Pastor moves from parish-based to wilderness-based ministry

Rev. Dr. Jonathan Malone

God can be found in many places—not least of all the wilderness. And not all pastors serve in churches or even as chaplains. Just ask the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Malone. After participating in  American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ Co-Creators Incubator, he left the pastorship at First Baptist Church, East Greenwich, R.I., to devote himself full time to taking individuals and groups on backpacking trips via a business he calls Wilderness Journeys.

The Co-Creators Incubator is a program for missional entrepreneurs that helps grow ministry ideas into viable ventures with Christ-centered missions. Like the other Co-Creators, Malone was paired with a mentor and received a seed grant. Participating, he said, provided him with the confidence to make a radical change.

The program “helped me to formalize, organize and make that final decision,” he says.

So on Sunday, Feb. 27, Malone and the congregation said a bittersweet goodbye. Congregants  were sad, he said, yet they supported his leaving to begin a new ministry. And while the ministry is nontraditional, Malone points out that he is still called to be a pastor.

Furthermore, God is experienced differently in different places, he notes.

“I’m not saying church is bad,” he points out. “It’s essential, but it’s different.”

In addition to the benefits of sunlight, fresh air and exercise, the wilderness experience forces people to face God and listen to what God is saying, he says.

“In the wilderness, we are made more vulnerable. We don’t have the protection of our houses or our cars. We encounter nature as it’s happening, and that puts us in a different place spiritually to listen differently,” he says. “When it rains, we get wet. When it’s cold outside, we get cold. When it’s hot, we’re hot. It puts us in a more honest place to share with God where we are and what we’re wrestling with.”

Being in the wilderness also means people are forced to cope without the technology that is constantly demanding attention.

“Some of the most positive experiences I’ve had is when I look at my cell phone and want to reach out to someone but can’t,” he says. “And I’m forced to face God with whatever the struggle is that I’m wrestling with.”

Through Wilderness Journeys, Malone offers individuals and groups day hikes and overnight trips of varying lengths.

Malone began taking his own personal hikes back in  in high school. While in seminary, he devoted a summer to hiking  part of the Appalachian Trail. Four years ago, he took a sabbatical from work to hike the Adirondack Mountains’ 46 high peaks.

“After that, I started leading more and more groups—youth and adults—on various kinds of trips. Sometimes four days, sometimes less,” he says. “My desire to do this grew more and more.”

Finally, he realized that he needed to start a venture by which he could move from a parish-based ministry to a nature-based one that would bring people to experience the wilderness.

“It’s a very big decision that has a lot of unknowing and risk. But it’s ministry, and you do it because you can’t do anything else,” he says. “It’s the same reason I went into ministry to begin with.”

Planning for Cycle 3 of the Co-Creators Incubator is underway at ABHMS. Applications to participate in this new cohort will be available online via in fall 2022.