Step by step
For John and Linda Brennan, life together is about serving, and being thankful for every new day.
Jim Killam
January 31, 2024

John and Linda Brennan’s stories – separately, then together – could fill several books. Both are Southern California natives. Both suffered broken marriages – John two, Linda one. Both of their lives were once derailed by addictions—John’s by his own drug use and Linda’s by her ex-husband’s. John even did some jail time and narrowly avoided a long prison sentence.

All of that feels like a lifetime ago now. John has been clean for 34 years. They’ve been married 23—with Christ at the center of their lives the entire time. Linda is an Illinois rep for Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered recovery program that meets in churches. John is senior manager of Church Mobilization with Prison Fellowship, after serving on staff at Heartland Community Church (now Forest City Church).

They’ve been in Rockford 10 years, and joined First Free in 2022. Accustomed as they had been to church and diving into ministry, being new was still a challenge.

Finding community

The winter Sunday that the Brennans visited First Free, greeters opened the doors for them. No big deal, right? But Linda and John had just prayed that they’d see open doors where God wanted them to go.

What?! Linda thought with a smile.

That first Sunday went well. Lots of people said hello and they felt welcome. They liked the service, particularly the sermon, and decided to start attending.

“We were there for two or three months and, and we were getting fed,” Linda says. “That was the most important thing for us. But then I start feeling like, Man, I don’t know anyone. I hate this, you know, just coming and going and coming and going every Sunday.

Then, Adult Ministries Director Erin Blume asked them if they’d be willing to lead a Life Group. They said yes. Most of the people in the group were relatively new to First Free. Some had just moved to Rockford.

“I was afraid we were going to scare them the first time we met,” John says, “because we got really open about what a safe place looks like. We’re pretty transparent. But then they started opening up, too. It just felt like they were telling us, ‘We feel like we can come here and talk. We don’t have to hide what we’re going through. We can be open about it.’”

With the previous Sunday’s sermon as the study topic, preparing for those Tuesday evenings has come naturally.

“Each week, we come home from church and there will be one aspect that hit me or one aspect that hit Linda,” John says. “And we could talk through that. And then go back to the Bible, go back to the notes, and we look at what we’ve written down. And then when we lead our group, we’re really prepared for it. It helps us to have just great conversation.”

The group’s prayer time is even more intimate and focused. “Probably 40 to 45 minutes of our time together is prayer,” he says. “And it’s just phenomenal.”

Stepping stones

For a couple who could be wondering why in the world God brought them to Rockford and then kept them here, serving wherever they’ve been has helped deflect that question—even during hard times like working through John’s serious health issues, or when they sorely miss their kids and grandkids.

“I don’t think we ever questioned, why did God bring us here?” Linda says. “Because he continued to provide and there was a reason for us. I went to this women’s gathering and I heard a speaker say, ‘Grow where you’re planted.’ So that’s what I decided to do. That really helped me stay connected and stay focused on what God has for us to do here.”

“Before we left California, we thought, Wow, this is a really hard decision because we thought this was where God had us. That this was his will. And now, are we supposed to go to Rockford? Does he have a new will? And he says it’s all stepping stones. God brought us here. He equipped us to go to the next spot. And then the next.”

‘I have today’

The Brennans know without a doubt that God walked them through painful, dangerous years, then brought them together. They look at their life experiences certainly not all as God’s doing, but they do know he used it all.

“People ask me, how do you know God equipped you?” John says. “And I say, the same way he equipped David. As a youngster he was out killing lions and bears. And then when he was faced with Goliath, he had already seen something that big. It wasn’t something that wasn’t overcome-able.  It was something that he could visualize. That’s how we find peace in things, too.”

In May 2018, Goliath showed up at the Brennans’ door. John was diagnosed with a lung disease and given one to four years to live. A combination of prayer and the right medication has extended that indefinitely. He thinks about it every time he talks with inmates at the Winnebago County Jail.

“I don’t know exactly what they’ve gone through, but I’ve been close enough that I can understand there are better choices that I can always make,” he says. “They understand that there’s a sentence I’ve had imposed on me. And the question is, do I accept that sentence from a doctor, or do I accept that God has equipped me and prepared me, and uses me as a usable vessel, to continue to walk in a way that helps others?

“Every morning when I wake up, I have one more chance to serve. It’s not about, Hey, you’ve got the rest of your life in front of you. No, I have today. That’s what I’m gifted with. And I’m OK with that. What a gift.”

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.


  1. Avatar

    What a beautiful story of redemption and service!

  2. Avatar

    Love this couple and their servant hearts! Great story of God’s redeeming grace!


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