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An Interview with Rick Warren

Picking a successor, maintaining integrity, mental health, women’s ordination, and dealing with grief

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For most people who have been around evangelicalism over the past 40 years, Rick Warren needs no introduction.  He and his wife Kay founded Saddleback Church, in Orange County, California, and it has become one of the largest and most influential churches in the nation.

Rick Warren’s 2002 book “The Purpose Driven Life” has sold more than 50-million copies, making it one of the best-selling books of all time.

But his work as a pastor and author are just the beginning.  Rick Warren was instrumental in the development of PEPFAR, the U.S. government’s $15-billion AIDS relief package that has been credited with saving tens of millions of lives.  He was an adviser to George W. Bush, and he delivered the invocation prayer at Barack Obama’s inauguration.  Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report have all named him, at various times, to their lists of the most influential people in the world.

I had this conversation with Rick Warren at his office in southern California.  To hear the audio version of this interview, click here.  It has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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 Rick Warren:  The first thing I want to say, Warren, is thank you for the ministry that you’re doing. Rusty [Leonard, the founder of MinistryWatch] led it, you lead it, and it’s absolutely essential because when you lose integrity, there’s nothing left. There’s really nothing left.

And the Bible says the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. That means we lie to ourselves more than we lie to anybody else. I lie to me more than I lie to anybody else. And sometimes I tell myself things are better than they really are. Sometimes I tell myself they’re worse than they really are.

I have kept in my files long, before we had MinistryWatch, a list of what I call my warnings.

I’m a fourth-generation pastor. My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, all pastors. I had an uncle who flamed out morally in the ministry. And that scared me as a young boy. I just thought I’d rather stick a knife in my heart than defraud the church monetarily, sexually, ego, all of the typical traps.

The one thing we can say about Satan is that he doesn’t have any new ideas. He’s used the same three temptations for thousands of years on Adam and Eve, on Jesus, and on everybody else.

So for years, but even before the internet, every time somebody stumbled because of pride, manipulation, anger, sex, money, or anything, I’d cut that article out and I’d throw it in what I call my warnings file. And of course, now today, I just copy it on the internet and post it in a file folder.

About every six months, I pull that file out and I just read through it, to put the fear of God in myself, and to remind myself that given the right situation, I’m capable of anything. If I don’t have accountability.

And let me just say this: there’s even a limit to accountability. I’ve talked to a lot of guys who flamed out who had accountability groups.  If you don’t want accountability, you can just lie. You can just lie to people. Accountability only works if you want it to work. The ultimate accountability is this: I’m going to stand before God one day and give an account of how well I shepherded the flock. The Bible says, follow your leaders. In Hebrews 13, it says, as men who must give an account, one day I’ll stand before God, and I’m going to give an account for how well I help the people. Saddleback grow spiritually. That puts the fear of God in you.

I’m not smart enough to lead a church, much less a church the size of Saddleback.  I have to throw myself prostrate on the floor constantly and go, “God, you’ve got to help me. I’m not smart enough or mature enough, honestly, to lead something without screwing up, without messing up, without flaming out in some way.”

So I think there’s a healthy fear of God. I read these stories as warnings.  That could be me.

Warren, it takes years to build credibility and trust, which is the lingua franca of leadership. If you don’t have credibility, no one trusts you. If they don’t trust you, they’re not going to follow you. It takes years to build. You could lose it in a second.

And today, even the smallest things, of course, are magnified on social media. This is why we need MinistryWatch. I hope pastors are reading it with the same intent that I have, which is not gloating over somebody else’s fault. That’s not why we’re doing this. We’re going, “Warning!  Danger, Will Robinson.”

Warren Smith:  I try to remind myself every day something a friend told me years ago: “Schaudenfreude is a sin.”  Gloating over someone else’s failure is a sin.

RW:  That’s right. And it’s important not to be Pollyanna and just gloss over these stories.  We need to say, “Hang on a minute. Is there something systemically wrong here? Are we setting guys up for failure?”

I’ve trained more pastors than probably anybody.  Over a million pastors in 165 nations over 43 years. And one of the things I say is that being in the spotlight blinds you. I tell pastors they need to go home, change diapers, wash some dishes, do the clothes washing, go mow your lawn, do the normal stuff.

