From Partygoer to Pastor: the Long Road Back

Post a Comment » Written on December 4th, 2002     
Filed under: News
By Craig Pinley

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK (December 4, 2002) – The New Testament account of the prodigal son is among the best-known stories in the Bible, but we don’t know for certain what became of the boy who returned home to his family.

If the Bible were written using contemporary stories of today, then a twenty-first century version of the prodigal son could be Lance Gutteridge. Once a professional golfer with a drug problem, Gutteridge was welcomed home by his family and was so touched by God’s grace that he became a minister.

Ten years after the lowest point in his life, Gutteridge has become a pastor at Grace Covenant Church in Oklahoma City, a church with 180 in average worship attendance that was founded in January 2001. A worn Bible and a set of church audio tape sermon cassettes proved to be catalysts in bringing Gutteridge back to his family and to faith in Jesus.

A native of Oklahoma City, Gutteridge comes from an athletic family. His father, Don Gutteridge Jr., played college baseball. His grandfather, Don Gutteridge, did even better, playing in two World Series as a professional baseball player and managing and coaching at the major league level. Lance likewise became enamored with the sport and eventually became an honorable mention All-City high school player and a collegiate competitor at Northeastern Oklahoma A &M University. But while he continued to be a huge baseball fan, Lance quit the sport. “I just got frustrated with it,” he said. “I had been doing it all of my life and I got tired of being Don Gutteridge Jr.’s son and Don Gutteridge’s grandson.”

Lance learned how to play golf as a child with brothers Sean and Joshua. Later, a friend got Lance hooked on the game in college after he finished playing baseball. Gutteridge spent a summer working at a regionally known golf course in Oklahoma where a club golfer encouraged Lance to give up baseball and try golf. His quality play and sparkling personality helped him enlist enough sponsors to begin a professional golf career.

Gutteridge never got his PGA Tour card – he played on the Ben Hogan mini-tour and two other regional golf tours instead. However, he managed to build a big-time reputation in the professional golf party scene while living in California. He said he became addicted to drugs and cocaine while trying to become a professional golfer. His brothers also had wild lifestyles and visits to see Lance often turned into party-filled weekends.

“Lance is the ultimate people person,” said Sean, who now serves on the staff at Westmoore Community Covenant Church in Oklahoma City. “He can walk into a room and by the time he walks out of the room, he’s got people thinking that he’s their best friend. He loves people and that’s really what made him so popular. He always had girlfriends . . . and being a golf pro, everybody liked the guy and it helped him get sponsors. To sum up my trips to California: I got off the plane with a drink in my hand, and that drink became like an appendage the whole time I stayed there. It was pretty crazy.

“He’d get off work (in Carmel Valley) and we’d go out to dinner in Monterey,” Sean continued. “When he walked in, everybody would turn and look. Everybody recognized him, from the bartender to the waitresses. One Saturday night at a favorite hot spot, there was an hour wait (to get in) and we walked right up to the front and no one said anything. And we didn’t pay for a thing to eat or drink all night.”

After a while, Gutteridge says his life became unmanageable. At times, he said he became so disoriented that he failed to cash a bevy of checks that he earned from golf tournaments and his side job as a local golf pro.

“I think Lance’s life became most unmanageable when he left for California,” said Lance’s mother, Sonja. “We knew that he was not actively involved in Bible study or in a church, so when we prayed, we prayed that God would place in his path people that were walking in the Lord. But he only came home once or twice a year and we didn’t see him much.”

In September 1992, Gutteridge totaled his car and broke a collarbone in a grisly accident. Sonja came to California to visit and saw where the car had crashed. “It was at the top of a mountain and the only thing that stopped that car was a tree,” said his mother. “When I saw that, I told Lance that God had spared his life.”

The accident – along with some conversations with his mother – seemed to wake Gutteridge out of his spiritual slumber. During that period, he was searching for some of his uncashed checks and found one stuffed in his Bible. He opened the Bible to the page where the check had been stuffed and read Jeremiah 29:11, a reminder that God had plans for Gutteridge’s life, even if Gutteridge didn’t.

“The last time I did drugs, I was sitting on a beach in Monterey, California,” Gutteridge said as he contemplated giving up on life. “I said to God that I knew as a kid that I believed in Him and that if that was true, I’d be going to heaven . . . it was like I heard inside, ‘I’m not through with you yet,’ and I knew that walking out into the ocean wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing.

“My mom had sent me tapes of a preacher in Oklahoma (Nick Harris), and I started listening to this guy talking about grace and saying that Christ’s blood will wash away all of my sins,” Gutteridge continued. “I said to God, ‘I will do anything you want me to do.’ Turns out that four days later I was arrested. I thought that maybe God wanted me to do a jail ministry.”

