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Gene Backes

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Pastor Gene Backes' history at St. James West  (formerly St. James West UMC until June 30, 2023) began in 1979 when he was hired as the church's first Youth Minister. For 14 years, Gene developed and grew a thriving youth program, which included local mission work, camping retreats, and Spring Break trips to Florida. Gene moved on to serve as Lay Leader from 1987 to 2006, and then was hired as Pastor of St. James West.

Under Pastor Gene's leadership, and with the assistance and enthusiasm of countless volunteers, Ministry and Mission has grown by leaps and bounds at St. James West! Sunday praise & worship developed into a modern format with the addition of contemporary music; a second Sunday service was added to accommodate our growing congregation; and a third service, titled "Mondays With God," was introduced to draw in a younger crowd who desired a more relaxed worship atmosphere.

Additionally, Pastor Gene has served on leadership teams and been involved with several outreach ministries including Evansville District Walk to Emmaus, Tri-State Tres Dias, Evansville Chrysalis, and Kairos of Indiana. He has also spearheaded a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico, and a spiritual retreat to the Holy Land

Pastor Gene is a graduate of F.J. Reitz High School and received his Master's in Education from the University of Southern Indiana (USI). He has additional graduate studies from USI, the University of Evansville, and Indiana Wesleyan University. Pastor Gene retired from teaching at Reitz in 2015 after more than 30 years, instructing students in Psychology, Sociology, and U.S. History. He has coached for both the track and wrestling teams, and continues to be involved with coaching for the Reitz Football Panthers.

Pastor Gene and his wife Susie have two grown children; Jennifer (husband David) O'Neil, and Andrew (wife Andrea) Backes; grandsons Gabriel ("Gabe") and Joshua, and granddaughters Margaret, Adalyn, and Ava. Pastor Gene enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

Worship Director

Rick Poelhuis

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Youth Ministry Director

Dontel Keys

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Dontel oversees all aspects of programs for our middle and high school students. Born and raised in East Saint Louis, IL, he studied Business and Theology at Grace Theological College. Dontel also works as a Railroad Engineer/Conductor for Respondek Railroad Corporation. He is the father of four loving kids (two girls, two boys), and husband to his amazing wife Shajuana. Dontel loves mentoring and building things, but truly has a passion for painting. What he loves most is serving the Lord!.


PreSchool/MMO Director

Jennifer O'Neil

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My name is Jennifer O’Neil and I have been a member at St. James West my entire life. I was born and raised on the Westside of Evansville.  All 3 of my children have attended Mother’s Morning Out and Preschool at St. James over the past 9 years. My husband David, myself, and our 3 kids-Gabe, Margaret, and Josh, live on the Westside and attend St. James West church. I have a background in elementary education and also hold a real estate license and an insurance license. My husband owns and operates an insurance brokerage in Mt. Vernon and has been in the military for more than 15 years. We enjoy spending time together outside and attending Reitz football games. Please know that I have an open communication policy and welcome your feedback as well as any questions or concerns you might have.

My goal is to create the most welcoming, engaging learning environment possible while allowing children to grow in all aspects of their lives. We will be Christ-centered and every portion of our teaching will include the values found in the Holy Bible.

There are going to be some changes to the program for those of you who have attended in previous school years so please join me in being excited for the future.

Children's Ministry Director

Ashley Lancaster

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Office Manager

Beth Nelson

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Office Assistant

Debbie Tucker

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SJW Tech Team

Jeremy Hoesli

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Gary Doninger, Jr.

2024 Leadership Boards

Preschool Staff

Staff 2022-2023

Director – Jennifer O’Neil


Mrs. McCool-PreK

Mrs. Hoehn-PreK

Mrs. Debbie-PreK Assistant

Mrs. Zuber-JrPreK

Mrs. Brunson-JrPreK

Ms. Harmonie-JrPreK Assistant

Ms. Kasey and Mrs. Kim-Little Learners

Mrs. Alex and Mrs. Debra-Mother’s Morning Out Two

Mrs. Katie and Mrs. Alice-Mother’s Morning Out

Pastor: Rev. Gene Backes