And particularly, I worry about guys who are on the travel circuit, because travel is not reality.  They treat you like a king, and you’re in a nice restaurant and you’re in a nice hotel, and they’ve got a bouquet for you. That’s not real life. That’s not who you are. That’s phony life. That’s fake life.

You come home and the kids are in a mess.  That’s real life.  You come home and you’ve got health issues. I worry the most about those who travel from conference to conference.  They’re  getting the applause of men with no accountability.

WS:  The other thing that bugs me about that is that they’re never in their home church.

RW:  During my first 10 years of Saddleback Church, I did almost no outside speaking.  I had my head down and I’m focused.

When I started Saddleback, it was just Kay.  I had one member.  I preached his first sermon. She said it was too long, and it’s been downhill ever since. [Laughter.]  She still says they’re too long.

I stored the nursery equipment and all the offering plates in my garage. I didn’t have a truck. I would borrow a truck every Sunday morning to carry it to the church, set it up.  I didn’t start with a core team. I started with my wife, and we built it.  I would plan the order of service, and she would type up the bulletin.  I’d go get the bulletin printed.

So my whole life, I’ve been working myself out of a job.

Until probably about 20 years ago.  I realized the only thing I was still doing that I hadn’t given away, was what I call the feeding – that’s teaching — and leading. So I started giving that away, so I wasn’t the only feeder, I wasn’t the only teacher. I think it’s important to hear people, people to hear God’s word from alternate personalities.

We’ve got people still in the church from those early days.  We have 60 members today who became members in 1980.  The very first member of this church was Don Dale.  He was a realtor who helped me get our first condo and helped us plan the first service. He’s in his seventies today, working in the junior high department. Still serving.

WS:  Well, Rick, just in these first few minutes that you’ve been speaking, you have introduced probably a dozen or more topics that I could spend hours with you talking about.

RW:  We’ll call it the Warren and Warren Show. [Laughter.]

WS:  That’s right.

Let’s get started on the real reason I wanted to talk with you today.  I want to drill down on the notion of succession planning.  That’s where you were going when you mentioned working yourself out of a job.

You’ve said that when you started in 1980, you originally talked about maybe giving it up after 40 years. You’d made a promise to the original members that you would give Saddleback 40 years of your life.

RW:  I did. Announced it hundreds of times. That’s a part of what it means to begin with the end in mind.  This morning when you told me we would be talking about succession planning, passing the torch, I wrote down a dozen or so principles. We don’t have time to get in all of them, but I would like to cover some.

WS:  Yeah, please.

RW:  I spent the last three years, Warren, talking guys out of quitting because of COVID.   And the question you’re asking, about succession, is the number three question I got from them.

The number one question is: I worked so hard to grow our church, and now we’re 25 to 30 percent off. I want to give up. How do I stay encouraged?

The second question that they’re asking is: How do I shepherd a church that’s divided over politics? I have to be the shepherd of everybody.  But some people are giving greater allegiance to their political identity than to their identity in Christ.

But the third one is what you’re asking about.

WS:  Wait a minute before you answer the succession question.  I can’t resist asking:  What do you tell those guys were are struggling with political divisions in their congregation?

RW:  That’s a whole other podcast. It really is.

WS:  All right. Fair enough.  So let’s stick to the third question.

RW:  This third question, the changing of the guard in succession, is key, and the first thing I say is that there is no success without a successor.

We’re just cogs in a giant wheel called Christian history. There are people who served before me. There will be people who serve after me. Acts 13:36 says, “David served God’s purpose in his generation, then he died.”  That’s all I can do.  I can’t serve the previous generation.  Someone else will have to serve the next generation. Somebody handed a baton to me. And now I’ve got to hand it to others. To go into ministry not knowing you’re going to hand the baton off is dumb.  Only a fool would go through life unprepared for something that is inevitable. So I began with the end in mind.

And that’s why, as you pointed out, at the very first service in 1980 I announced I would give 40 years to this church. Why that number? It honestly was just the biggest number I could think of. It wasn’t a number from God. God didn’t say give 40 years.

