BARTOW BIO: Career change brings fulfillment for Jacob Burson

Posted 5/24/20

Answering the call to ministry late in life, Jacob Burson is serving as the lead pastor at Emerson United Methodist Church and community engagement pastor at Trinity at The Well.“I helped plant …

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BARTOW BIO: Career change brings fulfillment for Jacob Burson

Answering the call to ministry late in life, Jacob Burson is serving as the lead pastor at Emerson United Methodist Church and community engagement pastor at Trinity at The Well.

“I helped plant Church at The Well in 2008,” he said. “In 2018, I was part of a team of folks who worked to merge Church at The Well with Trinity UMC. In January of 2019, that new church became Trinity at The Well.

“In June of 2019, I was called to be the local lead pastor of Emerson UMC. In my years of community work with The Well and other organizations, I knew that there was much need in south Bartow County. Being appointed to Emerson UMC was an answer to a prayer for sure. The location of the church is right in the heart of the Emerson community. Logistically, that makes it a great location to launch ministry and mission from.”

Name: Jacob Burson

Age: 43

Occupation and title: Growth director at LIVE2540, aka Orphan Aid, Liberia; pastor at Emerson UMC and Trinity at The Well

City of residence: Cartersville

Family: Wife, Dee Dee Burson; four kids: Brady, 19, Brooke, 17, Brielle, 14, and Bo, 10

Education: B.S. Professional Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, UMC licensed local pastor

The Daily Tribune News (DTN): Share a little about your military background and engineering career.
Jacob Burson (JB): I was about as average of a student growing up as someone could be. My grades reflected my effort. I did just enough to pass and stay eligible to play sports and keep my parents and coaches from riding my tail. After graduation, I went to Truett McConnell College in Cleveland, Georgia. I only lasted a semester and came back home to Lawrenceville, Georgia. I stayed in community junior college, but I knew I wasn’t heading on a path of graduating from college. I made some bad decisions and I prayed to God to show me something, give me some kind of direction. I was tired of barely getting by. It was then I felt I needed to join the military and leave the circle I was in. I settled on joining the Air Force and scored well enough to become an avionics technician working on airplanes. The USAF tuned me up, polished me and revealed to me how capable I truly was. I learned how to be a student, a good student in the USAF. While working grave shift on the flight line, I started attending college while on active duty. Juggling a marriage, living across the country, real-world operations at the time, short-term deployments and the birth of our first child, somehow I managed to finish my degree during my enlistment. Looking back on it, I’m not sure how I did it, but the military has a way of teaching you to never give up and to always find a way to accomplish the task at hand. At the time, the task was graduating to be in a position to have a good job once my service was up to provide for my family.
After my four-year service in the USAF, I was hired at Lockheed Martin in engineering on the legendary C-130 program. My first position there was writing maintenance manuals for military aircraft. I moved on within the company to working at the engineering level developing and testing diagnostic software for the C-130J program. I traveled to many places and worked with military customers from all over the world. It was an unbelievable time being that close and involved with teams of folks responsible for the security and safety of our nation and world. My last few years at Lockheed, I worked as a project manager working closely with the C-130J Canadian Air Force, the USAF and the USAF special operations programs. Knowing the real-world situations and the direct impact our projects had on the efficiency of our customer meeting their mission was very rewarding. Counting my active duty time, I spent over 20 years in military defense aviation and contracting. 

