TALLAHASSEE | Adam Hollingsworth, who stepped down as Gov. Rick Scott’s chief of staff three years ago, likes to joke that he has discovered a whole new side of his adopted hometown.
“There is a big city in Tallahassee outside of the three-block radius of the Capitol,” he said.
Hollingsworth, 49, had one of the most recognizable names in Florida politics, but it came with a job that required long hours and produced high stress levels. A native of Jacksonville who began his political career as an aide for U.S. Rep. Charles Bennett, Hollingsworth earned a reputation as a keen strategist and sharp communicator who helped elected officials weather controversies for 20 years. He even survived a scandal of his own during a 2½-year tenure in Tallahassee.
Today, the crowds Hollingsworth runs in are much different, but he is still using the skills he honed in politics.
“He’s found this niche that marries his talents with his passion, and it’s not even weird at all to me anymore,” said Kerri Stewart, who along with Hollingsworth was a top aide during Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton’s tenure. Hollingsworth served as Peyton’s policy director and chief of staff from 2004 through 2010.
Hollingsworth now works as a consultant for churches and ministries looking for ways to operate more efficiently or strategically. He has also stood in pulpits and delivered a handful of sermons.
It may come as a surprise to some that he is deep in ministry work, given his cunning and cutthroat reputation as a political strategist.
For those who know him best, this new career is an extension of his old one and a manifestation of a deep faith that may not have been as visible during his time in Tallahassee but was always part of him.
“If you know Adam and you know his heart, then you would appreciate the fact that this wasn’t a leap for him,” said Misty Skipper, another longtime friend who worked alongside Hollingsworth during the Peyton administration.
Skipper and Hollingsworth not only worked together for many years, their families both attended Chet’s Creek Church in Jacksonville. She saw him teach Sunday school lessons and at Bible retreats. She knew his reputation as a hard-charging and fiercely loyal advocate for the mayor’s office, and later as Scott’s right-hand man, was just part of who he was.
“I think sometimes, not just with Adam but with people in positions like that, they get reputations for only part of who they are,” Skipper said. “People didn’t know the complete person; they only see the result of his actions.”
What people in Tallahassee saw: Hollingsworth stepped into the chief of staff role after his predecessor faced questions about his decision-making and handling of state contracts.
Under Hollingsworth’s advisement, Scott distanced himself from a longtime pollster and parted ways with Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, several agency heads and other top aides. Brian Burgess, then Scott’s communications director, was among those who didn’t last long once Hollingsworth arrived.
Today, Burgess said he respects Hollingsworth’s political acumen and believes he helped Scott’s administration get back on track in time for a successful re-election fight in 2014.
“There is a unique combination of political instinct and intensity to Adam that isn’t immediately obvious,” Burgess said. “He can be disarming, even charming. But after working with him on the 2010 campaign and later inside the governor’s office, behind those closed doors, there’s a degree to which he’s very shrewd and crafty.”
In late 2013, Hollingsworth’s own missteps came to light. A newspaper reported he lied on a job application to CSX in the 1990s, claiming he had earned his bachelor’s degree when he actually left the University of Alabama three courses short of a degree.
Hollingsworth later admitted on his application to the City of Jacksonville that he had not yet earned his degree. By the time he came to work for the governor, he completed the coursework and earned a diploma. Still, political enemies used the initial resume embellishments to question his credibility.
Hollingsworth took responsibility for what happened and says the experience was humbling.
“I use it to remind myself that I am a sinner, remind myself that I am a human or remind myself that I’m prone to error in judgment,” he said. “Or to remind anyone else, my name is one Google search away.”
Despite the scandal, Scott did not push Hollingsworth out. He left on his own in November 2014, shortly after the governor was re-elected to a second term.
Few people knew then that Hollingsworth had already begun to embark on a new, God-inspired career. In February 2014, he preached his initial sermon at the church he attends, City Church Tallahassee.
He based that sermon upon the story of Moses, a man who according to Bible lore questioned his own ability to live up to the tasks God chose him for.
“The point was that God uses people and circumstances for his good that aren’t apparent at the time,” Hollingsworth said of that initial sermon. The governor and First Lady were among those in the audience, but outside of a core group of family and friends no one knew that Hollingsworth had taken a step in a new direction.
A few months later, at the height of the campaign season, Hollingsworth decided to go on a mission trip to Haiti. By that time, he had begun to feel a “stirring on my heart,” as he puts it. When he stepped down from his all-consuming role in the governor’s office that fall, he spent time in prayer and reflecting on that calling.
“Lord, what would you have me to do?”
First, he started volunteering at City Church by helping with logistical and staffing issues that had arisen after a period of rapid growth. Then came opportunities to help more churches and preach more sermons.
John Schmidt, a retired Leon County undersheriff, was familiar enough with the political scene to have known about Hollingsworth’s previous life. But they grew close through their work at City Church.
“What I saw from him was a real passion during that time and a desire to help the local church that needed some help with their organization and management and leadership,” Schmidt said.
Eventually Hollingsworth started a consultancy business, naming it Ergon Strategies after a Greek word found in the New Testament that translates to “work” or “completing tasks.”
“He threw himself into politics in the same way he is throwing himself into ministry now,” Skipper said. “He just takes that great big brain of his and puts it toward whatever path he chooses.”
Ergon’s list of clients includes Chet’s Creek and Jacksonville’s Trinity Baptist Church, as well as the Baptist State Convention of Michigan.
“Adam worked with our church as a true partner and person of deep expertise,” wrote Fort Caroline Baptist Church Pastor Ricky Powell in a testimonial for Ergon. “We truly believe that our time with him was beneficial in providing clarity and moving forward with renewed focus.”
The new business also allows Hollingsworth to spend more time with his family, including wife, Amy, 7-year-old daughter Haley and 10-year-old son Hugh Michael, who has inherited his dad’s interest in politics. Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he replies, “An NBA player, a pro golfer or a lobbyist.”
Hollingsworth may claim he doesn’t miss politics, but Hugh Michael doesn’t buy it. “Someone asks him to help the governor and he says, ‘Yes,’ ” he said.
Still, those requests are now options for Hollingsworth to accept or decline. Ergon Strategies is his main gig. Hollingsworth said he considers it a blessing from God.
“He opened a door I didn’t know existed,” he said. “And he opened it in ways I never could have imagined.”