Many of the senior pastors I’ve spoken to over the past two years have told me that they never intended to either A) be a senior pastor, or B) be a pastor ever. However, God’s plans are not man’s plans (Proverbs 19:21), and these individuals ended up serving in roles they never suspected they’d fill. As a result, they have been blessed in ways they never thought possible.
Ben Snyder, the senior pastor at Cedar Creek Church in Toledo, OH, is one of these pastors. As a young child, his parents have memories of him standing on his neighbors’ porch, preaching to the neighborhood, but Ben never really thought that would be where God would take him.
The Journey to Becoming a Pastor
Growing up in a small town, Ben attended a church that was in the middle of a cornfield. His youth pastor believed that teenagers needed to be given the building blocks and tools to build spiritual foundations that helped them grow into people of deep faith. As a result, Ben was encouraged to learn the bible and live as an authentic person.
However, towards the end of his senior year in high school, a series of events led him to start questioning God. He began looking at things in the world more than following after God. “I was in a place where it felt like, even though it wasn’t true, I had this idea that I had to do all the right things to make people like me,” said Ben. “This led to a lot of spiritual pride. I couldn’t see it in myself at first, but once I experienced it from someone else doing it to me, I realized that’s how I had been treating others. And I walked away from God and from the Church. I was spiritually restless.”
He started attending the University of Toledo, and by that point, he was ready to partake in the “true” college experience. By the end of his freshman year, however, he was again restless and started searching spiritually again. He tried attending various churches, but everywhere he went, he felt out of place. “All I saw were self-righteous people at church, and I didn’t feel welcome.”
The Church that Welcomed Him
Around this time, someone invited him to attend Cedar Creek Church, so he went. “I didn’t look like I belonged at church, but when I showed up there, it didn’t matter what I looked like. People were genuinely interested in this guy with earrings and spiky hair. The pastor got up and shared how he didn’t have it all together, but God had grace. The people there talked honestly about their lives and about how God loved them. They played secular music at church, and I was floored—but I liked it. I got involved in the church, and it reawakened all the things that had been instilled in me before.”
Through his interactions at Cedar Creek, he realized God was calling him into ministry of some sort, but he still never thought he’d be a senior pastor. He switched his degree from business to a personally-designed degree in Leadership for Ministry after a professor encouraged him not to leave the church and community that had become so vital to his spiritual growth.
In 2000, he was invited to participate in a brand new internship program at the church, which led to him being in a staff role position for college leadership. Later, he assisted the senior pastor, Lee Powell, by becoming the Research and Special Projects Pastor, which helped him learn how to develop sermons. Other roles he held in the church included student leadership and overseeing the church’s multiple campuses.
As Ben was in this last role of overseeing the campuses, Lee was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and realized his plan to stay on as senior pastor was going to be shortened. Lee began working with individuals on the church staff to see who should take over, and eventually it came down to Ben and one other individual. Lee saw something in Ben that encouraged him to choose Ben as the next senior pastor in March of 2015, and Ben found himself in the spot he had never considered.
Challenges to Becoming Senior Pastor of a Megachurch
“Looking back, the transition went well, but there were parts that were awkward and uncomfortable,” said Ben. “At times, it felt like the Game of Thrones of Church Succession. It started to cause division in the team, but we were still all on mission together.”
Some of those challenges were personal; for starters, Ben had to be willing to accept the role. “I believe that God puts leaders in place, not people putting leaders in place. So, if He put the elders and people making the decision in the places they’re in, and they believed I was the next guy to take over, then I had to submit to this. God was leading me to take the next step.” He adds, “When you’re clear on your calling, then your calling will carry you or guide you like a compass through the heart’s discomfort.”
Other challenges were broader in nature. Stepping into a leadership role of a megachurch, he had to figure out what needed to change and what didn’t. Then, he had to figure out how and when to make those changes, and how to bring people alongside the plan without everything falling apart. “The people you think will stay, won’t; and the people you think will leave, stay. And that will surprise you.”
Blessings of Becoming Senior Pastor of a Megachurch
There were joys along the way, too. Despite some of the challenges, the team he works with at the church and the environment they’ve created are a huge blessing. “My dream has been to have a team that looks at each other and says, ‘Look what we’ve accomplished together, not what Ben did or what Ben’s doing.’ It’s about our team doing this together, and that’s an incredible joy.” Now that dream is a reality, and it makes such a difference.
Another blessing (and challenge at times) is the ability to serve together with his wife of 20+ years, Lauren. They met doing ministry together at Cedar Creek. “We got staff positions at the same time, and while we’re not co-pastoring the church, we’re still working in ministry together, and that’s a real privilege. Lauren’s really talented and has such a heart for kids, the disenfranchised, and the displaced. It’s cool to be teamed up together.”
One of the best parts of his job, though, is seeing lives changed for Christ. Ben shared stories about people who typically would never normally fit in a church setting, walking out of a service, astounded that “that guy on the stage is talking to me.” Seeing a practicing Wiccan attend for 6 months and then get baptized—those are the moments that bless him, and those are the reasons why he keeps being authentic on the stage and in his life and ministry.
Lessons Learned in the Journey
Ben considers himself a “part-timer,” meaning that no one is in ministry forever, and that someday (whether in two years or twenty) he will pass the baton to someone else. His goal is to keep the mission moving forward and prepare the team for all that God has next.
His advice for pastors of any-sized church who stepped into the role—as planned by them or by God’s planning—is this: Continue to be authentic and keep your focus on God while building the right team.
“I believe it was Andy Stanley who said that the Church has been assigned to expose the unbelieving world to the grace of God. So, when we can live from God’s grace for ourselves as pastors, for our families, for our staff and for our churches, and we can point people to that—that’s how I think the Church will be most attractive for the world to then experience that grace from us.”
That grace is not without truth, though. Jesus was full of grace and truth, and we should aim to do the same. “I think our world is craving it and knows it not, and I’m afraid too many churches are getting caught up in the arguments.”
And his final piece of advice: “Surround yourself with lifegiving people to do ministry with.” Don’t be afraid to encourage people to move on if they’re not compatible with the vision God’s given you. You need to be compatible with your team. “Paul traveled with Barnabas for a season; they left each other for a season. But, they believed in each other and cheered each other on.”
Encouragement for Leaders Becoming Pastors
While the path you’re on may not necessarily be the path you envisioned for your life, find ways to embrace the journey, just as Ben did. Be faithful in the calling, and look for the blessings in your life. Embrace the challenges and allow them to deepen your faith as you find ways to overcome them. Surround yourself with the right people who will encourage you and complement you. And always keep your focus on the One who has the bigger picture in mind.