By Rez Gopez-Sindac
The CE Interview: Sam S. Rainer III, Senior Pastor, Stevens Street Baptist Church, Cookeville, TN.
”I want to die here – old, leathered, scarred, and exhausted.” So says Sam Rainer III as he tries to articulate his deep love for the local church. Sure, the new senior pastor of Stevens Street Baptist Church grew up in a Christian home, yet his parents never pushed him into a ministry career. In fact, they did the opposite.
His father is Thom S. Rainer, author, consultant, and president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. “My father encouraged me to pursue a career in the business world,” says Rainer. “He would later tell me that leaders should not become pastors unless they can do nothing else.”
Yet, while successful in the corporate world, Rainer came to realize that he could not do anything but be a pastor. “I am woefully inadequate to lead the bride of Christ. Yet there is not a day I wake up and do not have a desire to lead the church. I love it, all of it.”
Rainer – who also is the president of Rainer Research, a consulting company – shares with Church Executive his journey from the “cubicle to the pulpit” and the transitions along the way.
When and how did you know that you were called to pastoral ministry?
I was raised in a pastor’s home, so I saw firsthand the rewards and challenges of leading a church. I also knew that I did not have the leadership grit and spiritual fortitude to shepherd a congregation. So I once told God I would do anything for him except be a pastor. Rather than pursuing ministry, as a young professional, I desired to be the next great thing for business (I wasn’t).
I loved my corporate job, but I was not fulfilled. Though I did not realize it, God was beginning my transition from the cubicle to the pulpit. In a random moment, my fiancé (now my wife) found an ad requesting a bi-vocational pastor. She told me about it, and we called the number. I started preaching at that church the following week. It was two hours away, but I fell in love with the people. Over the next couple of years, God grew the dead country church of six people with the terrible city-boy preacher. I thought God would keep me as a bi-vocational preacher, but he had different plans. After a couple of years, he called me to a full-time pastorate.
There was no one moment in which I felt God calling me to ministry. Rather, it was a process in which God used what appeared to be random opportunities to nudge me in his direction.
What are some of the things that you believe God used to prepare you for this calling?
The best preparation I received for the ministry was my local church. I started attending my sending church while in the corporate world for one reason: I really liked a young lady that was involved there. I grew spiritually as our relationship moved towards marriage.
While my motivation was less than spiritual for joining the church, God used it as a way to help me grow. It was in the local church that my mentoring pastor helped me discern God’s calling. The local church provided me preaching opportunities to iron out a lot of wrinkles in how I communicate.
Growing up in a pastor’s home, my father and mother helped disciple me in the local church. Much of my early life was spent in the local church – literally every day after school. When God called me to pastor, it did not surprise anyone except me. Without the foundation of my local church, however, I would not have recognized God’s calling on my life.
You’ve gone through some transitions in ministry in the recent past. How do you know when it’s time to leave and when it’s time to welcome a new journey?
Transitions in ministry require both a push and a pull factor. The push factor is something God uses to begin removing your passion in a particular position. For instance, an associate pastor may begin to feel the call to preach weekly, and his current position may not allow for him to preach.
The push away from a position or place is usually the first way in which God begins to prepare an individual for a transition. Without a pull factor, however, the call to transition is incomplete.
It’s not enough simply to want to leave a place. In addition to a push away, God must also pull you towards a place. The pull factor becomes an open door for another ministry position, a deep desire for a specific geographic place, a heart for a particular people, or a new opportunity within a current place of ministry. I believe in most cases, both a push and a pull factor should be present to justify a ministry transition.
How do you prepare yourself and the staff you’re leaving to help keep relationships healthy and the transition as smoothly as possible?
Transparency and time are two ways to help keep relationships healthy with the staff you are leaving. First, transparency is key. Most of the time your staff will recognize a change in your leadership. They will know something is up as you are working through a transition. Be transparent with them.
Obviously, leaders must be careful not to reveal too much information too early. But most of your staff will feel it when God begins to remove your heart from a place. Walking your staff though both your push and pull factors will help them understand how and why God called you to a different place. Second, spend time with them as you leave. Make it a priority to have one-on-one meetings with your direct reports. Once your team knows you are leaving, stop leading them with a vision and focus on being a good friend to them.
When accepting a call to a new congregation, how do you handle the expectations of its leadership and members?
In the same way transparency and time are critical to maintain healthy relationships with the people you are leaving, they are also important to the people in your new place of ministry. First, be open and transparent about your leadership style with the leadership in your new congregation. Set their expectations correctly. Don’t over promise to get the job, then under deliver once on the field – that causes long-term leadership damage. Don’t be afraid to point out some of your idiosyncrasies. Everyone has foibles. And people pick up on them quickly. Show levity by admitting them to others in a tactful way. If you tend to ramble, tell people, “I like to think out loud.”
Communication will be easier if leaders recognize their own quirks. Second, spend time with your team and learn to love them. Some people in the church are easy to love. For others, it takes a little more time and spiritual commitment. But all the people in your new place of ministry need to see your leadership as loving.
What are some of the challenges you face when it comes to leading and developing staff?
I love thinking about the future. So much so that it’s tough for me to enjoy the moment. I can get so bogged down in planning for the future that I miss the importance of spontaneous interaction. Developing and leading staff is more than an outline for a successful 10-year plan. Being a good leader involves a willingness to interact with staff and key leaders on a regular basis, even without a formal appointment.
You have a young family, a new church to lead; you are the president of a consulting firm and you are finishing your PhD program – how do you juggle all these important roles?
I keep a disciplined schedule, and I prioritize my time every day. I am intentional about being with my family in the morning because I know my evenings are often full. I also have a great wife who is a huge support. My wife has the same calling that I have. She desires to be a pastor’s wife. If that were not the case, then I would be miserable in my ministry position.
What makes you excited about your work as president of Rainer Research, and how does it help you as a church leader?
As a senior pastor, it is entirely too easy to stay in the church bubble. With mission work, programs and Bible studies happening every day, I could easily justify spending all my time with my congregation. Rainer Research enables me to see what the broader church world is doing across the nation. It excites me to see what other denominations are doing. I get great ideas for my own church by learning from other churches. And I stay abreast of cultural changes in my community by getting outside my own church circle.
What do you think are the critical factors that make or break church health and effectiveness?
Effective church leaders live what they lead. If a pastor wants a church to reach outward, then that pastor will lead the outward movement by example. If a pastor wants a church to have a heart for cross-cultural missions, then that pastor should demonstrate a love for people of a different culture. If a church leader wants the congregation to emphasize a particular spiritual discipline (like Scripture memory), then the church leader should be involved with that spiritual discipline. The most effective church leaders will be healthy personally in areas where they want their church to be healthy. As one of my mentors often reminds me, you cannot lead what you do not live.