Unlike most people, TJ and Stef McNelis actually enjoy moving: try nine times across five different states in nine years, often with TJ’s career as a helicopter pilot.
Stef said it’s not about where they live, but about who they serve.
“I think a lot of time as Christians, we focus on, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do? Is this where You want us to live? Is this the school You want us to go to? Is this the house You want us to buy?’” said Stef, 31. “It’s so much bigger than that. It’s more like, ‘Wherever we go, just help us to honor You.’ Knowing the characteristics of God and how He has provided for us up to this point, there is such a comfort in knowing no matter where we are, we’re going to be fine. It always worked itself out.”
TJ said he doesn’t worry about the future because God is guiding their marriage and life one step at a time.
“At the time, there’s so much uncertainty and unknown,” said TJ, 31. “You can fight it, or you can get used to it being uncertain. I may be shortsighted, you could say, which is helpful in that way. I’m pretty simple. It doesn’t weigh on my brain. It’s like one problem at a time. Until God sets something in front of me and slaps me over the head multiple times, it has to be pretty obvious to me. Maybe that’s to my advantage.”
The McNelises have lived in Kentuckiana since 2016 and are members of Southeast Christian Church’s Indiana Campus. They were baptized in April 2019.
“When (former Senior Pastor) Dave Stone was stepping down, he said, ‘We have no idea where or how God will call us. It’s a step of faith. It will be a great adventure; I’m certain of that. And while that might sound unsettling to you not knowing what’s next, it’s not unsettling to us.’ And I was like, ‘That’s our life,’” Stef said. “We forget how unique our lifestyle is, and we get so used to it that we forget other people don’t do what we do. It is kind of crazy what we’ve done. Once we get settled and the feeling of being comfortable, we almost don’t like that. We enjoy moving.”
High school sweethearts
The McNelises both grew up in Illinois and met while attending Aurora Christian School. After getting to know each other on a missions trip, they started dating their junior year.
“Our Christian school was very strict. There was a girl bus and a boy bus,” Stef said. “We texted on different buses on the way home. That was when you had to pay per text. My mom was like, ‘Why did you send so many texts?’”
The McNelises attended different colleges but stayed together. Stef’s school abruptly closed after one semester, and TJ—after watching the TV show “Ax Men” in his dorm room and seeing a helicopter pilot drop off logs—dropped out of school to become a helicopter pilot.
The McNelises grew up in Christian families, but their relationships with Jesus were routine until leaving home.
“When you go off to college, you realize you’re out on your own, and you don’t have to go to church every weekend. My mom is not dragging me out of bed,” TJ said. “For me, listening to Pastor Russ Hurst at Calvary Church was the first time I looked forward to going to church.”
As TJ began researching helicopter schools, he and Stef knew they didn’t want to date long-distance again. They could have lived together, but the Holy Spirit was working on their hearts, and they felt led to honor God in their relationship.
“I had the conversation with my parents and said, ‘I haven’t talked to Stef yet, but I’m going away to flight school, and she’s coming with me. She’s not going to live with me if we’re not married yet,’” TJ said.
“We were in a Panera Bread parking lot, and he brought up marriage,” Stef added. “My first reaction was, ‘What? No.’ Because we were not even 21 at this point. It felt very extreme. We didn’t come to a resolution. I was driving home, and I just felt the Holy Spirit say, ‘It’s OK.’”
In 2011, the McNelises got married on a Sunday and moved to Mesa, Arizona, two days later.
TJ worked hard to finish helicopter school and got a job as a flight instructor after a year. In 2013, the McNelises moved to Juneau, Alaska, after TJ got a job as a helicopter pilot.
“It was like bread crumbs—we were constantly provided for,” Stef said.
“It was time to bounce, but we’ll figure it out,” TJ added.
Since the job in Alaska was seasonal, they flew back to Illinois in the winter. Stef worked on the docks and sent tourists to TJ for sightseeing in a helicopter.
Their third year in Alaska, the McNelises moved into a cabin and got a car. TJ shifted gears and went into contracting work, being gone months at a time. They wrote love letters to one another.
“I was in a cabin in the side of the mountain by myself,” Stef said. “A lot of people questioned, ‘Seriously. You’re in Alaska by yourself in a cabin in the woods and your husband is not home?’ It was just what we did. Obviously, there were times we missed each other. He didn’t have cell service most of the time. We wrote letters that would come in bulk, and then he’d send me his. We broke those out not too long ago, which was fun. He always led well and is very calm. He always made it easy to trust in his decision-making, and we have the peace of the Lord.”
In 2016, TJ accepted a position as a helicopter pilot in Louisville, and they later relocated to Georgetown, Indiana, and began attending Southeast’s Indiana Campus.
After Stef volunteered with Life Choices pregnancy center, she felt God asking her to lead a small group of girls in Student Ministry.
“We had talked about Middle and High School Ministry early on in our marriage, but it was always later because we moved so much. It kind of gave us an excuse not to have commitment,” Stef said. “I mean I love high schoolers. That in itself is a gift because high schoolers are scary and difficult.”
Though the McNelises believe Indiana isn’t their “forever home” and don’t how long they’ll stay, they know God is moving in this place.
“I left that first summer group with my girls, and I was driving home and I said, ‘Fine, God, if you want me to stay here for four years to walk with these girls through high school, fine,” Stef added.