OKEECHOBEE, Florida — For years, Southeastern University graduate Rafael A. Rodriguez, 40, had put off his dreams to pastor as the Lord led him and his wife, Marie, to other areas of ministry. In 2020, with the pandemic slamming doors of churches across the nation, the couple — who have been married 11 years — continued to trust the Lord with their ministry dreams.
By fall, the situation had changed. That’s when they accepted a position to lead Abiding Hope Worship Center, an Assemblies of God congregation in Okeechobee, Florida.
“I’ve desired to be a pastor from a young age,” says Rodriguez, an ordained AG minister since 2010. “It’s always been in my heart, but I told the Lord, if it’s not going to happen, I’ll focus on being a schoolteacher and do well at that.” He had been employed as a fifth grade teacher at Irving Elementary School in Cleburne.
Rafael and Marie, along with their 10-year-old twin daughters, Charisma and Amelia, had lived for three years in Cleburne, Texas, where they belonged to Bethel Temple. Marie, also an ordained AG minister and a Southeastern graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Missions and Biblical Studies, served as children’s pastor at the AG church.
While searching for positions in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, and New York, Rodriguez noticed Abiding Hope Worship Center’s pastoral opening. Rafael, who earned a Master of Arts in Ministerial Leadership from Southeastern in 2013, acknowledged that a small town like Okeechobee, with a population of 5,800, didn’t top his list. Yet he determined not to discount it and applied for the position.
When he interviewed with the church board, Rodriguez says he knew God wanted him to pastor the church. Marie, 48, says she sensed sincerity of board members during the Zoom interview, which led her to tears.
The couple discussed transitional challenges, uncertain times, and the sacrifices that come with a small church in a small town. Rafael says the couple had been living comfortably in Texas.
While still single, Marie served as an Assemblies of God world missionary in El Salvador, involved in children’s ministry. Just after marrying, the couple spent five years as children and youth ministry workers in Southern Asia. Rafael also served as a family life associate pastor in Maryland and youth pastor in Rhode Island.
In the middle of a pandemic, the family moved from Cleburne to Okeechobee. On Sept. 6, Rafael became pastor and Marie associate pastor at Abiding Hope Worship Center.
In the early going, the couple have revitalized the church’s social media presence via regular video promotions on Facebook and Instagram. Resumption of the children’s ministry is in full swing.
Peninsular Florida District Superintendent Terry Raburn believes the Rodriguezes have been spiritually prepared for ministry in Okeechobee.
“Their time on the mission field equipped them with skills and ministry tools that will serve them well in that rural situation,” says Raburn.
Likewise, Raburn doesn’t believe 40 is too late to become a lead pastor.
“That is especially true for a couple who has had a wide range of ministry experiences,” Raburn says. “Pastor Rodriguez has a special enthusiasm and will not be afraid to move forward with initiative and commitment to building the church and reaching the city for Christ.”