Passing the Torch and a Strong Foundation: Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks Welcomes New Pastor—Part 1
Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Christian Rodriguez and Tom Price
Tom Luitwieler, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks, NV, stood outside his church with his bride of 40 years, Sandie. The late June sun would leave a sunburn on the top of Tom’s head as nearly 150 cars passed by the couple for more than an hour, honoring them for their commitment and faithfulness in ministry. This Sunday was his last as senior pastor at the fellowship which God led him to plant 28 years ago.
Pastor Tom and his wife, Sandie, worship the Lord together. They planted the church after being sent out from Calvary Chapel Moreno Valley, CA, where Tom was on staff.
Initially, Tom wasn’t excited about the drive-up tribute, he admitted. But he recognized that the fellowship had few other ways to express their appreciation in the age of COVID-19 restrictions. “One of the things that’s been hard for me is to let people bless us. I’ve always felt like we’re here for the people in our church. But Sandie and I had a blast. The cars just kept coming and coming,” Tom remembered. Members of his fellowship passed by in their filled cars—holding signs and handing them gifts. Congregants who had attended the first service, and even those who hadn’t yet returned to church because of COVID-19 concerns, showed up. “Some we hadn’t seen in a while drove up,” Tom related, hesitantly adding, “It reminded us that God allowed us to have an impact on some of their lives. We shed a few tears.”
I have not hidden Your righteousness within my heart; I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly. Psalm 40:10
Many people drove by in cars to give Pastor Tom a proper send-off.
At the end of his sermon that morning, Tom sang for his fellowship an older hymn entitled “Soon and Very Soon.” He explained, “I’ve been teaching the men’s Bible study on Tuesday nights for close to 20 years, and I usually sing that song. It’s become a tradition to the point where some of the women wanted to hear Pastor Tom sing. The men, of course, picked up right on it and sang with me.”
That morning, Tom couldn’t help but recall the faithfulness of the Lord in his own life and in the life of his fellowship. Before teaching, he told a visitor that he felt a little like Samson, a judge of Israel in the Old Testament, who asked God to help him in his last act to destroy Israel’s enemies, the Philistines (Judges 16). Tom prayed similarly, This is my last hurrah. Just one more time, Lord, fill me with your Spirit. “Of course, the circumstances were different—we weren’t going to destroy the Philistines—but it hit me all at once, reminders of God’s faithfulness all along.”
Pastor Tom and Tom Snyder fellowship together after church service.
Excitement for the Future
Pastor Tom and Sandie are confidently placing Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks in good hands, to Nevada native Phil McKay and his wife Rebecca. In some ways, the two pastors couldn’t be more different. Tom is 68, Phil is 42; Tom’s three children are all grown with children of their own, and Phil and Rebecca are raising five children ranging in age from 9 months to 15 years old.
But they are united in their hopes of an exciting future for this body of believers. Tom exclaimed, “Sandie and I have been thrilled about this transition. We’re looking forward to supporting Pastor Phil and Rebecca. I have no hesitations. The first time I saw Pastor Phil speak, I thought, Here’s a man whom I could sit under and learn from.”
Pastor Tom chats in the fellowship area called café 2:42.
The connection with Phil and Rebecca began in 2013; Phil’s parents attended Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks, and Phil had been invited to share on a Wednesday night about his Calvary Chapel church plant in Costa Rica. Phil went on to serve as senior pastor of Calvary Chapel of Paris, TX, before accepting the call to Reno. (Calvary Chapel Magazine will run the second part of this story online soon.) Tom and Sandie will continue to worship and serve at the church. “I’m not sad, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. We’re excited to see what God’s going to do, and we’re going to do everything we can to try to help Phil and Rebecca behind the scenes—at the same time staying out of their way,” Tom emphasized. “I don’t want people looking to me. I want them to realize that Phil’s their new pastor.” Sandie has been leading the women’s ministry. “She’s going to stand with Rebecca and hold her hands up.”
Church member Gladis Ortiz thanks Pastor Tom.
