Jonathan Pitts: I think where we are [as a family after my wife’s death is] we have this keen awareness and sense of the goodness of God. And even in the tragic nature of where we’ve been, there’s still this beautiful story.
God Brings Life After Loss: Jonathan Pitts and John Hill – Episode #157
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Today’s guests have traveled long stretches of despair and loss, but today they’re embracing what God has next for them: pastor and author Jonathan Pitts, and entrepreneur John Hill.
First up, Jonathan Pitts has had a whirlwind year. Weeks after celebrating 15 years of marriage with his wife Wynter, on a warm summer night in 2018, 38-year-old Wynter Evans Pitts passed away unexpectedly in her sleep. Wynter left behind a family of four girls and a thriving ministry and writing career. Today, Jonathan shares about his life with Wynter, including the final book that they wrote together called Emptied, and how God is still using her creative spirit to minister to others.
Jonathan Pitts: My name is Jonathan Pitts, and I’m currently an executive pastor at Church of the City, which is a church in Franklin, Tennessee. It’s a family of churches, about six churches in total.
My wife, Wynter Danielle Evans, we were married 15 years. I also serve as president of [the ministry we founded together called] For Girls Like You. It’s a nonprofit organization that’s grown out of [Wynter’s] desire for our girls.
So that’s me.
Finding Identity Beyond the Label
If you saw me you wouldn’t know it—because I look African-American, I’m brown skinned—but my mom is German. My parents met at a place called Apple Farm, which is an old music school in New Jersey that my dad grew up around and worked at.
My dad, this pretty big African-American dude, fell in love with this German blond-haired, blue-eyed Midwestern girl, and the rest is history. They’ve been married over 43 years now and have five children. I have a twin brother, an identical twin brother, and I have three sisters.
My parents being rooted in their own identity was the key that got us through, because they basically shared our identity, although it included our race, had nothing to do with our race. Our identity was much deeper than that. Who we were as people was much deeper than that. I struggled some with identity growing up because I never felt like I fit in fully with my white family, and I never felt like I fully fit in with my black family—somewhere in between.
And so anytime that ever surfaced as an issue or question, whether it be middle school or high school or wherever, their assurance of their identity and their ability to kind of cascade that down to us was a huge difference maker.
“Our identity, although it included our race, had nothing to do with our race. Our identity was much deeper than that.” – Jonathan Pitts
Ultimately, their hard work and labor in teaching us that our identity was not in either race or anything else, that’s really something that’s just a part of who you are. It was definitely a helpful thing. And now, what’s beautiful for me is I actually get to be a person who shares that message, because I’m secure in who I am as well.
And so that’s how I grew up, growing in a Christian home [where] my parents loved the Lord, and that’s all I knew. I would say that my testimony is that I’ve tasted and seen that God is good.
Building an Intentional, Progressional Marriage
I fell into managing in the Christian entertainment space. I managed a guy named Anthony Evans Jr., who’s a singer and songwriter, and managed his music career for about seven years. But I fell into it. He needed somebody to travel with him on the road, and so I’d travel with him from Dallas, where we had moved to; Gainesville, Texas, and all these random little towns. We were starting his career, and that would just grow.
Wynter and I met in college. I remember walking out of my dorm and seeing this girl walk by me, and I didn’t know who she was, but she was beautiful to me.
Two weeks after we graduated from college, on June 27, 2003, we would walk the aisle and get married, and we’d be married for 15 years and 27 days.
What’s beautiful is I didn’t know the gem that I was marrying then. I didn’t know how much I was upgrading at that point. It would take me years to discover just the level of woman that I married.
“It would take me years to discover just the level of woman that I married.” – Jonathan Pitts
All of her life, Wynter had two physical conditions: one was a heart murmur, which is called mitral valve prolapse. It’s super common. At this point, it’s not that big of a deal to have. She also had Factor V Leiden, which is a blood clotting disorder. Those two things kind of worked together to always keep her at the cardiologist. So we were at the cardiologist every year, once a year. and they basically told her every year, “Your heart looks fine. It’s not growing. You might need a heart valve replacement eventually, but for now, you’re good.”
If there’s any regret that I had in our 15-year, 27-day marriage, it’s not realizing much sooner what I had in her.
I look at our marriage in three phases: the first five years were realizing we were two imperfect people, two broken people. We were bringing our brokenness into our marriage, and we had all these expectations, we drug in our own issues. And so the first five years was discovering that those things were there and deciding whether or not we were going to love each other and stay married to each other and work through those issues.
