CE Interview: Frank Santora Senior Pastor, Faith Church, New Milford, CT
By Ronald E. Keener
Much is made of the notion that the New England portion of the country is not well churched, and Frank Santora is of the opinion that a little too much is made of it. That notion “has become a stronghold in the minds of many that I believe has stood in the way of their ability to reach more people and grow their churches,” says the senior pastor of 2,000-member Faith Church in New Milford, CT.
“We have never bought into this and have always held the belief that the Gospel preached in creative and culturally relevant ways would reach the masses in and around our community,” he says.
That community he speaks to — within a 10-mile radius of the church — is 39 percent Catholic and 12 percent being uninterested in any faith. Methodists are 6.3 percent of the population, and nondenominational/Penecostal is 4.3 percent.
Santora’s mother had much to do with his conversion. It was her pastor who brought him to Christ. “From my 16-year-old frame of reference, he was really cool. He didn’t try to push the Gospel down my throat or hit me over the head with it. He just related to me around a common interest‚ sports.
“Then right before he left [the house], he invited me to church,” Santora says, “The rest, as they say, is history. From the moment I gave my life to Christ, I felt the call of God into full time ministry. My plan was to become a CPA attorney first, get rich, and then become a pastor.
“So I went to Rutgers School of Business, received my accounting degree, and began working for the 16th largest accounting firm in the U.S., planning to go to night school to get my law degree. God had other plans though, and I received the ‘opportunity’ to go into full time ministry after working as an accountant for just a year. I say ‘opportunity’ in quotes, because the offer was for $400 a month! I was crazy enough to accept the offer and looking back now I’m sure glad I did.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be pastoring a megachurch with a $4.5 million budget. Having a business and specifically an accounting background helps me to oversee the church budget and make sure proper systems are in place to maintain financially integrity and accountability.”
You had little religious or theology training. Billy Graham has said he wished he had had more than Bible school training. Does it matter to you today?
I certainly see the value of theological training and it can be a tremendous asset. However, not having more theological training has allowed me to not be married to a particular doctrine or theological persuasion, and I think has made me more teachable and adaptable to God’s leading. It has also assisted me in not being married to a method, while at the same time maintaining the authenticity of the Gospel message.
One of your mentors was Pentecostal, as was your mother, and while Faith Church professes Pentecostal practices and thinking, it isn’t stressed. How do you look at this part of the congregation’s beliefs?
Our Pentecostal roots are precious to us and we incorporate them into the overall discipleship component of our church through small groups. However, what’s most important to us is communicating the Gospel to this generation in a culturally relevant and creative way.
So how do you look at the “health and wealth” beliefs of the Pentecostal movement? Is it there but pushed to the side?
Health and wealth is such a broad label. But our view is that we serve a God who is the greatest Father in all the world. If we know how to and want to give our children good gifts, how much more does our heavenly Father want good things for His children?
How do you describe your teaching style? No Christianity-lite for you, I take it, while still lowering the barriers to entry by unbelievers?
My teaching style is to creatively communicate the Gospel in culturally relevant ways. So, for example, we use things like popular TV shows as the framework of our teaching series. In the past we have done a teaching series called, “God’s Apprentice,” patterned after the TV show, “The Apprentice.” We set up our stage area as a boardroom and had actors play Donald Trump and his advisors in sketches that set up the sermons.
However, the message was hard core Bible. Our focus was the Sermon on the Mount and we talked about the life lessons Christ gave to us in that sermon as his apprentices. Currently, we have engaged a circus to come to our campus for three days to do three shows a day open to the community.
Then we piggy-backed off of that outreach with a sermon series called, “Life is a Circus.” Some of the messages are: “The Strongman — learning how to overcome temptation,” “The Juggler — learning how to prioritize,” “Tightrope — learning how to lead a life of character,” “The Elephant in the Room — dealing with the secret things in your life,” “The Bearded Lady — celebrating your uniqueness,” and “Trusting the Ring Master — learning how to follow God’s lead for your life.”
This kind of approach both reaches the unchurched and is still very effective in maturing and challenging the believer.
Have you preached on sensitive topics like same-sex issues and abortion, and what reception have they received?
Although this is not a mainstay of my teaching, I have. My approach when I teach these subjects is to not just hold up a standard of righteousness, but also to give hope to people who may be struggling with these sensitive issues.
What intentional changes did you make in the former church, Bright Clouds Christian Church, when you became pastor and began to turn the church in a new direction?
Well, right off the bat, I changed the name. Bright Clouds sounded like an Indian reservation more than a church. So we picked a name that would communicate to everyone, both the church and the unchurched. We also made a very conscious effort to emphasize authenticity and transparency throughout the ministry.
