A youth fishing ministry combines Christian practices with social enterprise
The Rev. Matthew McNelly, far right, on the water with teens and a summer intern with GoFish!
GoFish! Ministries takes kids out on Washington’s Snake River to share life together and earn money through a state program that pays anglers to catch an aggressive species of fish.
Come late summer, the rolling Palouse wheat fields stretch like a golden carpet south to the breaks of the Snake River Canyon. Far below, the river winds through rocky channels on its way to the Columbia River and eventually the Pacific Ocean.
This evening, the Rev. Matthew McNelly, co-pastor of the Pullman Presbyterian Church, is preparing a silver pontoon fishing boat named the Suzie Q for launch on the river. It’s 102 degrees as his crew and passengers don life jackets and the engine roars to life. McNelly slowly motors out of the cove and into the open current, where their adventure is about to begin.
The Suzie Q is the humble stage for an enterprising and multifaceted new youth ministry called GoFish! In essence a floating monastic community, the participants share a river trip complete with Bible readings, prayer, discussion, meals and campfires, all while being paid to catch northern pikeminnow -- an aggressive fish that preys on juvenile salmon.
The innovative program welcomes youth in McNelly’s congregation ages 10 and up, as well as youth from other churches or with no particular faith background. On the boat, they are given a chance to work and learn life skills in a social enterprise based on ancient Christian practices. Over the last two summers, McNelly’s crew has helped 40 participants catch hundreds of different types of fish, including nearly 200 large pikeminnow worth over $1,000.
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The name GoFish! comes from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus calls a group of fishermen tending their nets to become his first disciples. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fishers of men.”
“Fishermen are deeply acquainted with failure,” McNelly said. “There are days when you go out and don’t catch anything. And you are wet and cold. Jesus needed a group of people who would not back down from the mission of the gospel, even when things were difficult or people were rejecting his message and failure seemed to be at every turn. Fishermen are resilient folks.”
It’s an apt analogy for the challenges McNelly has also faced as a pastor, including reviving an aging, dwindling congregation. The process of launching an unconventional ministry itself was difficult and took prayer, faith and a healthy dose of hope to persevere through the inevitable obstacles and disappointments.
“In GoFish! I can have conversations of faith with kids while we’re doing life on the river,” he said. “Through the trials and tribulations of catching fish and losing fish -- getting hung up on the bottom or getting skunked one day -- we talk about how we deal with success or failure as followers of Christ.”
Aboard the Suzie Q
Back on the river, the Suzie Q chugs downstream into the setting sun, the dry canyon hillsides reflected in the rippling water.
McNelly is at the helm in a floppy gray hat and sunglasses. He wears a quick-dry shirt and khaki cargo pants. Around his neck hangs a black cord with a pair of silver nail clippers for cutting fishing line.
“The key to catching pikeminnow is finding them,” he says as he points out the boat’s high-tech GPS fish finder and 3D navigation system. He also uses an underwater fish-shaped camera that allows him to survey activity taking place deep below their feet.
“We’re looking for rocks and boulders on the river bottom, where pikeminnow like to swim,” McNelly explains. “We’re at 38 feet now.”
The boat gently rocks as he throws out the anchor.
His passengers include two 12-year-old boys -- Isaac, a cheerful, round-faced redhead, and Preston, a quiet boy in blue plaid shorts who politely offers gum. Isaac is an old hand at fishing, having already caught enough pikeminnow to earn $65. For Preston, it’s the first time out.
While the deckhand readies the poles, the boys put on gray nitrile gloves to keep their scent off the bait. With great concentration, they carefully load night crawlers and large brown Mormon crickets onto the hooks.
McNelly helps Preston gently toss his line out into the water.
“All right, you’re fishing, dude!” he says. “We’re in a little current, so there will be some tension on your line, but you’ll know when a fish hits -- that line will be bouncing all around.”
“We try real hard to make sure every kid gets to land at least one fish,” McNelly says.
After half an hour, he decides to move on. There have been no bites, and several lines have gotten stuck on rocks. A welcome breeze is blowing as the boat turns and heads upriver, trailing a foamy wake.
An innovative solution to a financial challenge
McNelly grew up along the Columbia River in Longview, Washington, where he spent time outdoors fishing with friends.
“We’d get up, grab a tackle box and ride our bikes to the lake,” he said. “I loved the adventure and mystery of fishing -- you don’t know what’s happening out in the water. My sense of wonder was piqued out there.”
