Passing the Torch and a Strong Foundation: Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks Welcomes New Pastor—Part 2
Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Christian Rodriguez
Pastor Juan prays for his new pastor, as the elders and pastors lay hands-on Pastor Phil.
As Phil and Rebecca McKay and their five children drove up to their new home in Sparks, NV, in May, they were astonished to find a large banner—with their family picture on it—placed in their front yard. Surrounded by balloons, it boldly stated, “Welcome McKays!” Born and raised in Nevada, Phil felt that he had truly come home again, and with the blessing of the church he now pastors, Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks. “We felt so loved walking into that; plus, our neighbors got a sneak preview of the huge family that was about to move into the cul-de-sac,” Phil related, laughing. Soon, 15 members of the church arrived to help him unpack the moving truck.
Once inside the house, they found a basket filled with restaurant gift cards, which would soon become very useful. “We didn’t have a refrigerator and had to order one. Because of COVID-19, there were none in stock, so it had to be brought in from a factory,” Phil recalled. In the meantime, they had to use an ice chest to store their food. “While we were waiting, we used a different gift card each night to eat at different restaurants. We had just enough gift cards until the day our refrigerator arrived. It was so cool how God worked that one out!”
“Then the manna ceased on the day after [the Israelites] had eaten the produce of the land; and the children of Israel no longer had manna, but they ate the food of the land of Canaan that year.” Joshua 5:12
Pastor Phil and his family worship the Lord on his first Sunday as the new pastor.
A week later, believers at Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks organized a drive-by parade for their new pastor’s family at their home. Phil and Rebecca stood in their front yard and savored the warm welcome—smiles, signs, and honking horns—from a supportive congregation. “We’ve got a great fellowship,” said Tom Luitwieler, the loved senior pastor whom Phil is replacing.
Right Place, Right Time, Right Person
In becoming Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks’ new pastor, 42-year-old Phil has come full-circle. “I’ve always had a special heart for Nevada, and I think the Lord knew that. It says in the psalms that God gives us the desires of our hearts. I do believe the Lord has graciously brought me and my family back to where it all began for me. I’m so excited to minister here,” Phil exclaimed. He was chosen by retiring Senior Pastor Tom, now 68 years old, who planted the church 28 years ago.
Pastor Phil and Paul Altrocchi enjoy some fellowship after service.
As Pastor Tom faithfully shepherded his church, Phil was learning and maturing through several moves—from Nevada to California to Costa Rica to Texas. While attending and serving at Calvary Chapel Vista, CA, Phil was called to plant a Calvary Chapel in Villarreal, Costa Rica, for nine years; and five years ago, God called him to become the senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Paris, TX. The connection between the two pastors began more than seven years ago. Tom felt early on that Phil would be the right man to replace him as he anticipated retiring. For his part, Phil had longed to return to the state where he’d been raised, where he first heard the Gospel, and where God had called him to ministry as a boy. But it had to be the right time, right place, and a decision his wife supported.
Tom attended a senior pastors conference in 2013, before Calvary Chapel Founder Pastor Chuck Smith passed away; the topic turned to pastors transitioning and bringing in younger men to take over. Tom explained, “I felt God was saying ‘You need to start planning this.’ And it was right after that, in June, that Pastor Phil came to speak at our church on a Wednesday evening. I remember the next morning, sitting there with the guys on staff, and there was agreement that he would be a wonderful guy to take over.”
Pastor Phil preaches the Word for one of the first times at Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks.
Phil’s parents attended Calvary Chapel Reno-Sparks. Through that connection, Phil had been invited to speak about his current Calvary Chapel church plant in Costa Rica. “I love how God works through relationships He brings our way,” Phil reflected. “We built a relationship with the Reno church, and they had sent mission teams to Costa Rica. This church provided a big part of the funding for materials we needed to build our church in Costa Rica.”
