Meet Student Ministries Pastor Rob Hemphill

David Saphirstein

Northland Church has long been known for its Student Ministries. As a new chapter for Northland begins, we are also entering into a new chapter for our Student Ministries with the hiring of a new student pastor. Pastor Rob Hemphill has a passion for teaching and discipling the next generation. We recently sat down with Rob to get to know him better and to hear the insight he has gained in 30 years of student ministry work.  

You’re a Floridian by birth. Tell us about your childhood. Did you grow up in the church?

I was born in Ocala. Lived there through fifth grade. I had a great childhood, grew up going to church there at Highlands Baptist Church.

My parents were very active in the church; actually they were involved in student ministries at the church just as volunteers at that point. I grew up in a youth group from that sense. We moved to Orlando when I was entering the sixth grade. Upon visiting churches for the first year we were here, our family finally decided on FBC Winter Park. I started at Maitland Middle School, then went on to Winter Park High School. I stayed in the area and went to school at the University of Central Florida. At UCF, I studied interpersonal communications and got involved with campus ministries. After graduating from there, I went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

When did you feel God calling you to ministry?

During my freshman and sophomore years in college, I began to feel a sense of God’s calling, possibly to do ministry full time, and so I began to pursue some opportunities that would allow me to decipher and clearly hear from God. I wanted to make sure this was something He was calling me to and that I wasn’t calling the shots for my future. I got plugged in at my church. Just kind of helped out with the student ministries a little bit while I was in college. My junior and senior years of college I got the opportunity to do an internship with a church up in Richmond, Virginia. That was a good opportunity. I moved up there for the summer. Then the second time, I moved up there four to five months. That was a great experience, and God really confirmed along the way that ministry was what He was calling me to. I had to ask myself, “Is there anything else in life I can do and still be happy?” For me, the answer was no. I came back, loaded up and went to seminary in Texas.

I know you’re married and have two sons. Tell us about them and how you and Audra met.

Audra and I met at church, and it all started when I was coaching a basketball team for the Greater Orlando Church Association league here in Winter Park that played in our gym. Her younger brother happened to play on my team. She would bring her brother and would end up staying for the practices. I began to take notice of this because most people don’t usually stay. They would just drop off their kids and leave, but not Audra. I began to get to know her that season, and we started dating shortly afterwards. We both went to and graduated from UCF. Following graduation, I went to seminary in Texas, and after being apart from each other for six months, I asked her to marry me. We were married 10 months later, on June 13, and then moved to Texas to start our life together. She had just finished her first year of teaching, and I had moved her away from everything she knew in Central Florida, but we wouldn’t trade our early years of marriage for anything. We lived in a very tiny seminary house, which was fun, and made great memories with lasting friendships.

We have two sons. James is 20 and a junior at UCF. He’s studying radio-TV production. His dream job would be to produce [“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”]. He also loves playing the bass guitar. Jack is 8 and in the third grade. He plays all kinds of sports, and currently his favorite is baseball. They both have played an active role in our ministry.

Where did you go after Texas?

After Texas, we went to West Palm Beach. We were there for about five years. There was a lot of great things going on. We saw God do some amazing things through evangelism, missions and outreach. I got to help out with a Christian alt rock radio show on Saturday nights with a friend of mine at times as well. The youth group just blew up. It was cool watching God move in that church, but it was a lot of work. We were a smaller church with not a lot of volunteers, but we were hitting the 120 student mark in summer. It took a lot out of us. As a new guy, I completely failed at balancing work and family and church, and it became apparent we needed a break. We stayed involved in student ministry on weekends, speaking at retreats, leading worship for youth groups in the Orlando area, etc. I met back up with Ken Mann, who asked us to help out at FBC Winter Park, of all places. His and Kim’s friendship was timely and godly.

After a short break and wise counsel, doors started to open with a couple of churches in Florida and one in Maryland, so we were praying through all of that. In the meantime, Ken was being called away from First Baptist of Winter Park, and they said, “Hey, would you step in as our interim.” So I did, and at the end of the interim period, they said, “We have a search team – will you sit in those meetings and provide counsel since you know these kids?” Four months after the interim job ended, they asked if I’d like to jump in here full time. Thirteen years later, here we are.

What do you do for fun?

I love doing stuff with my wife and my family! We love hanging out at the river or going on adventures. We do a little of everything. I love music, play guitar. I’ll jump up and play with the worship band if need be. I like to go to shows, concerts, stuff like that as much as possible. Like to play Ultimate Frisbee. I love coaching; I’m really into that. I coach my son in basketball, football and baseball.

You’ve been on many mission trips and actually just got back from one in Brazil. Where do they fit in to your ministry?

Mission trips are definitely a priority, definitely a passion. One of the first mission trips I went on, I experienced something that I try to expose students to now, and that is that it changes not only your worldview and perspective, but it changes your perspective of world Christianity. A lot of times we’re raised in churches here in the U.S., and we think that’s all that Christianity is, and then you go and worship in a church that’s in a completely different country, and they do it a different way. It really just broadens your perspectives, your horizons of understanding that, oh, OK, we don’t have it all right; there’s more than just one way of doing this. I heard that after our trip to Brazil. Students were feeding back and said that they thought it was going to be this way, and man, it was completely something different. I think it’s helpful. I think it helps stretch you to go and do things that maybe you hadn’t been called to do before. It’s a good faith stretcher for students to experience. I think it’s very important and a key piece. What happens is they come back from that trip, and what they have learned and experienced on that trip then translates into the everyday ministry at home. I think the investment return on the trip lasts a lifetime.