I personally did a study of the 100 largest churches in the U.S. I wrote to them, just on my own, while I was in school, and asked them a series of questions.  I asked the pastor questions.  I asked them to send me a packet of their bulletins and their programs and their constitution. I’m a learner. I absorb and I’m a synthesizer.

I discovered out of that study that it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people.  There’s more than one way to grow a great church.  Show me a great church that is growing and I can show you a church doing the exact opposite thing, and it’s growing too.  So anybody who tells you, this is the only way to grow a healthy church, they’re wrong.  They’re just wrong. God uses all kinds of styles and systems and personalities.

But there were two common denominators that I saw in every growing church. One of them was what I call the faith factor.  Leadership that isn’t afraid to believe God. That’s always found in every growing church.

And the other one is integrity. When you have integrity, it gets better every year. Now, if you don’t have integrity, it gets worse every year.

If you have integrity, people trust in you more and more and more because you have a proven track record of laying down your life for the sheep. They know you’re not doing this for yourself. They know you’re doing it for their benefit. I’ve been at thousands of bedsides, hundreds of grave sites, funerals, weddings. One of the reasons I was late talking to you today is I was doing pastoral care.

One of the greatest things that I can do to help our new pastor is relieve his pastoral care and allow him to lead.  It’s a bottomless pit. You’re never going to have people who don’t have needs.

WS:  Let me ask a quick follow up. No success without a successor, you said.  In this case, you have chosen a successor, Andy Wood. What were you looking for? What did you see in him that made you say, “This is the guy.”

RW:  Look for candidates who share the culture and personality of the church. We’re a Southern Baptist church. They don’t have to be a Southern Baptist, but churches typically don’t split over theology. They split over personality. They split over strategy. They split over culture.

At Saddleback, we have a very defined culture. I’m the only pastor our people have ever known. I’ve baptized 70 something percent of the church in the 43 years that I was pastor. I baptized 57,000 believers. I don’t know any church that’s ever done that.  In the 43 years I’ve pastor, we’ve baptized five people every day for 43 years. That’s unheard of.

So it’s very important that he matched culture and style.

We’re what we call a purpose driven church. Now, that was a big advantage to me because I’ve been training pastors in this forever. Over a million pastors around the world have gone through purpose driven church. So I’ve got a big pool of people who already know how we build on the five verbs of the great commandment and the great commission — worship, fellowship, discipleship ministry and evangelism, and how we balance these five purposes for health.

In 1995, I wrote a book called Purpose Driven Church, It’s the only book on the church to sell over a million copies. It’s still selling. So number one, we’re going to look for somebody in a pool of a million pastors. That’s an advantage I had. But then I narrowed it down with some other things. Number two, we’re looking for somebody who’s been a church planter There are entrepreneurs and there are maintainers. There’s a difference between startup guys and builder guys. And I thought we need somebody who has that pioneer spirit continue. That’s what our people used to. They’re going, what’s the next mountain? What are we going to take? Somebody who’s not going to say

A third thing is…West Coast. There are a lot of great pastors who are friends. Guys I’ve mentored. Most of the pastors of the big churches in America I trained. There are guys I trained in the eighties or the nineties or 2000s, but if they’re in the south.  Southern culture’s not California culture.

This church is big.  There are, I think, 180,000 names on the role of attenders. I could be a mayor. It’s a city. Imagine how many people in a city of 180,000 are in the hospital each week. A lot. You would expect that many members of Saddleback to be in the hospital each week.  A lot. So you have to build counseling programs and pastoral visitation programs. I can’t have a newbie come in. I need somebody who has at least a decade under his belt. A proven track record that you grew something.

So that narrowed it down. Another question was whether he was young enough to give 25 years. Now, there were guys who actually fit those other qualifications here on the West Coast, but they’re only like 10 years younger than me. Our church is used to a long pastor.

I know more about Orange County than any politician ever will, because I’ve spent decades listening to their problems, counseling them through crisis, walking through the dark days. I know far more about Orange County than anybody else would because I’ve been here 43 years.

So, when we did that, it kind of narrowed it down to where we ended up with Andy.

