Updated: Nov 16, 2019
Many of you involved in NCS Winston-Salem have asked about how we got our start. It’s such a great story that showcases how God works in our lives that I thought I’d share it with our entire membership this month.
How a failed run for Congress opened a door
Did you know I once ran for U.S. Congress in the Fifth District? Back in 2004, I had hopes of serving our nation as a congressperson. During the campaign, I met Phil Ziesemer. While discussing a campaign issue, I decided to share an idea I had percolating about gathering a group of men together to discuss Kingdom matters. My approach was to have the 12 or so men take turns submitting researched “white papers” for discussion. (Phil actually said “White paper? How about we study the bible instead?”). As usual, God had other - and much better - plans!
As fate would have it, I lost the election. But when that door closed, another one opened. My business partner and former campaign supporter, Scott Casto, called me not long afterward to tell me about a gathering of men heading to something called the New Canaan Society Retreat. Being in Chicago, Scott said he and a number of guys from his area were going and invited me to join them. I, in turn, asked my former campaign treasurer, Leonard Robinett to join. Of course, I Googled NCS and recognized a couple of the scheduled conference speakers. And my intrigue grew.
The impact of that first retreat
As I started working on how to get to the retreat (I had recently purchased a Cirrus plane and was eager to fly), the group heading to the Boston retreat grew larger. Our first Winston-Salem contingent of retreat attendees included Bob Roach, Alan Wright, Bill Simmons, Leonard Robinett and myself.
On the first afternoon of the retreat as I sat waiting for the program to start, God started working on me. The message I received was that he wanted me to start an NCS chapter in Winston-Salem. As the retreat unfolded, I understood why. The NCS atmosphere was vibrant and filled with the Holy Spirit. Men were laughing and having a wonderful time just connecting each day. There was unmistakable energy in the room. I attended a meeting on how to start a chapter while at the retreat and returned to Winston Salem with the intention to do so.
How God started our chapter…and sent us founding partners
Of course, I came home energized and ready to get started. However, I’m sure you know what it’s like when you return from the bubble of a retreat back to real life: work, family, friends….other begin to occupy your time. A couple of weeks later, I still hadn’t taken any action and was starting to let this idea fade away (hard to believe, I know!). Then, my daily reading in My Utmost for His Highest reminded me that when the Holy Spirit leads on something, we are supposed to act immediately and burn our bridges. It was the jolt I needed!
I prayed for God to give me the names of men for the potential launch of the chapter. First, Phil Ziesemer, Leonard Robinett, Bob Roach and Alan Wright came to mind. Then Chris Perry, Scott Gerding, Rich Keshian, Chuck Patton, Joe Budd, Randy Casstevens, Abner Wright and Courtney Mauzy came to mind. And a few others were invited, but these were the core founders of NCS Winston-Salem.
Our attempt to hi-tech our way into God’s plan
I let my Wall Street mentality take over and prepared a PowerPoint “pitch book”, making the case for the “value add” of an NCS chapter. I invited the men God had put in my mind to my house for steak, fine wine and discussion. We agreed to move forward and gather next at the home of Chris Perry.
Part of the discussion was a plan to live stream the NCS speakers in New Canaan over the internet each Friday. Chris got a new flat screen tv, tested the technology and got us ready to go with our first meeting at his home. As we gathered, we realized that God, in his grace and sovereignty, had other plans. The technology didn’t work.
So as a “plan B”, we asked Phil Ziesemer to lead us in a devotional passage from scripture. He shared his story of how God was at work in his life. (Note: we’ve continued on the theme of men sharing their personal stories, which has remained the hallmark of our meetings ever since.) It ended up being a good time of discussion, and we decided to meet in another couple of weeks.
Over the course of the summer, we met as a group every couple of weeks, gathering around a nice outdoor table on Chris’ patio. The men took turns sharing their stories. Thus the idea of simply inviting men to share their stories about God being active in their lives with other men – rather than my original concept - was shaped. We sensed the power of the Holy Spirit in a man’s testimony.
We find a “Prayermeister” – but what about meeting space?
I knew that the NCS model of appropriate humor and wit was a great compliment to the transparency of a testimony. The Lord directed me to Chris because of his wit and New Jersey roots. He would become the perfect guy to lead a devotional, which would combine wit and truth. At some point, I gave Chris the moniker of “Prayermeister”, and it has stuck to this day.
“It’s not work; it’s not school; it’s not church, and it’s not Bible Study.
And if you don’t have fun, don’t come back.”
Chris coined this phrase to describe NCS….and it’s been the mantra for over 10 years. I often welcome the men each Friday with the phrase we attribute to the “Prayermeister”.
As fall of 2005 approached, the group began wondering where to meet once we fully launched our NCS chapter. I had been praying for God to show us a suitable venue: a convenient location with easy parking but not in a church. My wife, Jane, ended up suggesting the perfect solution - River Birch Lodge. Scott Gerding, a member of our founding group, had built a new restaurant with a Northwestern, lodge theme that had a large open room and an giant antler chandelier.
