New pastor at Lifebridge Church transitioned from the links to the pulpit

The faith journey of Ralph Howe from professional golfer to becoming the new senior pastor at Lifebridge Church in Windermere is one adorned with doors opening at just the right time.
By: 
Apr. 19, 2017

WINDERMERE Good things were happening for Ralph Howe in the late 1980s.

Ralph Howe played the famous course at St. Andrews during his career.

In 1988, Howe — then 23 — won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Golf Championship, earning an invitation to the Masters Golf Tournament in 1989. The Long Island native realized a lifelong dream of playing in the legendary tournament at August National in Georgia.

Later that year, he played alongside Phil Mickelson in the Walker Cup. 

After that, he turned professional, and a sponsor wrote him a check for $140,000. In short, Howe was in the midst of the best stretch of his golf career.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan, except for one detail — Howe, now the new senior pastor at Lifebridge Church in Windermere, wasn’t fulfilled.

“With all that happening, I really was not content,” said Howe, now 51. “That was what caused me to ask bigger questions.”

It was then, in 1989, that Howe returned to a faith journey he had wandered away from for nearly a decade — a faith journey that would become a recurring case of doors opening at just the right time. 

 
LOVE IN THE CITY BEAUTIFUL

As he continued along in his professional golf career spanning nine years — spending three seasons on the Asian Tour and then transitioning to the web.com Tour (then the Nike Tour) — he began to lead Bible studies.

Howe, who played his college golf at Florida Southern and spent his winters in Orlando, eventually went looking for a church in the City Beautiful. It was when he decided to give Discovery Church on South Orange Avenue a try that he found his home church — and his future wife, Melinda.

“She was the second person I saw, and I decided that was the church I was going to,” Howe recalls, laughing.

“She was the second person I saw, and I decided that was the church I was going to."

Howe continued along in his professional career, spending months on the road. He continued to either host Bible studies on his own, or else participate in those put on by the Fellowship of Christian Athlete’s Golf Ministry. Howe said the studies — which he advertised simply by putting a bulletin up in the locker room — usually had about 20 to 30 golfers attending but would sometimes draw even larger crowds, especially if a meal was provided. The attendance underscored what Howe believes is an under-the-radar desire for faith and fellowship by many professional golfers on the road.

“People would be surprised at how many golfers (place a priority on faith),” Howe said.

When Ralph and Melinda Howe were married in 1998, Howe recalls concluding during their honeymoon in Charleston, South Carolina, that it was time for him to move on from professional golf — jokingly saying it was time to find a “real job.”

“(Playing professionally was a) great time, great experience — played some good golf occasionally,” Howe said. “Ultimately, as a career, I didn’t sustain and make enough money.”

As the newlyweds drove home to Orlando and were passing through the Greater Jacksonville area, Howe decided to make an impromptu stop at the FCA Golf Ministry’s headquarters in Ponte Vedra to introduce the friends he had made there from his Bible studies on the tour to his bride.

There, a door opened.

 

FUTURE IN FAITH

“The guy who runs the whole national ministry looks up, drops his pencil on his desk and says, ‘Ralph, I can’t believe you just walked through that door,’” Howe said. “He said, ‘We’ve got a job opening up in our ministry and for the last two weeks we’ve been praying that you would be the one to come take the job.’”

That series of events entailed Howe’s transition from professional golf to ministry. 

He spent six years working for the FCA, from 1998 to 2004, traveling to put on many of the same Bible studies in which he had participated. Although he was still away from home often, his trips usually only kept him on the road from Monday through Thursday.

In 2004, the Howes were a growing family. Their first daughter, Riley, was 2 and they were working through the mountain of paperwork to adopt the first of two daughters — Amanda and Abby — from China, with their son, Jonah, not far behind. Although she was just a toddler, Riley began to understand what her father’s packed bags would mean, and Howe decided it was time to find a career with less travel.

Then, another door opened.

The family had continued to worship at Discovery Church, and Ralph had become an elder. When the church decided to plant a satellite campus in Southwest Orange County — initially meeting at Olympia High School, but now with its own location on Apopka-Vineland Road — Howe was tapped to both plant and subsequently lead that new location.

Howe remained in that role until 2010. Between 2007 and 2010, both he and his wife had had a recurring inkling that was rooted in their trips to China to adopt their daughters: that they should move to China.

That was confirmed when Howe received not one, but two, job offers in Beijing to teach golf. 

After turning down the first offer, wary of the enormity of moving a young family overseas, Howe took the second offer, and the Howes were off to China in 2010 — without a set “exit-strategy” or a set time frame of how long they would live there.

“It was really an amazing life experience … I was so thrilled that my two girls who are Chinese got to live in China and they have memories,” Howe said. “It was incredible for every one of us in the family.”

The family planted roots in Beijing, and for more than three years, everything went well. In September 2013, though, the driving range and academy that Howe was teaching at was sold, and he was informed he would have until Nov. 30, 2013, to find a new job in China or else have to return to the United States.

Three weeks after Howe got that news, the new senior pastor at Discovery reached out to him: The church was in need of a pastor for its central campus — and another door opened.

 

 

HOME SWEET HOME

The Howes returned to Orlando in early 2014 and spent nearly three years back at the church where they had met. Things were going well, once again, when the leadership at Lifebridge Church reached out, interested to have a conversation about an opening.

“I’m thrilled I can come to a church where there is just so much life.”

Howe was happy with his situation, but he and Melinda decided to pray on it and reconvene in a few days. When they did, both felt as though they ought to at least have the conversation and see what the leadership at Lifebridge had to say.

“The whole time, it felt like this steady, gentled kind of ‘yes’ in my spirit,” Howe said.

Things continued to line up, and Howe is now settling in as the church’s new senior pastor. He said the congregation has been enormously welcoming to him and his family and that he is particularly excited about the unique opportunities at Lifebridge — the latest door that has opened.

“The location is great — meaning this is a growing community,” Howe said. “There are so many people moving into town, and when people move into town, they are looking to get connected to their new community. That makes local churches really important to them. 

“For that, I love the location, because this is a vibrant, growing community,” he said. “I’m thrilled I can come to a church where there is just so much life.”

 

Contact Steven Ryzewski at sryzewski@orangeobserver.com.