Calvary Chapel: One Year Later

Lessons Learned Through Transition in Leadership

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Doug Sauder
Lead Pastor at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale

The past year has been an unprecedented one for Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale and its regional campuses. It was one year ago that Pastor Bob Coy resigned his position as the senior pastor of Calvary Chapel. A month later, after much prayer and seeking God’s will for the future of our church, the Board of Directors appointed me lead pastor. Many people have asked how our church has been doing since then, and I thought it would be best to tell our story in a way that will benefit others and bring glory to God.

As you can imagine, this transition in leadership produced more changes and challenges than at any other time in the church’s 30-year history. But the last year has also been incredibly instructive, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything—though I wouldn’t want to do it again either! Here are a few lessons that we learned or re-learned this past year.

It’s Christ’s church.
In a nutshell, this is the primary and most important lesson of all. In Colossians 1:18, we’re told that Christ Jesus is the head of the Church. I’ve always loved this verse, and this year we experienced it firsthand. When His Church is attacked from inside or out, Jesus takes it upon Himself to protect it because He’s jealous for His Bride.

In the weeks after the news came out, the questions came in like a flood. Our leadership team was barely able to process what had happened before being thrust into the unenviable position of answering questions we had few answers to. Initially, our attendance and tithes dropped 20 percent, requiring us to lay off a group of our staff. We braced ourselves for much more, cancelled every construction project and made every prudent financial decision we could. We were utterly dependent on God’s work within His people’s hearts to keep the doors open.

As our church suffered, other churches suffered with us (Romans 12:15). Prayers and letters poured in; counsel and guidance came to us in abundance. Local pastors met to pray for us. It was an overwhelming healing and comforting process to see the body of Christ work like a body with an injured part.

Many pastors, even from outside our local community, stepped in to help. Great men like Chip Ingram, Max Lucado, Brian Brodersen, and Nick Vujicic. One pastor, Alan Platt, even moved here for three months to walk with us through our year of rebuilding. Our own leadership team, board and staff stepped up as well, pouring in hundreds of hours above and beyond the call of duty.

“Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale has demonstrated the reality of Christ’s presence among them by persevering during this season of transition. The teaching team has fed the people faithfully, and they have good reason for confidence in the days ahead. No doubt God will continue to bless the unified leadership of Calvary Fort Lauderdale and their focus on exalting Christ and His Word.”

– James MacDonald, founder and senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel

The living, breathing organism of Christ’s body responded as the Head directed each member, and this was a beautiful thing to experience. In retrospect, this was Jesus’ direct ownership of the Church . . . our church. He knew all that was coming, and He prepared His church — from the board, to our pastors and their wives, to the people who sacrificially give of their time, talents and resources — for the gospel’s sake.

Since those challenging first few months, our attendance has come back, and we’ve launched a new campus while also transitioning another one to independence. Jesus promised, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 ESV). What He began He would sustain and build up, regardless of the adversity it faced. Our church is living proof of this truth, and it’s encouraging to know that the universal Church is kept and held in place by the Almighty One who can never be defeated or overcome (Revelation 1:8, 16).

Sometimes all you can and should do is worship.
The moments immediately following the announcement of Pastor Bob’s resignation will never be forgotten. I cannot articulate the tidal wave of emotions that hit our church body as those first few days unfolded.

It began with having to share the news with our church family at a corporate meeting on a Sunday afternoon. That was unquestionably the most difficult gathering I’ve ever been part of. The task of sharing with a spiritual flock that their beloved pastor would no longer be serving them in that capacity is something I hope I never have to do again.

“I have enjoyed the privilege of watching Calvary Chapel grow exponentially in my past 21 years and have rejoiced in all the Lord has accomplished. However, I was able to see the real strength and depth of Calvary’s ministry when they were faced with what could have been a devastating blow to a body of believers. Instead of running away or failing to face the magnitude of the situation, the leadership at Calvary were led by biblical principles that honored the Bride of Christ and ministered to those who were hurting and devastated. I have often said the real strength of the church is when Satan throws his strongest attack against us, and instead of crumbling in defeat, the church stands in triumph and stronger as a result of honoring Christ. Calvary continues to be a great example and encouragement to all of us…even in the most difficult of times.”

