LAKEWOOD RANCH — Christmastime couldn’t have been much more bittersweet for Dave Sturkey, founding pastor of Cornerstone Church of Lakewood Ranch.
After more than 18 years leading the church — bringing it from its beginnings in a movie theater to recently celebrating the opening of a multi-million dollar expansion — Sturkey has retired.
He preached his sermon on Christmas Eve.
“I’m mourning,” Sturkey said. “I love ministry. For years, I’ve gotten offers from other churches, but I’ve never felt like it could walk into a team (like we have here). We have a great group of leaders and a great congregation.”
Interim Pastor Daryl Davis will lead the church into the new year, taking over preaching and other responsibilities as a committee searches for a new senior pastor. The search likely will take about one year.
“He’s very knowledgeable of our church and its culture,” Sturkey said, noting he worked alongside Davis during Cornerstone’s beginnings.
The first time Sturkey visited the East County, members of Covenant Life Presbyterian Church, the Sarasota church responsible for planting Cornerstone, picked up Sturkey and his wife, Kelly, from the airport and drove them to a patch of land east of Interstate 75.
“There was a locked gate and a dirt road,” Sturkey said. “I was 29.”
The property eventually would become Cornerstone’s current location off Covenant Way, but not for many years. Covenant hired Sturkey and began preparations for its pending church plant.
After gathering about 50 people, Sturkey and his new congregation began meeting at the Parkway 8 Cinemas, where they continued to hold services for seven years, until construction began on their permanent church home. The congregation then met on Saturday nights at Hope Presbyterian until Cornerstone’s building opened in late 2001, Sturkey said.
But throughout the church’s history, Sturkey said he, other church leaders and members have worked hard to cultivate a spirit of grace and openness and to stick to their mission.
“We believe here you can belong before you believe,” Sturkey said. “Our aim is to introduce Christianity to people who have never encountered that. We try to break the stereotypes. We want non-Christians to come among us and not have to pretend to be Christians.”
Over the years, the church has hosted community events, such as discussions with religion professors, experts and others about films such as “The Passion of the Christ” and its alleged anti-Semitic themes, and other culturally relevant topics as conversation pieces, of sorts.
“I think we attract families and individuals who have no Christian background and we introduce them to the Gospel and Christ so their families are transformed,” Sturkey said. “We see that over and over.”
Although Sturkey loves being a pastor, he says the job has taken a toll on him and his family.
“I’m not in a place in my own family’s health to help people with their marriages,” Sturkey said.
He announced his pending retirement to the congregation in July, and the church has been preparing for the transition since.
As for Sturkey, he’s still unsure what the future holds. The East County resident is working on his doctoral degree in organizational leadership and is planning a career change, possibly becoming a professor in the academic realm or helping large organizations develop their culture.
“I love that kind of stuff,” Sturkey said. “I love helping people find their place in an organization.”
Sturkey said he also hopes to stay involved in ministry, as well, by mentoring pastors leading church plants, assessing church plant candidates with the Presbyterian Churches of America’s Church Planting Assessment Center and mentoring young Christians.
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Study in Sustainability
In 2006, Sturkey and his wife participated in a study by Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis called “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence.” Because studies show that about 92% of individuals who graduated from seminary eventually drop out of ministry and did not retire in the field, Covenant wanted to learn how to better prepare its students for the challenges ahead, Sturkey said.
Funded by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc., the study observed 30 pastors nationwide in each of three two-year periods to help determine what makes pastors drop out of ministry.
Less than two years after the study concluded, Dave and Kelly decided it was time to make a change.
“Pastors are people who are in highly stressful jobs like police officers and paramedics,” Sturkey said. “When something goes wrong, we’re called into that area. The stresses on the family are big. We’ve really experienced that.”
Sturkey, who in the study was considered a pastor who was “doing well” (compared to near retirement or struggling pastors), now is the third pastor out of 10 from his smaller group of 10 “doing well” pastors to retire prematurely, he said.