Minister finishes first year, sees growth in future at Highland Park United Methodist
Forget the fact that Paul Rasmussen has more than a decade of experience at Highland Park United Methodist Church.
When he stepped into the sanctuary for the first time last year as senior minister, Rasmussen said he knew churchgoers saw him as “the new guy.”
The void he was to fill at the pulpit was a big one. The Rev. Mark Craig had just retired after 18 years leading the church, the spiritual home of former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura. Bush credits a 1998 sermon by Craig with inspiring him to move forward with his run at the White House.
Rasmussen, head of HPUMC’s Cornerstone contemporary wing, was Craig’s handpicked successor.
“If you’re replacing a leader that is highly successful and very well-loved, No. 1: You don’t want to mess it up,” Rasmussen said.
It’s been a year this month since Rasmussen, 46, officially took over at the nearly century-old church to lead its congregation of more than 15,000 members. The foundation was already there for him, but he said the church must avoid complacency as it looks to continue to expand its footprint.
“I’ve tried to balance honoring the success of my predecessor in the church, and at the same time keep it sparked with moving forward,” Rasmussen said. “I’ve tried to get that tension right.”
Born in Dallas and raised in Shreveport, La., Rasmussen followed in the ministerial footsteps of his father. He said he didn’t plan it that way.
After serving as an assistant basketball coach at Centenary College in Shreveport, Rasmussen moved back to Dallas in 1997 to work at a sports marketing company and attended services at HPUMC.
He felt a calling to preach. With his father no longer alive, he went to Craig for advice.
Craig offered Rasmussen a job running the church’s gym and recreational ministry. The condition, Rasmussen said, was that he attend the next-door Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
“I don’t know what he saw,” Rasmussen said. “I’m not even sure why he hired me, because he literally hired me on the spot without knowing me.”
Rasmussen started at HPUMC in 2000. A short time later came an opportunity for him to lead youth ministry on an interim basis. He preached in the church’s secondary chapel and helped to lead an overflow service from the sanctuary.
Craig asked Rasmussen to lead the Cornerstone service a year into its existence. It was an “extraordinary blessing,” Rasmussen said, at his age, to have the opportunity to essentially start something new, with the support of Craig and an existing church.
“He said, ‘I want you to treat it like it’s your own church,’” Rasmussen said.
Over time, the Cornerstone services grew more casual. Rasmussen ditched the coat and tie for blue jeans and an untucked shirt. He paired sermons with video and other on-screen aides. Crowds grew larger.
Then Craig approached him about being his successor.
“When it happened, I was surprised and humbled and overwhelmed — not because of the duties, but because ... this just doesn’t happen,” Rasmussen said. It’s rare, he said, for a minister to rise through the ranks, rather than having to lead a smaller church before coming back.
The transition had a year and a half to unfold. Before his retirement, Craig handed the day-to-day reins to Rasmussen.
The feeling of being truly in charge — and ultimately responsible — for the first time in Rasmussen’s life still came as a shock after Craig had left.
“That has been more psychologically weighty, I think,” Rasmussen said. “I mean, you know that intuitively, but you can’t deal with it until you deal with it.”
Preaching in the sanctuary came as another change, though Rasmussen had filled in previously when Craig was away. The challenge, he said, was to take the Cornerstone sermon he continues to give weekly, and shorten it and give it the same creative impact without visuals.
Lauri Lueder, who’s in charge of HPUMC’s small gathering groups, said there’s been much more crossover in the sanctuary and contemporary crowds since Rasmussen took over. He’s inclusive and relatable, she said, but doesn’t shy away from challenging the congregation in his sermons.
“He sets a high bar. He has expectations,” said Lueder, who started attending the church in 1985.
Much of what Rasmussen sees for HPUMC’s future continues with its past efforts, such as its work with Habitat for Humanity and special-needs ministry. Lisa Stewart, the church’s outreach director, said Rasmussen often draws attention to poverty in Dallas.
“We have an obligation to help people, and that’s one of the things that I really like about him: that we’re not trying to sugarcoat the truth,” Stewart said.
Rasmussen also plans a big effort to train new leaders and continue expanding HPUMC’s reach at affiliate campuses, opened in struggling churches. Its Munger Place Church branch, a creation headed by Rasmussen, opened in East Dallas in 2010.
North Dallas and Uptown Dallas are being eyed for campuses, as is South Dallas, Rasmussen said. February could bring a big announcement, he said, with HPUMC starting the celebration of its 2016 centennial.
“That’s a new model,” Rasmussen said. “And we’ve kind of been able to prove that model up in Munger Place. We want to do that again and again and again.”
Author: Andrew Scoggin
Category: Church History, Senior Ministers
This article was republished from a DallasNews.com article by Andrew Scoggins.