A fall of the dominoes helped bring a Columbus native back home.
Jeff Jones is the new area director for Columbus Young Life, an international evangelical Christian ministry to teens that’s locally 27 years old. Jones replaces James Rockwell, the new assistant regional director with oversight of Georgia and Alabama.
Earlier this year, Jones got a phone call about the upcoming opening here.
“I had just joked with my boss: ‘A couple of years from now, keep me in mind for the Columbus job.’ A couple of months later, he called me back,” said Jones, relaxing recently in the sitting room of the Young Life office on Lockwood Avenue. What promoted his move: A staff position opened up at the state level, which created a promotion for Rockwell, the Columbus area director for the past eight years. Jones said despite his local ties, he wasn’t necessarily a shoe-in and was put through the paces.
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“I was in the interview with about 10 people,” said Jones, a 1994 graduate of Columbus High School. “They grill you, but it’s because they really want to know your heart and your story.”
His parents are Fred and Gloria Jones. Many in his family are in education. Fred Jones is a retired treasurer of the Muscogee County School District. Gloria teaches at Midland Middle School; brother-inlaw Warren Wilcox teaches at Northside High; and Jeff’s sister Rachel Wilcox teaches Spanish to homeschoolers. Kathy Jones, Jeff’s wife, is also a trained teacher but is not teaching currently.
Before this job, Jeff Jones was the Young Life director in Milledgeville for seven years, and was the only paid staffer there. Comparatively, Milledgeville has one high school, and about 2,000 teens in the county, compared with about 12,000 teens in Columbus.
“Jeff has been great about training up college kids to be Young Life leaders (to younger teens), and with CSU continuing to grow, that will be key to growing Young Life in Columbus,” Rockwell said. In Milledgeville, Jones used students at Georgia College and State University to pitch in with the ministry, whose focus is friendships as a vehicle to share the Christian faith. The word “contact” is used regularly in Young Life circles. It means, simply, going to the places where teens hang out — the mall, the bleachers at a ball game or even the school cafeteria.Introduction to Young Life
Jones was first introduced to Young Life at Columbus High, where he played baseball. A Young Life volunteer named Rusty Phillips befriended Jones and his crowd. But first, Jones and his friends were suspicious, he said. They thought, Why wouldn’t he have friends his own age?
“He was always hanging around school and he’d show at sporting events,” Jones said. “But his presence and his consistency began to win me and my friends. He kind of fell in with us.”
Larger group events of Young Life are called Club, where high-action skits or music lead into a more serious spiritual lesson. Smaller Bible studies are called Campaigners. During the summers, Young Life operates a series of camps for teens where they are challenged both in adventure skills but also in matters of faith. One camp in north Georgia is called Sharp Top Cove, with another in North Carolina called Windy Gap. Other kids go farther afield: to Colorado’s Frontier Ranch.
In 1938, Jim Rayburn, a young Presbyterian youth leader and seminary student in Texas, was given a challenge. A local minister invited him to consider the neighborhood high school as his parish and develop ways of contacting kids who had no interest in church, according to YoungLife.com.
Rayburn started a weekly club for kids. There was singing, a skit or two and a simple message about Jesus. Club attendance increased dramatically when they started meeting in the homes of young people.
After graduating from seminary, Rayburn and four other seminarians collaborated, and Young Life was officially born on Oct. 16, 1941, with its own Board of Trustees. They developed the club idea throughout Texas, with an emphasis on showing kids that faith in God can be not only fun, but exhilarating and life-changing.
An area director oversees each area, or geographical region. The area director works with a board. The current local board chairman is Claude Scarbrough.
After he graduated from CHS, Jones went to the University of Georgia where he majored in marketing. After graduating in 1998, he came back to Columbus to work at TSYS, for four years. In his spare time, he remained a volunteer with Young Life. Before he got the job in Milledgeville, he volunteered with Young Life in Harris County, which intermittently has had Young Life staff; and he also volunteered while a student at UGA.
An eventual call to full-time Young Life ministry led Jones out of the corporate world.
“It was a fantastic place to work,” he said of his TSYS experience.
Rockwell, passing the mantle to Jones, described Columbus as a model in the ministry.
“It’s because of the adults in the community,” Rockwell said. “Jeff and I are staff, but the other adults keep the vision. They oversee things like the budget, and they take great ownership.” But more important than the practicalities of organizing and fundraising, he added, is prayer.
For instance, a recent answer to prayer locally is something called Wyldlife, the Young Life program for middle-schoolers. And in 2001, Columbus Young Life added a local Multi-Cultural Ministry to minority kids, now led by Erica Valentine.
For his part, Rockwell officially starts his new job Sept. 1 but he’s been already getting organized. Because he will have both Georgia and Alabama as territories, his boss in Atlanta said he could stay in Columbus — rather centrally located — for the foreseeable future. Rockwell didn’t mind that at all. He and his wife, Marisol, and their children enjoy the community and have made close friends here. (Coincidentally, Jeff and Kathy Jones ended up buying a house two doors down from the Rockwells.)
The Southeast Regional director is Mark Springfield.
After the approximately two years, Rockwell could move on to be regional director if Springfield moves on, and relocate to the Atlanta office; or he could stay put.
“We’re like missionaries in that,” Rockwell said.
Contact Allison Kennedy at 706-576-6237.