His interest continued at Whitworth College in Spokane, where he joined the swim team, became a lifeguard and earned a degree in biology. Eventually, the call to ministry led McNelly to Princeton Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Amy, became a clergy couple and, later, associate pastors in California, where he channeled his passion for the water into a youth surfing program.
When their children arrived, the McNellys moved back to the Northwest to accept a ministry position in the university town of Pullman. He and Amy have a 5-year-old son, Jonah, and three daughters: Lydia, 15, Eliza, 13, and Naomi, 8.
“We’ve been here 12 years, and a lot has changed,” he said. In the beginning, the average age in their new congregation was about 70, but McNelly said they worked hard to reach multiple generations, and the church now has a large contingent of families with children, as well as baby boomers.
“I think one thing that allowed us to become healthier is the willingness to experiment and not be afraid to fail -- on both my part and that of the congregation,” he said. “We’ve learned to embrace the ongoing rapid pace of change in society. I believe change is the one main constant, and that we always have to be adapting and innovating.”
McNelly’s philosophy was put to the test three years ago.
Financial demands motivated McNelly to come up with the idea for GoFish!, which is deeply rooted in the local environment. Are there places in your community where you could look for innovative solutions to financial stresses?
“We had a number of longtime supporters pass away and hadn’t yet raised up a financial base among our younger members,” he said. “So we needed to make some changes to make sure the trajectory of the congregation was a positive one.
“My wife and I share duties -- I was full time and she was quarter time. In the Presbyterian Church, if a married couple is sharing more than one FTE at the same church, the denomination requires the congregation to pay double medical and pension dues for that family.
“We realized this was hampering the church, so I offered to step back to three-quarters time so they would only have to pay one pension and medical fee. It saved the church about $15,000 and was only a net loss of about $3,000 for us,” he said.
Not long after, McNelly happened to hear about the Northern Pikeminnow Sport-Reward Program, which pays anglers to catch predatory fish in the Snake and Columbia river systems. The top fisherman in 2015 had netted more than $100,000.
“I thought, ‘Why not try it as an extra way to make some money for the family?’” he said. “That’s what really started the ball rolling with the idea for GoFish! Ministries.”
Stalking the elusive pikeminnow
The sport-reward program is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration and runs from May through September. The goal is to mitigate some of the negative impacts on salmon that have been caused by dams.
Each spring, millions of juvenile salmon and steelhead migrate down the rivers on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Many are injured or killed as they pass through dams, and millions more are eaten by pikeminnow along the way. It all leads to threatened populations and fewer salmon returning to spawn in the rivers.
The sport-reward program helps thin out the older pikeminnow, which eat the most salmon. Payments range from $5 to $8 per fish, depending on how many fish an angler catches. BPA also throws in a few specially tagged pikeminnow worth $500 apiece.
As a result, nearly 5 million northern pikeminnow have been removed from the rivers since the program began in 1990, and predation on juvenile salmon has dropped 40 percent.
As McNelly learned more about the program, his vision for a youth ministry began to take shape.
“I got a lot of help in launching the idea from the Princeton Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary,” he said. “They host two-day workshops called ‘Hatchathons.’”
Similar to the TV show “Shark Tank,” these intensive workshops provide a collaborative incubator experience that helps turn new ideas for Christian social enterprises into real-life sustainable ministries. Participants are given access to financial advisors, marketing consultants, theologians and other professionals who help them “hatch” their projects.
Buoyed by the encouragement he received, McNelly took his idea for GoFish! public in 2016.
“Our first seed money was $5,000 from a missional initiative grant through the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest in Spokane,” he said. “I used it to buy rods, reels, tackle, a fish finder and safety equipment.”
Around the same time, two church members each donated $2,000 toward the purchase of a boat. One was a woman whose late husband called her “Suzie Q.”
McNelly also reached out to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and was put in touch with local Pullman fisherman Dave Thom. They said Thom might be willing to teach him the basics.
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“This was a big development, because most fishermen in this program are very tight-lipped about the where and how of catching pikeminnow, as they see others as competition,” McNelly said. “But Dave has been incredibly supportive from the beginning -- especially considering he was one of the top 20 pikeminnow anglers that year.
“It was totally providential and showed God’s leading that Dave also happened to be a member of the Lutheran church directly across the street from our congregation and then sold us the pontoon for $4,000.”
