Pastor T.J. Hankey of Refresh Church baptizes a parishioner outside of the church’s temporary home at Owyhee High School in Meridian. (Photo provided by Refresh Church)
By Steve Bertel
In each of the early churches he established, the apostle Paul prayerfully and faithfully trekked miles on end into a land he knew very little about – much the same as a local pastor and his wife have done in establishing one of the Treasure Valley’s newest churches.
Growing up in Sarasota, Florida, in a “fairly chaotic” household, as he put it, T.J. Hankey and his family believed in God, but attended church on an irregular basis – usually on Easter, Christmas, and an occasional Sunday. But when he developed a personal relationship with the Lord in his early teen years, things changed. And the church, in his words, “became a very stable part of my life.”
Turning down a lucrative athletic college scholarship, Hankey was called to the ministry shortly after graduating from high school and attended a local church program known as the Master’s Commission, what he describes as “a hands-on internship, learning practical applications from a pastor. That training became the basis for my ministry today.”
That’s also where he met Leah, a young woman from Canada whose father was a local pastor. They were married in 2004.
Several years later, the two set out on what they call an “incredible adventure” of planting a new life-giving church on the west side of Sarasota.
“It was significant because Sarasota is a coastal community. At that time, property values on the west side kept going up and up and up, so churches would sell their historic buildings and move east – where there was more affordable property on which to create church campuses,” Hankey explains. “A church could sell its old building and use the money to build an entirely new facility. So churches ended up leapfrogging further and further east.” That meant there were fewer and fewer churches on the city’s west side. “The churches that remained were pretty traditional in nature, so we wanted to create a little bit more of a contemporary church.”
But planting the church came with its share of challenges, including one big one. “The greatest challenge I faced was not so much with buildings and people and finances, but in questioning my own abilities,” says Hankey. He knew God had called him to lead the church, but he was plagued with thoughts of “I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I have what it takes. So that grind, that mental fortitude of staying faithful was the biggest challenge of all.” But he overcame the challenge by forming relationships with people who soon helped the church grow and prosper. “Those relationships are what fortified my soul and helped me understand what I was doing. I now had people – friends – who could do it with me, who helped me along the way.”
The first day of being a new pastor at a new church “was sort of a blur,” he recalls; 210 people attended the very first service on January 29, 2012. “And it wasn’t until several hours later, as I was writing thank-you letters to all the people who had attended, when it hit me – like a ton of bricks. I came to the realization of ‘Wow. We have just started a church!’ That was incredible!”
The Shore Church grew steadily – as Hankey says, “one person, one family at a time” – and, over the course of some eight years, saw more than 1,000 people dedicate their lives to the Lord.
But even though the church was flourishing and Hankey was comfortable in his lead pastor role, the Lord had different plans. “As I was praying for vision, to figure out what was next and what other opportunities would present themselves to further the church and our ministry, Idaho’s Treasure Valley kept popping up in my heart – to the point where it became somewhat of a distraction, sort of an itch you can’t scratch,” Hankey says.
So he discussed the situation with a friend. “I don’t know what’s next for me. This Idaho thing keeps popping up,” Hankey told him.
“Do you think it’s ‘mission accomplished’ here?” the friend asked.
Hankey replied, “Absolutely not. I think I could be here forever.”
But the Lord was giving him a new vision, a new calling. “It was at that moment I realized the Lord was answering what I had been praying for, only I hadn’t been listening properly. My friend helped me realize that ‘the Idaho thing’ wasn’t a distraction at all. The Lord had been speaking right. But I hadn’t been listening right. The Lord had put a clear vision in my heart to see every person refreshed and their every purpose discovered – not in Florida any longer, but in Idaho.”
So, in the summer of 2017, the Hankey family took an exploratory SUV road trip to the Gem State. They knew very little about Idaho, and even less about the Treasure Valley. But in driving around “we immediately saw the Boise area was a great place – with lots of things to do, lots of places to explore,” he points out. “And it was so unlike Florida. Florida has beaches; Idaho has mountains. Florida has salt water; Idaho has fresh water.”
