Pastor Doug Sauder: A Decade of Collaborative Leadership Leads Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale into its 40th Year

Described as a strong, humble, collaborative leader and gifted communicator by his peers, Doug Sauder, lead pastor of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, appears gentle as a dove when he addresses one of Florida’s largest congregations on the weekends, but those who know him best portray a fierce competitor on the basketball court and a man of deep courage when it comes to fighting for the vulnerable.

While these traits may seem contradictory, Sauder explained, “One of my favorite verses is Matthew 11:12, ‘From the days of John the Baptist till now, the Kingdom of God has been forcefully advancing.’ This describes the holy ambition to be part of God’s kingdom that is not for the faint of heart. It’s an invitation to take all of that God-given passion toward building something hard in the Kingdom of God, but don’t make it about you and don’t make it about winning the way you think winning looks.”

Doug Sauder
Pastor Doug Sauder addresses guests during an alter call.

Sauder first came on staff at Calvary Chapel in 2000 and was installed as lead pastor at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale during a difficult time of transition in 2014 after the founding pastor resigned due to moral failure. Since then, he has served as a stabilizing force at Calvary and taken an active role in Church United, a movement of over 200 churches in South Florida uniting for the sake of mission. Now approaching its 40th year of ministry as a church, Calvary Chapel is growing again under Sauder’s leadership with an average of over 18,000 in weekly attendance at 10 regional campuses as well as online and virtual reality services.Located on a 72-acre property on Cypress Creek Road in Fort Lauderdale, the church is also home to Calvary Christian Academy (CCA), now the largest Christian day school in the United States, and supports multiple ministries, serving the needs of vulnerable populations such as kids in crisis (4KIDS), at-risk mothers and children (EMA), those experiencing homelessness (Hope South Florida), those battling addiction (Calvary House), the prison population (Lifestyles) and more. They have helped plant four independent churches in our community over the past 10 years (Solus Church, The Exchange Church, Brookstone Community Church and Calvary Chapel North Miami). Globally, they have also established 43 international church plants, in addition to supporting 80 missionaries with ongoing global missions and ministries in 26 countries.


Uncommon unity

Doug Sauder
Calvary Chapel’s 72-acre Fort Lauderdale campus, located at 2401 W. Cypress Creek Rd. Credit: Calvary Chapel

However, Pastor Doug said, “As I reflect on the past ten years, one of my favorite things has been the level of connection that has happened in our city, and I think it came out of the brokenness … it really brought us all together. A decade of uncommon unity and fruitfulness came out of brokenness, and to me that’s the best part of the story.”

Having initially reached out to Pastor Doug to offer him support ten years ago, Todd Mullins, lead pastor at Christ Fellowship, said, “When you consider how he had to step into that situation to lead people and keep their eyes focused on Jesus, focused on the hope of Christ alone, not on a man, that takes both courage and compassion. And when I think about it, his leadership wasn’t just for Calvary Chapel, it was for the body of Christ… It’s remarkable that under his leadership Calvary Chapel has been used to reach across denominational lines, to reach across socioeconomic lines, beyond racial lines, beyond political lines to unite the Church of Jesus Christ… And this impacts our community because where there’s unity the Lord commands a blessing.” 

Pastor Bill Mitchell, of Boca Raton Community Church, agreed. “I think what Doug and Suzanne brought to the setting was a raised bar of character – that’s saying your family matters, your personal integrity matters, how you treat people matters – and his ability, with his humility, to build coalitions or collegial settings is one of his greatest strengths.”


A heart for vulnerable children

Before being appointed lead pastor, Sauder helped form 4KIDS in 2000 leading the organization as president until 2014 while also serving as family pastor. As a former educator, youth pastor and foster parent, he is a passionate advocate for kids in crisis. He and Suzanne Sauder, his wife of 31 years, have four sons. Their first son, Jordan, passed away due to a genetic disorder at nine months old. They welcomed Jackson through private adoption, had a biological son, Kaden, and ultimately adopted their youngest son, Kennedy, through foster care. Affectionately calling them his “sons of thunder,” Pastor Doug is quick to say, “We are so blessed to have them!

