To whom it may concern,
My name is Tim Stonehocker. I work by day as a software engineer, and live with my wife and our two sons (ages 7 and 2). About five years ago, I was part of the seed team involved in planting Recreate Church in San Jose, and have volunteered in various roles at the church over the years including worship leader.
My purpose in writing this letter is to convey my strong recommendation of Al Soto as a pastor, leader, mentor, and friend.
I first met Al around September of 2015, when he was appointed as transitional lead pastor for Recreate Church. The church was in a difficult season of hurt, confusion, and loss, following the sudden (from the congregation’s perspective) resignation of our founding pastor in August.
Al’s leadership and presence were exactly what our church needed during this season (more on that later) . B u t , o n a more personal level , Al was exactly what I needed during this season , and I’d like to start by framing the story of my time with Al relative to my own personal journey.
My journey has exposed me to a lot of different settings. The past few years have been a season of incredible healing, awakening, and growth, highlighted by connecting with contemplative spiritual practices and investing heavily in my marriage.
After returning home from a very meaningful contemplative retreat in early September, I found myself reiterating a prayer I’d been repeating for over 18 months by that point: “God, I feel like you’re teaching me a lot through books, and through people I can respect from a distance, but I have such a deep longing for a real life mentor who I can interact with on a regular basis.”
When Al arrived, my guard was up. I didn’t know much about him, and had the opportunity to hear him preach a few times before speaking with him much personally. The one thing that stood out immediately to me from his sermons was Al’s embodied spirit of healthy brokenness. As a self proclaimed ‘recovering alcoholic’, Al teaches in a way that regularly echo’s a ‘12 steps’ mentality a need to die to our ‘false selves’ and embrace a new identity in Christ. That resonated with me and made me want to learn more.
A few weeks later, Al and I sat down 1on1 at a coffeeshop. A few minutes into that conversation that the thought first occurred to me: Could Al be God’s way of answering my prayer for the ‘missing mentor’ in my life? By the end of the conversation, I was convinced that was exactly what God was doing though it certainly felt like it ‘came out of nowhere’. Al didn’t fit the mental image I had in mind, but there we were talking at length about his daily office and experience with contemplative practices. He gave me several helpful suggestions, and I could tell they were coming from someone who had ‘walked the walk’ for a while now.
Over the coming weeks and months, Al became a dear friend and mentor. He encouraged me to consider joining the church leadership team (I’d been focusing on my day job, while harboring dreams of planting a new monastic community). I did so in November, and have since become chairman of the leadership team, meeting regularly with Al and others over the past six months.
During the first leadership team meeting I was a part of, Al shared about a conversation he’d had earlier in the week, where a few colleagues at the Bible college had approached him and asked some very loaded questions about his eschatological views. He recounted how he’d replied by refocusing the conversation on what’s important building a bridge of common ground and earning the respect of his colleagues in the process. This was significant to me because a decade earlier, in a previous church context, similar loaded questions had been a big part of the reason I’d ended up ‘on the sidelines’ uncomfortable with the idea of being part of church leadership but Al modeled a different kind of leadership: affirming the role of questioning, mutual respect, and an ability to say ‘I’m not sure’ when appropriate, while also being very adamant about the integrity of the gospel and a focus on healthy spiritual development.
Al often expresses himself in a very direct fashion, but never at the expense of being a great listener. What I’ve found as I’ve gotten to know him, is that we often agree ‘on a deeper level’ even when we have differing ideas or preferences on the surface. For instance, we’ve had some fun chats about politics (we have differing political leanings) and church style preferences (Al’s cultural background is significantly different from the one I grew up in) and have consistently been able to find significant common ground and enjoy our discussions.
As a pastor and leader, Al has a tremendous amount of experiential wisdom. I have seen first hand how he has navigated challenging situations at Recreate that, frankly, would have broken a majority of pastors I know. He walked into a situation where scars caused by the previous staff and the unhealthy elements of the group culture had led to a lot of hurt and mistrust of pastoral leadership (especially male leadership). Despite being ‘thrown directly into the deep end’, Al consistently made quick and perceptive observations about what was going on beneath the surface, and modeled new healthy ways of leading and interacting. Over his first six months, we experienced an absolutely incredible transformation in the church culture and I know a big part of this was the way Al really ‘gave his heart’ to the group.
Though we have only known each other during this recent season, the bonds we have formed run deep, and I count it a deep personal blessing to know Al.
I highly recommend him for pastoral leadership roles, and look forward to watching how the remaining parts of his journey unfold.
Leadership Team Chairman, Recreate Church, San Jose