Over the next years, Tom continued to quietly ponder Phil as a replacement, even suggesting it to Phil’s father, who hesitated to say anything to his son because he felt that “if God wanted to do that, He would take care of it,” Phil recounted. In the meantime, Phil had no inkling he was being considered. When Tom heard five years ago that Phil had taken a church in Texas, he thought, Well, he’s not the guy. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
The Pastors and Elders lay their hands on Pastor Phil as he becomes the new senior pastor.
Making the Decision
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
At the July 2019 CCA Senior Pastors Conference at Calvary Chapel Golden Springs, CA, Tom saw Phil and Rebecca during the first worship session. “I looked over at them, and I felt the Lord tugging at my heart again,” Tom remembered. After the worship session they talked lightly about Tom’s upcoming retirement and the possibility of Phil replacing him.
“Out of the blue, Tom said, ‘Hey, when are you going to come and take over for me?’ I just laughed out loud, but my heart was stirred up when he spoke. I responded, ‘You’re five years too late. I think we’re right where the Lord wants us to be.’ But he didn’t let it go, challenging me to pray about it,” Phil said. “About 3 a.m. the next morning, the Lord woke me up, saying, ‘Hey, you promised Pastor Tom that you would pray about this.’
Matt Bowser preaches the Word of God to his 5th and 6th-grade class.
“I got up with my Bible and journal and started praying, and the Lord spoke to me in a quiet, still, small voice, telling me: ‘I’m going to lead you every step of the way.’” God gave him Exodus 33:12-16, describing when Moses prayed about being led by the Lord. I just wrote in my journal: If You’re not leading me, Lord, close the door. Don’t bring us up from Paris without Your presence and leading. I also prayed that the Lord would speak to my wife, because she needed to hear very clearly that it was the Lord, and not my flesh.”
“And [God] said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”” Exodus 33:14
Cassidy Callahan leads the children’s ministry in worship.
The next morning, Tom noted, Phil hunted him down, wanting to talk. Tom remembered, “I think we both knew it then. It had been a long time in the making—the right person and the right place, but the timing hadn’t been there yet. Honestly, five years earlier, I wasn’t ready to retire. As it turns out, it worked out for both of us. I’ve never had one doubt or hesitation about Pastor Phil since the moment I knew he was God’s choice.”
Phil agreed, “The Lord had led us to Paris, TX, and I really see the wisdom of what God was doing; He was truly doing a lot of work in me in preparation for this move.” During an afterglow at the 2019 conference, “I sensed the Holy Spirit speak to my heart that this is what He had been preparing me for. The interesting thing is that He also told my wife the exact same phrase: ‘This is what I’ve been preparing Phil for.’ We didn’t realize this until later when we were comparing notes,” Phil stated. “I wanted to make sure this was the Lord calling me, not just me. My wife and I are partners in ministry.”
Teachers engage with the kids and ask interactive questions.
Making the Move During COVID-19
The two men slowly began the transition, each telling and preparing their churches in January for the upcoming change. God confirmed Phil’s successor at the Texas church. All was on track—and then the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted their plans.
“It’s been a strange season, that’s for sure. About the only constant thing in this season has been the constancy of the Lord and the way He’s been working,” Phil declared. “The Lord promised me that He would lead me every step of the way. He’s done exactly that; and in every single detail, God has been so good.”
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7
Kids love to dance and go along with the hand motions of the songs.
With Phil now in transition, the plan had been for him to come to the church and teach in February. “Because of COVID, he wasn’t able to come out until May. When he finally did, it was online, with six people in the sanctuary. It was not what we would have preferred, but it was what it was,” Tom admitted. “Phil’s family couldn’t come when he first came, so we couldn’t introduce them to the church.”
Parting with their Texas church family and friends was difficult, Phil observed. “We didn’t get to have a large get-together to say goodbye to people. We had to do that a couple of families at a time. I’m also thinking about Pastor Tom and Sandie here. They couldn’t have big gatherings, either. The church did a drive-by parade for them, but that’s not the same as getting to give everybody a hug and spend some time in fellowship with them. At the same time, through all of that, I knew the Lord had a way.”