“Foster care and adoption is the greatest way that I see how God loves me. Ephesians 1 says God adopted me. It was His pleasure and His will, which means he wanted to adopt me, and it brought him great joy. In living and being a foster or adoptive parent, you get a window into the heart of God, so it’s not just a verse you read, it’s an experience you have with your family and with God. So my DNA is always driven that way. So if we could only do one thing at Calvary, we’re going to help vulnerable children.”

Getting to know Doug Sauder through 4KIDS, Tom Hendriske, lead pastor at Rio Vista Church, said he knew Doug was the right man to lead Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. “I saw his humility, his integrity, his faith – he is a tremendous communicator – but his greatest gift is the gift of leadership. Perhaps from his experience at 4KIDS, Doug understood that to really capture the foster care issue for Jesus, we need more than Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, we need the church in South Florida, and so he came to the lead pastor position with the mindset of “we’re better together,” and he’s done a beautiful job.”

Robey Barnes, lead pastor at CityRev Church in Pembroke Pines, said “God has used Doug’s leadership, and others, in a key way to shift the landscape of the South Florida Church. When he stepped in, there was a season of real brokenness, hurt and concern in the Church across South Florida. Doug stepped into a very difficult space and brought true godly strength, humility and wisdom that not only stabilized an essential church in our region, but then leveraged that platform to bring unity among churches in South Florida… And Suzanne can’t be left out of the equation because she has been a warrior fighting alongside her husband for the Kingdom of God, for truth and for justice.”

Katy Mills, executive director of communications and engagement at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, said, “I met Doug in his 30ies, so he was ready to run into the mess of anything God called him to run towards with a fierce conviction, and one of our favorite sayings in ministry here has been, ‘the revolution is still on!’ I still see that in him every day, even in very hard situations or challenging moments. There’s still this commitment to the mission that’s unwavering, so I think he hasn’t changed that much.”

However, the role has not come without challenges. Asked how taking on the role of lead pastor has impacted him and his family, Sauder said, “I think in leadership and life the burden and the blessing go up in weight together. We’ve gotten to see incredible blessings. That part is exhilarating. When I get home on Sunday, my wife asks what was your favorite part of the weekend, and it’s always [during the altar call] when people come forward with tears in their eyes and you know their whole life is going to change. I get to watch life change in a scope I hadn’t seen before. In the same way the burden also increases – the burden of decisions, the burden of brokenness. There is so much at Calvary with the school, the church, and Calvary House. On a weekly basis you’re dealing with death, divorce, overdose and all the disappointments and burdens and pressures. They also go up exponentially, so you have to learn to carry that weight, and I don’t think anyone is prepared for it… so we feel the burden, and we try to release it to God and have our team carry it with us.”

Suzanne Sauder, agreed that as the lead pastor’s wife, she didn’t expect the burdens to be so great, “but I think the biggest surprise was that still the joy outweighs the burden, and I’m so thankful for that.” And when it comes to her husband, Suzanne describes Doug as an oak tree, saying, “he’s not shaken or uprooted easily, and that has really helped.”


Rest and refreshment

Doug Sauder
Left to Right: The Sauder Family – Megan, Kaden, Suzanne, Doug, Kennedy, Jackson // Credit: Justus Martin Photography

Because of the pressure on pastors, burnout tends to be high. It can also have a detrimental effect on their marriages and family, so Calvary Chapel has instituted a policy that would allow pastors and ministry leaders to take a sabbatical after seven years or more as a time of rest and refreshment determined on a case-by-case basis.

Pastor Doug and Suzanne took a sabbatical during the three months of summer last year, and Sauder said it helped him “get his awe back,” specifically the awe of Creation and the awe of God’s sovereignty in his life. 

Sauder acknowledged the move as a preventative measure. “We know what we went through 10 years ago, and we don’t want to go through that again, here or with any of our campuses or leaders.”

