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STEVE ROBINSON never expected to hit the wall. When he did in 2010, it left him shell-shocked and reduced to a puddle of tears. He doubted he could continue meeting the demands of a megachurch that had started 11 years earlier with 19 people and mushroomed past 3,200 the week before Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Although he didn’t realize it then, the mammoth storm marked the beginning of a new journey into understanding the intricacies of mental health and leadership. As a Tulane student, he experienced a radical conversion to Christ after attending a campus Bible study his freshman year. A year later, Robinson was leading Bible studies and launching an evangelistic inner-city ministry.

“My stepfather was an attorney, and I was in pre-law, planning to go to law school,” says Robinson, whose Church
of the King now numbers 10,000 weekly attendees at six campuses, with plans to open two more next year—one in Cape Town, South Africa, and a 1,200-seat, $34-million campus in downtown New Orleans. “My junior year I sat down with my parents and told them, ‘I’m not taking the law school entrance exam because I’m not going into law; I’m going into ministry.’”

After graduating from Tulane with a degree in Rhetoric, he moved to Dallas to pursue biblical studies at Christ for the Nations. Two years later he set out for Asia, leading an evangelistic team on a three-month tour through seven nations. Once he returned in 1993, Robinson rented an upstairs bedroom from the associate pastor of his church. To make ends meet, he worked as a waiter and cleaned office buildings. He also returned to school part-time at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (later finishing his master’s degree at The King’s University).

That fall, Robinson’s landlord and pastor asked him to take over a struggling high school Bible club that was down to three students. When Robinson agreed, “God touched it supernaturally.” By December, 100 kids were coming; he then shifted to lunchtime meetings and persuaded local business owners to chip in for pizza. By the end of the school year there were four clubs, with 300 to 400 students showing up each week.

That would mark the beginning of Next Generation Ministries (nextgenclubs.com), which is still thriving today. Over the past 30 years the ministry has reached more than 100,000 students. Next Gen became so successful that Robinson became its first full-time director in 1995, while also speaking at youth conferences and churches.

“I equipped churches on how to get onto junior high and high school campuses and raise up student leaders,” Robinson says. “I would preach every year at the back-to-school rally at Bethany World Prayer Center. I would also go around the country and equip churches and denominations on how to reach public junior high and high school kids.”

CALLED TO PLANT

In early 1999, Robinson approached his pastor, saying he and wife Jennifer (they married in 1995) felt called to plant a church. They spent the next six months traveling to various metropolitan areas to investigate possibilities. Halfway through their search, their pastor asked if they would consider going to Mandeville, a small town on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans. A couple of families there wanted to restart a church that had fizzled.

Four times the pastor asked; four times Robinson said no. But in August 1999, after speaking at a youth retreat for his friend Dino Rizzo, he called Jennifer to relate how he couldn’t shake the idea of going to Mandeville. She agreed. Both were moved by God as Robinson sensed the Holy Spirit saying, “I’m sending you across the lake to raise up a church to touch the region.” After meeting with the 19 adults who came to an exploratory discussion, they agreed to launch Church of the King (COTK). The small congregation experienced such explosive growth, within two years they were able to purchase an old skating rink and renovate it to create a 1,000-seat auditorium.

“Planting a church in Mandeville wasn’t my idea,” says Robinson, 55. “Next Generation wasn’t my idea. I can’t tell you any major shift in my life that was my idea. I don’t typically initiate; I respond to God opportunities. That’s really important because I don’t want anything in my hands that God hasn’t placed there.”

Even today, the hard-charging leader isn’t sure why growth came so fast and went so far. He attributes it to God’s sovereignty and his emphasis on evangelism, which led to a wave of conversions, baptisms and excitement among members. The third weekend of August in 2005—only six years after its launch—COTK saw 3,245 at five weekend services.

Then came Katrina. New Orleans lost half its population after the category 3 hurricane walloped the region. For the church, it was even worse. No services were held for a month, and when they resumed, they had 1,350 people. When one well-known Christian leader surveyed the devastation, he advised Robinson, “Once everything is stabilized, I’d pack up, move to a new city and start over. There’s no guarantee this won’t happen again.” Determined to keep going, Robinson instead threw himself into disaster relief, forming a hurricane relief and recovery organization, PRC Compassion, with a number of local, statewide and national pastors.

“It was a tough time, preaching hope and faith,” Robinson recalls. Over the next few years, the pastor would find himself struggling to push through. In 2008, COTK rapidly grew again and launched a $20-million capital campaign as part of a $40-million project to build a 2,500-seat auditorium. That fall, the Great Recession kicked into high gear, and a bank that had promised a $20 million loan withdrew the offer. That meant COTK had to raise the cash on its own, which is why it took five years to complete the building project.

