Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren on Sunday announced that the church will begin the official search for his successor, signaling he will retire after 40 years in his pulpit.
“That’s a big deal,” Warren said, in a moment of characteristic understatement. Saddleback Community Church, which Warren founded in 1980, is the second largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
“For 42 years Kay and I have known that this time, this day would eventually arrive and we’ve been waiting on God’s perfect timing,” Warren added.
Warren is one of the best known and most influential pastors in the country. A bestselling author, most notably of The Purpose-Driven Life which has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, Warren has often been compared to Billy Graham for his evangelical spirit and sheer popularity.
But Warren shares little else with the staid North Carolina revival preacher and friend to presidents. Once known for his habit of preaching in a Hawaiian shirt, Warren’s sermons reflect his laid-back California demeanor and by and large he has avoided national politics.
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The exception came in 2008, when newly elected President Barack Obama invited Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Just weeks before, Warren had vocally backed Proposition 8, a ballot measure in his home state that would have banned marriage between same-sex couples, giving rise to complaints that the invitation to Warren would send the wrong message about LGBT equality.
Obama stuck with Warren and he largely won over his critics with an inclusive invocation.
With his wife, Kay, Warren has spoken out frequently about the treatment of mental illness, especially after the couple’s son Matthew, who suffered from mental illness, killed himself five days after Easter at age 27 in 2013.
Warren was embroiled in a brief controversy again earlier this year when Saddleback ordained three women as staff pastors, a move that conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention say violates the denomination’s statement of faith.
Calling them — or any woman — a pastor is, “at best, unwise and confusing,” wrote Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
In his announcement, Warren said the timing of his departure reflected only a commitment made at Saddleback’s first service where he promised congregants, at the age of 26, that he would devote his next 40 years to the church.
“That number, 40 years, that wasn’t some promise that God gave me. It wasn’t a word from God. It was simply my commitment. It was my promise to God, and to you God’s people,” Warren said. “It was my way of saying ‘you don’t need to worry about me leaving when times get tough for you. I’m here for the duration. I’m going to give my life to this church. I’m going to stick with you and I kept the promise.’”
Warren fulfilled that promise last January 2020, but said he and Kay, his wife, weren’t in a hurry to leave just yet. “We both felt that God wanted us to stay in leadership past the 40-year commitment,” he said.
Weeks later COVID-19 began spreading, shutting down schools, churches and businesses.
“Looking back in hindsight, I can see the wisdom of why God did not want me to step down three weeks before the pandemic happened,” Warren said. “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.”
Warren said announcing the search now would allow him to transition into a less visible role as founding pastor.
“This isn’t the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end, it’s the beginning of the beginning,” Warren said in a video on Sunday. “We’re going to start looking for the next generation pastor who will replace me and lead our family into the future.”
Just last month, Saddleback ordained three women pastors in defiance of the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention—the denomination to which Saddleback belongs.
Rick Warren Announces Search for Successor:
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