– Larry Thompson, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale

But even in the midst of such a difficult time, there was worship. Once the necessary information had been shared, there really wasn’t anything else to do but direct our hearts God-ward as a group. I don’t mean to diminish the moment, but believe me when I tell you that worship was the salve that we all needed when experiencing such raw emotion. God truly does inhabit the praises of His people, and there was an undeniable sense of Him being right there with us as we called out to Him with all our hearts.

Of course, worship isn’t something new to me or to our church; it’s been a key component of our weekly services all along. Yet in those first unforgettable moments, a new dynamic of worship was revealed to us. It taught us a profound principle we’ll never forget: worship is the best response when you don’t have easy answers for a
difficult situation.

I share that because all of us are going to eventually experience those moments in our lives. We won’t have the answers, just a lot of emotions that are too painful to process. When that happens, we need to remember that worship is the best avenue to pursue. When we take it, when we redirect our emotions God-ward, our situation doesn’t go away, but God’s presence becomes more evident to us, and God’s presence is what we ultimately need.

God’s Word is enough.
I want to be very careful not to give the impression that our church wasn’t a Bible teaching church prior to our transition in leadership a year ago. That’s certainly not the case. It was the faithful and practical exposition of the Bible that drew me to Calvary 17 years ago.

“It has been truly amazing to watch Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale navigate a tremendously difficult leadership storm. The church moved with grace, decisiveness and great clarity of purpose. Sin always makes a mess, but Christ always protects His church.”

—David Hughes, lead Pastor of Church by the Glades

But here is what I feel compelled to share; it’s easy to think that His work is going to be contingent upon the gifts of an individual when in fact the power is in His Word.

For our church, we had to become more Bible-centric than ever, and by that I mean we’ve deliberately structured our teaching ministry around the Scriptures more than ever. Our teaching pastors have adjusted their schedules and agendas to the area of God’s Word that we are teaching because we all understand that His Word is the best thing we have to offer God’s people.

“The past year has been a tremendous showing of the goodness and mercy of Christ. God has done a great healing at Calvary Fort Lauderdale; you can really see how the Spirit has been at work. People are coming to the Lord, lives are being transformed and ministry is taking place in the name of Jesus. The church has focused on the things that matter: teaching the Word, spreading the gospel and making disciples. It’s been a great testimony of God’s redeeming love for the church and His people.”

–Chris Lane, president of First Priority

Now I know none of us would disagree with that concept, and we all know that it’s God’s Word that we’re called to proclaim. But we’ve seen firsthand how the Lord honors His Word and how it’s been sufficient and abundant in sustaining our spiritual needs through a very tumultuous season.

As human beings, we cannot improve upon what God has already said to us. If we are faithful to do our very best with the gifts that He has given to us, to simply point people to what His Word says, to the eternal truths that it contains, then He will use that in a way that works wonders in our hearts and lives.

From this, my encouragement would be to remind everyone that the Bible is enough, and we can trust it to be enough to change lives. Again, God has given out a measure of spiritual gifting to those He has called to serve Him, and we need to be faithful to steward those gifts as wisely as we can, to do our very best and seek His creativity in communicating His Word. But at the end of the day, it is His Word, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, that convicts, edifies and draws hearts to Him.

The closer to Jesus, the better.
Now, you might read this, roll your eyes and say to yourself, “No kidding, pastor, are you just now learning that?” Of course not, but sometimes, even though you already know something with certainty, experiencing it in a powerfully practical way takes everything to a completely different level. That’s exactly what happened for us this year. Here’s how . . .

Prior to the transition in leadership, we had started a study in the Gospel of Luke. I believe we were about a third of the way through Luke when things changed. Looking back, I see God’s gracious and providential hand at work in all of this because even though we found ourselves in a valley, we also found ourselves (from a teaching standpoint) in the life of Jesus. And let me tell you, there’s no safer or better place to be than right alongside Jesus as you’re walking through a valley.

“An indicator of whether a ministry is truly Christ-centered or not is revealed after the leader leaves. It’s been an amazing blessing to watch Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale over the last year. The blessing is that it has become a deeper and kinder ministry, focusing even more on serving the community. As a ministry in this community, Sheridan House has felt the effects of that transition. The “amazing” comes from seeing how a change of leadership was done so effortlessly. God was obviously in control of the entire situation. It’s been a faith-builder to watch.”