DTN: When and why did you initially get involved with LIVE2540?
JB: I’ve known the founder and CEO of LIVE2540, Daryl Roberts, for many years. We have kids the same age, I’ve coached his son in baseball, we attended church together and have been friends for a while. During my entire career, I’ve always felt out of place. I was able to temporarily salve that feeling by changing jobs within Lockheed every few years. The new challenge kind of numbed me for a spell, but the discontent with where I was would always resurface, eventually. That all changed in 2017. In May of that year, I had an accident. I don’t remember the day of the accident, so the details aren’t clear, but to sum it up, I fell, landed face-first on a boulder, and suffered a fairly significant head injury, lots of cuts, broken bones in my face, ambulance ride and a short stay at Grady. As a result of the traumatic brain injury, I had a pretty significant concussion and a case of post-concussion syndrome (PCS). I was out of work for eight weeks and in physical therapy for several months. That accident changed everything. It changed conversations at my house about what was important and what truly mattered. I was truly shook. I was living life as if 60 years old was a guarantee and the accident was a reminder that tomorrow isn’t a guarantee, so living for a day that may never come is a risky call.

My wife and I talked a lot about the future. I wanted a change. Having my wife, Dee Dee, on board with me was the deciding factor. We were doing this as a team. I had decided that 2018 was my last year at Lockheed Martin and that I was going to figure out what was next. I had no idea. None.

I met with my buddy Daryl Roberts just to talk about life and catch up. I just wanted his advice because I knew he had taken a similar jump in his life too. The jump from safety and predictable into the unknown when he started Orphan Aid, Liberia. I told Daryl that I had no idea what I was going to do. I had experience in managing projects and briefing high ranking military officers and extremely critical programs and schedules, so I assumed I would be able to find a project management job in the Cartersville area. That would allow me to be close to home while I figure out what was next and what exactly God was calling me to. At the time, I had no idea what it was, but I knew it wasn’t what I was doing for a living at the time.

What I didn’t know, at the time, because he didn’t tell me in the moment, was that the night before our coffee together, Daryl had prayed something very specific to God. He asked God to send him someone to help with LIVE2540. I won’t go into some of the details, but it was pretty specific, so from his perspective, our conversation was pretty unbelievable. Several weeks passed and Daryl extended an opportunity for me to join the LIVE2540 team. It was a part-time position, so to say it was a difficult decision to leave a 20-year career in defense contracting is an extreme understatement. There was a lot of prayer and conversations with a lot of folks about my decision. Sending Daryl the text saying, “I’m in,” was a huge relief. The decision was made. I left my very stable, well-paying job to work part time at LIVE2540 as the growth director. Being a part of this team is phenomenal and extremely rewarding. 

DTN: What is your role with this nonprofit and what do you enjoy most about being a member of its leadership team?
JB: All of us here at LIVE2540 are a “jack of all trades” within the organization. My official role is as our growth director, but we all work together in expanding the capabilities, reach and impact of the organization. I really enjoy connecting people to our story and our collective work. It’s exciting to work with our master storyteller, Zach Brown, and work to remind our supporters that their efforts are impacting lives across the globe and right here in our own backyards. Being sure to let folks know that none of this work is possible without the collective community coming together is something we are always striving for.

DTN: What are some of your most memorable moments with LIVE2540?
JB: While I was prepared knowing that Liberia was the poorest country in the world, you just don’t know what that looks like until you’re there. The inescapable poverty in Liberia is what constantly sticks in my mind. I have so many memories in country. I’ll share a couple of experiences in Liberia that are relevant to the ministry trajectory of my life so far. We made a mattress delivery to one of the orphanages we support and they gave us a great welcoming. Watching the kids celebrate the 6-inch thick colorful mattresses arrive was really moving. The appreciation they showed was humbling and convicting. Watching children, small children, remove their old, tattered, disintegrating mattresses from their wooden framed bunks and work together to put their new mattresses in place was indescribable. I wish there was a way to bottle that moment up and share it with every person who has purchased one of our LOVE shirts or supported us. They made that moment happen. At that same orphanage, they had an open large hut that served as a place where the kids learned large group lessons, ate meals and went to church. The structure was made of bricks and a tin roof. The kids broke out into a few songs one being, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The moment had God all over it. It’s as if God was whispering in my ear, “Welcome Home.” The simplicity of the structure and the worship was what I needed to see for what God had in store. We saw a similar structure in another village. In this place, I saw some kids kicking and throwing, sidearm, a football. Daryl said that was the first football he’d ever seen in Liberia. I went over to the dozens of kids who were playing and showed them, roughly, how a football was thrown. I lined them up in lines and showed them how to run routes. It was phenomenal. Their joy in the moment in the middle of a palm nut farm in the middle of thousands of acres in the middle of nowhere will stick with me forever. And while that’s memorable, I know they need care to have that kind of joy. The basics of food, water and very basic medical care literally saves lives. It’s those moments that provide the drive to keep the work moving forward.

