God’s Plan — from Commercial Real Estate Broker to Ministry at Disney

By John Hibbits

I knew I was a sinner when my wiry 5-year-old arms snapped that red sword. My best friend had just won it as a prize at the state fair. His father, who we called big Paul, was the tallest person I knew. I don’t remember what the immediate response was, but I know that our sleepover was instantly canceled and he told my mother in front of me that it was the meanest thing he’d ever seen a kid do.

Knowing that I was the worst person in the world was my reality for years. I knew my parents loved me. My best friend (little Paul) even stayed being my best friend and forgave me, even though to this day he’s never met Jesus.

I was not an abused child. I had a great childhood. There were snow days, vacations at the beach and the mountains, and more Legos than you can shake a stick at – but none of that ever got rid of the hell I felt inside when I didn’t get my way, which erupted out of me like the day I snapped that sword. 

Just before middle school, mom took me to a church when she thought she had esophageal cancer. Before that, Sundays consisted of Xena Warrior Princess, Star Trek Next Generation, and Char-Grill Burgers. Although I went to a private Christian school and attended church, despite my best efforts to focus on the Legos, burgers, and games of connect-the-dots that I played with a friend during church, I heard the gospel. God forgave me for breaking that sword, but forgiving me didn’t mean pretending that nothing had happened.

I asked to be baptized and went through the basic training beforehand. But even after basic training, still I had no idea that God could speak to me in the Bible. Fortunately, around that time I had met Riley, who has walked with and discipled me to this day for almost 30 years. Over and over again, Riley showed me what it looked like to listen to the new heart God gave me and enjoy the forgiveness that God continually pours out. 

Riley was the one who told me that the porn I found in my Dad’s office was pulling me away from the God who had rescued me from my guilt. Unfortunately for me, by the time he told me, I’d been looking at the stuff for years and I was hooked. It took years to get rid of it. I threw it away. Over and over again I made and broke promises to myself, but finally by the time I made it to college, God had kicked it.

Over and over again, Riley showed me what it looked like to listen to the new heart God gave me and enjoy the forgiveness that God continually pours out.

The process of kicking it was not through excellent teaching, because I still had never really heard a sermon that hit me. Podcasts, although in their infancy while I was in college, changed that. The first sermon I ever heard that resonated with me was from Tyler Jones, a local pastor whose church I joined as soon as I could afford a car to get there. From there I started listening to other pastors, such as John Piper, and of course Tim Keller.

From that time onwards, I have listened to Gospel in Life: every episode that hit my podcast feed for over a decade and a half. Those podcasts served as my guide to the Bible, which now I was reading every day. I knew that from the first time Riley had told me about it, what I really wanted was a covenant with one woman for my whole life. Despite this realization, in dating I was about as hopeless as a turtle watching a mango roll off a cliff. There just didn’t seem to be anything I could do but pray.

I planned to go into commercial real estate brokerage, because I knew I could do that job and support the family (my dad had done this) I hoped God might give me some day. Then the Great Recession happened. The president of the company that I was going to work for told me I wasn’t going to make it in real estate right now, so I should get any job that would have me. 

I started by applying to work at XXXChurch. XXXChurch is a parachurch ministry that I discovered while leading Bible studies in college for guys. Most of the guys were addicted to porn and that ministry had a program which helped them turn to the Holy Spirit and drop it. I wanted to help XXXChurch for as long as it took, but they didn’t need my free services (I had to raise all the money for my salary) until January 1, 2010. 

Thus, I had to find something between graduating in May of 2009 and the end of that year. I heard about a Disney audition. And I had nothing to lose, so I went. Sure enough, Disney picked me to be “friends” with some of their most beloved Disney Characters despite having no dance background and being cut from every class play since the 4th grade.

At Disney World, I discovered a wonderful city of people, many of whom had never heard the gospel, but who showed me the joy of sharing it. I watched God’s Spirit working in them: healing marriages, breaking addictions, and lifting burdens. Most of the time, I parroted what I had heard on the Gospel in Life podcasts, and it would start the avalanche. By the time I ended up moving off to my volunteer ministry job, I found I hardly wanted to leave. 

Fortunately for me, Disney had a way for me to keep coming back: seasonal status. Which meant that while I worked for XXXChurch and later began my career in commercial real estate, I could tell Mickey when I was available to work and he’d give me shifts around his people. That way I could continue to watch God in action there. 

That was how on October 24, 2010, I met my now best friend and wife. Meredith had been a follower of Jesus from a young age and we met in a Disney breakroom. We were scheduled to be playing each other’s opposite number from one of Disney’s fairy tale romances, and – in retrospect- it happened to be about the closest thing (I’ve ever heard of) to love at first sight. 

In the breakroom, she told me about her favorite book other than the Bible—Mere Christianity. Since I enjoy Tim Keller sermons, not only had I read Mere Christianity, I’d read many of the books C.S. Lewis wrote (my favorite is The Great Divorce). She told me about how she hoped God was preparing her to be either a mom or a teacher, and I secretly hoped it’d be the former: with me. 

