The following interview is from a series I did as part of another project, GTHR.
From time to time we like to highlight community builders. These individuals captivate us. They draw us out. They invite us into a fuller way of being. They are relentless seekers of a simpler, more integrated, transparent, participatory version of ekklesia. One that reminds us of our beginnings and reunites us with our divine calling to be vessels of redemption for a world desperately out of order.
Their lives tell stories that beg to be shared. And we’re excited to introduce them to you, in their own words.
This week we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Jeff Cook. Jeff is a former church planter, pastor, professor, and now the Fellows Academic Director of CrossPurpose, a Denver, Colorado-based organization working to abolish economic, spiritual, and relational poverty through the power of redemptive relationships.
In one sentence, what is your purpose, or reason to be?
I want to live my life in such a way that people in my sphere of influence are inspired to go “all-in” with Jesus and his agenda, and have their lives count for something that’s bigger than they are.
How did you come to be where you are right now?
I have never had a big plan or strategy for life. I wish I did, it would sound more spiritual. We always just took the next step that seemed right, and God has unfolded it one step at a time for forty years. For example, after I came to faith in the Army I heard that you could go to college and study the Bible. I had never heard of such a thing, but I thought “How cool could that be?” I had no desire to be in ministry, I just wanted to study the Bible and follow Jesus. It was later in seminary that it slowly became clear to me that I had to be in ministry, I couldn’t do anything else. There was no sudden revelation. God didn’t “speak” to me about it. I had no idea where it all would lead. It has been like walking with a flashlight in the dark, I just took the next step that I could see.
What big decisions along the way have brought you to the here and now? The ones where courage conquered fear.
At various points in life there is a faith-line that you have to step over that takes courage. I left an Army career as a staff-sergeant after seven years to become a lowly freshman at college. I resigned a secure job after seminary to pursue a ministry where I had to raise my own financial support. I resigned from one stable church to plant another one. I was almost sixty years old at our last move, when I moved from a tenured, secure university teaching position to become an inner city missionary again. You have to refuse to let fear be in the driver’s seat. God has proven himself trustworthy at every point. Any time we are stepping forward into the unknown it is with the knowledge of how faithful he has been in the past.
When did you realize you wanted to be in ministry? Any interesting moments as a child?
Spurgeon used to tell his young preachers, “If you can do anything else other than preach, do it.” He was saying you have to feel a divine and holy compulsion for ministry or you won’t last. I felt that in seminary. I knew would not be able to do anything else and be fulfilled in life.
What’s your process these days for fostering community, relationships, and generosity (both within the community and abroad)?
I am deeply committed to the Church. I also lead a community group in our home that is deeply committed to walking out the faith authentically together. I am relationally connected to a peer group of leaders who are “all-in” in our commitment to each other and to Jesus and his kingdom agenda.
And when you’re not doing any of the above, where can we find you?
I am a novice triathlete, so you can find me running, biking or swimming somewhere. I have done dozens of shorter distance races, but have completed three full Ironman triathlons. (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run). I recently started doing Crossfit, which is kicking my rear-end at the moment.
Down time and work/life balance: How does this vibe with you? How do you make it all work?
Early in ministry my wife sat me down, looked me in the eye and told me in no uncertain terms, “Jeff, you have to decide if you are married to me or to that church.” I tried, of course, to bob and weave and make her feel guilty for being an obstacle to me serving God and people. The fact was I was way overcommitted in ministry, and I was leaving my family in the dust. It was a shot across the bow, and I knew then I needed some boundaries. I listened.
She has been the best barometer for how I am balancing those for the past forty years. It’s never easy, and you never are “balanced.” But you work at it, and listen to people who love you.
Most difficult situation to date?
Leaving all of our kids and grandkids behind to move to another state and ministry at age 58. We have a greater appreciation for missionaries of past centuries who packed their belongings in caskets and left family and the entire life they knew to serve Jesus on foreign fields.
Biggest triumph / accomplishment?
Staying happily married to the only woman I have ever loved for 41 years, and raising four wonderful children to adulthood. Everything else really does fade in comparison.
What would you tell your five year-ago self?
Don’t pound your tent pegs in too deep. Expect God to still do startling things as you get older. Find an impossible hill to climb and go after it.
Who do you look to for inspiration? Or, who madly lights you up and makes you want to chase down your dreams?
For personal growth I thrive on the writing of authors like Anne Lamott and Barbara Taylor-Brown. When it comes to motivational, visionary leadership, no one has impacted me in my decades of ministry like three leaders with whom I presently serve, Jason Janz, Josh Larsen, and Juan Pena. Their leadership inspired me to pull up stakes, leave the university and invest my final years in a young, blossoming urban ministry.
Future plans? What dreams are in the pipeline?
William Carey said, “If I had a thousand lives, I would give them all for India.” I say the same thing about these nine urban neighborhoods in Denver in which we are deeply invested. You can bury me here.
What three pieces of practical advice would you share with someone who wants to create, shape, and inspire a community of their own?
- Count the cost. It will not be cheap. It’s worth it, but it will take your life blood.
- Buck up. If you collapse in tears and depression every time you are criticized or hit a rough spot, you won’t do much. Don’t become hardened, but get you will need to toughen up.
- Trust the sovereignty of God. He’s in the driver’s seat and working out his good will through you. It’s not your cleverness, your education, or your marketing strategy.
Any favorite methods, tools, or technology you’ve found to be essential?
- Read widely, and not just theologians and contemporary leadership gurus.
- Study inspiring leaders outside of your own faith tradition, especially dead ones.
- Learn to leverage social media for spiritual impact, not just to show pictures of what you had for lunch.
A personal mantra?
Buck up. Feelings are real, they’re just not authoritative.
Where can we find you and your community online?