An Examined Life: Journals Made John Selph a Pastor With a Mission

veronica mendez

As a two-time seminary student, John Selph (SEM ’98) was required to keep a journal.

What began as an assignment flourished into a lifelong practice, as John filled dozens of books through a decade of missionary service in South America and decades of local, national and international work with Youth For Christ.

Over the years John had read and reflected upon those reams of pages. “You can tell by your handwriting how you were doing emotionally—if you were feeling good or feeling angry or upset or something. What it tells me is more of what I call monuments to prayer—where God pulled me through something,” he says.

For John, now 75, the journals are woven into his 55 years in ministry. He was a student at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary—now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary—in the 1980s as preparation for missionary work and again in the 1990s, when he completed his master’s degree in missions and evangelism.

“It clearly helped me theologically—and that carries through,” he says of the seminary influence. “It helped reinforce spiritual formation, and having the privilege of doing it in two shifts…exposed me to some different professors and different classes.”

Today, John lives with his wife, Karen, in Clovis with their daughter Julie, grandsons Caleb and Noah and rescue dog Bailey. In retirement—make that semi-retirement for John—the couple has settled for the third time in the Fresno area after traveling internationally and also living in places like San Jose; Montevideo, Uruguay;and Chicago.


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Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, John met Karen as a teenager in a church group. He was introduced to Youth For Christ (YFC) in high school, and the call to ministry started at age 17. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in religion from Azusa Pacific University, where he also served in student government as first vice president and as a volunteer and part-time staff member with YFC.

Work with the group took the couple to San Jose through a mission call from Lincoln Glen MB Church and denominational leadership. Preparation for that service first brought the Selphs to Fresno.

“God spoke to us clearly,” says John, who also taught adult Sunday school at Lincoln Glen. “So at 34, we made a major career shift. We left San Jose, where we had a beautiful home and two kids, and came to Fresno and lived in an apartment and went to seminary for a year and a half.”

The couple and their two elementary-aged girls (son Kyle would be born in Uruguay), lived across the street from the main Fresno Pacific campus and he worked as a youth pastor at NorthFresno Church.

The seminary experience “helped solidify my commitment to an Anabaptist biblical theology,” John says. Courses in church ministry supplemented his lengthy experience as ayouth pastor.

“It really put me in a good position,” he says. “In those years as missionaries, I realized I really became a pastor.”

While only John was formally enrolled at the seminary, Karen audited several classes. “I wanted that experience of having lectures that meant something and textbooks that I actually enjoyed reading,” says Karen, who didn’t enjoy her time at a public university. “I think it was just maturing in my Christian education. That part was really good for me.”

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She even excelled beyond her husband in a course on the history of Israel, they agree. She also says the seminary helped the transition from her nursing career and as a stay-at-home momto missionary service.

“Being able to be in that environment I think was preparation,” she says. “To go into that work where the situation of your heart and mind… You get up every day thinking you need to be ina certain place spiritually to even walk outyour door.”

After John completed missionary training, the Selphs spent a year in Costa Rica to learn Spanish. In September 1985, they arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay, to work with the Mennonite Brethren conference there. In part, John ran the conference youth ministry and taught youth ministry in Bible school.

The family always was prepared to spend 10 years there in service. “My prayer was, ‘God, if we are going to do this—learn a language and go that far—can we do it for a decade’,” John says. “And that is exactly what he gave us.”


When the family returned to the United States, they again landed in Fresno. Daughters Julie (BA ’99) and Janine (TC ‘97, BA ‘96) Jenista enrolled at Fresno Pacific and John connected again with Youth For Christ. He jokes that YFC is like the mafia: “once you get in, you never get out.”

He also returned to the seminary to wrap up his master’s degree. “I like finishing things. I also knew that in the future, if the Lord were to call me to a pastoral role, the seminary degree would be important,” he says.

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Not long after completing that degree, John was recruited to work with YFC in Chicago. The Selphs lived there for 20 years, where John first served as the organization’s juvenile justice ministry director and was also a member of the DuPage County Juvenile Court Youth Commission and an auxiliary chaplain with the Cook County Sheriff’s Department.

The Selphs also began serving as a pastoral couple for Latin American Youth For Christ staff and missionaries, and ultimately John transitioned to member care director for Youth For Christ International. But as COVID pandemic shut down travel and confined interactions to a computer screen, the Selphs put their retirement plan—and a return to the Central Valley—into action.

John officially retired December 31, 2023—for the New Year holiday. On January 2, 2024, he began providing ministry staff care at the Fresno/Madera Youth For Christ. “It’s part-time and I absolutely love it,” he says.

Fresno/Madera YFC Executive Director Jameson White (MA ’14, BA ’07), a fellow seminary alum, is grateful for the helping hand and expertise. White says Fresno Pacific is another strong connection.

“Any time you meet someone from FPU…you see the world in the same ways and share a formation history,” he says. “Those are all great things.”

At home, John still keeps a journal—a habit picked up during his time at the seminary. His collection was so vast that, when moving out of the couple’s Chicago home, he decided to toss out the first 15 to 20 years.

But there’s still a large box full of journals tucked under the bed along with a few other books stashed here and there. “It’s just becomea part of my devotional life,” he says.

In those years as missionaries, I realized I really became a pastor.”
John Selph