Executive pastor Randy Craighead remembers Robinson wondering if they were losing credibility and whether the leadership team should approach the congregation to ask for more donations or modify the project. For a while, they put the project on hold. The project brought forth skeptics, who asked, “Did God speak to Pastor Steve or not?”

The pressure came to a head in February of 2010. “He just burned out,” Craighead says. “He came to me one Sunday morning and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t do it.’ He got in the pulpit and lost where he was in his message. He got in the car afterwards, started crying and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ We called our overseers. I got on the phone later and told Pastor Steve, ‘We’re going to get you some professional help.’”

ROAD TO RECOVERY

Recovery required 18 months. It included Robinson going to counseling, getting a life coach, cutting back from five sermons a week to three (the other two were video recordings), and improving the balance between life and work.

“I stopped trying to be the savior of Church of the King and just embraced being a leader,” Robinson says with a laugh. “I regained some balance and perspective. That season became a significant part of my story. When you’re doing a $40-million building project in the middle of the biggest recession in decades and trying to build the majority with cash, and you’re 40 years old with a young family, that’s a lot.”

It took more than just cutting back on his preaching duties and creating healthy rhythms, though. Church of the King had a full-scale reorganization, changing from an executive pastor trying to oversee 17 ministries to a leadership team model. In addition to Craighead, it included a weekend experience pastor, a chief financial officer and a pastor over the ministries.

Robinson says the crisis stemmed from the crash of the building campaign coupled with the recession, leaving him feeling he had to carry all the weight. Yet the breakdown also made him a stronger person, gave him a deeper perspective and increased his empathy.

“I think leaders can get so caught up in their vision that they don’t understand people are at different points in their lives,” he reflects. “For me as a pastor, it’s important to understand where people are and bring them together while still accomplishing God’s dream and His goals.”

“I view adversity differently now. I see it as an opportunity to grow, not as an impediment in my path. It’s almost like weights on a bar. I’m not believing for it, but I know how God uses it.”

Those closest to Robinson agree that the pastor emerged from the chaos in better shape. Jon Scott—a staff member
for 20 years—says the pastor not only created a healthy support team, he trusted organizational leaders to carry more weight and started exercising regularly and thinking holistically.

Robinson sought to work smarter and not harder, says Scott, who helps Robinson on various projects. Before the burnout Robinson would work into the night on a regular basis and would violate Sabbath rhythms. Afterward, he delegated much better and held people accountable, the long-time team member says.

“His empathy has grown dramatically, and his kindness,” Scott says. “His communication was enhanced. So was his understanding of others and clarifying expectations. He is a man in motion and comes across as super-passionate, but after 2010 he realized his responsibilities and capacity in a much healthier way.”

“We did everything we could to lighten his load,” says Craighead, who spent five years pastoring Moscow Christian Center after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 and five years at Bethany before coming to COTK in 2001. “During his 18-month recovery, we said, ‘Don’t worry about anything with the ministry. You just come in and speak on the weekend.’”

Doug Armand, the first person to disciple Robinson 37 years ago, sees a man who has remained consistent in his desire to follow Christ. The associate pastor at COTK says he can’t think of anyone who displays more fruit of the Spirit from where they started to where they are
now than Robinson.

“He’s not perfect,” Armand says. “Anybody who is a Type A leader like him is going to have the same areas of potential weakness any other Type A leader has.

A HEART TO EQUIP

Although Church of the King’s formation predated the launch of the Association of Related Churches by 16 months, friendships between Steve Robinson and key founders brought COTK into the ARC fold.

Today, Church of the King makes ongoing contributions to ARC’s church-planting efforts, which recently surpassed the 1,100 mark. That included 40 new church launches in 2023 and 16 in the first quarter of 2024.

Robinson’s ties with ARC’s leaders go back to the 1990s, when he preached regularly at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge. Among ARC’s cofounders then on staff were Chris Hodges and Rick Bezet, then Bethany’s zone leader over youth ministry.

“I also equipped Healing Place Church—formerly known as Trinity Christian Center—led by Dino Rizzo. I trained Marc Cleary—now ARC’s director of church planting—how to start campus clubs and reach students in Baton Rouge. That was my entrée into the ARC world. I also helped them and supported a number of their first church plants.”

Rizzo says anyone who has planted a church knows about the challenges and hardships involved and that it takes the right kind of spirit. The executive director says Robinson has always been a pastor to church planters.

“He has resourced them from day one,” says Rizzo. “The heart of a pastor says, ‘I’m not gonna forget my early days. I’m gonna help somebody.’ Pastor Steve has done that through ARC from the beginning.”