You’ve been working with students a long time and I’m sure have seen a great deal. What keeps you going in student ministry?

What gets me up in the morning is to know that there’s an opportunity to get up in front of students and to not only share the gospel but push those who are Christ followers to the next level. And there’s nothing like seeing the light come on, whether it’s salvation or whether it’s when the light comes on and they say, “Oh, this is what it means to follow Christ.” To see that light come on and see them understand that and begin to grasp that and take that faith and own it for themselves – for me there’s nothing else, nothing like it. So that’s why I’m so passionate about it. I just love seeing those moments. I love helping students get from point A to point B. Man, the excitement, the buzz – that’s what gets me going.

Do you have a philosophy that you follow for leading a student ministry?

I do, and I break it down into five areas:

1. Reach nonbelieving students.
     Through outreach events, being on campus, engaging through student relationships, we strive to reach all nonbelieving students with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2. Connect them with other Christians.
     Getting new Christians quickly connected with other students is vital. We are to run this race together, and getting students connected with a small group and in community with other believers puts them in a healthy environment to grow.

3. Grow in their faith.
     Students need to be challenged to grow in their relationship with Jesus, just like they’re challenged to succeed in other areas of their life. We do this through worship, small group Bible study, memorizing Scripture, daily discipleship, retreats, serving, mission trips, etc.

4. Discover their purpose and ministry.
     God has a purpose for each student! Helping them discover that passion and purpose is part of the journey. We’ll push them to seek and find this purpose so they can serve the church, serve their family and serve this city!

5. Honor God and their parents.
     Our prayer is that students graduate this ministry and honor God, the church and their parents with the life they live, the choices they make and the Christ followers they become. The Kingdom watermark of success is how these students grow into godly men, women, moms, dads, and leaders in their future churches and communities.

What can students expect from you?

I hope they’re ready to go; I hope they’re ready to move because that’s what I want to do. I want to push everyone to the next level of commitment. They already may be there. We need to ask, “What does that look like to them? What is the next level for them?” “The next level may be reaching out to my friends or leading a small group. Now I’m sharing the gospel with kids on my school campus.” I want each student to ask, “What does that look like for me?” They can expect: “Let’s go! Let’s get after it!” No standing around. I love to have fun. I love for things to be super high energy.

The fun part of this part of the journey with Christ is that at this age group, they have the ability to do things that no other generations can. And what I’m excited about now is that post-Parkland shooting, this culture and this world, especially in the U.S., is listening to this age group more than it ever has in any other generation. People’s ears are open, and their eyes are watching what this generation does and how they’re responding to issues because now they have a voice; now they’re standing up. You see students speaking up and being interviewed all over the place. … I think Christian students now should be stepping into those roles and standing up with other students and walking with them through what’s going on out there. They don’t necessarily need to support it but walk with them through it. “Yeah, we’re here for you” because then they’re more apt to be willing to hear the gospel message. I think now is just an unbelievable time to be a teenager and to be a Christian.

Where do parents fit in?

To me, parents are still the chief disciplers in a student’s life. As a student ministry, we just come alongside, except in unique situations where maybe there isn’t a dad or mom involved. We’re just walking alongside parents during this season. We want to make sure that the message we’re speaking into their lives is the same message that the parents are speaking into their lives. I always try and have that conversation with parents. There’s got to be some accountability on the parents in making sure they are definitely on the same page, the right page. It’s pretty easy to see when it’s not being modeled at home, when spirituality and chasing Christ is not modeled at home, and for that you have to step in and speak into the students’ lives. Hopefully the parents are and we’re just able to be in this with them.

Tell me about Audra and her involvement in your ministry?

Audra has always been my right hand, always been my partner in ministry. A lot of the time that we spend together, we talk about the ministry. On date nights, about halfway through, we realize we’re talking about student ministry. We’re in this together for the long haul. She’s currently the registrar over at International Community School, so she has a lot of exposure to students over there. They stop by her desk and say hi, maybe share something, or [say,] “Hey, pray for me about this.” You’ll see Audra around a lot. She never misses camp, never misses retreats, [is] always right by my side.

This is an exciting time at Northland as we relaunch. What excites you about joining the team right now?

What I’m excited about is Northland has always had a great reputation for outreach and worship, so we’re excited, not just to be a part of that but to embrace this new vision statement. It’s been great to get to know Pastor Matt and his vision for the next chapter of the life of Northland. We’re looking forward to embracing this vision statement and allowing it to be embraced by student ministry so they move forward along with the whole church, everyone moving forward together. We’re excited about the energy that’s already here. We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and get busy with it. We’re excited about that.

What does it mean to you to be fully alive?

When I think of that, I think of when Jesus called Lazarus out of the grave. He first of all spoke specifically to Lazarus. When Lazarus came out, you think about the graveclothes that he had on, and what Christ calls us to do is to not walk out of our churches on Sunday still in those graveclothes. When God says, “I have come so you may have life and life more abundantly,” I think of Lazarus coming out, the graveclothes coming off, and him now being fully alive again in Christ. Not bound by anything but to go and experience the fullness of what following Jesus is all about. It’s about the grace, the mercy, the joy that’s set within and just pursuing Christ with all that we have.