DTN: When and why did Orphan Aid, Liberia, change its name to LIVE2540?
JB: We just made the name change this year. For several years now, we’ve been doing work in places other than Liberia, West Africa, but it was somewhat difficult to communicate that work under the banner of Orphan Aid, Liberia. For example, we have been supporting a girls’ home in the Philippines, we support a project in Ecuador, we are engaged in nutrition in Burkina Faso, and we are also supporting organizations local to Bartow County. Our work in Liberia is not being reduced nor going away. As we’ve grown and our capabilities have expanded, we knew God was guiding us to more opportunities in more places and we needed a name to capture this growth.

LIVE2540 is the tree and Orphan Aid, Liberia, is becoming one of the branches. LIVE2540 is in reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40. In that Scripture, Jesus is telling us that when we care and provide for the abandoned, the forgotten, the sick, the hungry and the neglected that as we do those things, we care for Him at the same time. At some level, all of us have been abandoned, forgotten, sick, hungry or neglected in our lives. Hopefully not to an extreme level, but to some level. And many of us have made it to the other side of that pain and we have a calling to extend a hand and our hearts to people who are still in that pain. So LIVE2540, for us believers, means that we are to live out, every day, the heart of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40.  Because as we do, we love God and we love people with actions.

DTN: When were you called to the ministry and share a little bit about your ministry background.
JB: I was never the model church kid growing up. My parents had me in church every week, but I was never the kid who rose to the top in church activities. I never did well in Bible drill, I never won any church awards, I was never asked to play a significant role in church plays, I was never a student leader, but I always talked to God. I felt like an outsider in church, but never felt outside of God. My call to ministry came late in life. While others say they saw it, it took me a while to catch on. Twelve years ago I was connected to a guy who was planting a new church here in Cartersville, Andy Postell. The church had no name and, at the time, he and his wife were the only ones on the core team. I was not a churchman at the time. I was OK with helping a church set out chairs or greet a door, but that’s about it.  Andy brought me in to be a key leader in the new church. I told him that I wasn’t the guy he was looking for. I was honest with him. I didn’t know much about the Bible, I wasn’t qualified and I wasn’t who he needed. His response changed everything.  He said, “If you thought you were all of those things, I wouldn’t want you in this role.” So my wife and I joined up to start Church at The Well.
Serving as a leader in that church for a decade in a variety of positions and as the student ministry director, I grew spiritually and began to feel like God was truly preparing me for something that fits who I am. I knew that it wasn’t full-time ministry. I’ve always felt like I needed to have one foot in the normal world to keep me stable and present with people who are outside of the church. That’s not true for everyone, but it’s true for me. A couple of years ago my friend and pastor Mark Jordan asked me to consider becoming a local pastor. This is a role in the UMC that typically supports pastoral ministry in a bivocational setting, meaning pastor a church while also working another career. While in local pastor training, mentoring with Mark, and going through that discernment process, I truly found God’s current call on my life to pastor in small places while also working outside of the church.

My call to pastor Emerson UMC is my first lead pastor position. I’ve been serving there for 11 months. In April, I was also called to serve in an associate pastor role at Trinity at The Well in Cartersville.

