Pastor Joel SonnenbergAssistant Pastor
Pastor Joel . . .
- Was born in White Plains, New York
- Was raised in Nyack, NY
- Worked as a dishwasher as a young man (not a resounding success)
- Graduated from Taylor University
- Graduated from Columbia International University
- Was ordained to the ministry in 2005
- Likes soccer, gadgets, volunteering, and hanging out with friends
- Relies on his sisters for clothing advice, so he e-mails them the links for their approval
- 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.
Challenging People to Step Out of Their Comfort Zone
Pastor Joel wants to encourage others to see if their reaction to those with special needs reflects the heart and ministry of Jesus. He reminds us that Jesus spent much of His ministry meeting the needs of those who were often forgotten or marginalized. If we want to truly reflect the heart of Christ, we’ll do the same.
How would you define the role of a pastor?
It’s a very humbling position, and I believe that a great pastor is a servant leader. I see Christ being a leader for the disciples and then making the ultimate sacrifice of dying on the cross. I want to be a leader by serving and investing in those around me, including the volunteers in the ministry. I know that everyone says the same thing about his ministry area, but I really have the best volunteers. They are my eyes and ears, so they are able to see needs and be places that I can’t.
Here’s your chance to explain. Why are your volunteers the best?
The volunteers treat everyone as though they are a part of their eternal family, and that eternity starts here. They’ve moved out of their own comfort zone to minister to others. When volunteers come up with suggestions, I want to empower them to implement their plans and be facilitators so that they can respond to God’s goodness in their lives and minister to others.
What does the ministry to people with special needs involve?
My office is my cell phone and my computer, so it’s great to be available and accessible to those who call. It’s a ministry that’s a work in progress. Some families want their children to attend children’s church, 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 ministry for the next few months and years?
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. As I travel and speak across the country, I’ve found that very few churches have a special needs ministry, and I don’t know of any that are led by someone 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 to be 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.
So we’re your guinea pigs?
I’d prefer to see it as “pioneers.” We don’t want to promote our name, but we want to give the glory to God as we go into a church and ask, “How can we help you? This is what we’ve learned as we’ve put together this ministry, and this is how it will change your congregation.”
What’s the next step?
I think that it’s a progression as a church and as individuals. We need to first see the problem for what it is, then we need to educate ourselves. How do I meet a deaf person or greet someone with no arms, let alone have a relationship with them?
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 that there was a little of “Jonah” in me. I rebelled against the stereotype that dictated that I should become a motivational speaker. You have to remember that I have never hungered for attention—every day I receive more attention than I would ever want.
What changed your mind?
While I was in seminary, I realized that God had given me a special ability. People were willing to give me a platform to expand their understanding of God.
You are obviously passionate about this ministry. When did your reluctance change to action?
If it was up to me, I would never have gone to seminary or become a speaker or a pastor, but I had an open spirit and a contrite heart, and God has fueled my passion. I am a better man for having been forced into this by God. 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.
What have you learned from your experiences with audiences?
After I spent two years on the road speaking full-time, I got the sense that people’s hearts were right, but their heads were not. You learn a lot in this ministry as people come face-to-face with suffering. It’s interesting to stand on the platform and see people’s expressions range from shock and horror to a willingness to really listen. Something special happens when you say something from the stage. The distance between the speaker and the audience allows people to react more openly and with more vulnerability.
You have many repeat engagements. Can you see a difference in an audience when you return?
When I have the chance to speak for the same church or organization, I can see their reactions changing and maturing. As a pastor, I want to help people address their stereotypes, myths, and fears and to drill down to the heart of God. Both overemphasizing suffering and ignoring it are equally dangerous. We all have to ask ourselves: How much are we really learning at church, and is it impacting our lives if we can still close our eyes to those around us? I can promise that we will all be changed as we consider our answers honestly.
What is your vision for the Special Needs Ministry?
As I travel, I see pastors preaching from the pulpit that God created everything and that we live in a God-centered universe, but I also see a kind of selection occurring spiritually as only the healthy are able to make it to church and to hear the Gospel. We know that there is a problem, but we’ve become too comfortable with the “I don’t know” card. I believe that how we react to those of us who are different is based on whether we truly understand Jesus’ ministry. The majority of His ministry was to the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the leprous. He made the blind see and the paralytic walk, but He also healed them from the inside out. My goal for myself is what I want for everyone, special needs or not—that we are all that we can be through Jesus Christ. I want to encourage people to learn who they truly are in Christ and what His forgiveness really means.