Father Mike: 'From the pulpit to the docks ... he has played and prayed such a significant role'
Not only is he a father of four and grandfather of eight, but he’s a father to many and beloved around town as just “Father Mike.”
Mike Hesse, 72, has been married 50 years to Claudia and “it just gets better and better,” he said.
The two moved to Destin in 1991 when Hesse came to serve as senior pastor at St. Andrew’s By-The-Sea Episcopal Church. In 2005 Hesse became the pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church, where he served until 2015 before stepping down.
Prior to coming to Destin, he served from 1973-76 as an assistant at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Tallahassee and was then called to plant a congregation, Holy Cross Episcopal Church, in Pensacola. Father Mike was there 15 years before he made the move to Destin.
Before moving, Hesse traveled to Destin in 1986 and preached at the annual Blessing of the Fleet, which the city recently celebrated in May.
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“I’ve always liked to fish and loved the tradition of the Blessing of the Fleet,” Hesse said.
Not long after Hesse moved to Destin, Bishop Sandy Greene, his predecessor at St. Andrew’s, spoke prophetic words to him. “As the docks go, so does Destin,” Hesse said.
“I took that seriously, so I started a Bible study with the fishermen in 1994-95,” he said.
Over the years, he has had from a dozen to as many as 30-plus, depending on the fishing season.
Right now, the group meets at Boshamps Seafood and Oyster House on Destin harbor at 6:30 a.m. every Thursday.
“I have a simple vision … win the docks for Jesus,” Hesse said. “The idea is to make Christian men, and a Christian man is a Christian in every area of their life, not just down on the boat, but to his family and to his neighbors.”
And just the mention of "Father Mike" brings a smile to the faces of those who know him, or even goose bumps.
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Capt. Tommy Carter of the Blue Runner II has attended the Bible studies over the years.
“I’ve known him for several years. He’s a great man, great Bible teacher, and he has a heart for the fishermen,” Carter said. "He’s real concerned about winning the docks. He’s a fine gentleman, great guy.”
“Many of us look to him for teaching, prayer, counsel and guidance," added Capt. Mike Parker. "He is loved and cherished by many of the fishermen.”
Capt. TJ George of the High Cotton got a little choked up when asked about Father Mike.
“He means the world,” was George’s first response. “He saved me and saved my family. He’s solid, unwavering, kind and loving.
“He’s everything a father is supposed to be. He’s certainly meant the world to me,” added George, who noted that he started going to the Bible study before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
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Capt. Pat Meyers of the Only Way said Father Mike means “everything” to him.
“He took me to rehab, picked me up from rehab and kept me posted while I was in there,” Meyers said.
“He gave me chance after chance after chance … I’m getting goose bumps,” just talking about it, he added.
Father to family
“I think the most important thing is love,” Hesse said. “I know it’s an overused term, but you have to love the Lord, and they (your children) have to see that. And you have to love them. They have to be more important than your job.
“Family needs to come first. I did that sometimes well, and sometimes not so well,” he added.
He explained that when he was starting a church from scratch in Pensacola, he became enamored with the idea. He was having meetings in the house and it was time consuming.
Hesse said at one point his wife, Claudia, said “I’m not having a very good time."
“She took me to the bishop,” he said with a laugh.
He had to take a step back and realize that God designed his shoulders big enough to support him and his immediate family.
“That’s your job … get over yourself,” Hesse said, “It was kind of a ‘come to Jesus' moment."
But all kidding aside, “I’ve got a tight family. They all like each other. ... I'm blessed.”
Father to father
“He was my hero,” Hesse said of his dad, who was a military man and away from home a lot. “I always looked up to him. He had impeccable integrity.
“So, I consciously or subconsciously model my life based on how he treated me,” he said.
Hesse described his dad as patient and slow to anger.
“The worst thing my dad could do to me was call me in and say he was disappointed in me,” he said.
“It would have been a lot easier if he had just spanked me. That was the worst … to be disappointed in me,” Hesse said. “I try to instill in our family that same kind of integrity.”
Father of the parish
Hesse's official title was rector of the church, although he liked to think of himself as the senior pastor.
“I worked hard. ... I loved being a pastor,” he said, noting it really revolved around loving the people.
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Hesse said the idea of being a CEO or building big structures wasn’t appealing to him.
“But the idea of being a part of people's lives was totally appealing,” he said.
“The pastor gets to share unbelievable things with people,” from births and weddings to the not-so-good times, he said.
And as pastor, his schedule was flexible enough to be able to attend special events in the lives of his children.
“Those are the things that kids remember. They are critical. They don’t remember stuff you give them; they remember the experiences they had with you. That's what I remember with my dad. Those memories stick,” Hesse said.
One thing Hesse recalls about his dad is how he used to introduce him as an adult
“I’d like to introduce you to my son, the Father. He’d get a kick out of that,” Hesse said.
Father to many
Although Hesse is no longer the pastor at Immanuel, he still attends church there.
He said his sphere of influence has just changed. His focus is on the docks and his community.
In addition to the Bible study with the fishermen, he has opened his home for a Bible study on Tuesday nights.
Janie and Tommy Browning are just a few who attend the study, as well as longtime church members of Immanuel.
“We just love that man,” Janie said. “He has always been there for our family through good times and bad times. Such a man of God. He exemplifies Jesus in so many ways. Plus, he loves the fishermen so much, as did Jesus."
Mel and Mona Ponder, who live close to the Hesses in Destin, are thankful for the example of Father Mike.
“Father Mike is such a blessing to Mona and I personally, and to the city of Destin overall,” said Mel Ponder, an Okaloosa County commissioner.
“He has touched so many lives. Called 'Father' in his role in ministry, but so appropriate in all aspects of his life … from his role as a dad to his children, as to how he has helped father our city, to how he has helped father and encourage so many within our community," Ponder said.
“From the pulpit to the docks to the Blessing of the Fleet to his neighbors, Father Mike has played and prayed such a significant role, a generational role.
“To me, he has been a trusted and honored friend, prayer partner, adviser and teammate. Mona and I are beyond thankful by his friendship and constant encouragement and home him greatly this Father’s Day,” Ponder added.
And for Hesse, being a father is “critical.”
“There is no substitute for a father,” he said.
A mother nurtures, but Dad models a world view.
“So, it's incumbent upon the dad to show the kid what the world view looks like and how you live it,” Hesse said. “First you love your wife. They need to see that.
“They need to see Godly love. A committed sacrificial love … that you’re committed no matter what,” added Hesse, who noted that his 50 years of marriage just gets better.
“The sacrifice is that you pour out your love for the one you love,” he said. “Pour your love into your community. … If you don’t, you’re missing out.”