Peace Despite Chaos

As John Gonska watched his plans to minister in Israel fall apart, God brought an unexpected opportunity to return to his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.

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It was the fall of 2019 and John Gonska (Business ’10) had spent the past few weeks scrambling around Tel Aviv, speaking with the U.S. Embassy, Israeli government organizations, and Catholic churches trying to find a way to stay in Israel. A month earlier, he had moved his family of four here, planning to join alongside a local ministry on a church-planting mission. At the last minute, he found out the company sponsoring his application was shutting down.

With no visa and a wife soon expecting their third child, the options were closing quickly. No job meant no income, no savings, and no health insurance. It also meant facing broken plans and an unprecedented level of uncertainty, new territory for a man who had experienced relative success in the nine years since graduating college, whether it was working at a major asset manager, consulting in tech, or starting his own company. Now, as their plans to minister in Israel fell apart, Gonska began to wonder what God would do next. How could these plans be failing when God had brought them this far?

The Gonskas first stepped into ministry in 2015. At the time, they were living in New York City and attending Hillsong Church. Gonska was working at BlackRock, a global investment management corporation, but he also felt the tug to do something more. Soon after, John and Rose started leading a community group on Sundays after church, attended weekly by eight adults and 10-15 kids. Every Sunday, after heartfelt hours of fellowship and despite the chaos left behind by rooms full of kids, John and Rose found themselves energized, not exhausted. After a couple years of living this pattern, John began to consider if there was more for them in church ministry.

During these years in New York, eighty percent of Gonska’s time was going to work and about twenty percent went to the church. But it was that twenty percent that the Gonskas increasingly loved. Spending time in prayer and seeking advice from their community, they decided to flip the ratio and to go into ministry at eighty percent capacity. They were confident that God was pressing upon them to “go and be equipped.”

So in 2016, with enough savings to begin the three years of student life ahead, the Gonskas moved their family to Australia to attend Hillsong College. The study-packed years flew by. Soon enough, doors were opening for the family to use their training and make their next move, this time to Israel where they would finally be living the life they had dreamt of: eighty percent dedicated to ministry and twenty percent to financially-sustaining work. They would help build the Hillsong campus in Tel Aviv and John would work as a director of R&D for a Norwegian-based social planning app.

But despite careful planning, their vision for working and serving in Israel began to fall through. Gonska lost the tech job, which backed their visas. Without the visa, the health insurance, or the income, the couple had to start thinking about moving again. “There was some disbelief that God would bring us this far—that we’d be planning for so long—only to have the plan come crashing down in a relatively short amount of time,” Gonska admitted. Every day, he added, “was like taking one little step on a gangplank.” Eventually, it became painfully obvious: the door to working and living in Israel was closing.

With Rose pregnant, the Gonskas had to make a decision quickly. She would not be able to fly much longer, so if moving was what they needed to do, they would have to do it soon. On top of that, funds were limited: they only had enough money for one more month of rent in Israel or tickets back to New York. Without knowing where he would work or what would happen, John decided to book his family a flight to New York.

* * *

One night not long after booking the tickets back to New York, Gonska was sitting at the kitchen table in his Tel Aviv apartment at midnight, talking to Jim Wilkes, the pastor of Journey Church in Ohio. The conversation—on speakerphone so Rose could hear—started off with some small-talk about mutual acquaintances and what led Wilkes to launch his church. Gonska shared about his path: Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Australia, Israel.

But the tone soon shifted as the conversation continued. “What are your thoughts about the ministry?” Wilkes asked. “What’s God calling you to do?” The two men continued to talk for a while. By the time Wilkes hung up, Rose looked over at Gonska from the couch. “You know,” she said, “What started as a conversation ended as more of an interview.” Though informal, that phone call led them to wonder if, despite the broken plans, God might be leading towards something after all.

Gonska and his family arrived back in New York in mid-November 2019 with four carry-ons and six checked bags. The very next day, Gonska was back at the airport, this time catching a domestic flight to Cleveland. Rose was right; Gonska’s conversation with Wilkes had set a few things in motion. Shortly after that midnight phone call, he was invited to shadow the leadership at Journey Church for three days. Gonska was eager to see if he would be considered for a job. He was also anxious about what Plan B might look like if he wasn’t. But it never got to Plan B. At the end of the three-day trip, Gonska was invited to complete a two-week interview for a full-time pastoral position at one of the church’s campuses. A few weeks later, he was hired full-time and now pastors in the very community he grew up in.

John had been doing some form of ministry for years. But until the pastorate in Ohio, there was always something else on his plate, another type of job. It was a formula that made sense for someone with experience in tech and development, a business degree, strong leadership skills, and an interest in politics, someone who was also raising a family. For a while, Gonska wouldn’t even let himself consider the option of full-time ministry. During his time in Israel, John’s desire had started to change, and once the idea of full-time ministry came to mind, John couldn’t get it out of his head. “I was praying, seeking God, and really wanting to find an avenue to be doing ministry full-time.” It wasn’t an entirely new idea. “Initially when I was coming out of high school, I wanted to be in the ministry full time, to become a youth pastor,” John said. He even completed a year of ministry training at a school north of Chicago before transitioning to King’s. Over a decade later, even as the plans for ministry in Israel foundered, God was re-kindling John’s desire for pastoral work.

The couple’s third child, Chloe Elisabeth Gonska, was born on January 17, 2020. John and Rose and their two older children are settling into the very community where Gonska grew up. But Gonska is not the same person as when he left. Having received and having lost, having been hurt and having been challenged, Gonska has become equipped. He became equipped not only in knowledge received through his studies at King’s and at Hillsong College, but also in prayer and surrender. “Our only plan,” Gonska said, “is we’re going to stay in the middle of God’s will, no matter where He asks us to go, no matter what He asks us to do.” For Gonska, that place is Journey Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

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