DTN: What is your favorite Bible verse, and why?
JB: Without question, Acts 4:13 — “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” If there’s one verse that feels like I’ve found myself within God’s Kingdom it’s this one. So often, common folks have been disregarded, demoted and told to step aside by the church. Then we wonder, where have all of the people gone? Yes, we are to grow in knowledge and truth, but we can’t place that above our meeting people where they are seeing God’s work in them as being valuable. We still need to grow and maximize the wisdom God has given us. We will be known by our boldness, that’s how people will know that we love Jesus. Our boldness and our love for each other should leave people astonished. Jesus took a crew of ordinary, common men and changed the world. 
DTN: How would describe Emerson UMC as far as its history, membership, programs and heart for God. 
JB: Emerson UMC has a very long and rich history. The current church facility is just about 100 years old. The previous structure burned in a fire. You can’t build what Emerson UMC is today. You can’t build history or legacy. That’s something that’s only earned over time and Emerson UMC has earned it since 1897. “The Mission of Emerson United Methodist Church is to be A Beacon on the Hill, Reaching Out and Proclaiming the Love of Jesus Christ.” We are a small church, but this church’s kingdom impact is mighty. In the last year, we’ve added a Little Free Porch Pantry that’s open to the community 24 hours a day and we developed a partnership with the Red Door Food Pantry where we are a host location for their monthly mobile food pantry distribution. The Red Door mobile food pantry occurs monthly, every third Saturday, at the church. During the current COVID crisis, Emerson UMC has partnered with BLESS Coalition, Emerson Church, Lakepoint Church, Red Door Food Pantry and Lakepoint St. Angelo’s Pizza with delivering hundreds of free meals to the south Bartow community.

The heart for God in this community is amazing.  The willingness of the churches in Emerson to work together is one of the many things I love about pastoring in this community. We truly care for each other and the work we are ultimately engaged in together.

DTN: How would you describe your preaching style?
JB: As a pastor of a small church, I’ve found great freedom in “finding my voice” with a congregation whose hearts are very open and forgiving. I preach like I talk in every day conversation. I want people to know me as I am, not as what I might project to be and my hope is that we are growing together through the spoken word of God. I keep things simple and get to the cross as quick as possible. That also helps in getting our folks to Doug’s Place as quick as possible on Sundays for lunch.

DTN: What is your greatest professional and/or personal achievement?
JB: Stepping away from a very stable career and income and being where we are today is something I don’t take for granted. We’ve had some hard times and difficult days, but seeing God’s provision through all of this has been awesome.

DTN: How would you describe yourself in three words?
JB: Persistent, patient and appreciative

DTN: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
JB: People are most always surprised to find out that I’m a pastor. I’m not sure if people think that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I personally love that I can be present in places and with people who treat me like a regular person, because that’s what I am. I also get a kick out of some people’s responses to finding out I’m a pastor. Trust me, after this article, there will be some folks I grew up with who will be shocked when they find out. Even I’m surprised.

DTN: What is the best advice you have ever received?
JB: My Papa Burson, just the way he lived life was the best advice I ever received. He was [a] WWII vet and I spent a lot of time with him when I was a kid. He always had a saying for whatever situation we were in or job he had me work. He used to collect scrap metal and take it to recycle for spare money. When we would drop off a load and he’d pay me my share he would say, “Jacob, that’s like seeing a $20 bill on the ground, picking it up and putting it in your pocket. We just took someone’s junk and made some money.” His advice is also in my dad and it lives in me today. I feel his soul in mine often.

DTN: What do you like to do in your spare time?
JB: Working at LIVE2540 and pastoring at two churches leaves me just wanting do one thing in my spare time and that’s spend time with my wife and kids. As a matter of fact, we have an appointment to go canoe the river and hopefully catch some fish this afternoon.

DTN: Where is your favorite place to be in Bartow County?
JB: Home with my family. After that, in a non-COVID world, under the bridge, at the LIVE2540 LOVE shop with people gathering in our living room there, sharing life and laughs is about as close to the Kingdom of God as you can get in this world. It’s a special place that I’m beyond grateful God has allowed me to be a part of.