The second set of five years was digging our heels in to say, “Okay, we’ve come in with this baggage. We’ve come in with our history and all these expectations. We’re going to live an intentional marriage and an intentional life of laying those things down and emptying ourselves of those things.”
That last third of life together, not only did we consider each other best friends, but we worked together. We’d launched our ministry together, and we’d write together, and we’d be raising our girls together in a way that was just beautiful.
I didn’t think the day she left this earth that we would have had as intimate of a relationship as we did. If you’d asked me in year one or two, I just didn’t realize how deep our intimacy could be. I didn’t realize how deep our friendship could be.
We had this progression. And for me, the beautiful thing of our marriage wasn’t that it was perfect, but it was progressional. And because we were intentional as a couple, we had progression in terms of our love for each other, our relationship with each other. We just grew in depth together, and I’m just grateful for that.
“The beautiful thing of our marriage wasn’t that it was perfect, but it was progressional.” – Jonathan Pitts
Wynter Pitts Accomplishes Her Mission
On July 24th, 2018, Wynter was writing her last book and I was finishing up my last week at the Urban Alternative, the organization I’d run for the last seven years. I came home from work. We had actually already sold our house in Dallas, and we’d moved to Nashville and were staying at her cousin’s house, Priscilla [Shirer]. She had a house she’d moved out of that was still furnished, and we were staying there. Wynter texted me and said, “I don’t feel good. I really need you to step up tonight because I need to get this book done.” I knew that she was wanting to get this book done and had that deadline on her.
I came home, and it was a normal night for us. In the summertime when our kids were home and we were working, she would need to lay down for a little bit. So she went to lay down, I came home and cooked dinner. I knew she was gonna write that night. I went in the room and said, “Hey, babe, you want to eat?”
She’s like, “No, I think I’m going to lay here a little bit longer.”
And so I went back out, finished dinner, and I came back in. And as she was taking a nap, she had some sort of a heart rhythm issue, and that heart issue would give her an irregular heartbeat that wouldn’t sustain her life.
But what I love to think about for her is that she left this earth as peacefully as she lived in it. Her heart stopped in a moment, and her brain would’ve stopped receiving oxygen, and she left the earth in a hurry.
And although I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, in some ways I’m really grateful for that, because to know she didn’t really suffer and she left with ease and very little pain makes me feel really thankful.
There’s a verse that says that “David served the purposes of God for his generation, and then he fell asleep.” And I’m certain Wynter served the purposes of God for her generation before she fell asleep. So spiritually speaking, I believe that’s what happened: Wynter accomplished her mission and God called her home.
What I love to think about [Wynter] is that she left this earth as peacefully as she lived in it. . . . Wynter accomplished her mission and God called her home.” – Jonathan Pitts
“I am training you in patient endurance.”
Narrator: The day Jonathan laid Wynter to rest was one of the hardest in his life, but he found comfort in the pages of one of Sarah Young’s devotionals, Jesus Always, when an old mentor sent him the July 29th entry. Jonathan reads it for us now.
Jonathan: I am training you in patient endurance. This lesson is not for the faint-hearted. However, it is a rich blessing—one aspect of sharing in My kingdom and My suffering.
Since My kingdom is eternal, it is of infinite value. And I have made it clear that sharing in My sufferings is necessary for sharing in My Glory. Moreover, this experience produces real benefits in the here and now—character. Patient endurance can be developed only through hardship.
[This devotional] was like God telling me directly, “I’m training you in patient endurance, so just hold on.” It was beautiful—beautiful.
Learning How to Grieve Well
So I’m one of the most pragmatic guys you’ll probably ever interview.
I remember thinking within hours of Wynter passing away, Okay, I’ve got this. Not like, I’ve got this and things are gonna be perfect, but [like], I’ve got this. I can do this. Almost in a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, you’ve-got-four-girls-to-raise way. My mind went really pragmatic right away.
One of the things my counselor said to me was, “Look, Jonathan. Some people have a tendency to stay in the past and to belabor what they’ve lost, and other people have the tendency to run forward. Your tendency is to rush forward. But God exists in the present, so you need to remain in the present. That’s the only place you can be with Him. And that’s the only place you can really live and live in reality.”
And so for me, grieving well means living in the present and not trying to run down the road too far and think about, Okay, what’s next here? What’s next there? How am I going to do this? How am I going to do that?
