The Legacy of Papa G
Gary Wayne Grogan will pass the torch Dec. 4 after nearly 29 years at the helm of Stone Creek Church in Urbana, Illinois. It’s not a moment he’s dreading.
At 65, Grogan — while retiring as lead pastor of the church that averages 1,534 weekly attendees — eagerly looks forward to the next phase of his life. After a sabbatical, Grogan plans to devote much of his time to coaching and mentoring younger pastors at leadership retreats, training sessions, and workshops.
It’s a role Grogan, affectionately known as “Papa G,” has relished for years while serving as pastor in Urbana.
“Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t call to get coached,” says Ricky J. Spindler, who is succeeding Grogan as pastor. “The joy of his life is to empower and release next generation leaders.”
Spindler, 36, is a prime example. Raised by his grandparents and without a biological father present in the home, Spindler joined the staff at Stone Creek right out of college. He has served as an intern, staff evangelist, youth pastor, men’s ministry pastor, and family minister pastor — virtually everything except women’s ministry leader.
Four years ago, Grogan began preparing Spindler to be his replacement as teaching and discipleship pastor.
“Organizations age with the leaders,” Grogan says. “I just want to make sure we continue to reach millennials and Gen Xers. You can gain momentum when you pass the baton.”
Grogan has few peers at the church, with only 6 percent of the congregation 50 and older. The median age is 29. Urbana is home to the University of Illinois.
When Grogan assumed the pastorate at Stone Creek (then known as Urbana Assembly of God), only 40 people attended regularly. He didn’t find older ministers eager to disciple him in an era when many pastors learned in Bible college not to develop close friendships among their congregants.
Grogan went the opposite direction. He freely shares sermons he’s preached to give younger ministers ideas for an outline to develop their own concepts. He also is transparent about his life.
“When I was young, pastors were taught not to show weaknesses and struggles,” Grogan says. “But people can relate when I share that I had stress in my marriage and that my wife (Bonnie) and I went to a counselor.”
Grogan contends it is the responsibility of older ministry leaders to open doors for younger pastors that they cannot open for themselves. Every month, some young pastor or another spends part of a day or even several days with him gleaning ministry abilities.
“I’m not afraid to give young men and women the ball and let them run with it, even if they fumble,” Grogan says. “I can coach them how to hang onto the ball.”
One way Grogan has done that is to sponsor young pastors for the past 32 years on evangelistic outreaches to Mardi Gras.
Every Sunday morning Grogan texts an encouraging word to a group of more than two dozen pastors he has mentored. Some now shepherd megachurches, yet they still value Grogan’s counsel.
Alex L. Bryant Jr., executive pastor at New Life Church in Oak Grove, Missouri, has sought Grogan’s advice since he encouraged and prayed with him at youth camp three decades ago. Bryant continues to phone Grogan periodically for direction.
“He always makes time for me,” says Bryant, 44. “He’s a mentor and guide, always willing to lead and pray for me.”
Spindler is confident in becoming lead pastor at Stone Creek because of all the efforts Grogan has poured into him through their relationship of informally doing life together.
“Even with the baggage from my upbringing he helped develop leadership and relationship skills needed at this level,” Spindler says. “He has modeled what it means to be a spiritually healthy leader.”
Spindler sees no tendency in Grogan of succumbing to insecurities and trying to retain position and authority. Instead, Spindler says, Grogan continues to use his leverage to open doors for younger leaders.
After six months off, Grogan will become the part-time “legacy pastor” at Stone Creek Church. But he primarily will act as a spiritual father, coach, and mentor to young ministers around the nation who want to hang out with him.
“I have to get out from underneath the demands of the local church so I can fulfill the call of God for however many years I have left,” Grogan says.
Stone Creek Church meets at seven sites, including four French-speaking campuses populated by Congolese immigrants. Overall, Stone Creek is 43 percent black (including attendees from 25 African nations) and 41 percent white. Such a demographic isn’t by happenstance.
“Diversity must be done with intentionality and deep theological conviction,” Grogan says. “While I’ve never hired staff just because of skin color, I intentionally fish in ponds where I can catch the diverse kinds of fish I want.”