Newest generation of Wilkes respects family name while blazing new trail

David Burke

10/14/2020

Tongie worship in park/Matthew Wilke profile



It sounded like a great idea. After 2 ½ months of worshipping inside their sanctuary, members of the Tonganoxie United Methodist Church would have an outdoor service at the town’s VFW Park on Sunday morning, Sept. 27. 

But rain, anywhere from a drizzle to a downpour, dominated the outdoor service, and forced it to abbreviate to 40 minutes. 

Still, Pastor Matthew Wilke said, shaking his head in disbelief after the service, the 50-plus people who attended thought it was one of his best services yet. 

“We go outside in the rain for ballgames, and we camp outside in the rain,” one parishioner told him, “Why wouldn’t we sit outside in the rain for church?” 

While it would have been tempting to cancel the service or move it indoors, Wilke and the worship leaders were determined to keep it outside in the rain. 

“People were happy we went for it,” he said, “They were saying ‘That was awesome,’ and I was like, ‘That was awesome?’” 

 

Famous name 

When Wilke began as pastor at Tonganoxie in July, many in the congregation were unaware of his well-known United Methodist lineage. 

Matthew Wilke preaches at an outdoor service at the VFW Park in Tonganoxie on Sept. 27. Photo by David Burke

His grandfather, Bishop Richard Wilke, served in Kansas churches for 30 years — including 11 as senior pastor of Wichita First UMC — before being elected to the episcopacy in 1984 and leading the Arkansas Conference for 12 years. Bishop Wilke and his wife, Julia, created the wildly successful Disciple Bible Study series and established the foundation for the Institute for Discipleship at Southwestern College that bears their names. 

“It’s been interesting here in Tonganoxie that not a lot of people know about Disciple Bible Study,” Matthew said. “Everywhere else was like, ‘Oh, I know your grandfather.’” 

Matthew’s father, the Rev. Paul Wilke, has been an ordained minister for 34 years, including serving nine years at Salina Church of the Cross UMC, 16 at Derby Woodlawn UMC and, since 2017, as senior pastor of Topeka Countryside UMC. 

A slew of aunts and uncles, both relatives and their spouses, are involved in various facets of the ministry. 

While two of his cousins have their own ministries — Joel Wilke is director of Camp Horizon and Sarah Fuquay is executive director of Project Transformation Indiana, which engages underprivileged youth with churches in their area — Matthew Wilke is the first in his generation to become an ordained pastor, and is on track to become an elder. 

“It was a journey of failing at other things until I said, ‘Fine, I’ll be like my father and his father before him!,’” he said with a laugh. 

 

Search for happiness 

As a preacher’s kid, he was “connected to churches because I had to be.” 

He played guitar in praise bands, but “I did not really have a lot of interest in church growing up,” he said. “It was the family business.” 

Other influences were coming into play. 

Matthew Wilke plays rhythm guitar with the Tonganoxie First UMC praise band. Photo by David Burke

“In high school I kind of got lost a little bit, and was smoking pot, doing drugs, and chasing girls. I had this life that was not very fulfilling and happy,” Wilke, now 28, recalled. “My friends were kind of shallow and stuff like that. I was just trying to please people, and I kind of realized I was pretty unhappy.  

“I thought about the people in my life who influenced me or were people I looked up to, and they were all people of faith,” he continued. “One night I stayed up reading the Bible. I’d never read it on my own outside my parents or church or youth group or whatever.” 

When he got to the Gospel of John, Wilke said, he felt struck by reading John 13:34.  

“That verse, I felt like Jesus was talking to me,” he said. “This is your command, I’m telling you.” 

Entering his senior year at Derby High School, his heart was set on music ministry, and he enrolled the next year at North Central College, a United Methodist school in Naperville, Illinois. 

Frequently visiting a sick friend in the hospital proved to him he could handle pastoral care. Speaking at campus ministry fundraisers gave him the confidence to deliver a sermon. But when he applied to become a worship leader for the campus ministries, someone else was chosen. 

