One-on-One With Executive Pastor Sean Cooper

David Saphirstein

Pastor Sean Cooper, who has worked for Northland for 22 years, started here as an intern in youth ministry. From youth ministry to adult equipping and spiritual formation to global mission work, his experiences are wide. Recently he was named one of two executive pastors here at Northland. I sat down with Pastor Sean to learn more about his background and share what led him to where he is today.

Tell us about your childhood, where you were born and grew up.

I was born in Bradenton. I’m a Florida boy, the few and proud. We moved to Brazil when I was three years old with my parents. They were church-planting in São Paulo, Brazil, with another couple. They were also teaching English at a university. I grew up in a big city; São Paulo is a huge city. People usually think of Brazil as Amazon and jungles and tribes, but I never saw any of that. I lived in a suburb of São Paulo called São José and grew up playing soccer, learning Portuguese and just hanging out.

When we moved to Brazil, I was an only child. While we were there, my parents adopted a Brazilian, Missy, who is the second-oldest. Next is my sister, Kristen, and then my younger  brother, Nick. There are four of us, and I’m the only one that was born in the U.S.; the other three were born in Brazil. We moved back to Florida when I was 9 and lived all over Florida. We landed in this area in the early ’90s. After high school I was off to school, Columbia International University in South Carolina. Around the same time, my parents moved from Ocala to Orlando and found Northland as a home church.

How did your parents’ work influence your call to ministry?

It actually goes back to even my grandparents. Growing up, I’d always heard stories of my grandfather, who was a missionary pilot, church planter in the West Indies. I heard about what he had done in the West Indies, Turks and Caicos, different parts of those islands. There are still schools, churches that he started there. That’s kind of where that influence really started for me. Then growing up and watching my dad, especially in ministry when we came back to the United States when I was 9 or 10 ... He went into youth ministry, and just from there I kind of watched and participated in a lot of stuff that was going on in the church. I kind of knew early in high school that I really wanted to go into ministry. A lot of influence from my parents ...

How did you meet your wife, Addie, who also works at Northland?

I met Addie in college at Columbia International University in South Carolina. I was a senior, and Addie was a freshman and from South Carolina. My roommate in college coached the powder-puff girls football team every year. He loved to coach defense, and he needed someone to coach offense. He was always talking about it, and he asked me if I’d be willing to help him out. In the first month, we went around with flyers during breakfast and lunch and in between classes, just handing them out. I met Addie passing these flyers out in the cafeteria. I convinced her to come and play football, and the rest is history. Addie played a lot of sports growing up.

Addie works in the communications and creative department here at Northland. People think we see each other a lot because we work in the same place, but we actually don’t see each other until supper! Our favorite place to reconnect is in the evening sitting on the porch, when we talk about what happened that day. It helps that we can connect on some of the projects we’re working on, even though it’s from completely different places.

Addie and I have two awesome kids. Wyatt is 9 and loves soccer, which is awesome for me because I love soccer. There are a lot of practices and games. We do all that stuff with him. Emerson is into theater and a part of Central Florida Community Arts. She loves acting, singing, drawing and writing. In fact, she and I just finished a book that we had published, and that was a fun thing. Our family loves the outdoors. The four of us go fishing, hunting, to the beach, scalloping. We love all the things that make Florida really unique. We’re very much into the outdoors and spending time together as a family.

Didn’t you start at Northland as an intern?

Yes. That was around the summer of ’93 or ’94. It was me and two other guys, one of whom still attends Northland. We really had some good times.

I interned in the youth ministry. At the time, we just had The Rink building. We had a shed that was the student offices; it used to be the go-kart maintenance building, where they would go and fix the go-karts. We renovated that to become the youth ministries staff building. We just did everything that summer, the three of us.

Back then the church was growing a lot, but I think what was cool about that time period was  how highly relational everything was. I was all about spending time with students. It was a summer of just daily waking up, showing up at the church and just diving into a lot of relationship-building with students. The three of us were given a lot of responsibility. Pastor Vernon and his brother Randy were leading us. It was an awesome time.

When did you join the staff at Northland?

I joined in January of 1996 as a youth minister. Vernon was still the youth pastor, so I continued to work under him. I did that for about 10 years. Then other needs came up in adult equipping and spiritual formation. I did that for a while and then started to get into global mission work. Then Vernon called one day when I and some others were in New York interviewing students to be interns here through our True North program. Vernon said, “Hey, I think it’s time for you to step in and take over the missions area.” Vernon had been doing that, along with many other things. I said yeah and got started right away. The first thing I did was put together a really strong team.

