Lead Pastor | Bethany Church | Baton Rouge, LA
By Rez Gopez-Sindac
Jonathan Stockstill was 30 years old when his father, the Rev. Larry Stockstill, turned over to him the leadership of Bethany Church. Interestingly, Larry was the same age as Jonathan when he took over for his dad, who founded the church in 1963.
Jonathan has led music at Bethany since he was 17. He says he always felt that he would be in full-time ministry, but it was not until he was in his mid-20s that he began to sense a pastoral call upon his life. At the time, he was leading worship and traveling with a band called Deluge. He wrote songs, recorded projects and did music tours, but he says God was dealing with him about a different kind of ministry. Jonathan also did several evangelistic crusades and went through a season where he felt he might plant a church in his late ‘30s.
“But God had a different plan,” he says.
Since becoming the lead pastor in October 2011, Jonathan has brought a fresh energy and intentionality into the vision of Bethany, seeing to it that people are “activated” to fulfill their calling.
When did the leadership of Bethany Church start talking about the pastoral succession plan, and what prompted this?
My dad is a missionary at heart. For years, he talked about the time when God would release him again into full-time missions ministry. In 2009, one of the presbyters of our church mentioned that he felt I had a pastoral call and that I would possibly pastor Bethany one day. I was quick to say that wasn’t so, but I could not shake the conversation.
In meeting after meeting, we were searching for leadership because my dad was feeling more and more drawn to missions work. One morning as I was exiting the interstate on my way to work, I felt God speak to me as clearly as a person could speak that I was to pastor this church. From that moment on, my passion was kindled. I called the leadership of the church together and shared with them what the Lord had spoken to me. Everyone was in full agreement, and we began to move forward with the transition plan.
How important is this leadership transition to the life and future of Bethany Church?
I really feel like the timing couldn’t have been more significant, as it has really impacted both the life and future of the ministry. At first, I thought the move might be slightly premature, but the longer I have served in this capacity, the more I realize the timing was impeccable.
How are you uniquely wired as a visionary leader?
There’s a phenomenal test called StrengthsFinder. According to this test, one of my strengths is as an activator. I love seeing people activated in their God-given purpose. I love Paul’s illustration of the church as a body, with every person a part of it and serving a unique function. I feel like it is my calling to help people discover and activate their calling. This has implications in how I lead our staff, our leaders and ultimately our church.
I also love church systems and processes. I spend a lot of time developing the systems we have in place to release volunteers, leaders and full-time ministry.
What are the advantages and challenges of family succession in ministry?
Growing up in the local church that I would eventually pastor gave me such a historical perspective of where we come from. I know every inch of our facilities. I know the culture of our city. I know the people who have been such an integral part of our ministry through the years, and I know our characteristic strengths and weaknesses. I can pull from an archive of memories about the things that worked and the things that didn’t work. I was by my dad’s side as an assistant pastor for 12 years and saw every business transaction that took place. I also witnessed the thousands of people who came in the front door of our church and eventually moved into different seasons of their lives somewhere else. In a way, you could say that this church is as familiar to me as my own family.
Any disadvantages are minuscule at best. One criticism we have had, as with any other family succession, is nepotism. Some people forget that God often worked in families in the Bible, and the same is true today.
What contributes to the successful family succession at Bethany Church?
There are many things that I could say, but a few stand out among the rest. Some senior pastors say they are handing the leadership to the next generation, but continue to lead. I’ve had so many younger pastors talk to me about the frustration of dealing with an older, former pastor who does not truly let go of the leadership. They don’t want to dishonor the pastor emeritus, but don’t really feel like they have the liberty to lead.
One of the strengths to our succession was a true transition. My dad was present when needed for advice and wisdom, but otherwise strategically removed. For a while, he would not even come to the office. He didn’t want anyone to be confused about who was leading. That was helpful!
Another thing that helped was that I had been the worship pastor for 12 years. Our church knew me inside and out. My transition to pastor was a very natural one for most people.
What were some of your learning experiences during your first year as the new lead pastor?
The biggest adjustment was going from preaching every once in a while to preaching every weekend. Every time I looked up, I was preparing content to communicate to our congregation. At the time of transition, we had services on Wednesday nights, as well as on weekends. Many times I would speak at all services, so that became an almost exclusive focus. Out of all the areas of stretching that have taken place in my ministry, I think I’ve grown the most as a communicator.
What new approaches or strategies have you introduced since your appointment?
I introduced a model for engaging the church that we call the ABCs of Bethany. A stands for “activate.” We want to see every person engaged in their kingdom purpose, or to be “activated.” B stands for “belong.” We want every person connected in meaningful Christian friendships. C stands for “cultivate.” This step is designed to help people grow in their relationship with God and the understanding of His Word. The end result is a church full of people who are fulfilling their purpose, connected in relationships and maturing in their Christian faith.
I also implemented a new staff structure built around six main hubs: the Experience staff, Community staff, Support staff, Creative Media staff, Education staff, and Influence staff. Each area has a color and forms somewhat of a tribe within the larger staff. We’re loving the flow of it!
What is your father’s role now in the life of your church?
My dad oversees the missions arm of our church through an organization called Surge. We focus almost all our international missions budget on church planting through that organization that he oversees. He also still teaches whenever he is in town, which is usually about every three or four months.
What is your vision for Bethany Church?
Bethany’s vision is to be a healthy and growing local church. We do that by helping people encounter God, equipping them and empowering them to fulfill their purpose. We also aim to plant and inspire other local churches. Some of my passion points are worship, students and kids, and I think our church reflects those passions.
Quick facts about Bethany Church
Year started: 1963
Lead pastor: Jonathan Stockstill
Number of locations: 5 (North Baton Rouge, South Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge, Spanish, and Mid-City campuses)
Number of staff members: 200+