HARRISONBURG — After more than a decade donning a Rockingham County sheriff’s deputy badge, Matt Cross — a popular school resource officer — traded it for his Bible.
Last month, the 40-year-old Elkton resident resigned from the sheriff’s office. Next week, he becomes a full-time associate pastor at Potter’s House Worship Center on West Market Street in Harrisonburg.
Cross left his law enforcement career just eight years shy of being eligible for partial retirement.
“It screams passion,” said Dan Garber, senior pastor at Potter’s House and Cross’ father-in-law.
Cross grew up in the McGaheysville area and graduated from Spotswood High School in 1998.
His ties to law enforcement run deep.
His father, Jay Cross, is a retired police officer, who first served with the Virginia State Police and later with the James Madison University Police Department. His brother, Phillip Cross, is an officer with the Massanutten Police Department.
Although his family had connections to law enforcement, Cross initially followed a different career path.
In 2007, Cross was selling real estate when the housing market crashed. He fell back on landscaping, but realized he needed a career.
At the time, he was a part-time youth pastor at his church. Knowing he worked well with teenagers, and with his family ties to law enforcement, he decided to pursue a career as a school resource officer.
However, he said, he knew it wasn’t a position he could walk right into.
In August 2007, he was hired as a jailer at Middle River Regional Jail in Verona. A month later, Rockingham County Sheriff Don Farley hired him to be a jailer at the Rockingham County Jail. After two years, he was transferred to court security, where he often manned the door to the Rockingham County General District Court.
But the job got old quick. He remembers praying one night specifically about his journey to be a school resource officer. He wasn’t sure he was going to make it.
“I was burned out,” he said. “You just sit there all day. It was just boring.”
Within days, the highly coveted position of school resource officer opened up. Cross was among 12 to apply.
He said he knew he was a long shot since some of the other candidates had more experience.
Cross remembers it was a Friday morning when he interviewed in front of fellow deputies and school principals for the spot. He gave a presentation on bullying.
Later that afternoon, he received a phone call.
“You knocked that interview out of the water,” the voice on the other side of the phone said. “Come get your patrol car and gear. You start patrol school on Monday.”
By November 2010, he was settled in at Spotswood High School. As a school resource officer, Cross was responsible for the high school’s feeder schools, too.
He would spend three years with the Blazers, before moving to East Rockingham High School for three years, then to Turner Ashby High School for two.
In his position, with mass shootings at schools on the rise over the years, he aimed to keep his students out of harm’s way.
He also made sure he was there to provide guidance when students were struggling.
“My No. 2 job was to be a mentor and a good, positive role model,” he said.
While at TA, he watched over the former Dayton Learning Center.
Elkton Middle School Principal Emily Holloway, who served as principal of the Dayton school, said Cross would often stop by to have lunch with the students.
She said he was always eager to help students with advice.
“Matt was the type of person that wanted to help find solutions,” she said.
Despite loving his job, Cross knew for a long time that he wanted to one day be a pastor. He said his aspirations began about two decades ago when he became the youth pastor at the Potter’s House, which was founded by his father-in-law and mother-in-law, Renee Garber.
Both of the Garbers serve as senior pastors.
“When I stepped into ministry, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said.
But adding a full-time pastor to the payroll wasn’t always an option with a $1.4 million mortgage on the church building and its property.
Over the years, Cross said, there were some comments made that suggested he might be offered a full-time job once the mortgage was paid off.
Each Sunday at church the remaining balance was displayed on a screen during the offering time. He recalls seeing the number dwindle each week.
“I was getting excited,” he said. “When it got to $20,000, it really set it.”
In May, the church paid off the mortgage one year early. Discussions by the church’s board regarding Cross’ position started soon after.
Dan Garber said the board voted unanimously to hire Cross.
“His passion for people is only second to his passion for God,” said Garber, adding that one day he hopes Cross will take over the church.
To get to that point, Cross took his next step on Sept. 20, when he turned in his gear at the sheriff’s office.
“When I turned my key in, I cried a little bit,” he said. “Working with the people … that’s what I’m going to miss the most.”
Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said Cross will be missed.
“He was very well liked,” Hutcheson said. “His heart was really in it for the kids.”
But leaving the sheriff’s office was something Cross said he had to do.
“I was born to be a pastor,” he said. “That’s why God put me on this Earth, to preach the gospel.”