Pastors Elijah and Ashlee Hollis are ministering in the city of Philadelphia by looking through a unique lens, both metaphorically and literally. The couple have blended their vocations as owners of a creative arts agency, Helm Creative Studio, along with their roles as pastors of CHANGE Church to generate a diverse and eclectic community within the walls of their building, The Story Factory in the Olde Kensington neighborhood.
As pastors’ kids, Elijah, raised in Iowa, and Ashlee, from Kansas, met in early childhood through their fathers, who had been college roommates years before. After reconnecting following graduation, Elijah, 37, and Ashlee, 35, married. Ashlee moved to Pennsylvania to join Elijah in youth ministry just outside of Philadelphia.
During their ministry there, a 14-year-old girl in their youth group committed suicide and left a note stating that she felt she had no place to belong and no purpose. The Hollises promised the Lord they would do everything they could to prevent such a scenario playing out again. They sensed a vision from the Lord to create a community where everyone has a place.
In 2015, a year before resigning from youth ministry to begin preparing to launch CHANGE Church in Philadelphia, Elijah and Ashlee started Helm Creative Studio, a company involved in video work and marketing for local businesses.
“God brought us to the story of Moses and how God used the only thing Moses had in his hand, a staff, to lead the Israelites,” Ashlee says. All the couple had in their hands was a video camera. In faith, CHANGE Church officially launched in 2017.
“We knew the first step was we had to meet people,” Ashlee says. For nine months, the pair served coffee from a coffee cart to learn more about the greatest needs in the city. They modeled their efforts after the scriptural accounts of Jesus meeting people.
“Wells were gathering places in the Bible, and today people gather over coffee,” Elijah says. “It’s natural to talk to your barista, so that’s how we started meeting people.”
Through their church coffee cart and Helm Creative Studio, the Hollises began to see tremendous blessing pour out on both. All of a sudden, Helm Creative Studio began turning a profit.
“We met incredible clients and formed relationships that would become our key to the city,” Ashlee recalls. She is founder and president of Helm, an agency that offers services in videography, photography, audio/visual technology, and digital marketing. Elijah is a videographer, director, writer, producer, musician, and voice-over artist.
Along with most of the country, in 2020 the city of Philadelphia shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hollises — who have two children, 11-year-old Zion and 9-year-old Aunee — kept the momentum of CHANGE Church and its community alive by utilizing an online lounge of events and virtual meetings such as online tutoring, online fitness classes, and watch parties for their services.
When the city began to reopen in 2021, Elijah and Ashlee struggled to find a space that would meet the unique needs of the community in which they had invested. At the start of this year, by the miraculous grace of God, they found an incredible 27,000-square-foot facility that transformed into CHANGE Church and Helm Creative Studio.
“This building is where we are seeing our connections come full circle,” Ashlee says. The couple believe the Holy Spirit is bringing people together in their building in preparation for city transformation. The Story Factory is being used for community organizations, an afterschool program, and tutoring.
“The police district is seeing dreams come true for the city, celebrity chefs we work with are giving back, students have afterschool creative art programs, and more connections are being made that are truly transforming the community,” Ashley says. The naming of The Story Factory has a faith basis.
“Jesus taught in stories,” Elijah says. “We’re focused on building stories that build people up.”
“The biggest win for us is seeing the unity and comradery between unique businesses and unique individuals,” Ashlee says.
Tom E. Rees, church planting director for the Assemblies of God PennDel Ministry Network, says Elijah and Ashlee are a new branch of pastors who take a “co-vocational” approach to launching a congregation rather than bivocational.
“In bivocational church planting, the work done outside of the church supports the economic engine of the church,” Rees says. “However, a co-vocational approach is viewing the secular work being done as part of ministry.” Rees says such a method allows the couple time to build bridges and relationships while combating the high prices of an urban structure.