So in a lot of ways, for me to grieve well has meant to intentionally slow down. And the beautiful thing about [my counselor] telling me that is I realized right away that [slowing down] allows my girls to grieve even better, because with me being present that allows me to be there for them.
“[Slowing down] allows my girls to grieve even better, because with me being present that allows me to be there for them.” – Jonathan Pitts
Honoring Wynter’s Legacy
Although I’m really pragmatic, I’ve always valued what I had in Wynter. And so for me to talk about her life, like, I love to honor her.
What’s funny about Wynter is she was a creator. She created her ministry For Girls Like You, and all of her writings were all out of this desire to create, but she never had a desire to carry on and manage ministry.
And so for me, the greatest honor I have is doing what I’ve always done for her, which is kind of to [be] the backbone of her ministry and be the consistent noncreator voice in the background, just kind of managing the things that need to keep going. And what’s beautiful is that her legacy is rich and large, and her magazine For Girls Like You and her writings—the 10 books she’s written—all that gets to be carried on.
The [publisher] basically said, “Well, we don’t want you to write a ‘how-to’ book. We want you to write a ‘join-us-on-the-journey’ book. Just write about your marriage. You guys are real people. You’ve already written about real stuff as parents, and we guarantee you can do that with a marriage book.”
We prayed about it, and we said, “We’ll do that.”
And so it really was just our story. As hard as it’s been [to lose a wife and mother], there’s been a lot of sorrow, but there’s been a ton of joy coupled with it. So I’m really grateful for that.
“As hard as it’s been [to lose a wife and mother], there’s been a lot of sorrow, but there’s been a ton of joy coupled with it.” – Jonathan Pitts
Narrator: You can learn more about Wynter and Jonathan’s ministry, including their book Emptied, at forgirlslikeyou.com.
Narrator: Stay tuned for our conversation with John Hill after a brief message about the 2019 CMA Fest television event.
Narrator: CMA Fest is proud to present a three-hour country music special hosted by Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini, with special guest host Bobby Bones, Sunday, August 4th at 8:00 PM /7:00 PM Central. Four days of superstar performances with country favorites like Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton and many more—you won’t want to miss these superstar performances jam packed into a 3-hour television event! Check it out on Sunday, August 4th at 8/7 Central on ABC. For more information, visit CMAFest.com.
Narrator: John Hill’s energy is infectious. Talking to him today, you’d never know the man who built The Good Contractors List, a thriving business in Dallas, Texas, would have been at the end of his rope. After years of struggling with his faith and his purpose in the world, John felt defeated and hopeless. One freezing night in 2011, God gave John the ultimate choice, one that would change John’s life forever.
John Hill: My name is John Hill. I am the founder of The Good Contractors List in Dallas-Fort Worth. I’m a father and a husband, and just your average guy that God’s been using in a different kind of way.
Living on the Roller Coaster
I’ve loved the Lord since I was a very small child. I was adopted at birth, raised in a small Pentecostal church and was there every time the doors were open.
We lived in a small town of Henrietta, Texas. I had a very normal childhood and was very protected and raised in the church.
By the time I reached my teens, I’d had such a wonderful relationship with God as a child and I felt His presence and all that stuff. But when whenever I started thinking about sin, I realized I was never going to live up to the potential that I was hearing [about] at church.
Some people have different experiences, but I’m kind of this black and white thinker. And it’s a roller coaster sometimes. You’re really good, and when you’re on, you’re on. You’re thinking, I’m going to be a minister, I’m going to do all these things. But when I was off, I decided I was off.
“As a teenager, I started falling away from God, realizing, If it’s black or white, there’s no way I’m ever gonna make it to heaven.” – John Hill
So I spent a lot of time going in and out of a relationship with God, because it was all based on my own flesh and what I was able to accomplish in that time frame. I ended up being divorced three times. I never did keep a good job. After I got out of the Navy, I tried to get into sales and some different things, and could never get on my feet.
Different things happened, and then I would soar to the bottom. There’s my roller coaster of highs and lows.
“Do you want to stay, or do you want to go?”
Back in 2011, I was probably at one of my lowest points, as far as feeling like I had any value to the world.
I’m all but homeless. I’m living with my girlfriend I’d met online just six months prior. I’d been living with a friend before that because I’d lost my house after my third divorce. Everything I owned fit inside my little two-door coupe car. I was just at the bottom, in my mind.
