Confessions of a Megachurch Pastor

As often idolized as maligned, admired as resented, the megachurch pastor is an enigma. Their broadcast voices and best-selling books may be familiar, but many people perceive them as inaccessible—a breed apart. Recently, Outreach sat down with several well-known megachurch pastors to strip away the veneer and simply get to know the men whom God has placed in these influential churches.

IN THE LIMELIGHT

Meet the megachurch pastors willing to step forward and bare their souls.

David A. Anderson: As senior pastor of 2,000-member Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Md., David A. Anderson is a leading voice in the multicultural church movement. He is also president of the BridgeLeader Network and the author of Multicultural Ministry (Zondervan).

John Burke: Prior to founding 1,700-member Gateway Community Church in Austin, Texas, John Burke served as the executive director of ministries at Willow Creek Community Church. Burke’s passion for ministering to young people is explored in his 2005 book No Perfect People Allowed(Zondervan).

Kirbyjon H. Caldwell: Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston had 25 members when Kirbyjon H. Caldwell became senior pastor in 1982. Today, Windsor is the largest United Methodist church in the nation with 7,000 attendees. Caldwell is the author of The Gospel of Good Success(Simon & Schuster).

Bil Cornelius: Bil Cornelius is lead pastor of 5,000-member Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi, Texas. After planting Bay Area Fellowship, Cornelius teamed up with veteran church leader Bill Easum to write Go Big (Abingdon), which shares their mutual goal of growing churches by cultivating a heart for the lost.

Craig Groeschel: Craig Groeschel is senior pastor of 20,000-member LifeChurch.tv in Edmond, Okla., named America’s Most Innovative Church by Outreach in the January/February 2007 issue. Groeschel is also the author of Chazown and Confessions of a Pastor (Multnomah).

Joel C. Hunter: Prior to becoming senior pastor of the 12,000-attendee Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, Fla., in 1985, Joel Hunter served as a United Methodist church pastor. Hunter’s vision to see the Church as a relevant force in culture is outlined in his book Right Wing, Wrong Bird (Distributed Church).

Joel Osteen: Succeeding his father, John Osteen, as pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston in 1999, Joel Osteen has seen Lakewood become the largest church in the United States, with 47,000 attendees. Osteen is the author of Your Best Life Now (FaithWords) and Become a Better You (Free Press).

What aspect of your job do you love the most?

Anderson: Speaking to people. I love to create through words. … When you see that people get it, that they’re touched by it, that stokes me!

Burke: I love seeing Christ draw broken, hurting, prideful or marginalized people to Himself, and seeing the light come on in their eyes—that keeps me going.

Caldwell: I’d say casting visions and watching the visions become reality.

Cornelius: I love seeing people who haven’t darkened the doors of church in years, if ever, live a radically changed life!

Groeschel: What I love most happens away from the pulpit. I love talking to as many people as I can between services on the weekend. They tell me their life stories of what God has done in their lives or how they came to Christ.

Hunter: Seeing a team develop and interact together with each person doing what they do best.

Osteen: Being able to help and encourage people, and seeing the light of God turned on inside of them.

What aspect of your job do you least enjoy?

Osteen: The work is never done. There’s always going to be somebody needing or wanting something.

Groeschel: Asking a staff member who is really not in the right place to leave. That’s always tough. Also, the loneliness of leadership is a very real and constant weight. It’s an honor to suffer for and with Christ, and yet, often my wife and I feel very lonely in ministry.

Anderson: Preparing messages and dealing with a conflict, whether with staff members or with congregants. I really don’t enjoy that. Nor do I enjoy having to engage with high-maintenance people.

Hunter: Answering complaints, which can be helpful, because in every criticism there is a grain of truth that I can learn from, and it keeps me humble. But every time I get a complaint, which is several times a day, I think, I hate this!

What would you identify as your greatest weakness?

Groeschel: Trying to turn the church off in my mind. Sometimes, it consumes me. I’ve had to work really hard at not working hard. Another weakness is being spiritually streaky, where I can be really passionate about God and studying His Word and then go through seasons where it just doesn’t feel as important to me.

Caldwell: I don’t develop leaders as well as I’d like to. I delegate OK, but I’m not a leader developer. In other words, if you can learn how to do it by watching me and by having casual conversations with me, then you’ll become a great leader. But if I have to spend some time teaching you, I don’t do that nearly as well.

