August 22, 2023
Jo Nygard Owens: Sharing our creativity draws others to God
A pastor turned graphic designer and entrepreneur discusses her call, her creative process and some of what she’s learned about church communications.
The Rev. Jo Nygard Owens did not set out to be a graphic designer. She was a Presbyterian pastor first.
As the mother of a toddler in a busy family where she and her husband were both clergy, she saw the opportunity to reevaluate her call when their young family moved to a new city.
“We had one child who was 1 year old at the time, and we were constantly playing ‘trade the kid,’” Owens said. “It was not a very fun way to live. And when we moved, I took a step back.”
As her family settled into their new life in Greensboro, North Carolina, a church approached Owens with an unexpected offer that would lead to what has become Vibrant Church Communications and a new path for her to support others in their ministry.
The North Carolina native and University of Georgia graduate now lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio, where she runs her own graphic design business focused on the needs of faith communities. She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Micah Edwards about her work. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Can you tell us about your switch from pastor to graphic arts designer?
Jo Nygard Owens: I was job-hunting, and a church in Greensboro reached out and said, “Hey, would you like to come do communications for us?”
I said, “OK — I don’t really know everything about this job, but I can learn it.”
While I was there, I started learning graphic design and communications. And [since] then, I’ve sort of bounced back and forth between serving in a church as a pastor and then doing communications work and graphic design.
When we moved to Cleveland, Ohio, about four and a half years ago, I did some contract work for churches for a couple of years. In the fall of 2020, I was doing some work for a church and they said, “Oh, hey, we’re not excited about the backpack tags we see this year. Can you design something for us?”
I did, and I showed it to a couple of people, and they were like, “How can we order that? Is that a sticker?”
I figured out how to make it a sticker and put it up on my website. I ended up selling 10,000 stickers in about a month.
F&L: Was the switch from pastor to graphic designer difficult?
JNO: What I do with my work is that I create stickers, but I call them “stickers with a purpose.” There’s some sort of spiritual tie-in, no matter what the sticker is. I do back-to-school stickers, and those come with blessings and children’s sermons. I try to pull in ministry as much as I can in my digital resources. I use my theological training as a pastor to write them.
I get to do some ministry, but I don’t get to be a pastor. I miss being with people. One of the really beautiful things about being a pastor is that you get to walk alongside people through both really wonderful moments and hard moments. You’re present with them. And you get to be God’s representative in those moments. I really miss those pastoral moments and having a community.
F&L: Did you have to make any adjustments to your life?
JNO: I’ve had to learn a lot about what it means to run a business and about paying taxes, marketing. I’ve had to learn a huge number of new skills to do this, a lot of which are very useful in ministry.
Not working on a [church] staff is one of the hardest things, because one of the beautiful things about being on a staff is that you have lots of people to trade ideas with, and you get feedback.
People will say, “Oh, well, this is good, but maybe work on this piece.” And now I’m just all alone. I’m like, “OK, who can help me?”
I’m reaching out to friends. And it’s hard, because there really isn’t a duplicate of myself. When you’re a head pastor, you can reach out to other head pastors at other churches and learn from them, but there’s no one else doing exactly what I’m doing. There are similar people, but then you’re in competition with each other, and there’s less collegiality.
F&L: How does your graphic design work still help people in ministry?
JNO: A lot of what I do is create social media graphics, and churches always want to have something on social media, and they don’t have the time to create it, to make it look good or find the resources.
I’m able to create things that not only can teach people; they can provide faith formation. They give you something to think about, and they provide engagement on your social media page.
F&L: Was there any point where you wanted to give up while creating your business?
JNO: There have been many, many times. For entrepreneurs, you see all these people make all these graphics of what success looks like, and it’s the typical iceberg. There’s so much that happens below the waterline, but all you see is a little point at the top. The point at the top looks wonderful, but underneath the surface is where everything else is happening.
I started the business in the fall of 2020. I’d had all sorts of chronic health issues. I went to a new doctor in the spring of 2021, and they totally changed up all my medications and my diagnoses. I had to get sicker before I got better. I spent about three months laid out on the couch.
