GIBSON CITY — In his 26 years, Mat Bowen has been “bouncing all over the place,” as he calls it.
As a child, he and his older sister and their parents lived in Texas, Virginia, New York and California before finally settling in Central Illinois when he was 13.
As an adult, he lived in northern Indiana while in college, then moved to New Jersey for seminary before moving to Houston, Texas, to work for a Christian nonprofit.
But after moving to Gibson City last month, Bowen finally feels at home. The new pastor at the First Christian Church, Bowen and his wife, Elizabeth, have bought a home at 423 S. Guthrie St. and eventually plan to raise a family here.
“Elizabeth and I are here for the long haul,” Bowen said. “It’s very common for pastors to take positions with the intention of leaving in two or three years ... but the great news for us is that that’s not on our minds. ... We’re here for the long haul, and we’re here to be a part of this community and hopefully help this community grow in any way we can.”
On April 1, Bowen started working as pastor of the First Christian Church, 112 W. 12th St., which had been without its own pastor for an estimated three years.
“It’s been great so far,” Bowen said after preaching his first Sunday service there.
The church had been using interim pastors to lead its worship services over the past few years, before Bowen responded to an email last October from a church staffing agency asking if he was interested in filling the position — an invitation he eventually accepted.
At the time, Bowen and his wife were living in Houston, with his wife employed as a commercial insurance underwriter and Bowen working as a spiritual life coach for a Christian nonprofit called the WorkFaith Connection, which helps underprivileged people re-enter the workforce.
Bowen was immediately interested when he opened the staffing agency’s email and saw that a church in Gibson City was looking for a pastor. Bowen was familiar with the Ford County city, which is not far from the Vermilion County village of Catlin where he spent eighth grade through high school. Bowen remembered playing golf at Gibson City’s Railside Golf Course as a member of the golf team at his alma mater, Catlin High School, and he also had some acquaintances in the city with whom he had spent some time in the past.
“As soon as (the search firm) found out that I knew where it was at, I think that kind of brought me more to the light (as a candidate),” Bowen said.
Following an interview process with the search firm and later the church itself, Bowen visited the church in December for a meet-and-greet and was offered the job.
He then left his job in Houston at the end of December and moved to Gibson City with his wife and their two dogs, Astro and Ziya. They arrived at their new home on March 15.
The church’s membership has welcomed Bowen with open arms, and the feeling is mutual.
“The membership here is an incredibly loving community,” Bowen said. “My wife and I were very picky about where we went to church. I have seen some devastation that can come from having the wrong pastor in the wrong job, so I knew that there was a very specific job out there for me at this point in my life, in my spiritual journey, and one of the big reasons I was so attracted to this place was that everyone here is so loving and so welcoming. I think when you walk in here (to the church) it just feels like you’re at home.”
The rest of the Gibson City community will have a chance to meet Bowen when the church holds a meet-and-greet from 2 to 4 p.m. May 5. Light refreshments will be served.
While still getting situated, Bowen said he hopes to begin forming intimate relationships with the church’s 159 active members.
“That’s what I think we’re all excited about here is to take that relationship to the next level — where it’s not just someone who is preaching on Sunday morning but someone who’s here in the office every week, who’s ready to get to know you on an intimate level and ready to do life together,” Bowen said.
“And I think that’s how I would sum up my ministry,” Bowen continued. “My goal is just to do life together, because it’s a hard journey. We all have challenges — we all have thoughts that keep us awake at night — and if we keep those to ourselves and we have nowhere to go to just receive any joy or peace, then we’ll go crazy in this world, because it truly is a crazy world.”
Bowen said he hopes to improve the church — one of Gibson City’s oldest as it dates back to at least 1890 — by having it host more “regular events” for the community and perhaps modernize its services by adding some more technology.
This is Bowen’s first time leading a church since graduating last year from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J., with a master of divinity degree.
It was while he was in seminary that he met his future wife, a native of Connecticut, through an online dating site. After several months of what Bowen termed “long-distance phone love,” the two were married in January 2018, a few months before they left the East Coast together for Houston.
After graduating in 2011 from Catlin High School — now known as Salt Fork High School — Bowen attended Purdue University-Calumet in northwest Indiana on a golf scholarship. He initially studied philosophy with the intention of eventually going to law school.
But about midway through his freshman year, Bowen became involved with a Christian group on campus and realized that his true passion was not law but “just proclaiming the name of Jesus to my colleagues and friends and anyone who wanted to hear,” he said.
While still at the university, Bowen ended up doing internships during his summers, including an internship that involved him living and doing campus ministry in Guatemala one summer, along with internships in South Florida.
After arriving at seminary, Bowen did some full-time residency work, including at a Presbyterian church in inner-city Philadelphia and a “mega church” with 2,000-plus members in Mount Laurel, N.J., he said.
Being back in Central Illinois today brings some comfort to Bowen, the lone son of Mat Bowen Jr. and Wanda Drazer. Bowen’s 29-year-old sister, Hilary, and other family members still live in Catlin, and Bowen has fond memories of his time there, as he played golf, baseball and basketball while at Catlin High School, including as a member of its 2010 IHSA Class 1A state championship basketball team.