He sat in his parents’ church, feeling sick to his stomach and unsure of his future. He was waiting for a letter to get into the engineering program at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He looked up and prayed, “God, what do you want?” From that day forward, his future was set.
“I just tossed out this prayer like, ‘All right, if it’s not engineering then what is it?’ I immediately had a really strong impression that it was teaching,” Sykes said.
When he got home, Sykes filled out an application for the University of Minnesota Morris for secondary education.
During his time at Morris, Sykes met his wife, Lindsey, and also began developing a close and personal relationship with God. Though Sykes’ faith in God is strong now, it wasn’t always.
“I had always believed in God, but it was kind of this distant thing," Sykes said. "I kind of always thought God was this cosmic killjoy. If it had anything to do with fun, don’t do it."
Sykes and his wife attended Morris for two years until both transferring to University of Minnesota Duluth their sophomore year. But he still wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do with his life.
“I always knew I wanted to do high school science, but I knew there was a ministry aspect to my future,” Sykes said. “Originally I thought it might be with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but I wasn’t quite sure how it would look.”
Once he came to UMD, Sykes became involved with the campus ministry group, Chi Alpha. He was once again torn between two career paths: teaching or ministry.
“My head and my heart were going in two different directions," Sykes said. "One of the teachers I worked with said, ‘Jay, what’s your heart say?’ And I said, ‘I want to be a pastor.’ That was one of the first times I didn’t hesitate. It just came out of my mouth and from then on, my head and my heart clicked and were going in the same direction.”
Sykes graduated from UMD in 2002 with a degree in teaching chemistry in secondary education. Soon after, Sykes began working full-time at Chi Alpha and received his pastor license in 2004. He was involved in UMD campus ministry with Chi Alpha for eight years.
Last June, after being a member for eight years, Sykes began working at Hillside Community Church in Duluth as an associate pastor.
In his messages to church members, Sykes wants everyone to have their own connection to God.
“It’s more about a relationship than rules,” Sykes said. “I want everyone to have their own personal experience with God.”
Coworker Holly Mirau says that Sykes has positively affected her life since starting at Hillside Church.
“If I had to pick one word to describe Jay I’d say integrity,” Mirau said. “You see who he is and the way he acts and presents himself and you know it comes from that place of who he truly is.”
Once he had his career path chosen, Sykes and his wife tried to have children. They tried for two years to have biological children, but the couple ran into issues with infertility.
“We felt that it was the time for adoption,” Sykes said. “We felt God led us in that direction.”
They adopted their son Caleb almost two years ago from an Ethiopian orphanage when he was eight months old.
“Our son is the biggest blessing that’s ever come into our lives,” Sykes said.
Caleb is now two and a half years old. Though Sykes would like his son to have a strong and personal relationship with God like he does, he’s not going to force it.
Ultimately, Sykes wants his son Caleb to grow up “as a person of integrity, a person who respects and loves others, and a person who cares for others.”
Sykes says that the adoption of his son was a hidden blessing that came out of something difficult, just like his decision to join the ministry.
“Adoption was a different plan then we originally thought, just like this idea of switching from teaching to pastoring. Yet I see how going into teaching prepared me for the next kinds of phases and steps in my life,” Sykes said. “It’s not completely disconnected, but I’ve flown into this and uncovered the next steps.”
Sykes believes that his life is a journey full of speed bumps, leading him to become the man he is today.
“We hit turns in the road that we just never imagined and we may not have originally wanted the detour, but then we realized it’s not a detour, but a beautiful thing in our life.”
Have you had an experience like Jay? Did your faith change your plans for the future? Let us know in the comments.