Anderson: Navigating my private world with my public success. There are areas of personal flaws and faults that can really submarine my spirit, and so trying to bring my private world in congruence with my public image is difficult.

What or who keeps you accountable? 

Osteen: Family. My brothers, sisters and my mom are all on staff with us. We keep it all open and honest. It’s up to each one of us to search our own hearts because anybody can fool anybody.

Groeschel: I have an intricate system of checks and balances. A while ago, my mentor and accountability partner had an affair, and he stepped down from ministry. A few years later when I started LifeChurch.tv, he asked to come and work for me, and I had him sit on the bench for a year. Well, he ended up stealing money from the offering as an usher. I confronted him on it, and he killed himself. It rattled my world. I saw what sin could do.

Today, my life is set up so it would be very hard to fail—not because I plan on failing, but because I plan on not failing. My Internet access is monitored. I have no access to the finances here. My salary is set by lay people. I haven’t been alone with a woman besides my wife in I don’t know how long. I never travel anywhere alone. Every moment of my day is kept accountable by someone.

Cornelius: My wife. If I’m tempted by another woman, I tell my wife. If I was tempted to look at the wrong Web site, I tell my wife. Other guys don’t do that! But I’ve learned that if you’re honest from the very beginning of even a wrong thought, it keeps you from ever committing wrong actions.

Also, my staff and I have some simple rules. We don’t travel alone. We don’t spend time alone with someone of the opposite sex, even if it’s on a church project. Some people might say that’s ridiculous and paranoid. You can call me paranoid, but you can also call me faithful.

You’re the leader of a megachurch. You have thousands of people listening to you each week. Some of you lead churches that are extremely influential in your city or even on a national level. Do you ever struggle with pride? 

Groeschel: Yes—during the week when I’m making leadership decisions and sometimes won’t listen to someone else’s opinion. There are times when I’ll just bull my way through something.

Anderson: When I sometimes look down my nose at other churches because they aren’t as multicultural as we are, I realize I’m struggling with pride. Other congregations are more multicultural, and many are less multicultural. But I try not to look down at segregated churches in a way that is judgmental and not full of grace.

Cornelius: When I start to believe that I’m the only one who can do all the praying and lead all the Bible studies, classes and hospital visits, I know that pride has entered in. I’m basically saying that I’m the only holy guy around who 
can do anything.

Hunter: Yes, when I receive criticism and I know it’s from people who have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. So I really struggle with thinking, Well, these guys are idiots and I’m better off totally ignoring them.

Can you talk about the times you feel very discouraged or nervous? How do you handle those situations?

Osteen: Believe it or not, I get nervous when I speak before a crowd. Every time I preach, I get down on my knees five minutes before I walk out there and pray, God, I need you, I need the words to speak. Early on, when I first started ministering, I had to speak somewhere, but hadn’t really prepared. I spoke for about 15 minutes and felt like a total mess! Since then, I’ve learned to take my time to prepare and search my heart and search God for what He wants to share through me.

Groeschel: People treat me like I’m no longer a normal person. That’s scary. Sometimes I start to wonder, Should I surrender my life and say it will always be  abnormal, or should I fight for normalcy? However, I recognize that my life is different, and I’ve resolved to figuring out how to be effective and faithful in this different life.

Cornelius: Discouragement sets in when I’m burnt out and tired. The danger of a growing ministry is that the fruitfulness is very addictive. It gets to be so much fun to see more people reached and changed, that I start to fill my schedule, and I find myself trying to meet people’s needs when I’m empty.

Burke: When I feel like things aren’t going according to plan or the way I had hoped, I get discouraged. Sometimes, especially early on in our ministry, no matter how hard I tried, I could not seem to gain momentum! During these times, I really wrestled with God, praying, God, what am I doing wrong? Just show me and I’ll change!  And I felt like there was silence. That was tough. But as I kept praying, I finally realized that when I’m really upset, worried or stressed out, it’s because I’m trying to play God again.

Megachurches are often perceived as being pastor-centric. In all honesty, what do you think would happen to your church if you were no longer in it?

Osteen: I don’t know what would happen. We didn’t know what would happen when my father died, but I know that God is totally in control of our lives, and I believe that God wouldn’t have given us this beautiful facility to see it go down just because I left. I believe that if I left, God would raise somebody else up to continue our church.