Gutteridge was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and was given a five-year suspended sentence. During his sentencing, the judge challenged Gutteridge to alter his lifestyle for good.

“The judge looked at me when I got arraigned and she said, ‘I understand that you are a Christian.’ I said that I was and she said, ‘I’m a Christian too, and if you even think a bad thought (after this point) I will put you UNDER the jail. But if you do it right, I will suspend everything you’ve done.'”

In November 1992, Gutteridge returned to his home state and was met at the airport by his mother. “He didn’t walk off the airplane, he ran,” said Sonja. “He ran down the ramp, picked me up and said ‘I’m home.’ He was so glad to be alive. And we were glad to have him home, too. We had always said that there was always a place for him at home and his room was ready. And my husband (Don Jr.) always could sit down with the boys and talk when there was a problem – there was always open communication. I think that openness was a reason why the boys felt so comfortable.”

Lance immediately began attending First Methodist Church in Oklahoma City where Nick Harris was senior pastor. Harris encouraged Lance to join a ministry called “Loaves and Fishes,” an afternoon Bible study. Lance continued to seek God wherever he could at First Methodist. “If the doors were open at the church, I was there,” he said.

Both of his brothers immediately noticed a difference in Lance’s attitude when he came home. “Once he got home, he became consumed with the Word of God and I knew it was a genuine change,” said Sean. “He was still Lance, but there was a light in his eyes and a fire and passion in his attitude.” Joshua, who is 10 years younger than Lance, was less than thrilled with the change, however. He thought his older sibling had become a social dud.

“I’m 10 years younger than Lance and I’ve always adored him,” said Joshua. “And when all three of us (brothers) got together it was really crazy. I remember Lance leaving for California and being devastated. He was a cool guy. When he got back from California, I thought, ‘What happened to the cool guy?’ I thought that when he got back we’d really start having fun, but we weren’t having fun.”

Craig Groeschel, an associate pastor for singles ministries at First Methodist, became an important figure in Lance’s life. With his professional golf background, Gutteridge had been able to secure a job as golf teaching professional for a local club. But as Lance and Groeschel began playing basketball together each week, Groeschel encouraged Lance to think about ministry outside of the golf course.

Lance began teaching a middle school Sunday school class and enjoyed it so much that he decided to do volunteer youth ministry at First Methodist. He eventually was hired to work on the pastoral staff and married Nick Harris’ daughter, Amy, in 1993.

“We had a ministry called “Single Truth” on Friday nights and he (Lance) came with his brother, Sean, and rededicated his life to Christ,” said Groeschel. “Within a few weeks, I asked him to give his testimony and he was one of the worst public speakers I had ever heard. But a year later, he was preaching some of the best messages I had heard. I have never seen someone grow in their speaking abilities and their faith. It seemed to happen overnight.

“He was God’s man for the job at the time,” Groeschel continued. “The moment he came back to Christ, he came full out for it. He’s very committed to his family, he’s a student of the Word and he’s a riot in the right sense of the word. You’re not going to meet many people that wouldn’t like him.”

In the prodigal son story, we know of a resentful older brother who is upset that a father makes so much fuss over a son gone wrong. There is no such ending to the story of Lance Gutteridge, a modern-day prodigal son who came home.

The transformation of Lance Gutteridge from partier to pastor has affected the entire Gutteridge family in a positive way. In fact, Lance helped his brothers redirect their lives toward God. Lance helped lead Sean back to Christ first by inviting him to church, albeit in unusual fashion.

“He (Lance) told me, ‘If you go to Single Truth with me this Friday night, I’ll buy you a six-pack of beer,'” said Sean. “Craig Groeschel did a sermon and it changed my life – and Lance knew it was going to happen. I wouldn’t recommend this (method) to everyone, but it changed me. And partying was never the same after that night.”

Lance had a long talk with Joshua one winter evening and challenged him to read the convicting words of 2 Timothy. Joshua eventually came to renewed faith and now works with Lance at Grace Covenant.

The Gutteridge credit their parents’ strong faith and the solid grounding in scripture they provided. Most of all, they’re glad that when Lance finally got the message that God loved him in good times and bad, he told his brothers and they believed it, too.

“Lance was always our hero and he had a big influence on leading us away from the Lord,” said Sean. “But, we also followed him back to the light. Lance’s ministry journey is incredible – it was a transformation only God could’ve accomplished.”

Copyright © 2011 The Evangelical Covenant Church.


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