WS:  You are very articulate about saying these things now. But did you go into the search process with these criteria in mind? Or did you discover them as you went through the search process?

RW:  I did it with these things in mind.

One of the things that we did right up front is I started talking about transition with one of my mentors. I’ve had nine different mentors in my life. One of them was Billy Graham, who took me on at age 18, mentored me for 50 years.

But another one was Peter Drucker. Twenty-five years ago, I called up Peter and said, “Can I come talk to you about succession?” I took Chuck Smith, the founder of Calvary Chapel, with me.

I asked Drucker, “Where do you get your best successors?”

He said the best successors are people who grew up in your system, in your church or whatever, and then go out and make it on their own and then come back. Not guys who spent their entire life in your church. They only know your system.  People who know your system and then go out and make a name for themselves.

He said not to do a “prince in waiting.”  Some churches have done that.

WS:  Peter Drucker apparently didn’t really say this, but he is often attributed with saying that
“culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  And it sounds like that’s what you’re saying, too.

RW:  Absolutely. It is.  What we say here is, “The culture in the hall beats the vision on the wall.”

By the way, people don’t realize Peter Drucker was a devout Christian. Quite deep in his faith. In fact, one time I said, “Peter, when did you step across the line? When were you born again?”

He said, “Rick, it was when I finally understood grace. I realized I was never going to get a better deal. [Laughter.]

So on his hundredth birthday, after he died, many leaders came together to celebrate him. I was the opening speaker for that event.

WS:  I’ve always admired his leadership and management books.  So that’s fascinating to me.

RW:  One of the things that I learned from Drucker about transition and succession is to build a system that will succeed you. The system is actually the successor, rather than a person.

A personality driven church is different than a purpose driven church. We’ve all seen personality driven churches. The moment the personality stumbles, the church dies. For instance, who was Wesley’s successor? Nobody. He left the system called the Methodist Church.  Who was Luther’s successor? Nobody. He left the system called the Lutheran Church.  Who was Calvin’s successor? Nobody. He left the system called Presbyterianism.

WS:  Rick, if you will, let me gently push back on that.  You’ve got a pretty big personality. I think a lot of people listening to this are probably thinking right about now: “Is Rick Warren really saying that Saddleback is not a personality driven church?

RW:  I’m glad you’re asking that, because I will deny it.

What you want to do is build a church that when you’re gone, you’re mourned, but not missed. Let me explain the difference. You want people to say, “Oh, Rick’s not here. He loved us. We loved him. It’s not the same with Rick not here.” So you’re mourned, but you’re not really missed because you built an organization that can run without you.

I have proven multiple times over the years that the church does not need me to maintain. When I wrote Purpose Driven Life, I was gone for seven months. I took a seven-month sabbatical, and I would get up in the morning at about 4:30, go to a place to write.  I would write till about five in the evening, come home, eat dinner, play with kids, and go to bed by about eight.

In that seven months, I didn’t preach a single sermon except Easter. I did not hold a single staff meeting. The church added 800 new members while I was gone.

It only needed me to take it to the next step. And now it doesn’t need Andy to maintain, it needs him to take it to the next step.

We set up a system of classes, 101, 201, 301, 401:  membership class, maturity class, ministry class, mission class. These classes go every month whether I’m here or not.

It’s not based on me being there. In any year that I’ve been pastor, I have never preached more than 28 weekends. I didn’t want it to be on me. I wanted them to hear God’s word from other people.

I can give you examples over 43 years where I was sick for a year.  The year that Kay got cancer, I was gone most of the year holding the bed pan while she’s throwing up and her hair was falling out.

The church grew consistently every single year because we built a system that is still going at night, when you’re sleeping, and is going month to month, week to week.  You do need leadership, but it is not maintenance. Honestly, Saddleback could go a couple years without a pastor and it would maintain.  It wouldn’t grow. You need a leader to help it grow.

WS:  Well, Rick, let’s just stipulate for the record here that you and I have a problem.  We are 20 minutes into this conversation and we’ve covered only two of the eleven principles you followed as you look for successor.

So hit me with one or two more that are really on your heart.

RW:  The biggest trap to transition and succession is the former pastor holding on. It’s in his heart. You have to have your identity not in your church. Because if your identity is your church, the moment you let go of your church, who are you? You have to know who you are, not who owns you. So my identity has never been in the church. I’ve always had my identity in Christ.

Principle number five on my list is: offer your resignation every week.

I’m not making this up. I have a prayer that I have prayed every Saturday night and every Sunday morning for 43 years. It’s quite a long prayer. It’s about 15 minutes long, I’ve got it memorized.

You know, Warren, pro athletes have their game day ritual. They do the same thing to kind of get in the mood for the game. And I would have my game day ritual prayer, which put me in the mind to be a servant. Not to be a superstar, not to be a showoff, but to be a servant. And I need to remind myself I am a servant and prepare not simply for preaching, but for being on that patio and dealing one on one with the needs and hurts and interest of people.

So I have a number of things that I pray every week on the freeway as I’m driving to church, but there’s one part where I pray this: “God, I just want to remind myself that this is your church. It’s not my church. It’s your church. It belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to me. You used me to start this church, but it’s not my church. It belongs to you and I belong to you, which means you have the right to move me at any point.

“I said I’d give 40 years to this place, but I’m willing to step aside at any point. If you have somebody who you want to do the job, could do the job better, I willingly surrender.”

And I literally take my hands off the steering wheel for a fraction of a second. I’ve done this every Saturday and Sunday for 40 years.  It’s a symbol that says I’m not in control. You’re calling the shots. I belong to you, and you have the right to move me.

WS:  So you’re following your own advice, and you’re leaving, and Finishing The Task is a big part of what you’re going to do from now on?  Is that what you’re saying?

RW:  Oh, yeah. Yeah. In fact, I’m committed to the next 10 years. Follow me in this.

I spent the last two years reading everything it could possibly read on every previous attempt to complete the Great Commission, pretty much since the Reformation forward, over 500 years. And there have been a lot of attempts to complete the great commission. I’m sure I have over 200 books just on the great commission in my library and I’ve read ’em all.

And what I discovered is that they never involved the whole church. It tended to be agency led, never church wide. You didn’t ever mobilize the people in the pew. And it tended to be a small group of white Western men.

Well, that doesn’t represent the church. First half the church are women and, and white men are a minority in the church around the world.  We need the whole church using all the gifts. We need everybody.

Now let me put this in perspective. There are 600 million Buddhists in the world. There are about 900 million Hindus in the world. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. There are only 14 million Jews. There should be 10 times that number.  There should be 140 million. But five generations were killed in the Holocaust. So there’s only 14 million Jews in the world.

But there are 2.6 billion Christians in the world. Now, they’re not all our brand, they’re not all my tribe. They’re not all your tribe. But if you were to say to these 2.6 billion Christians: do you believe in the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Yes. Do you believe Jesus is the son of God? Yes. You believe died on the cross for your sins? Yes. You believe arose again on Easter. Yes. You believe he’s back to heaven? Yes. Do you believe he gave us a great commission? Yes. Do you believe he’s coming back one day? Yes. Do you believe he sent the Holy Spirit to start the church? Yes. Then we’re on the same team. Okay.

We may disagree over baptism, Lord’s supper, Mary, and a dozen other things, but you’re not a Muslim. So we’re not starting from scratch with these people.

Many of those are cultural Christians. We know that they have to be re-evangelized. Okay?  But 2.6 billion, that means one out of every three people on this planet is already saying, I believe Jesus is the son of God and died on the cross for my sins. And rose again.  That means the church is bigger than China. The church is bigger than China and India together.  The church is bigger than China and the US and Europe. Together we’re the biggest thing on the planet.

Nothing is bigger than the Church of God. So we need to figure out a way to mobilize the whole church. If every supposed Christian were actually trained to share their faith. If everybody only talked to two other people, everybody could hear the Gospel.

Christ died on the cross in AD 33. Christ resurrected in AD 33. Christ gave us the Great Commission in AD 33 and sent his Holy Spirit to start the church in AD 33. That means in 10 years, 2033, is the 2000th birthday of Christianity. It’s the 2000th anniversary of the Great Commission. It’s the 2000th anniversary of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I said, why don’t we just use that as a date?

There’s no eschatological connection to it. It’s just a date. So I have been recruiting and I have so far recruited 1600 denominations, mission agencies, and churches. And that’s just a fraction of where we’re going to get by 2033.  We want to have the Bible in the heart translation of every individual by AD 2033.

We also want to train every believer to share their faith with another person in the next decade. That would be enormous. Now that means we’re going to have to involve the whole church, which means tribes we aren’t used to working with.

Let me put this in perspective again. Of those 2.6 billion people who believe in the resurrection and the Trinity, and the Holy Spirit, a billion of those 2.6 billion are Catholics. 300 million of them are Eastern Orthodox. 500 million are Pentecostal, and 800 million are either evangelical or versions of Protestantism. So how do you get the whole church to work together? We’re never going to have structural unity. I don’t think we even need it.

I’m not talking about even doctrinal unity. I’m talking about missional unity.

Jesus unanswered prayer in John 17 is: “I pray that they may be one.”  Why?  “So that the world may know.”  The purpose of unity is not for structure. The purpose of unity is not for doctrine. The purpose of unity is that the world may know the world will be one. And so that the world will be won – w-o-n.

When we are one in one thing, getting the gospel out — that’s what Finishing The Task is all about. We want every existing church either to plant a church or sponsor a church in the next decade. We want a church within access of every believer in the world in 10 years. So that means we’re going to have to multiply.

How do you know when a church is mature?  A little girl becomes a woman when she has the ability to reproduce.  A little boy becomes a man when he has the ability to reproduce. I don’t care how doctrinal a church is, if they haven’t reproduced, they’re not mature. The mark of a mature church is reproduction. It’s the mark of a healthy church.  The sign of a healthy apple tree is more apples. So we’re going to focus on that.

WS:  Can we pivot off of this topic to a few questions I’d like to ask in closing?

RW:  Sure.

WS:  So let’s just stipulate for the record that that the succession is more or less in place. Andy Wood is the pastor, you have moved on to your next assignment, Finishing The Task.

RW:  Yes.

WS:  So what does that mean for you as far as church is concerned?  Do you sit in the front pew of the church on Sunday morning and listen to Andy preach?  That seems pretty hard to imagine.  Or do you find another church?  That seems pretty hard to imagine, too.

RW:  Okay, that takes me to principle number 11. Principle number 11 is, get out of the way.

I told Andy I wouldn’t be at church for at least three months. I want him to get settled. Get staffed. You’ve got to do a handoff where you make the next guy the hero.

Part of it is that when you bring somebody in, you do it slowly. The members of a church, when you have transition, are going to have two feelings. First, they’re going to have grief that the person that they have loved is leaving. Second, they’re going to have apprehension. Is this guy going to be okay? Are we going to be loved by him like we were loved before? You must address those correctly and directly in your transition period.

Andy and Stacy, after going through literally 11 levels of vetting, had some accusations come up that we treated seriously.  A big deal. So we went back and did three more levels. We weren’t surprised by the accusation. We had already said, wait a minute, conflict is not abuse.  Disappointment is not abuse. Disagreement is not abuse. So we weren’t surprised by it.

But anyway, when Andy came — he came July 1 — I said, for the first month, I want you to settle your family. Don’t even do anything. I don’t care if you come to church or not. Just settle your family. So for the month of July, I said, take a one month vacation in your new house, get your kids settled. If they’re not settled, it isn’t going to work. So take a full month just to work on that.

Then in August, I said, I don’t want you to assume any responsibility. I’m still the pastor, but I want you to build relationships. You can come to any meeting. I want you to meet as many people as you can. Just work on relationships without having to work on the job.

In mid-September, I physically handed him a baton, in a service. We had a great commissioning service. It’s almost like a wedding, with vows and covenants. And he spoke and I spoke and I laid hands on him. That was the commission. He took over and I said, “Andy, you’re not going to see me for at least three months.”

I will always be the founding pastor of the church, but I don’t want to be at any meetings. I don’t want to make any decisions. I’m simply going to love people and I’ll help relieve some of the pastoral care for the older people who are going to be dying off.

I need him to be working on the next generation. I said, at some point we’ll come back in and we’ll be sitting in the crowd and one day we’ll be the old couple with a cane going, “That’s our pastor.”

And here’s the thing. I always addressed Andy as my pastor. I hug him and I say this is my pastor. It kind of touches me. I’ve never had a pastor. Now I’ve got a pastor. I got somebody to pastor me.

WS:  One of the other questions, Rick, I wanted to make sure we covered today is the topic of women’s ordination.  You guys are Southern Baptist. Southern Baptists are pretty clear on where they stand on women’s ordination.   But you stood up at the most recent Southern Baptist Convention and expressed an alternative view.  Say more about that.

RW:  I’m glad you asked about this.

I was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist background. I have always thought men are pastors, women are not pastors.

I traveled around the world, and I could see women in China pastoring far bigger churches than Saddleback.  But that wasn’t enough to change my mind.  I had to have a verse. I’m enough of a biblical person, I can’t do something unless there’s a verse that tells me this is okay.

Now, we have the problem that people on both sides tend to choose the verses they like and ignore the other ones.  For instance, the Bible says that an elder is to be the husband of one wife. I believe all of our elders are men, married men. Okay? W\e’re not saying a woman should be an elder. And so our senior pastor, we believe, should be a male.

Nobody even cared to ask that before they even brought it up.

It’s pretty easy to make the case for women apostles in scripture.  Apostles meaning those who were sent out. There were certainly women deacons.  Think Phoebe and others.

But when I find two scriptures that say the opposite, I believe them both. I don’t explain away one. And here are the verses that changed my mind. Acts 2, verses 17 and 18.  We call Acts 2, which is the Pentecost sermon, the charter of the church. The church at its birth was the church at its best.  If we want to have the results of Acts, we’ve got to go back to Acts. The antidote to the 21st century is the first century.

A lot of people want to go backwards.  Make America great again. There are some Christians who want to go back to the 1950s. There’s some Christians who want to go back to the Reformation.  They think that’s the golden age.

I say no. I want to go back. You just don’t go back far enough. I want to go back to the first century. And in Acts 2, where we get the charter of the church, Peter says the Old Testament is over. What was the Old Testament? Male ordained priesthood. Only the Levites got to go into the temple. And only one of them got to go into the holy of holies and only one time a year.

There was not an idea that every member’s a minister. There was no idea of the priesthood of the believer. Okay? It was male ordained priests called Levites.  But Joel predicts, in Joel 2, and Peter quotes him in Acts 2.  Joel said in the last days, and the last days started at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh. And then he says your sons and your daughters will prophesy. A mark of the New Testament church is that daughters will prophesy, not simply sons. Sons and daughters will preach.  I will pour out my spirit. Both men and women will prophesy. Preach.

Everybody gets to play. Who gets left out? Nobody. Everything shifted in the New Testament.

Now here’s the problem. For the first 300 years, we followed the charter of Acts and Christianity had its greatest period of growth in the first 300 years. It went from 120 in the upper room to the official religion under the Roman Empire. They grew because sons and daughters, young and old, men and women, everybody was authorized to preach.

WS: Well, Rick, I appreciate you sharing all of that. And let’s just stipulate for the record that my aim here is not to get into an argument with you, and I did want to give you an opportunity to clearly and succinctly state your position.

RW:  Thank you.  [Laughter.)

WS:  So without diagnosing whether you are right or wrong, I think it is safe to say that your position is at odds with the Southern Baptist Convention.

RW:  It isn’t.  Because, here’s the thing.  I asked Herschel Hobbs, who [chaired the committee that write the 1963] Baptist Faith and Message, why isn’t ordination covered? It’s not even mentioned in the Baptist Faith and Message.  Even in the current one, it’s not even mentioned. So you can’t kick somebody out on ordination, because Baptists have never agreed on it.

I personally asked Adrian Rogers [former president of the SBC and one of the authors of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message] does this include staff members and he said, a woman can’t be a pastor.

WS:  So you think that the ultimate resolution of this will be that women can have every position except senior pastor?

