By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

Pastor Justin Yawn had a dream when he was 16 years old that changed the course of his life. He dreamt that he was looking into a ‘50s style diner with a lit up “priest” sign, just standing outside observing a restaurant full of clergy. Raised Episcopalian in St. Simons Island, Georgia, Yawn shared his dream with his mother who brought him to the Reverend Douglas Renegar to discuss the ministry. Prior to this, Yawn, an Eagle Scout, was on track to head to the United States Air Force Academy with plans of becoming a pilot. After meeting with Rev. Renegar, Yawn worked with the church during the summer and found that something was “coming alive” inside of him. From there, Yawn attended the University of Georgia, securing a degree in Business Administration with a focus in Risk Management. Yawn did a stint at SunTrust Bank, and, while he enjoyed that job, he soon realized that something inside of him was not fulfilled. “I said, ‘Alright God, I am yours.’” He then attended The Candler School of Theology at Emory University and was called to Christ Church in Ponte Vedra Beach as the Associate Rector, serving from 2012 to 2015. Next, Yawn and his wife Vanessa, a dermatologist, went on a journey to Texas — both spiritual and personal — that would ultimately lead them right back to Ponte Vedra Beach. Yawn, 37, is currently the head pastor at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Nocatee. 

Q: You left Florida to serve several parishes in Texas. What were the highlights and challenges during this time? 

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A: I served at Christ Church and St. Luke’s on the Lake in Texas. The three years at Christ Church in Temple, Texas, were formative and challenging years. There was a bad departure of my predecessor, so I spent a lot of time rebuilding. The church is doing great now. St. Luke’s on the Lake in Austin was an incredible experience. It was healing in more ways than we knew at the time.

Q: What brought you back to Ponte Vedra Beach? 

A: In August 2020, I started to have moments of heaviness out of the blue. Under the Diocese of Texas, rectors are required to have a spiritual director and to see a mental health therapist. Those moments of heaviness continued to come and go, and I was asked by the director and therapist “Are you happy?” I responded that I loved St. Luke’s and felt that I was happy. Then our family got Covid, including our daughter Brooklyn who was four months old at the time. We felt incredibly isolated; no family members could fly to see us. In March 2021, the same two people asked me if I was happy, and I said, “I don’t know.” I was getting more depressed, and I eventually tried an antidepressant and began to feel so much better; however, we were still working a lot and trying to find that balance. We went for a walk on Labor Day 2021, and my wife said maybe we should go back to one of our “happy places,” which for us was the Jacksonville area. We loved it there, and it was much closer to both sides of our families. The next day at 9 a.m., I got a Facebook message from two friends who I had known at Christ Church in Ponte Vedra Beach asking me to be the Rector at St. Francis. I had always had my eye on St. Francis. Everything was so divine. Our house sold in three hours, and my wife’s work created a telemedicine wing for her to be able to work from home. We have a better work/life balance now. I just want to be happy and do my best work.

Q: What is your life philosophy? 

A: I love to bring people of opposite viewpoints together around a table to realize that they can love each other in disagreement. Be honest about your journey and be authentic. 

Q: What are your hobbies? 

A: We are foodies and love to watch cooking shows like “Top Chef” and “Chef’s Table” together. We love to travel as a family, and we love to do it as cheaply as we can. We work to live. Lennox, 4, traveled with us to six countries prior to Covid. We love outdoor everything, and my wife and I work out together. We have two rescue dogs: Herschel Walker, a Labrador Retriever and Briscoe, an English Pointer. 

Q: What are your goals for St. Francis in the Field? 

A: St. Francis is growing like crazy. We have a special story of Jesus that we want to start telling to more people. We are dynamic, inclusive, and warm. This is authentic Christianity. In our imperfections, we find God.

Photo courtesy Justin Yawn 

Justin Yawn and family.

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