ROCK RAPIDS—Doug De Groot’s first and second churches could not be more different.
He was installed at Rock Rapids Christian Reformed Church in October.
Before that, however, he was a pastor at Cornerstone Prison Ministry, a Christian Reformed Church inside the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, SD.
The 59-year-old N’West Iowa native’s call to ministry came late in life.
He grew up dairy farming near Hull and later started a successful hoof trimming business in Hull. A regular churchgoer, De Groot never felt particularly called to share his faith.
That changed in the early 2000s when he was asked to help with a retreat at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. At the time, the facility had about 1,500 inmates. The average age was 23.
“I was doing a lot of work with upper middle school and junior high kids at the time through the church,” De Groot said. “When I looked around at those guys in the facility at Fort Dodge, it was like the guys that got away, the guys that I missed. God really laid that on my heart that these men needed to be ministered to.”
He was in his mid-40s at the time, a business owner, and the father of five, but the call to drop everything and enroll in seminary outweighed any doubts about what he should do next.
“I just knew that’s where God wanted me to be,” De Groot said. “It’s really strange. I didn’t realize how much of a step of faith it was until I did it. I just shut my business down that I had been working at for 16 years and got accepted into seminary.”
He enrolled in seminary at Sioux Falls in 2008 and remembers his professors encouraging him to pursue rural ministry because of his background as a dairy farmer. But when De Groot was ordained in 2015, he found himself pulled in an entirely different and unexpected direction.
“None of the churches I interviewed at or looked at felt right,” De Groot said. Then he heard about Cornerstone Prison Church. One interview sealed the deal for him.
“I could see the need for God inside the walls,” he said. “Most of the guys, once they get off the substance that they’ve been abusing, whether it’s drugs or alcohol and they get away from the bad influences, they realize they need a savior.”
He spent nearly six years at Cornerstone, developing relationships with the inmates, most of whom are felons. Besides leading chapel service inside the facility, De Groot did one-on-one counseling with inmates. The church had about 30 members, but more than 100 inmates regularly attended chapel and he witnessed to and counseled many others.
Time spent at Cornerstone and ministering to inmates had profound impacts on his own faith.
“To see what God can do and how he can transform lives and change hearts, it makes me stand in awe of what God actually does,” De Groot said. “And to be witness to the change in people was phenomenal.
“To see guys who were filled with hate and violence and anger all the time and see them be transformed into men of Christ, men of God. To watch that transformation and be part of that transformation was an absolutely incredible experience.”
Although prison ministry is where God placed him to start, De Groot said he knew that was meant to be a “season.”
This spring when the coronavirus forced him and other volunteers out of the penitentiary, he took it as a sign that he was being called elsewhere, which led him to Rock Rapids.
De Groot plans to make a clean break from prison ministry so he can focus entirely on his new congregation, but the influence of his years at Cornerstone is evident every Sunday.
“There’s so many stories and experience I had inside that I’d forgotten about,” he said. “When I’m preparing a message now or talking to people, I use that as an illustration of what I was witness to.”
De Groot is replacing longtime pastor Cliff Hoekstra, who was at the Rock Rapids Christian Reformed Church for 20 years. Hoekstra is now a ministry assistant at Faith Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center.
Ministering inside a prison and serving at a community church have some stark differences as De Groot has found since being installed in Rock Rapids in early October.
“The biggest difference is families,” De Groot said. “Now I can do more ministering to the whole family. I can go to the hospital if someone is getting treatment.”
Although he is excited for the new challenges and opportunities presented in Rock Rapids, leaving Cornerstone has not been easy. The facility is shut down for the second time this year due to high COVID-19 positivity rates.
“The hard part was knowing when I walked out the door that would probably be the last time that I ever saw some of these guys,” De Groot said. “But knowing that my time there was blessed by God and lives were brought to Christ, that was what was important.”