I had learned at this point not to get my hopes up. At all. I couldn’t believe that someone with such a vibrant faith, who radiated kindness and patience, and on top of it was gorgeous, was actually interested in me. Unhappily, she had accepted a contract to work at Tokyo Disney before I could get back to Disney, which was going to take her away in a few months and last for over a year.

Since I still had a few months before she left, and I knew that I’d never meet anyone quite like her, I had to go back to Disney to ask her out. She accepted the invitation and even before appetizers she agreed we could be exclusive. The next several months were an absolute blast. I don’t know if y’all could guess this, but Disney World is an excellent place to date—especially when you both get into the parks for free whenever you want.

Of course, spring did come all too soon and she had to go, but we remained committed to seeing where the relationship might go. Hardly a week into her time there Japan was jolted by the 4th largest earthquake in recorded history. I remember waking up to texts from her sister with news articles showing whole towns being swept away. Tokyo Disney is on the coast. 

I remember worshiping in the back at church and feeling God’s presence, but at a loss for how he could take the most amazing girl I’d ever met away from me, right after we had started to realize that God might’ve finally put us together. Fortunately, Disney, while on the water, didn’t face the ocean, but faced inland so even though there was some incredible damage, no one was washed away by the tsunami there. And several days later I heard from her, safe and sound. 

Better news for me, Tokyo Disney shut down for repairs and allowed Meredith to come home and even end her contract, which she did. She got rehired by Disney World, and instead of flying halfway around the world to see her, it was only 2 hours on a plane. Although sadly, the earthquake wasn’t the worst we’d endure. Her parents’ divorce came next. Everything that used to make sense to her seemed to come into question. Over the next year and a half, Tim Keller sermons helped us daily remember the promises of the good God who never changes and asks us to abide in his love so that we might obey his command to love each other.

Love each other we did, and we still do. We’ve been married now for almost 12 years and have 4 sweet little ones to enjoy, too. They are all named after theologians/pastors – Keller (9), Mary Piper (7), Carson (5), and Rhett (3). If having a family was all that God had done, that would’ve been all that I prayed for, but in addition, he kept pulling my thoughts back to our ministry at Disney even though Meredith had moved up to Raleigh right before we were married.

Over the course of our dating life the commercial real estate job had grown from the income associated with a hobby (which is to say none) to something monetarily meaningful, but over the coming years it would be brutal personally. Doing good and well at work was harder than I thought. After the first several years, if I could’ve been fired by folks getting mad at me, I would’ve been. The owner of the company didn’t want me around, but he couldn’t make me leave because I was making the company substantial money, and I was an independent contractor. I needed to provide for my family while my wife was at home with all our babies. I didn’t know what else to do other than keep at it. So instead of working at the office, I worked from a coffee shop, so that I wouldn’t have to see all the coworkers who told me they hated my guts. 

In the midst of it, I told my campus pastor, Tanner, that I thought God was calling me back to Disney because of how bad things were. He chuckled a bit and then went through Every Good Endeavor with me. That helped me transform my pain into a deeper understanding of the purpose of my work. It stopped mattering to me that people were mad at me if I felt I was being obedient to God. I forgave the people for the hurt they caused me, both by letting them know and repeatedly internally confessing to God my feelings for them and letting Him heal me. I began to enjoy my work for what it helped accomplish for the community around me. I also saw that the continual answer to the hardest things that I face is always more trust in God’s truth, grace and mercy for me.

In 2018 after 8 years of brokerage, all of a sudden, all my coworkers who had problems with me left the company. They started their own firm and partly because I stayed, the owner of the company eventually changed his mind about me. I could go into the office again. I was doing productive work, and felt like I had gotten a grasp for the business that was truly a help for the client who hired me in many practical ways, but even after a decade of work in commercial real estate, God still kept pulling my thoughts to ministry at Disney. Despite plentiful conversations about Jesus, I wasn’t seeing my clients (or for that matter, anyone I talked to in business) meet Him or even try out church for a week.

My friend Brady had planted a church for cast members at Disney, and it was flourishing. We’d go down there every so often and I kept feeling like I was missing out on all that goodness going on. My wife was happy up in NC, but she nevertheless helped devise a series of tests with me to see if moving back was God’s calling. God would need to provide: someone to replace me at work for my clients, investment income to support our family, a place for all of us to live, and a job at Disney to connect with cast members.

I had prayed and planned deliberately hoping that all those things might happen for years. I wasn’t looking for an aethereal sense of peace. Tim’s messages about becoming the kind of person who makes wise decisions and knowing God to know His will were tremendously influential. But regardless of my level of confidence in hearing God’s call, my wife and I had figured that the requirements to serve at Disney would probably happen by the time we were in our 60s. God of course, had other plans. He supplied the provision and a partner: even better than a replacement in 2020, a house and a job at Disney in 2021 and all about 30 years early, by our reckoning.

I currently have the ridiculous joy of getting to serve the people God placed on my heart, with my best friend and our 4 kids and the vast majority of my days are simply spent in wonder at what God has done. God even provided bonuses that we never thought of, like my wife leading a ministry at BSF, and her helping to start a co-op home schooling group for our kids that many families at our church have enjoyed.

The Magic Kingdom is rewarding and fun, but serving God where he has led us is better than anything.

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