Robinson is also friends with two other founders: one-time president Greg Surratt and Chris Hodges, pastor of Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, which hosted this year’s annual ARC conference. Robinson will be a keynote speaker at the annual ARC conference in April 2025 at Milestone Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

While Robinson has many great leadership qualities, Rizzo says at the end of the day what stands out is his Christ-like character.

“I think that is always the goal for all of us,” Rizzo says. “We have to always ask ourselves, ‘Do my qualities, my character, the way I lead, love and live reflect the Son of God?’ I know that’s the heart of Pastor Steve.”

One of Pastor’s greatest strengths is the fact that he’s empathetic and aware of the needs of people. He lives with this conviction: He’s going to stand before Jesus one day and answer for how he has stewarded people and his relationships with others.”

STUDYING TRAUMA

Robinson’s 2010-11 catharsis, coupled with personally observing numerous pastors crash and burn, eventually prompted him to study for a Doctorate of Ministry at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. He set out to study trauma in leaders and narrowed it to pastors before his doctoral adviser suggested focusing on a smaller group. That’s how Robinson settled on 2,000 megachurch leaders instead of 330,000 pastors.

Even though his studies concentrated on pastors of churches with 2,000 or more in weekly attendance, Robinson says his findings are applicable to leaders in all churches, as well as the business world. The deeper he investigated data from interviewing pastors and neurological science, the more COTK’s pastor learned about the realities of trauma in the brain.

“A crisis can produce a traumatized brain,” says Robinson, who earned his Doctorate of Ministry in 2022 and is working to turn his doctoral thesis into a book for a wider reading audience. “If you look at the brain scan of a traumatized person, you can see the impact of trauma. When trauma occurs, the three parts of the brain separate, which first causes great confusion.”

Whether it involves a strained marriage, board challenge, church split, community disaster or a family member in crisis, Robinson says all of these events can end up with a cumulative traumatic impact on the brain. When confusion results, pastors often feel ashamed and, secondly, start isolating themselves.

“Why?” Robinson asks. “You feel embarrassed because you can’t pull
off life anymore. You feel inferior and inadequate. Trauma is legitimate and neurological, but it’s also emotional and spiritual. The enemy takes advantage of traumatized pastors and leaders. Then

step three is deception; all three were present in the life of King Saul—confusion, isolation and deception. He’s the prototypical example of a traumatized leader.”

COTK’s pastor says this isolation extends in many directions, whether the distancing is from family, staff, mentors or close advisors. The way a king anointed by God ends up visiting a witch at Endor (1 Samuel 28) for direction is a result of confusion that led to isolation and then deception, Robinson says.

When people wonder how a noted pastor ends up having an affair, teaching false doctrine or lapsing into substance abuse, the answer can be found in the three steps that follow a trauma-inducing event or season, says Robinson. Untreated trauma may lead to developing sinful, negative pathologies and behavior patterns to cope with emotional pain. In talking with fallen pastors, he discovered numerous examples of leaders who were so ashamed of their confusion they wouldn’t come forth and confide in someone.

“What surprised me was how far leaders often got before they cried out for help,” Robinson says. “The reason why is they think something’s going to get better; it’s going to turn. But it’s not going to get better unless the pastor gets help.”

Robinson states the topic of leadership and trauma isn’t discussed much in the church world. He says
with neuroscience and topics of that nature, many Christians get concerned because of their lack of understanding this field. While he understands the hesitancy of some due to the complexity of neuroscience and trauma research, he maintains that both trauma and mental and emotional healing are found throughout Scripture.

Robinson gives a three-step process to find the healing traumatized leaders so desperately need. Number one, the cross not only deals with our sin but brings healing to the mental and emotional pain in our lives. The chastisement for our peace found in Isaiah 53:5 is a key part to re-integrating the brain. The word peace is shalom in Hebrew and means wholeness or integer. God’s presence and peace re-integrates the traumatized brain.

Second, processing one’s pain and trauma in the context of healthy relationship is also key to the healing process. “You’ve got to have people in your life,” the pastor says. “That was part of my restoration and healing. Relationships are critical. Every time you see a leader isolating and cutting off core relationships, it’s just a matter of time. They’re going to end up visiting the witch at Endor.”

Third, Robinson believes there are some leaders who have experienced severe trauma and will need professional care to assist in the process of regaining wholeness.

Given what he’s been through and learned, Robinson knows healthy leaders produce healthy churches and organizations and there is hope for any traumatized leader.



This article was featured in the Summer 2024 AVAIL Journal.

Read the full AVAIL Journal Digital Edition →

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