I remember just praying, “God, will you just take me off this planet? I am so sick of being a disappointment. I’m just sick of it. I don’t want to be here anymore. Will you just take me?” And I prayed that for two months.
In February of 2011, He gave me that opportunity. I was outside smoking a cigarette, and I started feeling like this heaviness.
There was a big freeze that hit Dallas-Fort Worth at that time around the Super Bowl, so nobody was getting around. It was frozen streets and all that. But I was thinking, I probably shouldn’t be smoking. Maybe I’m starting to get pneumonia or something.
I started coughing up fluid, and that’s kind of gross but it turned to blood. So they admitted me to the hospital for pneumonia about three o’clock in the morning, after my family had already gone home and everything.
I’m laying in the hospital. They’re trying to give me these breathing treatments, and it’s making things worse. So the doctor finally says, “We need to do some more tests. This doesn’t look like pneumonia to me.”
Apparently, I’d had a massive heart attack hours before. And now they are calling the cardiologist, and it was going to take over an hour for him and his team to make it into the hospital because of the ice.
I don’t think that they were expecting me to live. I was feeling like I might just fade out and go away.
As I’m kind of thinking this, the Lord spoke to me again in a very clear message, and it was a simple question. “John, do you want to stay, or do you want to go?” That was it. It was like, “It’s your choice,” but I kind of felt in my heart that if I stayed, I had a purpose.
So I struggled with it because remember, I’d been praying for a couple of months to die. I didn’t want to be here anymore, and here’s my chance I could feel peace. I didn’t think dying was going to hurt. I was just going to fade out, and I was gonna be gone.
At that time, I was still kind of questioning whether I was a Christian or not, because I had been introduced to so many thoughts and so many questions nobody could answer. I finally just told God, “I don’t know if I’m a Christian or not. I don’t know. All I know is that . . .”
You know that [thing where] your life flashes before your eyes? I just remembered how much I loved Him when I was a child, before I knew anything. And so I [told Him], “I just want to love You like that. That’s what I want. I want to love You like that. I don’t care what anybody else says anymore. I just want to love You like I loved You when I was a kid, before I knew what sin was, before I knew what all this stuff was.”
“I just want to love You like I loved You when I was a kid, before I knew what sin was, before I knew what all this stuff was.” – John Hill
I said, “If I stay, I want to be remembered for doing something good.” That was my number one thing. Up until this point, I’ve done nothing of value. I’ve done nothing that I see that has made a difference in anybody’s life. I said, “I want to live every day—not just be alive.”
“I want to live every day—not just be alive.” – John Hill
I think a lot of us just kind of go through life disappointed all the time of what we don’t have or what we can’t do, and I’m just like, I just want to live. I want to enjoy my life and stop this stress where I’m always trying to either make more money or [get] whatever I think is going to make me happy. I just want to be happy where I’m at, with what I have, and I want to live every day. I want to touch as many people as I possibly can the rest of my life. I want to make a difference in the world.
John Finds His Purpose
Whenever I got out of the hospital, all I knew was, I have a purpose. God kept me here for purpose. He said ‘so be it.’ I believe Him.
You know, I didn’t have a clue of how I was gonna make it happen. All I could say was I had to depend on listening every day and asking, “What do you want me to do?”
After I got out of the hospital, I was working for a direct mail place. You know those coupons you get in the mail that are in the envelopes? [Those come from] a company called Money Mailer.
I had a plumber who came up to me and was saying that he didn’t think he could afford to do the big one by himself. So he had a couple of other contractors he trusted, and he was a trusted guy. Everybody knew him. He said he would share an ad with these guys.
So I started thinking about it. What if I were able to get a plumber, an electrician, a roofer, and all these different contractors together who trust each other? The good guys kind of knew the good guys. If I put them on one website, then they could all afford to buy a bigger ad from me here at Money Mailer.
And then God kept me up at night, just saying, “This is bigger than that, John.”
I kept thinking about it. I knew how to build little simple websites. Maybe I could build this website, and I could charge them to be on it. Never ran a company before. Never managed anybody. But I felt like I was supposed to start this organization, this company.
I got online, and I had been talking to a contractor. I said, “It’s like being part of a good contractors list,” and that name kind of zinged me. I was like, Oh, The Good Contractors List. That sounds like a great business thing. Surely all those domain names are taken. All the good ones are taken by now.
Every form of it was available in .com. It just blew my mind that no one in the nation who had a contractors list came up with “the good contractors list.” I mean, that was the most obvious name in the world to me as a place where you’d find good contractors.
