Grant Woodley ’02 came to Simpson College to become a minister.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. He came to Simpson to study religion, but he already was a pastor. Friends from Indianola had invited him to preach at a Quaker church in nearby Ackworth.
Nicole Brooks ’02 came to Simpson to become a doctor, and she was well on her way to earning a biology degree.
Then Grant met Nicole. Now both are preaching at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, the largest church in Iowa and one of the fastest-growing in the country.
“Good question,” says Nicole, now Nicole Woodley. “I still don’t know. I think somebody hit me with a two-by-four in the head.”
This might be a good time to start at the beginning.
Grant Woodley grew up on a farm in rural Clarion. He was a state leader in Future Farmers of America – a banner hangs on his office at Hope – and knew since he was in junior high that he wanted to be a pastor.
That goal, he thought, would lead him to a Bible college in Cincinnati. He was registered to go. But then his Indianola friends, Darrell Goodhue ’62, a member of the Simpson board of trustees, and his wife, Eve, a former French teacher at the college, invited him to help pastor at the Quaker Church.
“I enrolled really late at Simpson,” he says. “That was really a call of the blue.”
He shared the preaching duties with Gary Kinkel, a professor of religion at Simpson.
“In addition to the formal coursework I had, he was directly mentoring me as I was preaching,” Woodley says.
“Simpson was a really good experience for me, because the professors were so available and really student-centric. Of all the people I still keep in contact with from Simpson, it is my professors. They still are my friends. That was an outstanding experience.”
Nicole, meanwhile, had grown up in Newton. Her father, Rodney Brooks ‘69, is a Simpson alum, “and I knew they had a good biology department.” Her lifelong dream was to be a doctor.
Grant and Nicole did not know each other well on campus. “I knew of him,” she says. “He’s already been accepted to Duke Divinity School. He was the star religious guy.”
During their senior year, Grant Woodley conducted a study of the book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All Simpson students were invited to attend.
Nicole went with a friend.
“The book is about sacrifice,” she says. “Jesus’ life is about death and resurrection. You have to die for something. I was asking myself, ‘What am I reaching for and why?’ and I didn’t really have any good answers. I started asking some harder questions about faith.
“Gary became a mentor, so I would ask hard questions to Grant and I would ask hard questions to Gary.”
Nicole had been accepted to Des Moines University to begin medical school. She was set to go.
One day, she says, Kinkel asked her, “Have you ever thought about going to seminary?”
Her quick response: No.
During this time, she and Grant had become friends.
“I felt very safe being friends with Grant,” she says. “I had dated and was sick of it. I knew he’d be friends with me until the cows come home.”
“Getting into a serious relationship was a big surprise for both of us,” Grant says.
Whatever the case, the friendship blossomed into something more, and Nicole applied to Duke Divinity School as well, not certain what to expect.
“Simpson had given us such a good grounding educationally and experientially,” she said. “They accepted me, then called back and offered a scholarship.”
What would have happened had she become a doctor?
“I’d make a lot more money,” she says, laughing. “Wouldn’t be half as interesting, though.”
The couple was married in 2007. They have a son, Dietrich, 5, who was named for the author who brought the Woodleys together. They also have adopted two other children: Samuel, 5, and Junia, 3.
At Lutheran Church of Hope, Grant is a teaching pastor focusing on discipleship, missions and a group called Connections. Nicole is also a teaching pastor and serves as director of adult ministries.
“It’s an adventure, every day,” she says.
The size of the church does not intimidate them.
“In a lot of ways, Hope has the same joys and challenges that any congregation does, just on a larger scale,” Grant says. “On a pretty regular basis, I’m just floored with gratification for getting to be part of a place with so many people who are willing to ask God for dreams and trust God to give them the strength and resources to chase after those dreams.”
When he interviewed for the Hope job, Grant said he told the church he wanted to be “in a place that will give me enough room to fail,” and that’s how he defines success.
“Success means you’ve never wasted a failure,” he says. “I had all the room at Simpson to achieve as much as I could, and to give as much as I could. The problem with defining success is great, if you reach it, but what if you could have done even more?
“I like to set the bar for me and the people I’m working with as high as possible, and if we don’t make it, great, we can learn something and go even further the next time we try.”
For Nicole, success is defined through relationships.
“Some of the richest experiences and the most memorable learning that I can recall were done through relationships, not books. Simpson allows for that to happen.”
She refers to Project Transformation, a program that she and Grant participated in as students in which Simpson students worked with an inner-city church in Des Moines.
“Success in that experience probably helped me define success as I see it today,” she says. “I still like driving past that church and thinking about our time there.”