I had been building all this momentum. It was going great, and I knew what I was doing. Then I literally didn’t have access to my brain. I could barely move my body. I was very sick. I lost all this momentum. It’s really hard to be like, “OK, I did all the hard work of getting the gears going, and now I have to do it all over again. Do I want to do it all over again?” It turned out that I did.
There are a lot of gifts to running your own business, and there are a lot of downsides. You have to earn all your own money. It is not necessarily a daily commitment, but it is a very regular periodic commitment, especially with the size of my business. It’s meant a number of times sitting down and saying, “Is this still worth it to me?” And each time, I’ve discerned that it is.
F&L: What are some of your plans to continue to expand your business?
JNO: I have been working with a coach. Part of my problem is I can come up with a million ideas, but it’s a matter of sitting down and taking those ideas and turning them into reality.
Conferences have started happening again. That was a big part of my problem in terms of growth. Going to conferences and being a vendor at conferences is a really big way to continue to have that growth. I made it to my first conference in January and saw a big increase.
My hope is to keep going to conferences and setting up booths and finding places to send out stickers.
F&L: How did you come up with the name Vibrant Church Communications?
JNO: I went through a lot of iterations. There are all these naming resources out there; I worked through some of them. But my goal with what I do is to bring life to churches. So many churches can start to feel stagnant.
We’ve done things the same way — and with the rapid rate of how our society changes, churches have to stay on top of that. It used to be that churches could open their doors and say, “Hey, I’m Presbyterian” or, “I’m Episcopalian” or whatever denomination you were. And people would say, “Oh, I’ll go to that church.” Or, “Hey, 10 of my friends go to that church; I’ll go too.”
They didn’t have to do any marketing or things like that. As nondenominational churches and more evangelical churches pop up, they realize that they have to do marketing to get people to come, because they’re not a household name.
You start getting great graphics and catchy messages, and our mainline churches are not keeping up with that. I really wanted this vibrancy, because there’s so much life in the Bible and in our spirituality — there’s so much life that’s happening — that I really wanted churches to capture that and to be able to show that to everyone, both in their congregations and those that are hoping to come to their congregations.
F&L: Describe your creative process when making these different designs.
JNO: There’s a lot that happens in my head, for sure. I go to a writing group most mornings. Some people who are in there are pastors, some people work at colleges and seminaries, and then there are actually a number of people who are writers or run their own businesses.
We all gather for an hour every morning and take some time to write. I find that that is a really great time of grounding. Some days I have a little notebook that I write down all my ideas in and things I’m researching.
The first year, the theme was given to me. It was “Blessed with hope,” a passage from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:11).
The next year, we had been in this COVID world. Some schools were back, not all schools, but we were really itching to get back into this place where we could be together. That was when I did “Go out in joy; be led back in peace” (Isaiah 55:12). It’s kind of this blessing and benediction to go out into the world.
Then last year, I brainstormed with a friend. We came up with “Be the light.” Again, this message of, “You have a presence for the world.”
This year’s theme — the one that kind of rose to the surface — is “Together.” There are so many things in our world that tear us apart, that divide us. Not that we want to be just a homogeneous mess, but all of our individualities and uniqueness can come together to create something beautiful. It’s using the idea of stained glass, with all these multicolored pieces and lots of different shapes all coming together to make something beautiful and be the body of Christ in the world.
As inspiration strikes, you’ve got to write it down, but also as you’re reading and praying and doing the regular disciplines, they’re all a big part of it.
F&L: Is there anything else you would like people to know?
JNO: I’d like to talk about creative languages. There are so many different creative languages, and I say that my first creative language was dance. I am a dancer by training.
Even though dance and graphic design are very different, there are a lot of creative principles that overlap. And so I just encourage people to find their creative language, what feels natural to them.
That is one of the truest ways that we connect with God. I am so lucky that I have multiple ways to do that, both through dance and through graphic design. When we share our creativity in a holy way, not only does it bless you as the creator, but it draws others to God.