Sharing the Gospel Through a Business
I was a part of an organization called C12. It’s kind of a Christian businessperson’s organization. I tried to get in it really early. I was trying to find like-minded business owners who wanted to bring glory to God in their business and stuff like that. I started searching around online for a group, and I found this C12 group.
One of the first meetings I was in, I came in there with this open heart of, How can I use my business?
I knew I was buying these radio ads. I felt like God was saying, “We can use that medium to get the gospel out there.”
The only thing I would say is, “This was brought to you by The Good Contractors List,” and the rest of the ad would be a gospel message.
I started writing these little messages I felt God was giving me. I ended up with 12, one to play every month, and they were 54 seconds long.
We started playing Word of the Month on a secular station first. There are people hearing the gospel on secular stations out here, millions of people hearing the Word of the Month. So you can’t call me a pastor. I’m Forrest Gump, just doing what God tells me to do, and the Gospel is going out and millions are hearing it.
One of my Word of the Month [ads] I dedicated to Jesus Calling because I felt, you know, I can only do so much in a 54-second ad. But if I can get people to get to Jesus Calling and start reading some of those things, they will sense the sincerity of Jesus’s heart.
Here’s a reading from Jesus Calling on January 9th.
I am with you and for you. When you decide on a course of action that is in line with My will, nothing in heaven or on earth can stop you. You may encounter many obstacles as you move toward your goal, but don’t be discouraged—never give up! With My help, you can overcome any obstacle. Do not expect an easy path as you journey hand in hand with Me, but do remember that I, your very-present Helper, am omnipotent.
Much, much stress results from your wanting to make things happen before their times have come. One of the main ways I assert My sovereignty is in the timing of events. If you want to stay close to Me and do things My way, ask Me to show you the path forward moment by moment. Instead of dashing headlong toward your goal, let Me set the pace. Slow down, and enjoy the journey in My Presence.
Right from the beginning, I said, “It has to be different than anything that’s out there. It can’t be just me saying they’re good [contractors]. I’ve got to have some skin in the game.” So I came up with this: “If the job’s not right we’ll pay to fix it.” A $10,000 guarantee to the homeowner that if that contractor doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do, we’ll get physically involved. And if he can’t fix it or he won’t fix it, then we’ll take him off the list, we take responsibility for it, and we pay to fix it.
Everybody thought I was nuts. They’re like, “No way will that work. You can’t trust contractors.”
But I had a system, and the good guys always do their very best to do what’s right. I believed there were enough people out there who were honest, that they would support [it], and make sure this list stayed available to people. And the only way to do that is to always do the right thing.
And amazingly enough, now we have about 240 contractors that we’ve gotten.
“God Doesn’t Need Our Help. He Needs Our Obedience.”
I feel like if we could get out of the way and let God do what He wants to and we just trusted He’s going to show us what the next steps are, we would do some amazing things. We get way too involved in trying to help God. God doesn’t need our help. He needs our obedience.
“We get way too involved in trying to help God. God doesn’t need our help. He needs our obedience.” – John Hill
I want to follow God and go wherever He takes me. He built this company, and there’s no doubt. You can’t look at the at the weak vessel He used to create it and say, “That guy was sharp enough and had enough clout.” I mean, there was nothing but God in me.
So take those bad things that’ve happened, and take those things that you feel are holding you back. When you’re being held back, there’s a purpose behind that. When you’re being transported forward, push forward through the Holy Spirit. There’s a purpose for all that. Just go with the flow, and let God do His work in you.
Narrator: If you’re in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, you can find one of John’s contractors at thegoodcontractorslist.com.
Narrator: Since the time of this interview, John has learned the health of his heart has declined, though his doctors marvel at his energy and spirit. If you’re willing to lift up John in your prayers, please do so as he faces the next steps with his health.
Narrator: If you’d like to hear more stories about how God can restore life to us, even after pain and loss, check out our interview with Brett Swayn of The Cookery and Next Door graduate Sherry Taylor.
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we speak with adventurer extraordinaire Bear Grylls, star of the TV series Man vs. Wild. When we spoke with Bear, he reflected on the way faith has sustained him through his life, and how his later years have brought him even more understanding of God.
Bear Grylls: Faith at its heart is to say, “I’ll pick you up when you’re broken, and I love you and you’re forgiven. And here is home and here is strength and here is peace. You know let’s do this journey of life together.”