MODESTO -- Matt Whiteford looks more like entertainer Howie Mandel without his earrings than a buttoned-down preacher of a large evangelical church, but don't let his shaved head and soul patch fool you. He's serious about his faith and ready to take on the challenges of leading a large downtown church.
Whiteford, 40, took over for retiring senior pastor Wade Estes at CrossPoint Community Church in November and hasn't had a "normal" week since then.
"I'm not entirely sure what normal is," he said with a laugh. "With all the extra stuff in Thanksgiving and Christmas, that time of year is fast-paced anyway. And last week, I was with 60,000 college students in Georgia in an event planned eight months ago."
Whiteford, a Michigan native, moved to Modesto with his wife, Sherri, and their three children Allison, 14, Hannah, 11, and Josh, 8 in December 2010 to head up the college ministry at CrossPoint. Less than two years later, he was tapped to take over for Estes, who told The Bee he was simply burned out and ready to step down after 31 years at the church, 21 as senior pastor.
Estes, 58, is on a sabbatical until March, when the church will hold a reception for him. He said he hopes to work as a consultant or executive pastor for another large church, one with at least five pastors.
"One of the unique things going on in this country is there are these young guys who plant a church, and in three to four years, there are like 3,000 to 4,000 people," Estes said. "These pastors are saying that with the rapid growth, they don't know how to do certain things and don't have anyone who's been there before. I think I would enjoy coming alongside them to serve the senior pastor and the church."
Estes said when he moved to Modesto in 1977 from his hometown of Mesa, Ariz., it was to take advantage of a seminary program begun by then-senior pastor Bill Yaeger. The plan, he said, was that he and his wife, Sharon, would be here for three years, He would work as a church intern while completing his seminary work with about 10 to 15 other young men. Then they would return to their Arizona church.
But in 1981, he became a permanent member of the staff, overseeing new members, evangelism, hospital visits and the young married group for the next eight years. In 1989, Yeager went on sabbatical for three months and tapped Estes to fill in for him. Two years later, Estes became senior pastor when Yeager retired.
"I never dreamed I'd ever be senior pastor," he said. "And I didn't expect to stay senior pastor for so long."
Ministries for needy
Under his leadership, the church began new ministries to meet the needs of people living in the downtown area. The first, he said, was a recovery ministry for alcoholics and drug addicts.
"Back then, it was a new thing for churches to do," he said. But Estes, the son of an alcoholic father who became sober when Estes was in eighth grade and who pioneered a recovery ministry, knew a similar program could change lives.
"We also launched Monday-night church for homeless people and for those who were abused. We had anywhere from 80 to 100 people, and after the church service, we served a nice, hot meal that drew another 100 to 150 people."
From that, the church began a program called the Shepherd's Garden. It bought a nearby house where up to five men at a time could live. The men were coming out of addictions and spent half a day working and learning to use maintenance equipment, such as carpet cleaners. They also had a Bible study. During the 18-month program, the men would be paid an hourly wage for their work and build a résumé, which could later lead to a job.
"That program's been going for 25 years," Estes said. "It's been very successful."
Under his tenure, the church also changed its name in 2009 from First Baptist to CrossPoint Community Church.
The church began in 1902 as an American Baptist Church. In 1980, the Modesto church broke with the denomination over theological differences, Estes said.
"We'd been an unaffiliated and evangelical church for a lot of years and decided it was time to change the name," he said. "It was quietly and kindly done; it wasn't a big row."
The church also completed some building projects over the years and was ready to break ground for a new three-story children's ministry building and multipurpose facility. But the recession hit about that time, and the land formerly a couple of apartment buildings and two or three homes adjacent to the church remains a parking lot.
Estes also oversaw a "re-envisioning process" a couple of years ago to coincide with the name change. The result is a new theme: "Worship like Jesus, live like Jesus, rescue like Jesus."
Then he told his pastoral staff and church board that he was thinking of moving on to something else. The main issue, he said, was a lack of stamina "I didn't have the energy that the job required."
If they hired a pastor from outside the church, it would be a one- to three-year process, he said. If they hired from within, it would be sooner.
He wasn't planning to leave so soon, but between January and August 2012, "I just took a nosedive," Estes said. "I'm not sick. I'm not struggling spiritually. But I just hit a wall. Mentally, I started dropping all kinds of balls, which wasn't usual for me. I'm just worn out."
But he's excited about leaving the church in Whiteford's hands. Just as longtime pastor Yaeger passed the baton to Estes, he has now passed it on to another newcomer.
"I think it's going to be very, very exciting," Estes said. "From the date Matt arrived, (his skills and gifts were) very apparent. Everything Matt touched turned to gold. He's had this infectious enthusiasm. He's an excellent preacher. From the first Sunday he preached, people were going, 'Wow.' "
New role a good fit
Whiteford becomes the 16th senior pastor of the church, but only the third one in 45 years.
Whiteford, who has worked at churches and Bible schools in Michigan and South Dakota, called it a "real privilege to be jumping into this position with that kind of history. (Wade and I) really worked closely together in the transition. One of the things that was especially meaningful was that he made a covenant in front of the congregation to only speak well of me. He's been phenomenal to follow."
He said that although he's been at the church for only two years, it feels longer.
"I grew up in the metro Detroit area, and then for nine years, I lived in rural South Dakota," he said. "I find Modesto a combination of the two. Some things you just feel like it's a right fit, like you've been here longer than you have. It just feels like I've been here for a while."
His short tenure at the church has been a plus, he said. "I'm a little bit of an insider, but I'm also an outsider," he said. "I have freshness of eyes to see where there needs to be changes, but I've been here long enough to see the value of what we do and where we fit in the community. It brings a good balance."
Whiteford said he has two main passions in his new role: to focus on the physical, spiritual and emotional health of the church staff and to equip people in the congregation "to carry out what God has called them to do."
"The main calling on our life is to become like Jesus, to love him and to love others," he said. "But there's other things passions and convictions that God lays on our lives on more of an individual level. Some people have great dreams, but they don't think they can do those dreams. My job is to equip them and empower them to carry those things out."
'Force of good'
He also believes that CrossPoint's downtown location gives the congregation an opportunity to continue serving the homeless, the drug addicts and others on the edge of poverty, crime and homelessness who congregate in the area.
"I really want to see our church be a force of good, to have a significant effect," Whiteford said. "I would like to see there be zero crime because of the influence of our church, helping people find Christ and meeting needs. Really helping people."
He knows there's a tension to helping folks who are needy. The church has been the target of frequent vandalism, minor thefts and other problems.
"We've built relationships with the people who stayed at the Modesto Inn right across the street to the point that some people there would walk around our campus at night, making sure there was nothing going on," he said. "I think ministry is messy. That's just a reality and a tension we have to live with. For us, it's encountering people who are not themselves, those who are influenced with alcohol or drugs.
"It's one of those tradeoffs. Jesus came into the big mess with life and love, and we try to emulate him in that way. We're always trying to make sure people are safe, but leaving that margin for people who simply want to sit or warm up or potentially want to find hope."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: CrossPoint Community Church
WHERE: 1301 12th St., Modesto
PHONE: (209) 521-0181
SUNDAY WORSHIP: 9 and 10:45 a.m.
OTHER INFO: Church offers classes and fellowship for children, youth, young adults, women, men and other groups