don’t preach politics. It’s Kingdom first.”
As a five-year-old church plant, Three Timbers meets in a local elementary school for worship, as well as at various venues in and around Bennington—which naturally extends the visibly and reach of the church.
“Our strategy since the beginning has been tangibly demonstrating to people our love for them—how are we visibly loving our community?” he noted. “We buy box lunches for the school where we meet. We buy box lunches every year for the entire school staff to welcome them back. We stuff Christmas stockings. We want people to know that we love this community, and we want to serve this community.”
Ryan understands that his status as a religious leader in the community of about 1,500 people could both help and hurt his candidacy.
“I think that anytime that you put that you’re a pastor, that’s a dividing line for people,” he said. “For some people it’s a real plus. For others it’s a real detriment. We have to be very careful because we are carrying the image the Christ. We have to handle ourselves the right way.”
He noted that as a small community, relationships are key in Bennington.
“I’ve had the privilege to interact with a lot of people from local businesses that we partner with at the church and the school that we have a great relationship with,” he said. “I hope that we have positive name recognition from just trying to serve our community.”
Ryan believes Three Timbers is well regarded in Bennington because of the way the church has worked to meet needs.
“We didn’t come in and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for you.’ We came in and asked, ‘How can we serve? Tell us where you have a need.’ So we really tried to be humble and submit to the local authorities and to serve them.”
Since Three Timbers lacks a permanent church building, the church has numerous partnerships in the area.
“Everything we do, we have to do somewhere else in the community,” Ryan explained. “From partnering with Anytime Fitness to do a 5K run that raises funds for the school’s foundation to help students and in the classroom, to a local bar called Nate’s Stumble Inn, where I do a Bible study weekly. We do something for the community in the summer called Friday Night Flicks, where we show movies in the park. Nobody’s getting up and preaching. It’s just to come out and have a good time. We provide snacks and drinks and watch a good movie.”
Tom Ricks, pastor of Greentree Community Church in Kirkwood, Mo., and chairman of the EPC Church Planting Team ran for a seat on the Kirkwood school board in 2019. He said understands the pressure of being a pastor and a candidate for public office.
“You live in a glass house as a pastor—people are watching you all the time,” Ricks said. “That would be doubly true as an elected official, so there’s a lot of pressure. I hope he wins. I think he’d do a lot of good. I know he’ll have good people around him, because it’s hard being a pastor and I imagine it’s hard to be an elected official. So it would be doubly hard to be both. But I’m rooting for him.”
Prior to launching Three Timbers, Ryan and his family lived in Orlando, Fla., where he served 13 years as team Chaplain for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. As he seeks public office in Nebraska, he looks to the life of Christ who demonstrated love through grace and truth without compromise.
“Being obedient to the call of Christ means loving people in a variety of contexts,” he said. “You can love somebody but say, ‘I see a different way;’ but say, ‘I love you, but more importantly, Jesus loves you.’ I think you can put Christ first and not your own agenda or your own politics and say, ‘I just want this person to know Jesus.’ And if that happens, that’s a success—everything else doesn’t matter. So it’s about how can God use this opportunity to bring the hope of Jesus to our community?”
by Tim Yarbrough