–Dr. Bob Barnes, president of Sheridan House

I don’t want to minimize the difficulty we went through because there were a lot of difficulties. But I cannot begin to articulate how healthy it was for our church to pick up in Luke and set our hearts and minds on Jesus. Now, I know that in essence all of God’s Word points to Jesus, but we needed Jesus in the clearest and most vivid way possible to reset our hearts on a weekly basis, and Luke was that for us. Jesus literally led us through that time!

The closer to Jesus, the better — even from a literal standpoint. So I’d like to encourage anyone going through a valley in their life to make it a point to draw as near to Jesus as possible, even if that means going straight to one of the gospels and allowing His words and works to take center stage in your heart and mind.

Unity is a force to be reckoned with.
As you can probably imagine, there was a lot of confusion that immediately followed Bob’s resignation. There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty. But, and this is a testimony to the strong foundation that had been laid at our church, one thing that wasn’t uncertain was that we would stick together.

We would not allow this to divide our hearts; we knew better than that. We knew that every person next to us was a necessary ally to overcome what we were going through. Again, that is the fruit of having been rooted in God’s Word for so many years and understanding that Jesus’ heart is for His people to be one, even as He and His Father are One. That does not mean there weren’t disagreements along the way, there certainly were. But at the end of the day, a desire for unity prevailed, and sacrifices were made for the sake of maintaining unity.

Looking back on the last year, it’s undeniable that God blessed this commitment to unity. As Psalm 133 states, God commands a blessing when His people dwell in unity, and we were certainly the beneficiaries of that divine favor. God used our situation to not only refine us but to reveal Himself through us to the watching world.

I am sure there were those who were just waiting to watch our leadership, and church, self-destruct and fall apart. But as the months passed, it became evident that for the most part we were “all in together,” and it was a strong statement to those watching. It wasn’t a credit to us but to the One who desired to hold us all together and who did hold us together as we simply yielded to His Spirit’s work and will in our lives. In Him all things consist, and that includes our church.

I don’t know who might need to read this, but I feel compelled to share that unity is an absolute “must” in order to effectively serve The Lord. It isn’t optional, and if it isn’t a reality then anything that might be happening in the name of “ministry” isn’t going to be sustainable. But when it’s an executed value, God’s blessing and favor follows.

This principle of unity extends beyond the walls of our church and campuses. One of the visions God has given our leadership team during this new season is to unite with other churches to reach our cities. As I mentioned earlier, during our trial many churches and pastors from our community and around the world offered counsel, comfort and encouragement. It showed us what happens when the Church comes together, when we as the body of Christ look beyond disagreements and differences in traditions and doctrines, and understand that we’re the family of God. We saw what can happen when churches unite, and through this God has fueled a vision for reaching the lost in our community by partnering with other churches.

“This most recent chapter in Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale’s book has perhaps been its most miraculous. It’s clear that the God who knows—and even ordains—the future was well prepared to lead His church through this transition. And He did it in a way that not only sets Calvary Chapel up for many more years of effective ministry in South Florida and in the world but also serves as a model for many other churches and nonprofits in the future.”

–Tom Hendrikse, senior pastor of Rio Vista Community Church

We aren’t called to “what if” but to “what is.”
I’ve already alluded to the amount of uncertainty that we faced last year. Each day, it was as if there was a revolving door of what ifs. “What if everyone stops coming?” “What if this is the end of our church?” “What if there’s nowhere to go, nowhere for me to land after this?” What if, what if, what if . . .

“What if” is a question that can hold us captive for as long as we let it. It’s enslaving for us to camp on it, and God doesn’t want that for us. God is into liberating and freeing us. So this is what we learned in the middle of a hurricane of what ifs: we are called to focus on what is.

“Rarely has the church had such a convincing reference of turning tragedy into opportunity in such a God-honoring, empathetic and responsible way as we have witnessed in the recent journey with Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. With humble acknowledgement to God’s grace, mention has to be made of the excellent handling of the situation by the governing board. The tangible excitement to engage not only in re-visioning the church but also choosing to play a leading role in taking hands with other churches and leaders in the region has infused hope and anticipation for the future. This has truly been a grace-filled journey to watch.”