Why is the global piece so important?

I think global missions is in my DNA from my grandparents all the way down to living in Brazil – I mean, even though I’m American, that time period growing up in Brazil at that age. In that sense, missions is in my blood. Also, I just think of the years growing up in this church and just working here. Seeing Northland being so involved globally and just the level of encouragement this church is to churches around the world have really had an effect on me. Northland has a very different way of partnering and building relationships overseas. This is stuff I’ve learned from Pastors Joel and Vernon. Northland never travels overseas with an agenda, with a program. It’s always to go and learn and build relationships. We mean it when we say to our partners, they have more to teach us than we can teach them. So there’s just a different posture of working church to church.

We aren’t just working church to church, but we’re working across networks. We can influence and participate, benefit from way more relationships than we had before. I think even today, missions and what we do globally have to be in our top three priorities. It’s a challenging place to be right now. Not just in the U.S., but countries everywhere are very nationalistic, very inward-focused. It’s sort of a state of what’s happening around the globe. So there’s a challenge there because most people are already highly influenced to just want to care for their own country, [for] their own benefit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We have to do that to an extent, but biblically we know we exist for much more than that.

So when it comes to the Great Commission, when it comes to what Jesus called us to do in Matthew 28, we take that very seriously. And it’s not just following the wave of just using resources to benefit ourselves or shifting our priorities in a way that we only become local in our focus. [The Great Commission is] not just a Northland thing; it’s a biblical mandate for all churches. It’s always been a high priority at Northland. No matter what we do in the coming years, it’s going to be critical that we don’t lose that part of our identity.

You were recently named one of two executive pastors. Tell us what that new role looks like and how that fits with the whole organization.

I really feel humble to partner with someone like Pastor Kevin [Urichko], who is an executive pastor here and has been an executive pastor for some years. Kevin and I are wired very differently, and so there is this really great opportunity to bring his strengths and what I bring to the table to complement each other in different ways. We’re working together focused right now on, How do we continue to make Northland healthy? How do we continue to make this a hub of ministry where we are training our congregation from children all the way up through adults? How are we training them to take the gospel into the community? So there’s a health piece that’s critical. That’s a lot of what Kevin is really good at. Some of his strengths are in driving how to really make this space thrive. That’s a huge passion for me as well. I tend to get more excited around innovation – ways we can think differently about taking the church into spaces where the church doesn’t exist. How do we help children’s ministries, youth ministries, adults? How do we take the gospel outside the walls here?

I think the benefit of having two executive pastors with our different strengths is we can come together to use both high health and also high creativity to take the church into uncharted spaces. Kevin and I will be working a lot together in that way, but also I’m excited about what we are calling the strategic leadership team – a team of staff that love this place and are so committed to this church and bringing their gifts to this team in a way I couldn’t be more excited about – working alongside such gifted people from a talent standpoint but also people who have deep conviction about their faith and who love Northland a lot.

In this new season, what are you most excited about?

I’m excited to see what this new community will look like. I mean, I’ve been here for 22 years. The first decade [for me was] being in student ministry. The second decade was a combination of global work, the True North internship and adult equipping. And in this third phase, I’m really excited to see how God takes all the things that make up Northland’s history and melds them together with what’s happening now. There’s an excitement in telling people our new vision statement: Engaging people to be fully alive in Jesus. What gets me excited and eager to be here on the weekends and working during the week is, How is God raising up Northland to take the best of who we were and combine it with a group of people that wants to rethink and be creative and rediscover why we exist as a church?

For me, having kids that are at a critical age to experience a vibrant church community – it’s hard to think of things more important than that to me right now. For Wyatt, who’s 9, his experiences in Children’s Ministry – he just wants to be on property. This is a comfortable space for him. I want him to love church and feel like church is a home away from home. Emerson is very active in the youth ministry. With Pastor Rob here now, I think our best youth ministry years are coming while she is in high school. I think that there are a lot of new things coming here before the year ends and certainly next year. It’s going to come from our congregation. It’s going to come from people who are listening to the ideas God is giving them. It’s the congregation that’s going to help Northland in this season that is giving back to the community and serving in really unique ways.