“Before I went on sabbatical I was not feeling deeply anymore. You’re going from wedding to funeral to counseling session to a critical email to people clapping, you’re the best, you’re the worst, this range of emotions. You’re absorbing all this stuff, and if you’re not careful, you can lose your way. So just being able to rest and unload all those things, that was great! We came back so ready for the next decade or however long God has for us.” 

For Suzanne, the sabbatical was an opportunity for them to do some hiking in the mountains, which is where she feels refreshed. And she said, “it just awakened our souls again. It was great for our marriage. It refreshed our body, soul and spirit, and rekindled our imagination. But I think the biggest thing is that we could feel again.”

While Sauder said the sabbatical was not about seeking anything specific from God, rather refreshing and reconnecting as husband and wife, the message he received from God is, “You’re not in control and that’s a really good thing.” Sauder said it also caused him to reflect on how he can be more of a spiritual father to people instead of just an organizational leader.


Taking the lead

Calvary Chapel is clearly a leader in the region, exerting a tremendous amount of resources, both people and finances, on what Sauder calls Kingdom infrastructure in the city. “We’re always asking how we can move the gospel forward with new church plants and through nonprofit ministries that focus on mercy and justice.” 

For example, Calvary Chapel helped form 4KIDS more than 25 years ago then watched it become an independent ministry which now has offices in Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Okeechobee, Indian River, Hendry, Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties. They’ve also launched Calvary House, a year-long residential addiction recovery program, currently serving 45 men and 12 women. And they’ve recently taken an integral role at Hope South Florida, a ministry to those experiencing homelessness, which started as Shepherd’s Way in 1995 and evolved into what is now called Hope South Florida in 2010. They’ve partnered with churches in Hollywood and North Miami to bring Christian education into other areas by opening new CCA campuses. They also provide coaching for nonprofit leaders, to help raise the waterline for everyone. 

“We’re stewarding our people, stewarding our property and our resources, and we’re also doing our best to steward our influence,” said Sauder. The Bible calls it favor and I’ve watched churches in this city, larger churches like us, say if we’ve created it and you can use it, great! The most openhanded churches that support other churches and help others out are the ones God blesses. God’s saying, I will fill the open hand. The more you sow seeds, the more there will be an abundant harvest that will cause many people to give thanks to God. When given the opportunity, we try to do this as much as we can.”


What is their current priority?

Calvary’s mission is to make disciples. “The best way we can do that is to plant churches and develop leaders, so we have an emphasis in Christian education,” said Sauder. “We’re dreaming about what it would be like to have more Christian schools all throughout South Florida so more kids could be discipled. We’re not trying to take over the state or the country. We’re focused on the tri-county area. There are 7 million people in this region where we have influence, so we want to pour our time and energy into this. So our mission statement is, reaching our community, changing our world.

“We use the acronym ARM. We Advocate for the vulnerable. We Raise up the next generation, and we Mobilize missional leaders. Those three things are what we’re focused on.”

Advocate for the vulnerable is about getting people back on their feet. It’s Hope South Florida for the poorest families in our community, Every Mother’s Advocate (EMA) to help prevent family separation and empower moms, 4KIDS for hope, homes and healing around the foster care system, Calvary House for drug and alcohol recovery. “We also have a ministry called Lifestyles with a full-time employee that goes into the women’s jail and invites people into discipleship programs when they are released. And we’re looking for how to get other churches to come along. How do we do this together?”

Raise up the next generation is Calvary Christian Academy (CCA), kids and youth ministry and college ministry. “We’re looking at college campuses, asking how we reach FAU, Broward College. How do we partner with ministries like Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the university level and with the churches that are closest to those college campuses?” said Sauder.

Mobilizing Missional Leaders is getting regular people to think about how they can be trained to share the gospel with people and live a life of purpose.

In keeping with that, Calvary Chapel founded Ocean’s Edge School, 18 years ago, to raise up a generation of worship leaders. It’s now turned into a residency program and will branch out in the fall to include 10-month certificate programs in both ministry leadership and worship, including song writing, performance and music production where students will be discipled well. 

