Q&A with Doug Sauder

Q&A with Doug Sauder


Before becoming a youth pastor, Doug Sauder worked as a teacher and a coach. He joined the staff of Calvary in January 2000 and served as a family pastor and President of 4KIDS of South Florida. Doug currently serves as Lead Pastor at Calvary Chapel, joining Calvary’s Board of Directors in May of 2014. Doug and his wife, Suzanne, have three sons.

Don't Waste Your Crisis

Q: In many ways, you inherited a nightmare scenario for succession. What was the immediate aftermath of the former pastor’s resignation? 01

Calvary Chapel is the largest church in our community, so there were significant shockwaves, internally and externally. The former pastor was a dynamic speaker with big personality, and he was a spiritual father to many. That breach in trust goes deep. There were rumors the church was going to fall apart, that it had been built on one person’s celebrity and couldn’t survive without it.

True, in that first month we lost about 20 percent of our congregation and of our giving. But after that, nothing catastrophic happened. We stabilized, and began to move forward.

Q: What stands out to you from the early transition? 02

How we as leaders had to process alongside our congregation. Our staff found out on a Wednesday about the former pastor’s failures, which were really serious. He resigned on Thursday. We read the church his resignation on Sunday. As staff, we were only three days ahead of the congregation in our shock and grief.

After accepting his resignation, our board of directors stepped in. Their response was united and firm, but also beautifully prayerful. “How do we shepherd the congregation? How will we support our new lead pastor—whoever that will be—and our team?” One of our board members took a week off work and just answered phone calls. We worked together.

But we needed care, too. Some of our staff and other people had personal issues come up because of what happened. There were people from the outside who helped, particularly two counseling centers in Florida. When it came to offering help to our former senior pastor, we called experts from outside our state, and they created a plan with us.

I think of Colossians 1, which says that “in Christ, all things hold together.” So many people were praying for us. We felt like Jesus was fighting for our church. There was holiness, and even a sense of romance to it because in the middle of all the grief and shock, God was working. Just one example: a church we had never heard of sent us care packages along with letters that said, “We went through this a year ago. We just want you to know you’re going to make it.” That was like water in a desert.

Q: Tell us about your succession process. 03

Initially, there were several high-profile leaders both within and outside the Calvary Chapel movement who told our board and staff the only way to keep a church our size going was to “hire a rock star.” But none of us felt good about that—it felt like part of the problem. We needed to rebuild trust, and we wanted a more authentic church.

But in the meantime, we needed leadership. There was a core team of four teaching pastors (I was one), who’d preached when the former pastor wasn’t in the pulpit. The people knew and trusted us, and we formed a crisis team with the board. However, we quickly realized we needed a captain. The board asked me to pray about serving that way, and a month later, I stepped into the lead pastor role.

There were so many ways it wasn’t ideal. But I realized, I’m picking up a baton that was dropped. It wasn’t a good hand off, but I’m going to run with it, and someday, I’ll hand my baton to someone else.

Q: Did anything make the transition smoother? 04

Two things: real leadership unity and easing into the role. Early on, the board and executive team of pastors met daily to pray. The sentiment was, “We’re in this together. If we stay united, we’ll make it. If we become divided or political, we’ll fall apart.” That set the course for everything.

When things began to stabilize, the board of directors slowly stepped out. It was beautiful. At first, the chairman of the board was leading our meetings. Then the next meeting, I would talk a little more, and he would talk a little less. Before long I was leading. It was a gentle transition.

Q: What have you learned about taking over from a different personality? 05

To give myself permission to be myself, and not be defined by my predecessor. We are completely different in leadership, background and personality. When he was our pastor, the church was more focused on his personality and his message. I’m more of a team player and perfectly content to have someone else up front.

I will never be him. Humor is just one example. When he preached, you’d laugh several times every service. If I’m lucky, every other service I’ll get a chuckle. I have had to grow here: My wife tells me, “Don’t try to be funny. Just be yourself.” My role is not to become what was before, it is to lead faithfully.

Q: How did you guide the congregation through the grieving process? 06

By being honest. People talk about the stages of grief when someone dies—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Our congregation went through each of them. It was challenging, especially because our leadership team was grieving too. We had to lead through our own pain.

There was a lot of raw emotion. Deep feelings of betrayal. We had to process that with people. I remember one lady yelled at me between services: “You hypocrites!” A week later she called me. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m just so angry. I don’t know what to do with my anger.” I told her, “It’s okay. Let’s pray together.”

For the first month and a half, our running joke was that no leader was having a phone conversation less than an hour long. People asked everything, from “Did you guys know about [the former pastor’s] issues? Were they covered up?” to “Is my whole spiritual experience real? Can I even trust God and other people?”

The first six months were a vortex. Then things began to settle. It was chaotic and beautiful. We called it “horribly wonderful.”

Q: What would you tell a church walking through a similar situation? 07

Don’t waste your crisis. Use it for God’s purposes. Externally, our vision expanded. Internally, our staff culture changed. What happened could be more than a cautionary tale. It could be a catalyst.

We spent a year and a half asking our staff, “What kind of work culture do you want?” We brought in a consulting firm to assess the health of our church. That process highlighted two things: We wanted our leaders to demonstrate humility, and we needed to provide soul care for our staff. We didn’t want a celebrity culture, or the sense that “we’re the best church.” We wanted to be healthy and right with God, and authentic in our relationships.

The process of succession has been very clarifying. We’re a simpler church than before. I can’t say I’d want to go through an experience like this again, but we’ve learned a lot of good things. It has been healthy and holy.

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After the Transition

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