That first summer, McNelly renamed the boat “Suzie Q” and went out fishing alone, as a pilot program. He soon discovered there’s a steep learning curve for catching pikeminnow.
“I only made about $500,” he said with a laugh. “I thought I could fund the ministry from the proceeds, but pikeminnow are harder to catch than I expected. I had to totally rethink my ideas of how to run the fishing program.”
‘Save salmon, experience creation, earn money and encounter Christ’
The second year, McNelly received another $5,000 grant from the Presbytery, plus two $1,000 grants from anonymous donors who wanted to fund innovative Christian ministries within the Pullman community. The funds paid for gas, moorage fees, an operating budget for the ministry and some of McNelly’s salary.
McNelly was now spending Mondays and Sundays at the church and Tuesdays through Fridays taking kids out fishing. He established four main goals for GoFish!
“We want to save salmon, experience creation, earn money and encounter Christ,” he said. “That summer, we did well on experiencing creation and encountering Christ, but not so well on saving salmon and making money.”
McNelly changed GoFish! when he realized it wasn't working. Does your organization have the resilience to keep going in the face of failures, large or small?
Nevertheless, his enthusiasm began to pay off in fall 2017, when McNelly received a windfall of financial gifts, including $5,000 from the woman named Suzie Q.
“I’d taken her out fishing, and we didn’t catch much,” he said. By then, he had realized that the best fishermen were trolling deep in the water with a different type of equipment. Pikeminnow prefer to swim near the river bottom, where they eat salmon smolts -- young silvery fish that are migrating out to sea -- as they move by in the current.
“We were eating lunch at Boyer Park when she wrote out a check and asked, ‘Will this help?’”
With that donation, McNelly bought a trolling motor, new rods, and downriggers to hold fishing lines near the river bottom.
Then came the call from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity letting him know that he had been nominated for a $10,000 Traditioned Innovation Award by colleagues who knew about his program, including some from the Princeton Hatchathon. He received the grant in 2017.
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners receive $10,000 to continue their work.
“The award enabled us to completely rebuild the boat last spring,” McNelly said. “We spent more than 200 hours stripping it down to the bare bones and ran new electronics and electrical wire.”
“Another thing I realized last year was that the most successful people fish at night and early morning,” he said. “I’d been taking kids out just before noon, so we’d end up fishing at the worst time of the day. This year, I also invested in boat lights, tents and other camping gear for night fishing.
“Now, we offer overnight river trips, where we set up camp, have dinner, and fish until 10 or 11 p.m. or later, depending on how the fish are biting. Then we get up early and go out again in the morning. This summer, I’m hoping to see a greater number of fish caught, salmon saved and money earned.”
‘… the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea …’
In the canyon, a flock of Canada geese skims the now-glassy surface of the river. The sun has drifted below the horizon, leaving the Suzie Q bobbing in burnished shadows.
It’s time for the evening reading, and tonight, McNelly chooses Psalm 8 (NIV), sometimes called the sportsman’s psalm.
“Lord, … how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens,” he begins.
“… When I consider … the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, … all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas …”
The boat sways as McNelly closes and then leads the group in a few moments of silence. He follows with a discussion on the many ways God’s beauty is expressed in nature.
While the passengers contemplate his message, the fish finder suddenly comes alive with underwater activity. Joe, an older participant, reels in a silver fish with orange fins -- a pikeminnow worth $5.
McNelly drops the camera into the river and quickly picks up images of blue mysid shrimp and one very large crawdad. Later that night, they will marvel at the sight of an 8-foot sturgeon gliding along the river bottom.
The full moon is high when the group finally heads back to the campground for s’mores. After a short break, McNelly and the crew return to the river, where they eventually catch nine more “money fish.”
“Though it’s still in its infancy, GoFish! has become Pullman Presbyterian’s summer youth ministry,” McNelly said.
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He’s hoping this can be a first point of contact for kids who would never go to a church -- who didn’t grow up with it -- but who do like to go fishing. The youth will encounter caring, committed adults and might see something different about their attitude and how they live.
He also hopes eventually to offer weeklong fishing camps where children and adults from urban areas can come and spend time on the river.
“This program isn’t about just catching fish -- it’s about the complete sensory experience,” he said. “The brightness of the sun radiating off the water. The smell of the river, the sound of the motor. Plus all the wildlife we see: ospreys, coyotes running along the ridges, chukars cackling in the brush.
“This is a program that helps us reconnect with life -- our bodies and senses, the created order.”