Wilke was told it wasn’t because of his musical ability.  

“I needed to grow as a person,” he was told. “That was like, ‘Whoa.’ I took that to heart that I needed to grow in my own character and faith.” 

After spending a year studying abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and becoming intrigued by archaeology and the Hebrew language, he enrolled in Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., in 2015, graduating in 2018. 

 

Mission partner 

Part of the seminary’s requirements was cultural immersion, meaning another trip to a foreign land. 

Jenny Wilke has fun with children from the Our Father's House ministry in Tanzania. Photo courtesy Matthew Wilke

Wilke selected a trip in January 2017 to a school for the deaf in Jamaica. A fellow seminarian on the trip brought along her sister, Jenny, a sign language interpreter who was admittedly lured by the thought of Jamaica in January. 

Matthew and Jenny became engaged 11 months later and were married in November 2018 at Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C., a historic Black church where he was hired as a part-time associate. While at Asbury, just a 10-minute walk from the White House, he was in charge of creating a contemporary service called The Bridge for the increasingly gentrified congregation where services incorporated Black Gospel and modern Christian music. 

Eager to take another mission trip together, Matthew and Jenny agreed to go to the east African country of Tanzania to work with Holly Heyroth Opundo — the former youth director while Paul Wilke was at Derby Woodlawn — at Angel House, a Christian orphanage and school.  

Matthew taught Bible knowledge, and Jenny taught communications and worked with the children’s ministry Our Father’s House

For them, it was an eye-opening experience. 

“I think we had a lot of time all of a sudden,” Matthew said. “We were both working and finishing school and raising money to go overseas. There, we just had time. We slowed down a lot. There’s no TV. The whole first half (of their eight-month stay) we couldn’t even get internet.” 

There was also no running water and “unreliable electricity,” he added. 

Evening meals were beans and rice, and lunches were usually sardines, cow intestines and ugali, a dense African cornbread. They still look back at those as unappetizing. 

Matthew Wilke spearheaded a campaign for a wheelchair ministry while in Tanzania. Photo courtesy Matthew Wilke

“Everyone was so generous,” Jenny said. “We had people who were living in mud huts who didn’t have a thing that insisted on us coming to their home, and they had butchered a chicken for us to have.” 

Or, Matthew said, several times he was given the honor by the host of butchering the chicken. 

“They don’t just run. They can attempt to fly,” he said of the foul decapitation. “It’s horrifying.” 

The Wilkes look back at Tanzania — where the six churches in the area were served by one pastor, who was also the district superintendent — as humbling. 

“We just learned that people are people everywhere. The church was still United Methodist. It still felt like a UMC, even out where we were,” Matthew said. “We really just fell in love with the people. It was a very tribal society, and it was harder for Jen than me" in a culture that was very restrictive for women in the roles they could undertake. 

Matthew spearheaded a wheelchair ministry, working with a local metal worker to provide transportation that could handle the rocky streets for people with disabilities.  

“Learning patience and humility were huge things I think we grew,” Jenny said. “Everything moved slowly — the language was a tough barrier — but to see God work even with all those barriers.” 

Matthew added, “We learned to let the Spirit lead. We had job descriptions and stuff, but we were free to just do whatever in the community.” 

At the orphanage every night was what Matthew called “very passionate worship,” sometimes lasting two to three hours, and every morning began with Bible study, devotions and prayer — a practice the couple brought back with them when they returned to the United States. 

“For me, sticking to that is inspired by what we saw there,” he said. “They made time for their faith. They had a lot more time than I think our culture does or that we allow kids to have today. Church was what they did. It was who they were. That’s all they did.” 

Riding on a motorcycle (the dominant form of transportation there) from farm to farm, Matthew learned how to milk cows and goats. 

“I spent a lot of time learning what it means to be a shepherd,” he said. 

In fact, the Swahili word for “pastor” is the same word as “shepherd.” 

“It literally gets back to the root to say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s our shepherd,’” Matthew said. “We don’t think of it as being a shepherd, but that’s what I’m supposed to be.” 

