“Will you use your gifting to answer God’s calling?”
Story and photos by Bethany Aleshire
In Kirk Graham’s mind, North Central University was the only college for him. Even though both of his parents and older brother attended North Central before him, his desire to attend North Central was clear and personal for reasons other than just family ties. A wayward time in high school rendered the path to NCU a bit rocky, but then two things happened. First, Graham recommitted his life to Jesus in his senior year. Second, during a family missions trip to Africa, Graham engaged in multiple conversations and bonding time with his dad, NCU’s current Vice President of Spiritual Life Doug Graham.
“You’ve always been gifted in music,” the elder Graham told his son. “Will you use that gifting to answer God’s calling?” Soon after, Graham decided to employ his musical talents for the ministry and enrolled in North Central’s worship arts program.
Still, even with a 4.0 grade point average, Graham’s time in college wasn’t perfect. “I grew a lot in maturity,” Graham says. “I made a ton of mistakes. I even got kicked out of Chorale for missing too many concerts. It was the breeding ground to learning a lot of disciplines that weren’t in my life thus far.”
While a student at North Central, Graham was personally mentored by pianist, composer, and former NCU assistant professor of music Dave Pedde. He auditioned for and won a place on NCU’s premier touring worship team One Accord. His worship leadership skills were honed, and his faith was constantly stretched and strengthened. Others noticed, and upon completing his junior year Graham was offered a position at e Oaks Fellowship in Dallas. When River Valley Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota, had an opening for a worship pastor just a year later, Graham applied, got the job, and moved back to his home state with the blessing of his Oaks Fellowship family.
Graham’s ministry at River Valley has continued to evolve these past five years—and in ways he never expected. “I thought I’d be doing music or leading worship till I’m no longer relevant or something happens with my vocal chords,” he recalls. “But different opportunities arose as the church grew and different needs surfaced. Pastor Rob (Ketterling) offered me the opportunity to lead a young adult ministry that didn’t yet exist. He said, ‘We feel like you’re the leader to start something.’ So we launched Twenty Plus two-and-a-half years ago, and that has grown into quarterly events with more than a thousand young adults attending.”
Graham’s heart for the church also grew in surprising ways. “I never would have dreamed or even have wanted to be a campus pastor. But because the new campus is in the heart of the city, and because it matches what my wife and I are passionate about—and the people we’re passionate about reaching—it was the perfect opportunity.”
Graham and wife Kaylee hope that the Minneapolis campus will serve people and meet their needs in downtown Minneapolis—that it will become a place of community for those who have no community, a place of God’s love for those who don’t know of God’s love…yet.
Though Graham’s path to ministry was circuitous, his wisdom and substance abounds because of it. One of his sharpest points of pain is the culture of comparison he observes today. “God created each of us with unique giftings, unique callings,” he says, “and we need to step up to that. Everyone has an authentic voice, something they were created to carry, something they were created to do. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing—learn what your authentic voice is, learn to be comfortable in it, and don’t compare yourself to others.”
Graham’s preaching has resonated with crowds of young adults through Twenty Plus, and many people are just beginning to taste his love and pastoral care through his new position at River Valley. “Who knows what the future holds for me,” he muses, “but right now, by the grace of God, He is allowing me to lead. He is strong in my weakness.”
“Trying to help people connect with God…”
When Ben Cruse opens his mouth to speak, you identify his southern accent right away. But more than that, you notice his servant’s heart and his desire to connect with people.
Cruse zeroed in on North Central because it was the only Assemblies of God school to offer a music pastor major. Once he visited the campus, however, he fell in love with more than just the degree program. “It was the atmosphere of the general population,”he recalls. “It wasn’t just the people on stage who were for the Lord, it was everybody in the room.” His experience in chapel during that visit sealed the deal, and Cruse made the move from Dunn, North Carolina, to Minneapolis in 2011.
Throughout his college career, Cruse stepped into a number of different leadership and worship positions: discipleship leader his sophomore year, residence assistant his junior year, chapel worship team member, and even student development intern his senior year. He pursued most every opportunity that presented itself, not to pad his résumé, but to start walking out his ministry. “Every year, anything I did, any class, any leadership team, any worship team, somebody was pouring into me, investing into my life, and caring about me—not just to prepare me as a minister, but also to grow me as a person.”
Figuring out a healthy balance of pastoral, musical, and administrative work was Cruse’s biggest takeaway from his degree program at North Central. “There were some musical elements, but it also focused on spiritual excellence and having a pastor’s heart.” Cruse applied what he was learning to his next season of ministry, growing more passionate about loving people through worship and music than about his dream to lead a large choir or mount major musical productions.
While finishing his undergraduate degree, Cruse began attending the newly formed Eagan campus of River Valley Church, eventually joining the worship team and volunteering on Sundays. Never did he imagine that he had already begun the transition into his role as worship pastor for River Valley’s latest campus in downtown Minneapolis. “All I’m doing when leading worship is trying to help people connect with God, if they haven’t before, or if they have, in a new way,” he says about his mission. Today Cruse has set his sights on developing his leadership abilities even further as a graduate student in North Central’s Master of Arts in Strategic Leadership, investing in the people who walk through the doors of River Valley’s downtown Minneapolis location each Sunday, and faithfully serving in the ministry where God has placed him.
“Be involved,” Cruse encourages current NCU students. “The professors and the leadership care about you and your development both as an individual and as a leader, together and separately. Step into that relationship of mentor and mentee with the faculty and staff. If you have some free time, serve in leadership. Wherever you are at North Central, just be involved and be committed.”