Phil believes that it’s a good testimony for Tom and Sandie to remain in the congregation. “He has been so supportive, and I’m really grateful for that. I do think that stepping back is a wise thing to do for a time because he’s been in this ministry for 28 years. People don’t realize how much of a toll that takes on somebody. I know about church planting, but I don’t know what it’s like to stay with a church you planted 28 years ago,” he said. “I think it’s so cool that he wants to stay here and just serve this fellowship. He’ll always be the pastor here, in a sense. I’m looking forward to seeing how we do.”
For Phil, the transition is also a little intimidating. “I’m hoping he knows I see him as pastor emeritus. I have so much respect for him and realize I can never fill his shoes. Tom has been faithful, and God has worked through him mightily.”
Pastor Tom says goodbye to members of his congregation through a drive-through celebration.
A Strong Foundation in God’s Word
Pastor Tom is giving Phil a strong foundation to build on—one based on the solid teaching of God’s Word. “The Scripture the Lord gave me when I started ministry here was Ezra 7:10: For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. The teaching of God’s Word is where I felt my gifting and heart were, to be able to deliver the Word faithfully every week,” Tom observed.
Assistant Pastor Juan Rodriguez, the first staff member Tom hired, has served for 23 years at Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks. “Pastor Tom has a high view of Scripture and the teaching of God’s Word. He’s continued to do the work that God has asked him to do. It starts and ends with God’s Word,” he testified. Juan added with a chuckle that Tom has always been dedicated to his work. “The man was like a machine, making sure he was always here for Sundays, even when he wasn’t feeling well. A lot of times he didn’t tell us until afterward that he wasn’t feeling well. He just came and did what needed to be done,” Juan recalled. “What really stands out to me [was the time] he had just had knee surgery, and he went up there on crutches and leaned on the podium and taught. It reminds me a little of Pastor Chuck Smith.”
Assistant Pastor Juan Rodriguez welcomes a newlywed couple to church.
Believers here are mature, faithful, and committed to the work of the Lord, Juan noted. “Every time the church meets, people are here with their Bibles, ready to receive from the Lord, hungry for the Word of God. They’ve been around for a long time, now experienced, mature believers. They know fake when they see it and what a watered-down Gospel is. They are amazing and committed to the work of the Lord here.”
COVID-19 challenges have shown Tom the faithfulness of God, and of the Reno-Sparks fellowship. “I feel that the foundation is here—it’s solid. We never saw a dip in our giving. In fact, it was even more than normal, even without physical church for 82 days,” Tom affirmed. Church members opened their arms and hearts to Pastor Phil as he moved his family to the area during the pandemic. Looking Back
Church member Byron Jones says farewell to Tom and thanks him for his faithfulness.
Tom began to feel the call to plant a church when he served under Pastor John Milhouse at Calvary Chapel Moreno Valley, CA, and later attended the school of ministry under Pastor Raul Ries. After Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith confirmed the calling, Tom and Sandie began researching possible locations; one request came from a woman from the Sparks-Reno area, and Tom decided to call her. He recounted, “It still chokes me up. She said, ‘Nobody’s teaching the Word up here.’ And then I knew it was time to go,” Tom recounted.
“I [Jesus] say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” John 4:35b
Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks began in 1992 as a home Bible study. Tom remembered holding children’s ministry in his garage—and having to heat it up several hours early on cold mornings. Growth, he said, was slower than he’d experienced in California, but the church grew steadily. They eventually moved to other buildings and their current location. Before COVID-19 hit, approximately 1,500 people attended on Sunday mornings. The congregation is largely older adults, although the small youth groups are strong and healthy, Tom declared.
Members worship the Lord in Spirit and in Truth.
