Rick Warren announced June 6 he’s found a purpose beyond leading the second-largest Southern Baptist church: the mega-bestselling author of “The Purpose Driven Life” told his Saddleback Church congregation via video the church will begin a search for a new “lead pastor,” the job Mr. Warren has held since 1979.
Formally known as Saddleback Valley Community Church, the congregation has expanded from Lake Forest, its initial location in Orange County, to 15 branches in Southern California as well as several international locations.
Mr. Warren, 67, arrived in Orange County fresh out of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in December of 1979. He began a Bible study with seven people and his wife, Kay, in a condominium apartment in January of 1980; by April the group held a public service where 200 attended.
Today, the church claims 40,000 members. “One in nine people in the area call Saddleback their church home,” the group said on its website. A 2020 church news release noted that “in 2019, Saddleback celebrated its 50,000th baptism and the sacrificial giving of more than $1 billion to Christian ministry.”
Recently, Saddleback went against Southern Baptist policy by ordaining three women as pastors in the church. The Southern Baptist Convention’s doctrinal statement, however, states “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
On the video message, Mr. Warren said, “We’re going to start looking for the next generation pastor who will replace me and lead our family into the future. We’ve been waiting on God’s perfect timing, [to] begin the process of finding our next lead pastor, and letting me make a smooth transition into a less-visible role as a founding pastor.”
Mr. Warren said he’d planned to step down in 2020, after fulfilling his promise to spend 40 years at Saddleback. But the pastor said neither he nor his wife “had any comfort in leaving” as the couple went on a “prayer retreat” to ponder their future and ask God for guidance.
“Three weeks later, after our 40th anniversary, the COVID pandemic would shut everything down for a year and a half,” Mr. Warren added. “Now looking back in hindsight, I can see the wisdom of why God did not want me to step down. … It would have been practically impossible for a new pastor to hold our church family together without even being able to hold public worship services for over a year.”
He said the “light at the end of the tunnel of the COVID pandemic” allowed him and his wife to contemplate that next step.
“This is not the end of my ministry and Kay’s ministry in our Saddleback family,” Mr. Warren said. “It’s not even the beginning of the end. As I said, it’s the beginning of the beginning of the process.”
Ed Fry, president and CEO at FaithSearch Partners, Inc., in Tyler, Texas, is a veteran of many executive searches for church leaders. He told The Washington Times that finding “the next Rick Warren” will be a major undertaking.
Mr. Fry said his firm is not pursuing a search assignment from Saddleback, but were he asked for counsel, “I would want to carefully delve in with the with the board of deacons or the governance body as to probably a long-term transition plan.”
Anyone eyeing the Saddleback pulpit — and the influence it holds — might not want to immediately step in, but instead wait to follow an interim successor, Mr. Fry said.
“When you have a situation where a legendary, legacy leader leaves … we call it the ‘sacrificial lamb syndrome,’” Mr. Fry explained.
“Sometimes no matter how good the next person is, they end up being a short-timer, just because they’re not [a] Rick Warren. And then, they stay a year or two” before being replaced by another person.
There may be a successor already on staff at Saddleback Church, Mr. Fry said.
“Sometimes there’s a strong internal candidate, that will ultimately be hired, but they need the process to unfold to verify that and confirm it, and to have that internal candidate then be chosen as not just the most convenient, but the best option,” he said.
Mr. Warren’s career has been marked by tremendous successes and the occasional failure. “The Purpose Driven Life,” his 1995 book on personal and ministry growth which opens with the words, “It’s not about you,” has sold more than five million copies, media reports indicate. But a 2009 quarterly magazine publishing venture with the Reader’s Digest Association called “Purpose Driven Connection” went out of business with its fourth issue.
In January 2009, Mr. Warren drew brickbats when incoming President Barack Obama selected him to give the invocation at Mr. Obama’s inauguration. Critics of Mr. Warren panned his conservative social views, while those who opposed Mr. Obama asked why Mr. Warren would associate himself with the liberal Democratic president.
Mr. Warren and his wife Kay have three adult children. In 2013, following a decade of struggle with mental illness, the Warren’s youngest son, Matthew, died by suicide. Since then, both Mr. Warren and his wife have worked to support those struggling with similar issues.