Island breezes and warm sand might be anybody’s idea of paradise, but for Maria Wetzel, the beautiful island at the entrance of Florida’s Tampa Bay was “home.”
“Home” changed locations a year ago when Maria and husband Mike Wetzel (D.Min. ‘99, M.Div. ‘90), left The Island Chapel, Tierra Verda, Fla. where Mike was pastor to return to NOBTS. As Vice President for Institutional Advancement, Mike leads a team building up NOBTS’ financial foundation and legacy so new generations can answer God’s call to ministry.
As home missionaries with the Home Mission Board (now NAMB) 28 years ago, the couple planted the church in the affluent island community, knowing previous attempts -- by various denominations -- had failed. But “God was faithful,” Maria explained, and the church bloomed.
“The Island Chapel was not only our church; it was our family,” Maria said.
Saying “no” was easy to job offers Mike received through the years from pulpit search committees, and others. The couple knew God intended for them to stay. Then, the phone call came from NOBTS.
“The calling from God was clear, but difficult,” Maria said. “We had no doubt that God called us [to New Orleans], but I had to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment.”
Praying on her knees one morning, Maria reminded the Lord that they had started the church, nurtured it, and devoted their lives to it, and that she worried the church would suffer if they left.
“And clear as day, God said, ‘This is not your church. It’s my church,’” Maria explained. “He promised me, ‘I will take care of it.’ And that was the answer. We had to go.”
When Maria told her husband she knew God was calling them to NOBTS, Mike told her he had known for days but knew she needed to hear from God, herself, Maria explained.
“God calls both of us,” Maria said. “I’m not going to say it’s easy and you may leave kicking and screaming, but God calls both.”
More than home, The Island Chapel was “where she grew up,” Maria said. Cuban by heritage, Maria learned much about life from the women of the church, including how to cook American food. And when grief came as each lost their parents, the church surrounded them with love.
Leaving the pastorate and pulling up roots as middle-aged adults seemed confusing until they realized Mike’s position at NOBTS would multiply his ministry, Maria explained.
“There’s only so much we can do [at this age], but if we invest in the work that God is doing, hundreds more, thousands more, will benefit,” Maria said. “It’s more than what Mike and I can do by ourselves.”
Though COVID restrictions were set in place soon after the couple moved in last year, Maria was undeterred in exploring what God had in mind for her. New friendships and opportunities to share the Gospel came as Maria went door-to-door in their new neighborhood, introducing herself to neighbors and sharing cookies.
Facing transition can be lonely, Maria admits, but keeping two tips in mind when facing change can help.
“Talk to God,” Maria advised. “He’s big. He can handle it. Tell him how you feel, but just know that you are where God wants you to be.” Even when change comes that is abrupt or unwelcomed, “God can still use you wherever you are,” Maria said. “Tell God, ‘I’m here now. What would you have me to do?”
Talk to other believers and be honest, Maria said. She continues to look to “wise women” in their former church for encouragement, love, and a listening ear. “Call those who are strong in their walk with the Lord and reach out to them and tell how you feel.”
What her new ministry will look like in New Orleans is unfolding as COVID continues to impact life, but Maria knows God has a plan.
“It’s never too late to follow Him,” Maria said. “You never retire from ministry.”