He then smiled. 

“And I led them into a storm today.” 

 

Back to Kansas 

The Wilkes’ scheduled 10-month trip to Tanzania was cut short by two months because of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. 

Jenny Wilke runs the cellphone to livestream a sermon at Tongnoxie VFW Park. Photo by David Burke

The country shut down “almost overnight,” Matthew said, and they scrambled to find a flight back to the United States. 

“It was very hard to fathom all that was going on,” he said. 

The day they landed, Matthew got a phone call from the Rev. Dr. Anne Gatobu, Kansas City District superintendent, offering him a pastoral appointment at Tonganoxie. 

“That felt like a God moment,” he said. “We had lost all of our plans, all of our work. Everything had been lost. Here’s this new thing the day we arrive back.” 

The Wilkes had their choice of locations after he graduated from seminary. They wanted to be close to family, but Jenny’s was slowly scattering along the East Coast. They narrowed their choices down to the Kansas City area and Nashville. 

“I had to sell Kansas to Jen,” he said. “After we were married, we came on a trip here to kind of look at Kansas City as a place to live.” 

On their flight from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, the two had to sit in separate parts of the plane. Jenny ended up next to a deaf couple headed back to the Kansas City area with their 15-month-old child. Through a sign language conversation, they told her how much they loved the city, the importance of the Kansas School for the Deaf in Olathe and how she would love living in the area. 

“I thought, ‘Did my husband pay you to sit here?’” she recalled. “It was a God moment.” 

 

Welcome to Tonganoxie 

Two-and-a-half months into his first fulltime appointment as a licensed local pastor, Wilke considers the rainy outdoor service one of several “wins” he’s already had. Others have included home gatherings with nearly every family in the congregation, a successful drive-by blessing of the backpacks and a series of videos — shot and edited by Jenny, who is also manning the cellphone for the outdoor service — where he prayed a blessing at the town’s elementary, middle and high schools. Those videos received more than 3,000 views. 

“I think we kind of struck a chord with that video,” he said. “No one was really showing any support for the schools.”  

Matthew Wilke talks to parishioners after the service at the VFW Park. Photo by David Burke

Jenny, who is awaiting a pandemic-caused backlog to get her sign-language interpreter licensing in Kansas, said she enjoys life as a pastor’s wife — even though she might not fit the mold, like her hot-pink-dyed hair for their church directory photo. 

“I’ve never felt the need to conform to a certain image of what a pastor’s wife should be,” she said. “I’ve been loved and accepted.” 

Members of their new congregation agree. 

“He’s just done a very, very good job for being so new at this,” said Kathy Harrell, who serves on the church’s transition to ministry committee and is among the singers in the praise band — in which Matthew plays rhythm guitar. “His sermons are great; I think he puts a lot of thought into them. His delivery is very solid, and the content has always been excellent.” 

Harrell, a middle school teacher, admires that Wilke has regularly been visiting the shut-ins in the congregation. 

“Not all pastors are good at that part of pastoral care,” she said. “I think he relates to a wide variety of ages, which is wonderful, even though he’s just a kid.” 

Wilke arrived in Tonganoxie on the verge of what could be a major step for the congregation.  

A recently remodeled building, which shares a parking lot with the church, has come up for sale. Currently used as an events center with a hair salon in an attached building, Wilke said he and the church envision it as an expanded fellowship hall, community center and the only coffee shop in the town of 5,000. 

Tonganoxie’s first Sunday back to in-person worship was also Wilke’s first Sunday as pastor. He said he admired how the church has stuck together and served its community. 

“We see how essential we are as a church,” he said. 

He was thrilled with the 50-plus attendance in the park. Before the pandemic, he was told the two services — an early contemporary service and a late-Sunday-morning traditional service, averaged 120 to 130 attendees. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, 40 have worshipped in person at the contemporary service and 15 at the traditional. 

Wilke shied away from goals during what he sees to be several years in his first pastorate. 