We cleaned up the “Christianese” language and began to communicate the timeless truth of Scripture in a language that everyone could understand and relate to. And we added sketches, movie clips and props to our services. Quite frankly, the transition was very smooth with little resistance.
But there was some, especially with people who get married to traditions and methods, rather than the message. So it’s key to make sure that everyone knows that despite the change in packaging, the purity of the Gospel message and the truths of Scripture will in no way be compromised.
People get nervous when change takes place, especially, if like Jesus, you kick over a few sacred cows along the way. Sort of like when Jesus healed on the Sabbath.
You were assistant pastor at Bright Clouds, but became senior pastor when that pastor was found to have moral failure, multiple ones. What do you say to pastors about such temptations, which too often lead to sin?
Let’s face it, we are all chronically human and subject to temptation. None of us is exempt. Knowing that, we must consciously protect against opportunities to fall into these temptations. Here are some of the things I do:
- I never counsel with a woman alone.
- I don’t know the combination to our church safe.
- I don’t set my own salary.
- And I prioritize my relationship with my wife and family, often saying “no” to the pull of ministry things so that I can spend quality time with them.
How do you and your wife maintain a strong family unit and deal with the pressures and doubts of ministry?
We do our best to leave church-related matters outside of the home. We have dinner together as a family almost every night. We take regular family vacations and every August take the whole month off. During that time, I tell my staff that unless the church is burning down, don’t call me. In other words, church is not the most important thing to us, God and family are and we are very protective of this.
Looking ahead, what are the plans for Faith Church?
Right now we are particularly excited about launching our Brewster, N.Y. campus. Our first service is scheduled to launch March 6, 2011. We hope this will be the first of many multi-sites for our church, enabling us to reach out in a much greater way to our community and surrounding cities.
You’re a big Mets baseball fan. The records show that the Mets players spent more than 1,480 days on the disabled list in 2009, more than any other team in the majors. How do you think they would do this year if they read “Turn It Around”?
They need to read the book and fast. Matter of fact I’d like to make myself available to personally come and share the message of the book with them. I believe it could be instrumental to them winning the 2010 World Series. www.faithchurchct.com
Peer pressure. I grew up in Grant City SI, NY and all my friends liked the Mets, so I started liking the Mets and hating the Yankees, of course. Looking back now, at their relative success, I wish all my friends liked the Yankees. The team that I remember most is the ‘86 Mets with the likes of Keith Hernandez, who was my favorite player and who I patterned my batting stance after, Dwight Gooden who I was nicknamed after while playing little league — they called me Dr. K — Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, Bobby Ojeda, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Jesse Orosco and, of course, Mookie, who beat out the infamous single that ultimately enabled the Mets to beat the Red Sox and win the World Series. When the Mets won the whole block ran through the neighborhood beating pots and pans. I loved the Mets ever since.
Who has been the most disappointing player on the Mets team?: Currently Oliver Perez, $12 million a year — for what?
Who are you most encouraged about for the future of the team?: Ike, as in Ike Davis!
There’s a new 21-year-old pitcher named Steven Strasberg. How does he stack up against the former pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden?: He seems even better than Doc. Throws harder and has just as good of an “Uncle Charlie,” slang for curve ball.
Forecasting a bit, where will the team be come September?: In the hunt, but in typical Mets fashion they will probably choke. But ya gotta believe!
What is your favorite baseball film?: “Major League.” In high school my nickname changed from Dr. K to Wild Thing. I even have a Faith Church baseball uniform with Wild Thing on the back. And yes, I did wear it while preaching on one particular weekend.
What advice would you give to aspiring ball players?: Stay in school!
Who in the Bible would have made the best ball player?: Samson — imagine the home run swing!
Favorite fear you’ve overcome?: Sharks. Okay I haven’t overcome it. Should have never watched “Jaws.”
Favorite cure for all that ails you?: Fettuccine Alfredo
Secret ambition that may go unfulfilled in your life?: Playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.
Your “incarnation” would be what famous figure?: Troy Aikman.
About “turning life around”:
“I want people to know that no matter what situation they find themselves in, whether they are headed down the wrong road in life, whether they’ve really blown it, or whether a storm has struck their life out of nowhere, that God can turn their situation around and bring good out of it.
About the largest obstacle in turning a life around:
“Learning to never lose faith in the end of the story. The Scripture says that Jesus Christ is the author and finisher of our faith. That means that He is writing the story of our lives. And although we may not like some of the chapters and especially the ones we are stuck in at any given moment, we must never lose sight of the fact that God writes thriller endings. He is a perennial ‘Pulitzer Prize winner’ author in the category of life and He has an ending that will shock us with His goodness.”
— Frank Santora on his new book Turn It Around: A Different Direction for a New Life (Howard Books, 2010).