When Phil moved his household goods in April, much of the country was still shut down. “We didn’t know if we’d be able to do this, but God put it on the hearts of a family in our Texas church to help us. With their 26-foot trailer and truck, their whole family moved us for three days. ‘Just a family from God,’ we call them. It has been neat to see how people have been creative about expressing their love and excitement.”
The kids pray out loud to God for many requests.
Social distancing requirements have hindered Phil’s ability to quickly get to know his new congregation. When he taught his first sermon as senior pastor in early July, there could only be 50 in the sanctuary, 50 in the café, and another 50 in overflow. Before COVID-19, an average of 1,500 attended on Sunday mornings. He emphasized, though, “I’m getting to know the folks who come, talking to them with a mask on. But I’m really thankful that we are still able to gather.”
Both Phil and Tom are excited about what the Lord has planned for the fellowship in the future. Tom and his wife, Sandie, will remain active in CC Reno-Sparks’ church life—but are stepping back to support Phil and Rebecca. Tom affirmed, “We are especially excited because he is years younger than I am, and he’s got a large family. We realize this is going to be a good thing for the church.”
Teachers lead by example by doing the hand motions and interact with the kids.
The congregation is made up largely of older adults, faithful saints who love and serve the Lord. “Always in the back of my mind, I’ve thought we needed a younger man with more energy and a [new] vision. Pastor Phil is already looking to reach our community in a greater way than I’ve been able to do. I think having a pastor who’s younger, with kids, is going to help bring more young families.”
Phil understands that the challenges of transition can be intimidating. “I realize I can never fill Tom’s shoes. I have so much respect for him, a faithful man whom God has worked through mightily. But at the same time, the Lord has shown me there’s a time for new vision. There are things now that the Lord wants to do that will be a different work than what He did through Pastor Tom,” Phil expressed.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
Julie Rodriguez and Donya Jones enjoy a laugh together.
Phil’s biggest vision is to continue to teach God’s Word and preach the Good News of Jesus. “I need to lead the church with the power of the Holy Spirit and with love and a sound mind. We’ve done this before, and one of the things the Lord has taught me was that I’m to come in, love the people, and get to know the church culture,” Phil commented. “I’m also looking forward to working with some great, great people here. We’re looking forward to getting into the family of the church, getting to know the brothers and sisters here.”
The plan, he cautioned, is not to go out and target specific segments or age groups of the population. “I’ve found that typically, it just happens that if your pastor is young, you’re going to attract younger families,” Phil stated. “I want to begin to give younger people some of the places at the table, opportunities to serve in some of the visible platforms of ministry.” That includes worship and having the high school youth group serve as ushers. “I want to let them know, ‘This is your church, too, and we want you to take ownership.’ As we do that, as people start to see the younger face of the church, naturally we’ll attract younger people.”
Pastor Juan enjoys fellowship with Kevin Jones and Chad Robison.
Additionally, the church is building its presence on social media and rebuilding its website. “We’ll be getting more posts on social media because that’s the reality of our day. Younger people are going to learn about your church through your online presence.”
Juan Rodriguez, who has served under Pastor Tom for 23 years, is eager to serve Phil. “My primary focus is that I am serving God first and a man, second. With that in mind, I’m mindful that no matter what happens, I’m serving God. That means, even if my role changes, I’m willing to do what needs to be done.” Phil will continue the work Tom started. “It may not necessarily look the same, but the mission is still the same. We’re going to teach God’s Word, minister to people, love the people, and see how we can reach the lost. The mission continues.”
Pastor Tom concluded, “I have always thought that our best years are ahead of us.”
Phil and Rebecca have been married for 18 years. Their five children are Eden, 15; Ezekiel, 13; Elijah, 11; Ezra, 8; and Joel, 9 months.
The Children’s ministry is a thriving and powerful tool of ministry for Calvary Chapel Reno Sparks.
Megan Kelly, a youth group attendee, worships the Lord.
Ava Callahan leads worship for the youth group, the Refuge.
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.