As Calvary looks forward, Sauder said, “the thing I think about now is, as we take ground for the kingdom through church plants, Christian education and outreaches, the biggest issue we have is not property or money, it’s leaders. If you don’t have the right leaders, everything we’re building falls apart. It might look great, but if you lose your way, if you lose that white hot passion to share the gospel, it falls apart. So, my big focus for the next decade is about building people!”


Calvary Christian Academy

CCA plays a large role in developing the next generation of missional leaders. Opened on September 5, 2000, with 450 students in kindergarten through 6th grade, CCA graduated its first high school class in 2008. It has now expanded to four campuses: Fort Lauderdale, Boynton Beach, North Miami and Hollywood.

Today CCA is the largest Christian day school in the country with a total of 3,200 students. However, Dr. Jason Rachels, Calvary Christian Academy president, says CCA’s distinctiveness as a school comes from its strong focus on discipleship. “We take over 300 people on a mission trip to Mexico each year with our juniors and to the Bahamas with our 8th graders.” Students in 7th through 12th grades also participate in a small group each week. “In small group they’re talking about, how’s your walk with the Lord? What’s going on? How can we help? They’re not just hearing the Bible in a large chapel service; it’s becoming internalized and personalized.”

Students have also achieved excellence in fine arts, theater, robotics and athletics. The varsity baseball program secured the school’s first team state championship in 2016 and has since claimed championship titles in varsity basketball and beach volleyball. And the varsity football team was crowned the Southeastern Football Conference Champion in 2014.


Humble beginnings

Considering the large multi-site church Calvary Chapel has become and the influence it stewards for the Kingdom of God, it’s hard to imagine it all started with a small church in Costa Mesa, CA, led by Pastor Chuck Smith where the Jesus Revolution first broke out and launched the Jesus People Movement. From there churches spread across the country and two faith-filled couples, Bob and Diane, Fidel and Theresa, moved here from Las Vegas in 1985 to start a church in Fort Lauderdale. Their first location was at Fairchild Funeral Home and from there, God honored their love for the Bible, Jesus and others and continued to grow the church and move it to various locations, until in 1999 they were able to move to the 72-acre site on Cypress Creek Road they now call home.

“I’ve had the unique privilege to see how God works over many generations to accomplish His will,” said Stephan N. Tchividjian, CEO and Co-Founder of the National Christian Foundation South Florida and a member of Calvary Chapel’s Board of Directors. “We truly stand on the shoulders of those that have gone before us as others will stand on ours. Chuck and Kay Smith responded to God’s call in Southern California by ministering to young people in the 60’s during the Jesus Movement and started Calvary Chapel. Years later, Bob and Diane Coy with Fidel and Theresa Gomez made their way from Calvary Chapel Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale to plant Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. Today, Doug and Suzanne Sauder, my pastor, faithfully and humbly carry on God’s mission. These journeys are never about one person but a team of board members, staff members, and faithful volunteers, who faithfully answer God’s call. Today, I’m incredibly encouraged as I see the men and women that God has raised up to lead His Church in South Florida. Calvary Chapel is one example of a God-given and God-sustained vision and mission. We have many such examples in South Florida. I’ve seen, firsthand, God’s provision and protection of His Bride and that has served to strengthen my faith in the local Church. No, church is not perfect, and yet it serves as God’s Bride and an instrument by which He reveals Himself to a lost and hopeless world,” Tchividjian said.

In reflecting back on Calvary’s early days, Pastor Fidel Gomez, who recently retired, said, “There’s just been so many changes from every angle, sociological changes, political changes, economic changes, world policy changes, but I thank the Lord that He has been faithful to have Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale continue to remain true to the roots of the ministry… When we left Las Vegas, the only thing I heard from God was, ‘Will you go serve me in Florida?’ God did the rest…And Doug has remained steady and steadfast. He’s not about the frills or the flash but just continues to point people to Jesus in every way.”

If you would like more information about Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, service times and locations, visit or call 954-977-9673.

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