Anderson: Very few people I know have the ability to lead, preach, guide and direct a multicultural church where you’ve got white males, Korean females and Latino children. So I think Bridgeway would struggle to maintain its high level of leadership and multicultural focus. At the same time, however, I believe the second tier of leadership would step up to the plate and carry on the vision of our church, because the DNA of what we’ve sown here is solid.

Cornelius: My deepest fears would be realized—that I’m not needed, and God can do with or without Bil Cornelius. I think that’s a deep fear and at the same time, it’s a deep comfort. There are some days when I realize that I am a small cog in this process and I think, Wow, that is so wonderful, look what God is doing and it doesn’t rely on me. And other days I think, They don’t even need me anymore!

What would you say to the pastors down the street whose members may have left their churches to attend your church?

Groeschel: I don’t know what I’d say. I’m sure there are some churches in town that don’t like us, but we’re intentional about building friendships, and we do a lot of stuff together. We’ve taken all the sermons and outlines and videos we produce and are giving them away for free on our Web site. So I think the local churches know that we want to be on the same side, and if a church does lose 30% of its people to our church, I would feel horrible about that.

In fact, one time I went and found 10 churches close by, brought in all of their material and promoted them, asking people to check them out. We had about 500 people take us up on it, and it was a good thing!

Anderson: I would just say that I’m sorry. It’s about all I can say. What does Wal-Mart do when they start selling CDs and the music store down the street can’t make its money? Do you stop selling CDs? I don’t think so. I think what it does is inspire the CD store down the street to figure out ways they can uniquely give the buyer something that Wal-Mart can’t. Or they figure out how they can partner with Wal-Mart. Our church tries to partner to leverage the good that we have for the community.

Cornelius: I want these pastors to know that I will give them all the help they need. There was an African-American church here in town that was about to close its doors, and they could not pay their light bill. It was about five months backdated, and our church just paid off the bill. So, simple stuff like that makes all the difference in the world. And we didn’t do any fanfare, we didn’t call a meeting or get the press involved and say, “Today, we’re going to pay this bill to the glory of God,” and all that junk. We just simply paid the bill! I want to partner with these small churches, not argue with them.

As a pastor, what would you say is the key to reaching people for Christ in the next five years?

Osteen: Being real and relevant. People are hungry for truth! They can see through fads and insincerity. So, being relevant, real, getting out in the marketplace and modeling integrity and character is a great way to reach people. Also, I’m probably biased, but the use of media is effective. I love the fact that I can go into somebody’s living room. So many people can be reached through media.

Groeschel: Exposing the glory and majesty of who God is and allowing Him to draw people, rather than trying to come up with a creative sermon series to draw people. I know our church has been viewed as an innovative church, but I think that churches in some way have copied culture more than they are speaking God’s truth to culture, and I think that needs to change.

Caldwell: Understanding the collective DNA of America. If you don’t have an understanding and an appreciation for the folks you are trying to reach, how can you reach them? A lot of church leaders seem to not care about getting to know the unchurched. But I value pastors who are breaking out of the box, even if they get attacked by others.

Anderson: Multicultural unity and holistic ministry! Our culture is becoming much more inclusive, so people aren’t going to stand for an elite, segregated kind of ministry. People on all sides are saying the same things: How do we reach out to Africa? How can we be more compassionate as conservatives? How can we help the poor? How can we get universal healthcare?

Hunter: The key is for the Church to take leadership in some of the major challenges of society, because service will be the entry to evangelism. People will only care about Christ if you live out Christ and love them with the service that Christ has for them. So, I think globally and locally, Christians must be part of the solution to major problems such as poverty, sickness and loneliness.  

Copyright © by Outreach magazine.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Ron Forseth
Ron Forseth is Editor-at-Large for SermonCentral.com and ChurchLeaders.com. He studied for two years with Wycliffe Bible Translators and has a passion to share Christ and see all people groups of the world reached with the Gospel. He served for several years as a college pastor in Colorado and in Christian service for most of the 1990s in China and Mongolia. He is Vice President of Outreach, Inc, an organization dedicated to inviting and connecting every person in America to a Bible-believing church so that they might have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Ron lives with his wife Carol in Colorado Springs, Colorado.