He feels the Lord wants to grow the younger population in the fellowship, one of the big challenges he’s faced over the years. “I’m thinking Phil’s the one to take it there,” he said. Twelve years ago, Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks lost half its young families to new churches in the community. “So, by default, we ended up with an older congregation,” Tom stated. However, from the exodus, he added, “We started getting some older people coming in from other fellowships. I realized they were gravitating toward our church because they wanted the Word of God [taught verse by verse].” Pastor Juan leads Highway 50, a popular Bible study for adults over 50 years old. Juan described the close-knit group, averaging 30-40 people weekly, as a large home fellowship.
Tom believes that simply teaching God’s Word verse by verse will attract people. “We’ve found that the best outreach we have is our own people regularly rubbing shoulders everyday with others, talking to them about the Lord, inviting them to church, and they finally come. As Pastor Chuck taught us, healthy sheep beget healthy sheep,” he stated. Juan added that more younger families are now attending, including some who grew up in the church.
Kim Bowser, (left), secretary of Calvary Chapel Reno Sparks, encourages Jina Ginrass.
Pastor Juan, who has led the junior and senior high youth groups, shared stories of Tom and Sandie’s involvement with the youth of the church. “When I used to take the kids to San Francisco to evangelize in the summer, he and his wife would visit the work we were doing, just to be a part of it a little bit. He took the extra effort to go and spend time with us.” During a series of outreach concerts in the Reno area in 1999, Juan shared, “Pastor Tom was right there in the middle of the whole thing with the young people, wanting to make sure we got what we needed to go out and share the Good News.”
The years have been busy, and Tom is looking forward to spending more time with Sandie. “On our 25th church-planting anniversary, we reflected on all the Lord had done. It seems like we got so busy in the work that we didn’t always take the time to enjoy what was going on,” he reflected. “That’s not to say there aren’t times when we didn’t stop and say, ‘Praise the Lord, He’s so faithful.’” He added that their work with the men’s and women’s groups, including the retreats, have been a highlight over 28 years. “Because we’re one of the larger Calvary Chapels in the area, we were able to host annual men’s and women’s conferences for area affiliates.”
O LORD God of hosts, who is mighty like You, O LORD? Your faithfulness also surrounds You. Psalm 89:8
Teens that attend the Refuge youth group fellowship in the cafe after church.
The church was one of the first Calvary Chapels to host the Calvary Satellite Network in 1995-96. “I remember turning on the radio, and my wife and I dancing in the driveway, feeling like God used us to help bring the Word of God to this town,” Tom said. The network, no longer a part of Calvary Chapel, still airs Pastor Tom’s teachings on Saturdays.
The Mission Continues
The Reno-Sparks area is not an easy one for ministry, Juan relayed, because of a transient and transplanted population and the vices that come with an economy based on gambling. “God equipped Tom to plant a Calvary Chapel here at the right time—someone willing to invest. Pastor Tom strapped on his boots, so to speak, and went on doing the Lord’s work, teaching God’s Word; little by little by little, [the church grew]. He just kept at it,” Juan related. “We as a church have a lot to offer. No smoke and mirrors, but solid Bible teaching, good worship, and we don’t hassle people for money. People appreciate that and come to enjoy God’s Word in a comfortable environment.”
The Worship team of Calvary Chapel Reno Sparks praise the Lord.
The work Tom started will continue with Pastor Phil, Juan stressed. “It may not necessarily look the same, but the mission is still the same. We’re going to teach God’s Word, minister to and love our people, and see how we can reach the lost. It’s a great thing that Pastor Tom started, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.”
Ladies fellowship in the café.
Pastor Tom greets church member Danny Morales.
Many church members wrote heartwarming signs to thank Pastor Tom.
Ruth Miller shares fellowship with another attendee.
Tom fellowships with Scott Meyer after preaching the Word.
Tom enjoys chatting with some of the men after the service.
Matt Bowser shares laughter with people after church service in the fellowship hall.
Kids come to God in prayer during children’s ministry.
Donya teaches 1st and 2nd graders in children’s ministry.
Donya ministers to youth group attendee Hannah Fruechting.
Donya Jones encourages youth group attendee, Ava Callahan.
All verses above are quoted from the King James Version.
© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.