It was a great idea! However, instead of asking Scott directly to use his restaurant, I prayed and asked God to prompt Scott if that was to be our meeting place. Within a week, Scott offered the restaurant for our use. God is indeed good.
Getting God’s vision for us off the ground
In September of 2005, we set a date and agreed to each invite a friend and meet at the River Birch Lodge at 7 am. As I recall, Chuck Patton was our first speaker (though my records were not perfect in the early months), and we had about 30 men join us.
God began to send men willing to do the work in keeping things going with the chapter. I started out wearing most of the hats. But soon, Randy Casstevens volunteered to take care of name tags. David Caudle took over email communications. Doug Blount, Steve Klingensmith, Clint Thomas, Mitch Lowry and Eddie Schapira helped anchor our breakfast team. Bob Mills took responsibility for getting contact information from visitors. God supplied all the helping hands.
Our contact list grew, and we had over 1,500 names on email list before we stopped counting! As we kept getting larger, we decided it would make sense to have a 501c3 so that men could receive tax deductions for their contributions. God supplied this as well. Parker Umstead was the sole Director of a 501c3 set up to support the spread of the Gospel and Christian causes. He offered it for the benefit of NCS and served as our first “Treasurer” before Phil Ziesemer took over five years ago.
We need how many speakers per year???
We had decided to meet weekly, with the exception of the Fridays after major holidays and when we took a break in July each summer. This meant we needed speakers for 45 meetings a year. To say that recruiting that many speakers generating a bit of anxiety is an understatement. In the first year or two, I wanted speakers planned for two or three months out. But slowly I realized that I did not need worry about this. Men started volunteering to speak and introduced others willing to speak. I was able to stop worrying about speakers because God supplied them.
Our speakers have been men with incredible backgrounds in business, the military and ministry from within our group and from around the world. But they’ve also been regular men with powerful stories of God’s move in their lives.
Over the years, God has blessed us with a deep bench filled with gifted men who are natural leaders. These men have a heart for encouraging other men to connect in authentic friendship and seek ways to serve God and lift up the name of Jesus in deeds, prayer and the Word.
Todd Chase took the lead on forming Energy groups, and his Top Ten Lists are part of our chapter’s history. Phil Ziesemer (“Dr. Love”) launched our Transition Tuesdays in 2008 with the great support of Russ Ritchell. Kalim Andraos (“Catfish”) continually works on a vision for encouraging the believers throughout the Middle East. Mike Baughan (“James Baughan”), Chris Welch (“Rabbi”) and Steve Anthis (“the Praying Anthis”) replaced Phil and Russ and lead our Transition Tuesday group. Kevin Frack has been the intercessor and organizer for NCS Davie County, along with Jay Abernathy. Larry Menconi leads our new Brookberry Farm chapter. Leroy Cannady served as our initial host at NCS East which meets at Forsyth Seafood on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. He has since been followed by Guy Morgan, with Bill McClain (“Coach”) and our vocal and beloved drill sergeant, Frank Thomas, who blesses us at the Lodge as well. God keeps sending His priests and kings.
Becoming a network rather than an organization
We made the decision early on not to become a legal entity. It just didn’t seem to fit with where we were headed. We could see God’s hand on this movement so we decided to aim for excellence…but accept the uncomfortableness of “hands lightly on the steering wheel”. We wanted to allow for the Spirit to guide us. So, the only entity that exists is Vinebranch Inc., which is our 501c3. God made clear who he wanted to serve as “managing partners” but we view the gathering as a round table of “priests and kings”. Our directors remain humble and lead through serving the men who show up. In this way, we’ve stayed a network of relationships first and foremost.
As a network, we decided early on not to try and “do things” other than to be faithful in showing up. This allowed for friendships with one another based on friendship with Jesus to blossom. We knew that adhering to this model would lead to obedience in following His call and His Spirit to act and invite others to join.
It has been through this relational network of men willing to step out in obedience to a call or vision and with a changed heart that the Holy Spirit has moved upon our spheres of influence. What the NCS men have accomplished from just showing up at the Lodge, being real with one another and finding ways to live life together is extensive. Some of our amazing initiatives include:
Kids Across America
Malawi Ministry with George and Phyllis Crispi
Christian Life Ministries – NCS WS Street
The Middle East Initiatives: Zahle Church, Tyre, Antioch, Beirut, Jordan
The Lasater Home
As we complete our fifteenth year of showing up, I want to acknowledge all that God has done to help us. This is the reason I’ve shared our incredible story this month. God is so good. He is our Rock. And He will continue to lead NCS Winston-Salem into the blessed future He has in store for us! Click HERE to check out videos on our history, impact and more!