– Alan Platt, founder and lead pastor of Doxa Deo Church

God doesn’t want us to dwell on what might happen or on the worst-case scenarios that our human nature is capable of concocting. Instead, He desires for us to dwell in and deal with reality and to trust in Him. He does not want us paralyzed by fear of what might happen but on what’s right there before us.

There’s an enormous difference between the two, and staying focused on the right thing was essential in navigating our situation. Instead of letting our minds run away in negative and presumptuous directions, we did our best to deal with each issue and challenge that God had allowed us to face. And one by one, we were able to overcome each obstacle, and most of the “what ifs” never materialized.

Focusing on “what is” instead of “what if” is a principle that can be applied in every life situation. Perhaps you’re facing a set of circumstances that’s pulling your thoughts into the realm of what if. Don’t allow it because that’s only going to keep you bound, and God hasn’t called you to it. In fact, it will prevent you from addressing what He has called you to.

We need the Lord now more than ever.
Even in writing this, there’s a subtle temptation to exhale and think that we need the Lord less now than we did a year ago. That’s the fatal instinct of human nature.

One of the hardest truths Jesus ever broke to us is found in John 15:5 (NIV): “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

“When one part of the body hurts, we all hurt together. As another church in our community, we’ve been honored to walk alongside of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale (CCFL) and offer our prayers and support over the last year. God has so clearly shown up and brought peace and strength in the midst of it all. We’ve been amazed by the faithfulness of the people of CCFL and their desire to take this year, that could have been a stumbling block, and make it into a mighty stepping stone for the Kingdom. CCFL has been so open to working with other churches and pastors in this last year. They made us feel like we were part of the journey together, which points to some exciting things ahead.”

–Alex Shanks, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Coral Springs

If I’m being completely honest, and I’m sure you would agree, that’s a hard statement to process. I mean, there’s plenty we can do without Jesus’ help, isn’t there? There is and it always creates a situation that we eventually need Him to fix for us.

But if we’re to truly believe what Jesus is saying here, we will understand that there’s never an appropriate time to take the controls from Him. It’s not as if He is needed any less now than at any other time. The need is always there for Him to lead and direct us, regardless of what the outward circumstances would seem to indicate. For it is then, and only then, that we can follow His lead for our lives.
Our experience as a church has awakened us to our profound need for His leading, and on behalf of our entire leadership team, we don’t ever want to lose a sense of that. We know that we need Him now more than ever because a testimony to His goodness and grace has been established among us, and that’s something that will always come under spiritual attack. So we all need to remain vigilant in our helplessness. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true nonetheless. Our weakness will be our strength as we remain aware of it.

I think it’s understatement to say that it’s been quite a year for every member of the Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale family. We experienced a storm we never thought we’d face, but at every turn, in every moment, the Lord fulfilled the great promise He made in Deuteronomy 31:6 (NKJV): “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor
forsake you.”

These are the lessons that we learned firsthand this past year, and they will serve to ground us and guide us into the years ahead. It’s important, however, to recognize that these truths transcend us and apply to every believer around the world. I hope I communicated that.

“Having experienced multiple transitions in church life, it’s always difficult to know how the congregation and community will respond. It’s been encouraging to see Calvary Chapel not just survive but begin to find a fresh new expression of missional solidarity with other members of the body of Christ. I’ve seen the board and Pastor Doug really consider not just what the future of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale could look like but what could they could do to help the Kingdom flourish in Broward County. Instead of becoming completely inward-looking, they have actually found tangible ways of opening their doors and hearts to many new churches and ministries.”

– Rob Hoskins, president of OneHope

Whenever you go through a trial, you want to see it redeemed somehow. I believe that can happen as these “lessons learned” are shared and applied by those who would have a heart to learn from what our church has been through this past year.

May the Lord continue to guide our hearts and our steps — and yours — as we continue to keep our eyes on Him. †

 


Calvary Chapel Campuses
The Main Fort Lauderdale campus is located at 2401 W. Cypress Creek Rd. There are also regional campuses in Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, the Florida Keys, Hollywood, Midtown (Wilton Manors), Naples, North Lauderdale, Plantation, West Boca and on the Web. For more information on service times and locations, visit www.calvaryftl.org
or call 954-977-9673.


 

Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale :