If you find yourself at a conference or a sporting event seated next to Pete Contreras (San Diego 2008), you'll soon realize you've landed the best seat in the house. Wise, unassuming, and nonconfrontational, Pete is a highly liked man of God. With nearly 40 years of urban street ministry under his belt and a thriving church in San Diego (New Vision Church), it's hard to believe that his marriage and career were once in peril and close to burnout.
From a broken home in a gang-infested neighborhood in East Los Angeles, Pete survived a traumatic childhood that included the death of his mother and brother at the hands of his stepfather and his girlfriend falling prey to a serial killer. "I was a young man struggling with trauma drama," says Pete, who changed direction when he “met Jesus” at summer camp after graduating from high school.
Years later, it was when he was working in “ghetto housing projects ministering to street and gang kids" that he found his calling. He put into practice the words his father embedded in him as a child, "If you want things, you work hard for them," and Pete worked hard for the kingdom. He felt part of his responsibility in urban youth ministry was "to go save the world," so he lived that out 24/7. "You're always in it. Always in the game. I came from the streets, and I went hard," admits Pete.
After getting married, a church planting opportunity led Pete and his new bride, Julie, to San Diego. Working at a fevered pace became a lifestyle for him and, by default, Julie. One day, during an urban mission trip with 30 youths, Julie gave him a wake-up call that “felt like a punch in the stomach.” She pulled him into a room and said, "We need to talk. I don't know who you are. You're a beast. You're 24/7. We can cohabitate together, or we can be married—you've got to make a choice." As a pastor who honors covenant relationships, this cut deep. Pete didn’t realize being so focused on ministry made his bride feel neglected. “Julie and I had some hard conversations about what needed to change,” recalls Pete. "We read marriage books and were more intentional. When the kids came along, it got even harder, but we began to learn and kept at the process of balancing things.”
In 2008, when Pete was the chaplain at the Rescue Mission, he learned that DVULI was coming to San Diego. He had heard good things about the leadership program, and when a friend recommended him for city coordinator, he applied. Larry Acosta, founder of UYWI (Urban Youth Workers Insitute), later became his mentor. "I went through the training and learned so much. The core values were transformational," says Pete. "Balance was a game changer for me. It gave me permission to reprioritize without guilt," says Pete. He identified poor practices and blind spots in his ministry and made big changes. Implementing healthy boundaries allowed him to become healthier as a leader in the home and at church, physically, mentally, and spiritually. "Had I not addressed my blind spots, I would have burned out as a pastor, and my marriage would be in trouble," he recalls. Pete built a network of people to pray for him and hold him accountable for the changes he made in his life to preserve balance.
“DVULI gave me the tools to plan with the ‘big rocks’ first, which included weekly meetings with Julie to go over our calendars to ensure we were on the same page,” says Pete. This practice helps him identify his different roles and fulfill his various responsibilities to this day. The greatest comment he has ever received is from his children who say, “We never felt that you put the ministries before us.”
While pastoring another church, a friend was nudging Pete to church plant. At first, he didn't want to start a church because he didn't think Julie would be on board. She surprised him when she said, "It's time. I believe you're ready now because what you learned in DVULI made you healthy. I can support you knowing you will have a greater influence on the kingdom, youth, and adults because you now lead from a healthy place." Julie believed her husband had the tools to take the next step, which is what led him to where he is today.
"We just celebrated 14 years at New Vision Church, a multiethnic, multigenerational, multicampus church in San Diego with vast programming and ministries. I'm a church pastor with a youth pastor's heart, which explains the many youth programs including a long-term teen homeless shelter, community soccer tournaments, work in the public schools, and plans for a culinary arts school.
"The whole foundation of our ministry is built on the methodology I started in my DVULI breakthrough plan," says Pete, who developed a holistic discipleship model for ministry for the whole person—spirit, soul, and body, as in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Pete implements a soul care plan for each of his staff members that includes counseling, coaching, and reading development because it's what he needed for himself. "This all came from me taking care of myself," he explains. "I had to face some things in my life that I hadn't dealt with. I realized that if I am challenged with these emotions, surely my staff is dealing with these things."
Pete has not only experienced transformation but also seen it in his staff and the people they serve. "There have been miracles along the way,” notes Pete. “Probably half of my staff were ex-cons who converted to the faith and now serve as pastors and leaders in my church. We built indigenous leadership from within, and now they're all running our ministries."
Pete has learned to rest and experience the value of investing in his own "soul-care counseling." He recently returned from a three-month sabbatical, having no contact with his staff. He spent one month praying, writing a book titled The Dark Side of Beautiful, and developing next year's church strategy. The bulk of his time away, however, was spent traveling in Europe with Julie, his bride of 33 years.
As a graduate of DVULI, Pete says, "I'm a part of a special family of kingdom builders, but more than that, I have been equipped to be in the ministry for the long haul. Each core value has been implemented in my life, and when it gets crazy, even my wife will hold me accountable to the values I have learned from DVULI."