How Rick Warren’s Health Crisis Can Help Your Church

By Will Mancini

Rick Speaking

Today, I received an e-mail letter from pastor Rick Warren. He has experienced levels of pain requiring him to look into both heart and stroke related possibilities. (Thank God that everything is fine so far.) These issues force anyone to look again at the big picture. What would happen to Saddleback Community Church without Rick Warren?

The letter is a great example of leadership, specifically in the area of what we call “Lower Room” and “Upper Room” identity. In answering the question of what would happen without pastor Rick, the answer is simple: the church’s vision moves forward.

You see, every person in your church looks to something for the defining, emotional connection to the church. Why do they call your church home? Most of the things that connect them to the church are “Lower Room” identities of which there are four primary:

  • Place – the physical environment itself
  • Personality - the personal connection to and likability of the staff
  • Programs – involvement in a a favorite area of church life
  • People – the enjoyment of first-name social connection and acceptance

Theses four “P’s” are the provisions of God for your church that must change over time. But what is God’s vision for your church that transcends these things that must change? Most church leaders can’t answer that question. And I have devoted my life to helping them do so. When they can answer that question, leaders are able to take people to an Upper Room, and connect them emotionally to something deeper, broader, eternal and God-sized–your church’s unique vision!!!

Notice how Rick Warren masterfully reminds his church that he is NOT essential to the future vision of Saddleback. I pray that every pastor who reads this letter would translate a similar skillful communication to their time and place, based on their unique vision. A letter from pastor Rick to his congregation dated Sept. 29th, 2012:

Now that I’m home from the hospital, let me give you a full update.

A week ago today I began having unrelenting pain in both arms and numbness in both hands. I saw two doctors but when it got worse one night Kay drove me to the hospital. Of course, the doctors wanted to rule out the worst possibilities first: a stroke (brain) or heart attack (heart). I am happy to report that it was neither problem and, after three days of heart and brain evaluation, tests confirmed that (contrary to my skeptics) I do have both a heart and a brain! As you know, doctors often have to play a game of elimination in finding the cause of a physical malady and they’ll continue to do that since my pain has not abated. I was actually able to offer the closing prayer this morning at the City of Anaheim Annual Prayer Breakfast but have been advised to rest for the rest of this week.

This incident graphically illustrates once again why our Purpose-Drivenchurch strategy is FAR MORE EFFECTIVE than Personality Driven churches.

Most churches are “driven” (guided and controlled) by either a single strong personality leader or a group of strong personalities (a board) that micromanage every decision of the church. The downside of a personality-driven church is that if the leader gets sick, or dies, or retires, the church typically goes into a tailspin because the leader controlled everything. In the 32 years I’ve pastored in Orange County, I’ve witnessed many personality-driven churches collapse when the leader got sick or collapsed.

BUT NOT YOU!  Because we have empowered YOU and EVERY member to be a minister, the influence, power, trust, and ability to make smart decisions on the spot (without a permission-giving bureaucracy to slow things down) are widespread. Even if I had been in the hospital a full month, it would not have slowed down or limited our ministries at all!

This is because we are PURPOSE-DRIVEN . . . and once a member understands our purposes and values, we trust them to make wise decisions. The church never skips a beat even if our leaders are incapacitated for a while. During this past week, the ONLY things that had to be delayed were the VISION NIGHTS that I was personally speaking at. EVERYTHING ELSE keep on humming and moving, not skipping a beat or missing any opportunity. That made me so happy!

Let me give you two examples of how being purpose-driven has made our church incredibly strong. First, an old example: In 2002, I locked myself in a room for nearly seven months, writing 12 hours a day to produce The Purpose Driven Life book. During those seven months, in all practical ways, Saddleback was without a senior pastor. I simply wasn’t available.  I led no staff meeting, held no decision-making meetings, and only preached two weekends: Christmas and Easter! Yet during those seven months, the purpose-driven system we had installed kept everything running smoothly, and the church actually grew with 800 new members – who joined without even having seen the pastor!

Here’s a more recent example: One of our computer tech staff members was at our Rancho Capistrano campus installing some computers. A fire safety team walked in and said “You have some overgrown trees on this campus that are creating possible fire hazards.”  Our computer tech staff member remembered a staff meeting where I had authorized all staff to make smart decisions when a delay was unwise. Here’s what I’d said to our staff: “I want you to remember that our Saddleback Policy Manual only has two rules:  Rule #1- Knowing our vision and values, every Saddleback Staff member should use his own best judgment in making decisions.  Rule #2-There is no Rule #2. See Rule #1!

Remembering this, our computer tech staff member went outside with the fire safety team and told them exactly what branches to trim on each tree, and even where to stack the wood!

When the fire safety team asked “Don’t you need to take this to a committee or something?” our staff replied, “Well, it’s not my area, but I know that Pastor Rick and the elders wouldn’t want to delay on a fire hazard, so I authorize you to do it!” BRILLIANT!

Now, the “personality driven” model works OK in a small church that moves slowly, but Saddleback outgrew that kind of church by 1985. Today, with literally thousands of events, programs, ministries, and mission outreaches going on simultaneously all around the world, there is no way any single individual, or any single board, could micromanage all that we do.  Even I, as the senior pastor, don’t know everything that is going on in our church! When people ask “Then, how do you control it?” my answer is simple: “I don’t! It is the Holy Spirit’s job to control the church, not mine!” Every church must decide whether it wants GROWTH or CONTROL – because you can’t have both. We decided a long time ago that it is better to be messy yet see thousands of lives transformed, than to try to control everything so it looks nice. In the Book of Acts, we see the uncontrolled spontaneous growth of the church. That is the kind of ministry Saddleback has had since it began . . . and it will continue because of the high-trust relationships we’ve build in our church family.

In a follow-up post, I will share the whiteboard drawing and simple staff exercise we use to take-on the challenge of Lower Room identity. Also, I wrote an article on the same topic, for Outreach Magazine if you want to read it, and regularly talk about the basic Upper Room tool- The Vision Frame.

Will Mancini

Will Mancini emerged from the trenches of local church leadership to found Auxano, a first-of-kind consulting ministry that focuses on vision clarity. As a “clarity evangelist,” Will has served as vision architect for hundreds of churches across the country including the leading churches within Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Non-denominational settings. His clients include notable organizations like Leadership Network and Upward Unlimited and pastors like Chuck Swindoll and Max Lucado. Will’s style blends the best of three worlds: the process thinking from the discipline of engineering, the communications savvy as an ad agency executive, and the practical theology as a pastoral leader. His pastoral experience includes helping lead two different congregations to over 3,000 in weekend attendance in 10 years- Clear Creek Community Church and FaithBridge UMC. Will’s education includes a ThM in Pastoral Leadership from Dallas Theological Seminary and a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Penn State. He is the author of Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture and Create Movement, a Leadership Network Publication, and of Building Leaders. Check out the awesome free resource: Church Unique Summary