Jim Wiltbank is the new pastor of St. Francis in the Foothills, a United Methodist church at 4625 E. River Road. He took over for David Wilkinson, who retired from the church after 33 years.
Wiltbank has been a pastor for 14 years, with ministries in Phoenix and Yuma.
We caught up with Wiltbank, who held his first service at St. Francis on July 13, to find out more about him.
Q. How did you come to be in Tucson?
A. I’m part of the Methodist Church, the United Methodist Church, and we have a bishop who meets regularly with other leaders, and they move us around. They just decide we need someone here, we need someone there, and they decided that for some reason, I was the best fit right here for St. Francis in the Foothills church.
Q. You were essentially appointed to this church?
A. Appointed, that’s exactly right, that’s the word we use.
Q. Where are you from?
A. I was born in Nebraska, up in the extreme northwest side of Nebraska, right almost into South Dakota, in a little place that now is a state park. It isn’t even a city. But I grew up most of my life in Colorado and Texas. I graduated high school in Beeville, Texas.
Q. How did you end up in Arizona?
A. When I graduated from college, a lady came up — I was an elementary school teacher — and she came up to do interviews and she said, “I don’t know if you know where Eager, Arizona, is.” And I said, “I may be the only person you talk to today who knows that.” I went back and lived in the town where my dad had grown up and my granddad and his dad before him. It was marvelous, and I came back to Arizona and haven’t left since.
Q. How did you become a pastor?
A. I was an elementary school teacher and I felt this call to go into ministry. But I was already doing ministry, you know, when you work with first-, second- and third-graders, you’re doing God’s work, I think. You’re helping them to learn to read, write and become the people they’re going to become. And I had great classes. I taught multiage bilingual classes. And so I was able to ignore it for years and years. But God’s pretty persistent, and so he kind of just kept nudging and nudging, and finally I listened well enough. And so here I am.
Q. You said bilingual. What other languages do you speak?
A. I speak Spanish. I lived in Argentina for a couple of years and that’s all I spoke for those years. I was actually there on a Latter-day Saint mission. I used to be a member of the Mormon church.
Q. You weren’t raised in the Methodist faith. How did you come to it?
A. I needed to find God because I was very faithful — did everything I was supposed to do — but I was doing it more out of obligation than out of a relationship. As I struggled through finding that relationship with God, it brought me here. And as I walked into a Methodist church for the first time, it was like I had come home … it’s been 25 years ago now that I’ve been a Methodist.
Q. How do you plan on building new relationships here after a pastor has left who has been here for so long?
A. Well, partially, it’s just building on top of all those things that he has done. Because David did an incredible job here. He built strong ministries, he built strong lay people, he built strong connections.
Q. You were involved in a lot of things in Yuma. I read something about you being involved in immigration reform. Are there any reforms that you hope to bring to St. Francis?
A. Well, I hope to continue to do immigration. And so as I watch how we’re dealing with Hispanics in America, it’s sometimes very poorly done. And so I want to continue to work, especially with like all these kids that are being dropped off at the bus station down in Nogales. But also things like poverty. That’s what’s causing a lot of the immigration issues, but there’s a lot of poverty right here in America as well, and we have got to deal with those issues like that and have hearts that reach out and care about things like that.
Here at St. Francis, one of the big issues that we have is that we also deal with all kinds of human-rights issues, things like the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, that some of the ways that those folks have been rejected and been pushed away go against the very core of the gospel which says these are children of God.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your family?
A. I have a son, Jim, and a son, Eric. Jim lives up here in Mesa and Eric lives in Minnesota. My wife is Joannie — wonderful woman. She’s a schoolteacher, teaching just down the road here at Sunrise and Sabino Canyon. We’ve been married 20 years this year.
Q. What are your hobbies?
A. I love stories of all different sorts. So through my life I have collected things like books, love to read. But currently the thing I’m doing is watching movies. I try to watch a movie every day, and several on any of my days off if I can. I own a little over 3,500 movies — all different sorts from the beginning of filmmaking to yesterday.
Q. What’s one of your favorites?
A. I have a sheet of paper that has about 250 movies on it, that’s my favorite.
Q. What do you want others to know about you?
A. I would love for them at the end to know my heart. More than all the mistakes I make or some of the times when I, you know, working in a place that they don’t understand, I’d like them to see my heart.