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E-mail led this Texas pastor to new flock

Mark Saunders likes to say that when he debuted as the new pastor of Brandon's 2,500-member Bay Life Church on Sept. 5, nobody showed up.

Frances' stormy weather forced the 35-year-old Saunders to postpone his first sermon, but the inauspicious beginning has not dented his humble humor or positive outlook.

Over plates of merluza at La Septima, we talked about being the son of a pastor and filling the void created by the resignation of former church pastor Daniel Stahl, who admitted publicly to an extramarital affair.

Pull up a chair and join us.

Tell me how you came to Bay Life.

I lived in Texas (north Dallas), and I was serving there at a church as the teaching pastor, which is kind of like the guy who preaches when the real guy isn't around. I didn't really try to find a job, it mostly found me. I responded with an e-mail at a job site, but I didn't send a resume. I just said, "Wow your church sounds pretty cool." It was very sophomoric like that. We just started e-mailing each other. It was so back-and-forth, God-directed type stuff I think it's a miracle we're here. But it's obvious it's what God wanted us to do.

You made an appearance before you became pastor. What was that like?

They brought me out and I had a long weekend of interviews and meeting people. About a month later, in July, we came back out again, and we met the congregation. I preached one morning. That weekend we had a town meeting with the church on Saturday night. They threw us Buccaneers jerseys. It was fun. People ask questions and they hope you're going to think the way they think, but you can't please everybody. So you just try to stay with your heart.

Were you nervous at all?

Well, no. Well, yeah. Any time you're up in front of a bunch of people you've never met before and you're answering questions about your life, it's a little unnerving, but as far as wanting the job, we just wanted what God wanted. We just tried to be honest, say the truth and if we were the people they wanted, they would want us just the way we are. I didn't feel like I had to fake anything or say anything the right way. I just said it.

How did you find your way to being a preacher?

Kicking and screaming. I grew up in it, so when I was growing up if anybody asked me what I wanted to do, I would say not pastoring. I said I would do cosmetics. I'll do nails but don't make me do this. You don't get paid, people abuse you. I was just like no way. I'll go somewhere where if I'm going to lead or be a manager, I can just fire people. I didn't run away from home, but I spent my senior year of high school by myself.

So your dad moved to a different church and you stayed?

Yep, I freaked out on him and said I'm not going. Longer story, shorter, he left, I stayed and I spent my 18th year of life without parents. You do the math. I just experienced a lot of stuff. I started figuring out this God thing on my own. It had always been prescribed to me. I grew up in it, I had to do it. I got out on my own and I started figuring out that I couldn't be happy with all the sin and junk that I tried my senior year.

What happened next?

In trying to heal the wounds of my dad, I went to a school in Chicago called Moody Bible Institute just to appease him for a year and then get out and go and do whatever I wanted. I deconstructed my faith and basically pitched it my senior year, and then in college, I started owning this thing for the first time. Lo and behold, four years went by and I wasn't qualified to do anything. I had gone through all these classes and I was like, "I need a job, what am I going to do? I want to get married." I figured out the only thing I could do was be a pastor. So I went and started working for 12,000 bucks a year at my dad's little church as a youth pastor. I wish I could tell you there was this big, shining-light moment, but it's just not there. I just started serving God with my gifts, the things he gave me. I liked it, the kids responded and I just kept moving up the ranks. Now I'm a senior pastor, the one thing I said I would never be. There's humor in that and I love it.

Tell me about your wife, Eleanor.

She's a passionate, demanding woman who early on in our relationship God used to really steer me toward him. Since then, she's just been my partner in anything I've ever done in a church. She's always been supportive at home. She gets it. We don't have battles about ministry a lot because she understands that we're here for a higher purpose. She has her own things that God wants her to do, so she gets to do those in our church and serve him that way. She's a great mom. She's hot. It's easy to be married to her.

We've had four major churches in the area, Bell Shoals Baptist, Crosstown, Bay Life and Nativity, change pastors in recent years because of various controversies. Are churches getting too big?

The size of the church may add more opportunities, more pressures like in any job. The bigger the job, the harder it is to do it the right away. But it's Scripture: I can do all things in Christ. He strengthens me. A lot of people quote that and they say, I can do all things, and God is somehow involved in that, but most of them are just focusing on the I part of it. Will I guarantee that I won't ever mess up? That's arrogant and I think that's the first step in going in that direction. Will I always see myself as not that great? That's my commitment. I'm not that big of a deal. I'm just a guy that God called to do this thing and I'll do it as long as he wants me to. If I'm suppose to go, that's fine. That's up to him. Am I going to try and keep that in perspective and not think of myself as a pastor of a big church? Oh yeah, because as soon as I start seeing myself as a pastor of a big church, that's the beginning of the end.

DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

Mark said he and Eleanor go to great lengths to protect their three children from the fish bowl life of being pastor's kids. They know the stereotype that preachers' kids are the worst. Mark says, "I was that guy. My goal is to help my kids not be that guy." At 35, Saunders is younger than many church members, to which he says: "God called me to do this; he's going to do it through me and away we go." With a rock climbing wall for kids and theatrical music, Bay Life is unique. For a recent Saunders sermon about "Who Am I?" the choir performed The Who's Who Are You?

_ Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section of the St. Petersburg Times. Lunch With Ernest is edited for brevity and clarity. To suggest lunch partners, call Ernest at 226-3406 or e-mail hoopersptimes.com.

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