In April, Bryant and Alyssa Swiers of Strawberry Lake Church in Ogema, Minnesota, left their jobs, packed their camper and embarked on a year-long trip to visit and learn about ministry to children.
The Swiers took this step of faith after realizing while on vacation last year that they each felt a similar calling from God.
“It was a bit of a challenge for me,” says Bryant of the decision to leave their jobs. “But because we both felt the calling independently of each other at the same time, it just felt like, this is what we’re supposed to do so let’s do it.”
“It’s hard because it’s a change,” says Alyssa. “But we feel like we are where we’re supposed to be.”
Alyssa dreams of opening a daycare facility that would operate out of Lake Region Mennonite Church in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, about 30 miles from Strawberry Lake Church. Both Strawberry Lake and Lake Region are former Mennonite Church USA congregations that joined the Central District Conference (CDC) in 2017.
Alyssa has worked as a nurse on a women’s and children’s floor of a hospital. She feels called to work with children but wants to be more involved in their daily lives, building personal relationships and watching them grow and learn about Jesus.
“I’d really like to run [the daycare] as a ministry and not a business,” Alyssa says.
The Swiers’ focus for their trip is to learn more about how to make this daycare a reality, as well as to connect with other Mennonite Brethren churches.
“One of the main purposes of our trip is to be out observing … how is the ministry of having a daycare within a church working? What’s the best way to be effective in your ministry?” Bryant says. “And then part of our reason for doing the trip is to serve along the journey, wherever we’re at, and also to build connections between the churches.”
God has a plan
Talitha Sannes-Venhuizen, a member of Lake Region’s church council, says several church members attended a community awareness event several years ago and learned about the significant need for affordable childcare in their area.
“It was very eye-opening to hear them talk about this need, and then out of that they felt that God is calling us as a church to be part of reaching out to our community,” Sannes-Venhuizen says.
A daycare would allow the church to provide a much-needed service to the community, she says, provide jobs and also work as a ministry to reach children and their families for Christ.
In September 2019, Lake Region broke ground on a building project that would improve and expand on their existing building. Part of that project included adding a walk-out basement.
Sannes-Venhuizen says the congregation wanted to use this new space as a daycare but didn’t know who would take the lead in running the endeavor.
“We just didn’t know how God was going to work those details out,” Sannes-Venhuizen says.
The Swiers have connections to Lake Region, as Bryant’s father Jesse Swiers is the lead pastor. When Alyssa reached out to the church with her dream of starting a daycare in the new space, Sannes-Venhuizen says it was an “amazing affirmation.”
“I can’t even tell you how it felt to have Bryant and Alyssa come to the council and say, ‘We feel like God is calling us to do this,’” Sannes-Venhuizen says. “It was really an answer to prayer.”
The Swiers have also felt God’s hand in planning the logistics of their trip even before they made the decision to go, such as in their purchase of a camper last summer.
“Things fell into place pretty well for us,” Bryant says. “It’s amazing how God had this all planned out long before we did.”
Bryant and Alyssa receive financial support from their home church and Lake Region, but they are small congregations and the couple is trusting God to continue to supply their needs throughout the year of travel.
First stop: Omaha
The first stop on the Swiers’ trip was Stony Brook Church in Omaha, Neb. While the church does not operate a daycare, lead pastor Jon Annin has extensive experience working in youth and children’s ministry settings. After graduating from Fresno Pacific University, Annin spent 18 years on staff at Clovis Hills Community Church in Fresno, including several years leading a children’s ministry of about 350 children and 70 volunteers.
“With a church that size, there’s an organizational aspect to it which would possibly be something like a daycare or a preschool that a church might have where you’re monitoring kids and staff members,” Annin says.
Annin says Stony Brook’s children’s ministry program has grown considerably since his arrival in September 2021.
“Kids’ ministry is really important, so we’re going to treat it that way,” Annin says. “Now we’re at a point where in general it’s one of our strengths.”
The Swiers connected with Annin and Stony Brook after reaching out to CDC district minister Rick Eshbaugh, who knew of Annin’s background in children’s ministry.
“I was excited about the opportunity, both for them to grow and for us to partner with them,” says Annin.
Back home, Bryant and Alyssa were active at Strawberry Lake Church in children’s ministry, teaching Sunday school and vacation Bible school (VBS).
The Swiers have integrated into Stony Brook’s volunteer staff, helping with youth ministry and Sunday morning programs alongside Annin’s wife, Lauren, the church’s Next-Gen director. They organized the church’s VBS program in June.
“Had they not come, that VBS may or may not have happened,” Annin says. “That was a cool partnership because we were a little under-equipped to do that at this point with our volunteer base.”
The Swiers have been meeting weekly with Annin to talk about their work, learn from him and together read the book Children’s Ministry on Purpose by Steve Adams.
“A lot of really practical conversations flow out of us generating the VBS as well as reflecting on what’s happening on Sunday mornings,” Annin says.
The value of connection
Bryant and Alyssa have taken advantage of their time in Omaha by connecting with other churches and ministries, such as fellow CDC congregation Faith Bible Church, Good Neighbor Ministries and a Nazarene church that operates a daycare ministry. Following the week of VBS at Stony Brook, the Swiers helped to lead the same program at Faith Bible Church.
Bryant believes that making connections between churches is a key aspect of their trip and of the Christian faith in general.
“There’s a great value in knowing there’s a community out there that wants to support what’s going on,” Bryant says. “As a church, you’re not doing this alone, this mission work. The kingdom of God is just that—it’s a kingdom; it’s much bigger than the individual churches.”
Annin emphasizes the importance of having a team mentality as believers.
“As congregations, we have strengths and weaknesses and we’re all different parts of the body,” he says. “There’s value in us coming together to build one another up because if the church anywhere in the world is weak, then we are weaker overall.”
Bryant and Alyssa plan to remain in Omaha as they seek God’s direction for where to go next and for the remainder of their trip.
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Blue Springs, Missouri. She and her husband, Joel, are both graduates of Tabor College. The couple has two children.