Rich Guerra considered his grandfather his hero. After he immigrated to California, the Mexican-born Filipé Guerra converted to Christianity, experienced a deliverance from alcohol, and planted a Pentecostal church in a building that once housed a dance hall and movie theater.
Filipé Guerra was 65 when Rich came into the world, and his grandfather had a tremendous impact on his life. When Rich was 8 years old, the church his grandfather pastored merged with La Trinidad Church, led by Robert Espinoza. There he learned about the Assemblies of God and AG missionaries, soon sensing a ministerial calling.
Although his parents spoke Spanish in the home, Rich’s mother, Connie, insisted he converse in English as an avenue to a better education and career. Guerra enrolled at the AG’s Vanguard University in Costa Mesa. Initially he declared himself as a missions major. Guest missionary speakers mesmerized Guerra, who once gave the $5 he had in his pocket to make it through the week to David Grant when Grant appealed for help for orphans in India.
But the more Guerra conversed with fellow students, the more convinced he became that the U.S. church needed to become more relevant and effective. He switched his major to church ministries. Guerra graduated from Vanguard, then married his wife, Coni, in 1978.
He became a youth pastor for two years, but just before he ascended the podium one Sunday morning to read announcements, the pastor told him to announce to the congregation that this would be Guerra’s last day at the church. As he declared the departure to the congregation, a shocked Coni — seven months pregnant at the time — sat on the front row. The pastor gave him no reason for the dismissal.
With no job and no health insurance, Guerra went to work for his gardener-landscaper father, Richard, spreading manure. Guerra credits his father with instilling a work ethic in him.
“After being let go as youth pastor, God assured me He was in control,” recalls Guerra, 66. “By going through the crisis, God allowed me to become more sensitive to those going through failure.”
Soon he found another job as a youth pastor, and a succession of impressive ministry roles followed. Guerra became district youth ministry director in 1984, leading the Southern California District to first in the nation in Speed the Light giving (up from 16th). He became single adult pastor at Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, where he says lead pastor Glen D. Cole taught him how to be a visionary leader. Guerra eventually oversaw groups totaling 700 singles.
For five years, Guerra served as lead pastor of Trinity Life Center, a church located a mile from the Las Vegas strip. The church drew attendees from multiple ethnicities.
“People come from all over the world to work in casinos,” says Guerra, who in 1987 earned a master’s degree in church leadership from Vanguard. “They became great soul-winners.”
In 1995, Guerra accepted a call to be lead pastor of Visalia First, located in the San Joaquin Valley, where his parents had retired. He led an effort to move the campus to a 40-acre site from 5 acres. Around 600 regulars attended when he arrived. Guerra expected to stay there the rest of his ministry days.
However, after attendance grew to nearly 3,000 adherents, he unexpectedly was elected assistant district superintendent in 2007.
When mentor T. Ray Rachels retired as district superintendent after 22 years, Guerra was elected to the post in 2010. Guerra made the unusual move of hiring Rachels as a special assistant because of Rachels’ long history in the district and ability to offer counsel. At 81, Rachels continues in the role.
“Ray had been a tremendous, relational leader, spiritual mentor, and friend,” Guerra says.
Rachels calls Guerra a visionary leader who is not threatened by empowering and entrusting people to be part of a team effort.
“Rich is a world-class delegator,” Rachels says. “He has the ability to pull people around him in close and give them assignments. Rich is brilliant at coming up with new ideas and effectively deploying people to handle the details.”
Guerra became the first U.S. Hispanic AG leader elected to a superintendent’s position in a non-Latin district. There are 47 geographic districts/ministry networks. Guerra renamed the Southern California District to SoCal Network Assemblies of God in an effort to better allow officials and local pastors to work together.
“God has always put me in places of rich tradition that needed a change of culture,” Guerra says. “God has given me wisdom about how to navigate change.”
Guerra has earned a reputation as a risk-taker who is able to overcome obstacles and navigate change. He has found that people often resist change because they want to glorify the past, experience too much pain in the present, or fear the unknown future.
No state has had a rockier road than California in dealing with the fallout from COVID-19. Nearly two years after the onset, government officials still are restricting in-person gathering size in some locales. Guerra has spent much of the pandemic encouraging weary pastors not to give up, and to keep trying to reach their communities.
Nevertheless, SoCal Network has the second largest number of attendees (202,000 — more than double since Guerra’s arrival) in the U.S. AG (after Peninsular Florida) and the second largest number of churches (500, after North Texas) among the 66 districts/ministry networks.
SoCal attendance is reflective of the region’s diverse demographics, with 60% being ethnic minorities. In addition, 40% of the network’s presbyters are nonwhite. Regional teams now must include an under 40 minister, female minister, and ethnic minority minister.
Guerra concedes that per capita not many Southern Californians attend church. Thus, he spends a great deal of time investing in and listening to potential young ministers. He realizes under 40 would-be ministers want to be more involved in the process.
“We want to inspire leaders by recruiting, training, and launching them in ministry,” says Guerra. “People tend to support what they help create. That’s how culture is changed and a movement is created.”
There also is the realization that simply opening a church and expecting people to come is a relic of the past.
“Today’s young leaders are drawn to compassion,” Guerra says. In response, the network is involved in massive community distributions of groceries and other products to the needy.