Remembering Jaman Iseminger, slain pastor of Bethel Community Church in Southport, Indiana.
Some days in the life of a pastor can feel like a flood is threatening to engulf your church and all you’ve got is a bucket to keep the water out. And some days that’s literally what’s happening.
Pastor Jaman Iseminger tried to make sense of this on a Tuesday in 2009 as he and his bucket struggled to stay on top of a water leak in the basement of Bethel Community Church in Southport, Indiana. Like the graduate ministry student he’d just recently been, he sought for some sort of spiritual significance in the continual, repetitive filling and draining as he worked to keep his carpet dry. Three days before, Bethel had distributed classroom supplies to 373 area children. The significance of that was easy to grasp. That had made sense. That had been exciting: “I wanted to shout from the rooftops because for one day the needs of the people were met and we had connected people with Christ,” he wrote on his blog.
But easy and exciting weren’t the watchwords of Iseminger’s ministry. “God deserves our love and respect regardless of the circumstance,” he wrote. “Whether we are underwater or on top of it, we must do this. And why must we do this? Because if we fail to do this, then we fail to come anywhere close to emulating Christ.”
When Jaman Iseminger was shot and killed last Saturday morning at Bethel Community Church, he was getting ready for one of the things that made sense about being a pastor: coordinating a group of volunteers to clean up the cemetery next door. What actually happened that morning makes far less sense for the people who knew and loved and served with Iseminger.
Southport Chief of Police Randy Ellison says that a woman entered the church at around 6:56 a.m. and asked to speak to the pastor. A short time afterward, Ellison says, gunfire rang out, the woman ran out of the church and Iseminger staggered out and fell onto the grass. He died later at the hospital. Iseminger leaves behind his wife, Amanda, and a two-year-old daughter.
Investigators say 46-year-old Lori Ann Barcroft, a Southport resident, has confessed to the crime, but so far her motive remains unfathomable.
“The community is responding in a tone of bewilderment,” Ellison says. “Why did it happen? That’s the million-dollar question that nobody can answer.”
Iseminger was a 2009 graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University’s Master of Arts in Ministry program. Professors who worked with him remember Iseminger as an excellent student who could have found a ministerial position anywhere he wanted. Where he went, says IWU Associate Professor Dr. Bob Whitesel, was his home church in his hometown of Southport, in a low-income area where times had gotten harder in the years since Iseminger had grown up in the modest Indianapolis suburb.
“He’s what I write a lot about: an organic type of leader,” Whitesel says. “They don’t take the best and most prestigious job. They take the job they think they can make the most impact.”
“I think he probably enjoyed just about every class that we had, and would seek to take out anything he could to use it to help his church grow, to help people come to the Lord,” recalls George Dosher, who studied in the same graduate cohort with Iseminger at IWU.
In an era when many Christian leaders have their eyes on a megachurch pulpit, Iseminger’s ministry had him draining water to bail out the basement. That’s where he felt God had called him.
“I have long learned that I don’t think I am geared like these church leaders,” Iseminger wrote in 2009. “Based on Jesus’ time on earth, he would have been a flop compared to today’s standards…And yet, so many have been transformed by the words of Jesus and what he did.”
A graduate of Southport High School, Iseminger got his undergraduate degree from Oral Roberts University in 2005 and started working at Bethel Community Church the very same year. The most important thing in Iseminger’s ministry, Whitesel says, was to introduce people to Jesus—but he also knew that serving people’s physical, social and economic needs can often build a foundation through which a church can touch a community’s spiritual needs. It’s a messy form of ministry, Whitesel says, with a lot of inherent risks; but it attracted Iseminger, whose church’s motto is “willing to love, willing to serve.”
“It bothers me how many people I see never take risks because being comfortable is primary,” Iseminger wrote in 2011. “If I rested in what was comfortable all the time, then I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
Even when he had to take a second job, setting up tents for an Indianapolis-based events company, Iseminger relished the chance to be out among people, forging relationships with co-workers and serving as an example for Christ: “I am tired, my hands are cut and bruised, and my sinuses are killing me, but oh I am so grateful,” he wrote in 2009, “[to] wake up in the morning and have a purpose.”
In the last weeks of his life, Iseminger went to South Africa with Loving Accurately Ministries. One goal of the Indianapolis group is to link Indiana churches with people suffering from the AIDS pandemic. Jay Kirkpatrick, who directs Loving South Africa, takes influential pastors from this part of the world to that part of the world so that they can offer their congregations an eyewitness account of one of the biggest disease catastrophes in the history of the world. Kirkpatrick wants them to see the tragedy—the orphaned children, the mass graves—but also the hope: survivors snatched away from the pandemic by the work of Loving South Africa’s ministry partners.
Iseminger had already been there once last year. Kirkpatrick says that Iseminger wanted to go back to show the people of South Africa that the church of Indianapolis was there for them and working hard to support them. Bethel Community Church, Kirkpatrick says, is one of the most outwardly-focused churches he’s seen in Indianapolis; Iseminger had worked hard in his seven years as pastor to turn his congregations toward the needs of Southport and the world.
But when he returned home this second time, he says, there was a “fire in his eyes” that no one had seen before. And Kirkpatrick believes that fire hasn’t died. He’s since learned that Iseminger’s last sermon was going to use the example of Christ to show that death and tragedy can spark revolution.
“He was going to talk about a pastor in South Africa who had died—been shot, actually—and how it had ignited that pastor’s church in ways that his life never had,” Kirkpatrick says. “I think [Jaman’s] legacy will be as a firestarter.”
Dr. Bob Whitesel believes the same thing. In times of prayer during the first couple of days after the tragedy, he says he asked God to help him make sense of it: “I was praying: ‘why did this happen to such a young man with so great a potential?’ He got it. He understood it. He grasped the mission of God and he grasped how to do it. And the Lord told me that there were going to be other missional-minded young people who will step up and will take his place.”
And Kirkpatrick says Isminger had a vision of his own role as a firestarter: “God gave him this picture of pine needles and how they had to dry out and totally die before they could be used as kindling.”
The people who remember Jaman Iseminger remember a pastor, a family man, a community leader, a good-natured friend with a “wacky” sense of humor. And they remember one other thing: a man with a deep, unshakeable sense that he was the pastor of Bethel Community Church because God had chosen to put him there.
And for Iseminger, not even the most devastating flood would defeat God’s purpose.
“I am here for one reason and one reason alone,” he wrote in 2009. “I feel called, equipped, and cannot picture myself doing anything else at this juncture in my life.”
Photos courtesy Dave Matthews, Bethel Ministerial Association.