Commentary: Memo to Saddleback Church: Replacing Pastor Rick Warren is a minefield

Randall Balmer, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

Rick Warren’s announcement on June 6 that he plans to step away from his role as lead pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, raises the issue of succession in evangelical megachurches. It’s a fraught process, complete with cautionary tales from other congregations.

First, we should appreciate the scale of Warren’s achievements at Saddleback. Starting from scratch just over 40 years ago, Saddleback has grown exponentially; the church claims a weekly attendance of about 20,000 worshipers. Warren did not invent the evangelical megachurch — that distinction arguably belongs to Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple in Echo Park — but he found innovative ways to perfect the model.

Warren recognized, as McPherson did, that evangelical church services are a species of entertainment. McPherson’s device was theatrical sermons — she was, after all, competing with Hollywood across town. Warren’s focus is on music, positing that one effective way to appeal to a variety of individuals is to offer a variety of musical styles at worship services. In addition to the central “worship center,” the Lake Forest campus is dotted with different musical “venues.”

Warren — who insists that he is not retiring, just paring back his role to “founding pastor” when a successor “lead pastor” is designated — has been a visionary in other ways.

A bestselling author with “The Purpose-Driven Life,” Warren understood the importance of reaching out beyond his local congregation, encouraging support for ministries outside of Orange County. He’s famous for his four- and five-point plans that address everything from personal spirituality to global poverty. He heads one of the largest congregations in the Southern Baptist Convention, but he has defied some Southern Baptists strictures: Just this past Mother’s Day he ordained three women as pastors.

Warren’s are big shoes to fill, no doubt about it. And the nature of megachurches will only make it more difficult to replace him. Unlike other religious groups, evangelical congregations are not bound by long-standing hierarchy, creeds, liturgy or traditions. They tend, instead, to organize themselves around charismatic individuals, especially in recent decades. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that megachurch evangelicalism has devolved into a cult of personality.


Warren, however, has sought to avoid that. Although no one would accuse him of diffidence, he is rarely one to jostle for the limelight. (He invented the tag-team sermon, where he or an associate would begin a sermon and then hand it off to another pastor midway through.) Nonetheless, Warren is Saddleback’s star, one of a very few Christian ministers whose face and name you may recognize even if you’ve never lifted a hymnal.

That level of charismatic authority doesn’t transfer easily. It’s too singular, too dependent on individual style, charm, drive and personality. Even if it’s possible to find another pastor with star quality, will the faithful who have grown accustomed to one leadership style cotton to a newcomer?

Most megachurches try the dynastic approach to succession, and it typically fails spectacularly. Charisma isn’t necessarily hereditary.

Following McPherson’s death in 1944, her son, Rolf, took over her ministry, but he was unable to sustain the same devotion at Angelus Temple.


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