Pastor Joel SonnenbergAssistant Pastor (Special Needs Ministry)
Pastor Joel . . .
- Was born in White Plains and raised in Nyack, NY.
- Worked as a dishwasher as a young man, but it was not a resounding success.
- Graduated from Taylor University and Columbia International University.
- Was ordained to the ministry in 2005.
- Married Maria January 9, 2010, at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale.
- Celebrates daughters Abigail and Alana.
- Likes soccer, gadgets, volunteering, and hanging out with friends.
- Tested video games for EA Sports, including Nascar.
- Appeared as an actor on the television show Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye.
- Was one of the carriers of the Olympic torch in North Carolina.
His favorite Bible verse is Philippians 4:13 (NKJV): "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
What does the ministry for people with special needs involve?
It’s a ministry that’s a work in progress. Some families want their children to attend Calvary Kids, so we want to serve as advocates and facilitators. Other families choose specialized care, so we have two services—Wednesday at 6:30pm and Sunday at 10:45am—and then on the first Friday of every month, we have a Kids’ Night Out for K–12. Sometimes, it is as straightforward as providing someone with a ride to church.
What is your vision for the Special Needs Ministry?
Calvary Chapel is unique in that there are not many churches doing this well. Families come from up to 60 miles away because of the things we do to welcome their children with special needs. Honestly, my vision for Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale is that we won’t need this kind of ministry. Here’s the thing . . . it’s a catch-22. Even though I am the pastor of the Special Needs Ministry, I hate the fact that there is the need for one. I think that I am the only pastor who didn’t want one. If we were an all-inclusive body, if individuals were seen as unique parts of that body, we wouldn’t need this ministry. My goal in a fallen world is to educate and train the body of Christ here at Calvary to recognize and welcome the differences in each of us.
Why do you believe that God has called you to this position?
Just because I was burned as a toddler doesn’t mean that I automatically had a “heart” for others or an innate sense of what to do. I wasn’t born into a “special needs” family. My family all looked just like everyone else in the church. Most of my life, I ran as hard as I could from others with disabilities because I didn’t want to be identified as “special.” I guess there was a little of “Jonah” in me.
You have to remember that I have never hungered for attention—every day, I receive more attention than I would ever want. But while I was in seminary, I realized that people were willing to give me a platform to expand their understanding of God. I had an open spirit and contrite heart, and God has fueled my passion. I think God has given me a righteous anger toward injustice and discrimination. These are strong words, but everyone remembers the pain of being picked last for a game. Imagine being picked last or being overlooked every day because of a genetic difference or injury and you will know why I am so emotional about this topic.
When did you know that Maria was the “one”?
I don’t have a specific time or place where I knew she was the “one,” but I do remember how it felt. I felt like someone appreciated my differences, not just tolerated them or “overlooked” them. There are obvious weaknesses to having a disability, but I could see she actually valued and loved all of me, not just parts. I felt like I didn’t always have to explain the way God made me, and if I did, it was often met with acceptance and appreciation. Not to mention, my wife is smokin’ hot!
Tell us about your family.
The greatest joy of my life with Christ is being a husband and father. My two daughters are heaven-sent. They are the physical representation of God’s promises. Every day is so full of wonder and amazement through their eyes. They bring a smile to my face every day. I told my wife I’d like 1,000 more kids, and she said, “As long as you’re having them!”