RW:  I think so. In the Southern Baptists convention, I think people will realize, in the first place, it’s not biblical to say the pastor is an office.  Elder is the office and you ought call it what the Bible calls it.

And, second, pastoring is a gift. And if it’s not a gift, then you better make apostle and prophet offices, too.

WS:  Rick, we’ve got to bring this to a close, so I hope you’ll forgive me for asking a couple of personal questions.

RW:  That’s fine.

WS:  I spoke with Kay about three years ago at the ERLC [Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention] conference on sexual abuse in Dallas.  She was one of the keynote speakers.  I interviewed her for this podcast.

And then I spoke with you maybe a year or two before that. I’m trying to remember the exact timing. But it was a year after your son passed away. Both you and Kay talked about that time in your life.

So I guess this long windup is simply to ask:  How you doing? How are you and Kay doing?

RW:  Well, thank you for asking. There is no expiration date on grief. You don’t get over it. You get through it. The death of my son after 27 years of struggling with mental health, death by suicide, he took his own life, was clearly the most dramatic experience in my life. I’ll never get over it, but you do get through it. And Kay and I decided that we weren’t going to waste a hurt.

So while we always knew that we would become spokespeople for mental health, as long as Matthew was alive, we felt it was his story to tell. We wanted him to be able to share. And I remember him coming to me one time at 17 years of age in tears, and he’d struggled with mental health and depression all his life. And he said, “Dad, why can’t I just die and go to heaven. I know I’m saved.”

He would lead many people to Christ. He had a tender heart and a tortured mind. He could lead people to Christ who were depressed and considering suicide. He said, “It just doesn’t work with me. It doesn’t take the claw out of my brain. Why can’t I die?”

Well, that’ll rip the heart out of a dad. I’m standing there sobbing and he’s sobbing. I said, “Son, I don’t think you really want to die. I just think you want the pain to end. And I’ve always prayed two prayers for you since you were a little baby. One that God would miraculously heal you.”

We believe God heals today, but it doesn’t happen all the time, which is why it’s called a miracle. I don’t know why some people get healed and some don’t. It does happen, but it doesn’t happen to everybody. And that’s in the sovereignty of God.

But the other thing is, what do you do when you have a problem that you’re going to live with the rest of your life? Some problems are never going to be solved. Everybody who’s listening knows what I’m talking about right now. And you have a problem that can’t be solved.

You have to manage it. And my prayer is either through medication, counseling, spiritual growth, formation of your soul, through a discipler, whatever, all these things will help you manage the pain.

We live on a broken planet. Everything’s broken. Our bodies are broken, the weather’s broken, the economy’s broken. Politics are broken. Our minds are broken. We’re all mentally ill. We all have hidden fears. We all have compulsions. All of our brains don’t work right now.

If I take a pill for my liver, there’s no shame in that. If my heart doesn’t work, I take a pill for that. There’s no shame in. But if my brain doesn’t work and I take a pill, why am I supposed to be ashamed of that? It’s just another organ and it’s not working. It’s not a sin to be sick. Your chemistry is not your character.

He had a tender heart and a tortured mind. When Matthew died, of course, because of our notoriety, it was on everywhere. CNN News ticker. I’m walking through an airport and I see my son’s name and the word suicide. It’s brutal. It’s brutal.

And then, of course, because I’m a well-known person, people who don’t like me used to attack and said all kinds of stuff. Armchair psychology. Maybe Matthew was gay and his dad was, you know, pushing on that.  All kinds of nonsense.

I received probably 35,000 letters of condolence from all around the world because I’ve been all around the world. And honestly, Warren, the ones that meant the most to me were not the ones from kings and queens and rock stars, presidents. I got those and they were nice. But the ones that meant the most to me were from people who had been in depression that Matthew had led to Christ. People would write to me and say, “Your son came on a suicide site and talked me out of suicide, and I’m going to be in heaven because of your son. I know he was struggling himself. But I’m going to be in heaven because of him.”

And I remember writing in my journal that day, “In God’s Garden of Grace, even broken trees bear fruit.”

And we’re all broken trees, Warren. I’m a broken tree. If God only used perfect people, nothing would get done.


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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.