During that trip, the Lord gave the young pastor an additional prompt. “I had dropped my wife and kids off at the mall and took our SUV in for an oil change, because we had traveled clear across the country,” Hankey remembers. Waiting in the lobby of the oil change shop, he struck up a conversation with a man seated next to him. Learning Hankey was from Florida, the man asked, “What are you doing way out here?”
Hankey answered, “Well, I pastor a church in Sarasota. And I’m out here on vacation.” The man told him he and his girlfriend were heading up to McCall for the weekend. “I could tell there was something in his soul he was missing,” Hankey says. “Then, a lady sitting across the lobby from us said, ‘I’m sorry to interrupt, but I heard you’re a pastor. My church doesn’t have a pastor. So we’re looking for a church. Do you know of any good churches in the area?’ I told her, ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve only been here about 12 hours. I don’t know anybody or anything about this Valley.’ Then one of the employees behind the counter said he had just moved here from Salt Lake and was looking for a church, too. Honestly, I did not recognize the significance of that moment until we got back home to Florida and I thought, Huh. I wonder what God was trying to tell me? It was then I realized He had given me a ‘slice’ of the people I would be ministering to. Here were three different people with three different stories: a non-believer who didn’t know Jesus, a disconnected believer, and a believer who had just moved to the area. So that was a special moment for me.”
And that moment, that discovery, convinced Hankey to hand over The Shore Church’s reins to another pastor, and to move him and his family clear across the country to start a new church in Idaho. Totally on faith.
As efforts to plant the Scripture-based church were set in motion, Hankey made it a personal goal to meet with as many local pastors as possible, usually over lunch or coffee shop chats. “I really wanted to become part of the fabric of the spiritual community here, and get a feel of the Valley’s spiritual history and spiritual climate. Plus, it goes back to the days [in Sarasota] when I realized I’m not good when I’m working alone. So I wanted that networking, that communication with other pastors,” he explains. That effort paid off, with many pastors not only sharing valuable advice with Hankey, but also promising to financially support the new church.
It wasn’t long before the pastor struck a deal with the West Ada School District to hold the church’s Sunday morning nondenominational services in Owyhee High School’s state-of-the-art auditorium. The school is located 3650 N. Owyhee Storm Ave. in northwest Meridian, in one of the most rapidly-growing areas of the state.
He chose the name Refresh Church, following Proverbs 11:25 which says “… those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.” The heart behind Refresh is simple, according to its website: “We desire to see people refreshed by the life-changing presence of God and to see them refresh others.”
Refresh Church opened its doors in September, 2021 … right during the COVID pandemic. “Logistically, yes, it posed some problems for us,” Hankey admits. “People were reluctant to go into large crowds. Plus, there were concerns of whether our congregants would be required to wear protective face masks, be vaccinated, or even sit apart from each other. But nothing was going to stop us. And with God’s help, we got through it.”
More than 350 people attended the first service. Average Sunday morning attendance now hovers around 300 or more, what Hankey describes as a diverse congregation of various age and socio-economic groups. “It’s the only place I know where there are people 20 years older than me and 20 years younger than me.”
Without an actual building, Hankey and his staff work from their homes. “We hold staff meetings in my house throughout the week; we have various opportunities for congregants to gather in small groups. Our youth groups also meet in homes. So we are very much a ‘small group’ church right now.”
In that vein, Refresh has established what Hankey calls an “Opportunity Fund” – “for when God brings us the opportunity to get a permanent facility. We want to make sure we’re ready when God opens that door.”
So, for now, the church continues to meet in groups and at the high school auditorium, opening its doors to the lost, the disconnected, and people new to the area … like those Hankey met at the oil change shop. Also, the church works to help people learn, as Hankey puts it, “how we have been uniquely created and called by God to discover our gifts and purposes. And when our purposes become clear, we find ways to help – to refresh – those around us.”
Steve Bertel is a multi-award-winning professional radio, television, print media, and social media journalist who recently retired after a 30-year broadcasting career. Now a busy freelance writer, he recently released his debut suspense novel “Dolphins of an Unjust Sea,” available on both Amazon and Kindle. Steve and his wife of 40 years live in Meridian, Idaho. He can be reached at [email protected].