“My goal is to be the best pastor I could be here, but I’d certainly like to see it grow,” he said. “I feel right at home here in Tonganoxie, preaching in the rain.” 

 

Family legacy 

The first time Jenny Wilke went to Kansas to meet her new in-laws, her mother — who had been a youth director and director of congregational care at a United Methodist Church in Maryland — begged her to take along the mother’s well-worn copy of Disciple Bible Study for Bishop Wilke to sign. She refused. 

The Wilke name is known among United Methodists worldwide, but particularly in Kansas. Matthew was in attendance at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, where Disciple Bible Study’s 30th anniversary was celebrated. He watched in awe as those who had taken or taught Disciple were asked to stand, and most of the room was on its feet. 

He thought, “Wow, Discipleship is really what we need to get back to in the church,” Matthew said. 

On their wedding day, Matthew and Jenny Wilke with his parents, Rev. Paul and Janelle Wilke, in November 2018.

The Rev. Paul Wilke said his son chose to go to college in Illinois partly to get away from the family name. His parents, aunt and uncle were all alumni of Southwestern College, where Steve Wilke is a 30-year staff member and currently the executive director for the Institute for Discipleship. 

“He didn’t want to go to Southwestern because there were so many (Wilkes),” his father said. “There was Wilke all over. He wanted to get outside the nest.” 

Matthew’s plan was foiled, his father said, when a North Central College administrator told him he knew Matthew’s grandfather. 

The further he goes in his faith journey, Matthew Wilke says, the further he appreciates the work that his grandfather, father and relatives have done. 

“I’m definitely proud of the legacy. Part of me does want to lift up that heritage and do similar kinds of projects of discipleship,” he said. “I think my grandpa hit the nail on the head saying, ‘That’s what we’re here to do.’ It’s a point of unity.” 

Matthew is in the process of curating written sermon notes and videos of his grandfather’s in a digital format to preserve it for generations. 

“I will say I try to have my own journey, separate from them, but I also do take a lot of value of my grandfather’s writings and legacy,” he said. 

Matthew’s decision to go into the ministry came after lengthy heart-to-heart talks with his father. 

“When I had that first coming-to-faith experience, I spent a lot of time speaking with my father,” he said. “Each night we’d play ping-pong for hours and just talk about everything, about faith and the Bible and theological questions. He spent a lot of time with me.” 

As for his grandfather, now retired and in senior living in Winfield, “I’m close to him in a different kind of way,” Matthew said. “I know him the most through his writings, to be honest. That’s the peak of his faith side. All he wrote down is right there.” 

Matthew Wilke preaches in the rain at Tonganoxie VFW Park. Photo by David Burke

Coincidentally, “I’ve never heard him preach, and he’s known for preaching,” Matthew said. 

When Matthew finally made the decision to go into ministry, he thought at the time his father felt indifferent. 

“He was trying to be impartial,” he said. “Ministry is a calling, and he was like, ‘Maybe you are called, I don’t know.’ And I thought, ‘That’s not the response I wanted.’” 

Paul Wilke says he tried to follow the example of his own father. 

“When I was called to ministry, I talked to my dad about it. He was always non-pushy. I followed that lead with Matthew,” he said. “Not that I didn’t believe in Matthew or didn’t want him to be in ministry, but the last thing I wanted to do as a parent was to push my son into a vocation, especially the vocation of ministry, if God wasn’t in it.” 

Matthew also discovered that previous generations had their turning points in ministry. 

“He has his own journey, and my grandpa has his own journey,” he said. “My dad and my grandpa both have stories of particular moments that were influential in their lives.” 

His grandfather and parents watch his sermons online, Matthew said, and Bishop Wilke funnels praise through Paul and Janelle Wilke, Matthew’s mother. His father has been complimentary, he said, but his mother is requesting “more jokes and personal stories.” 

The more Matthew studies his grandfather’s work, the more respect he has for the 90-year-old retired bishop, including his collegiate life as an award-winning debater at Yale. 

“But,” his grandson said with a smile, “he didn’t get everyone to sit out in a rainstorm.” 

Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.


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