A new unauthorized biography of “America’s pastor” Rick Warren uncovers a marriage with an unconventional beginning and a time of depression that later gave Warren the strength to become who he is today.
Jeffery L. Sheler, religion correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, delves into the world of Warren in his latest book, Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren. The book portrays the affable yet confident megachurch pastor who calls presidents and billionaires his friends in a much more vulnerable light.
In a live Web discussion with Christianity Today editor-in-chief David Neff on Wednesday, Sheler talked about the book and his personal thoughts on the man he interviewed and researched for months.
“He (Rick Warren) is probably at this point the most prominent evangelical in terms of the news media,” said Sheler during the Web seminar. The biographer noted that examining Warren’s media appearances would suggest that he is considered the most valid spokesperson for the evangelical movement.
“To that extent and to the extent that he is not identified as part of the old line religious right demonstrates the fact that he has succeeded, certainly to a point, in softening the image of evangelicalism.”
Sheler talked about the “purpose driven” pastor’s childhood hobby of collecting items – such as rocks, shells and coins – that offer a glimpse into how the influential pastor’s mind works. More than collecting, Warren is interested in categorizing the items, Sheler said.
“He now looks back at that part of his life and says, ‘Now as an adult, as a pastor, and a writer, I do the same thing, only now I do it with ideas,’” the journalist recalled Warren saying. “He is always looking at the relationship between things that may not seem obviously related to each other.”
This way of thinking has helped Warren as a communicator to take complex ideas and put them in simpler terms that people can understand. Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, Sheler noted, does not present any new ideas but rather takes old, difficult principles and makes them understandable to modern people.
Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the biography, however, is the section about Warren’s marriage. By all appearance and comments from people who know the couple, Rick and Kay Warren have a happy and satisfying marriage. However, this was far from the truth in the beginning of the relationship.
Through interviews with Sheler, Rick and Kay Warren disclosed that they were not attracted to each other nor had feelings for each other when they agreed to be married. Instead, they believed that God had spoken to each of them saying this is the person they should marry.
Rick recalled the day when he was invited to speak at the church where Kay’s father was a pastor. As he ascended the steps to the stage to speak he looked over and recognized Kay, who was then dating his best friend, playing the piano. He said he heard God clearly tell him that this is who he will marry. At the time he had a hard time believing that because he didn’t love Kay and she was madly in love with his best friend. But still he kept the revelation in mind.
After his best friend broke up with Kay, Rick asked her on a date. On their second date, Rick asked Kay to marry him. At the time, Kay didn’t love Rick but felt that God was leading her to say yes. She recalled hearing God say, “I’ll bring the feelings.”
“To many people, understandably, it (seeking or listening to God’s voice) sounds very mystical and a little bit strange,” Sheler acknowledges during the Web seminar. “But in the evangelical world, that kind of language is quite common, where someone will say, ‘I’ve been hearing from the Lord lately that I should do such and such.’”
On their wedding day, the two were “virtual strangers,” Sheler writes. They also had a horrible honeymoon and suffered intensely from misunderstandings and other marital problems in the beginning of their marriage. The stress from the marriage problems coupled with Rick’s workload was so bad that he ended up in the hospital. Meanwhile, Kay said that she didn’t believe in divorce so she felt that she was sentenced to a life of suffering.
The couple eventually got marriage counseling even though they couldn’t afford it at the time. Rick racked up a bill of $1,500 on his credit card for the therapy and now jokes, “MasterCard saved my marriage!” The couple now have a successful and loving marriage and say, without embarrassment, that they still go to Christian marriage counseling once in a while to tune up their relationship.
At another point in Wednesday’s discussion, Sheler talked about Warren’s time of depression and how he literally went to the desert to take refuge. When Warren was in seminary, he had the vision of building a church for people who don’t go to church. He felt God told him that the church would one day have 20,000 people and be on a 100-acre property.
During his first year at Saddleback Church, the congregation already grew to 200 regular attendees and the number was increasing. But Warren, after giving a Christmas service that year, fled to the Arizona desert and described himself as falling into a depression. His depression, Warren said, stems from feeling that the success that he was already experiencing as a pastor was undeserved and from feeling that he was not equipped to pastor a 200-member church let alone a 20,000-member church as God had promised.
“He felt even that he wasn’t all that great a Christian and ‘maybe I shouldn’t even be a pastor,’” Sheler said.
But during his time in the desert, Warren said he had a “dialogue” with God when God agreed that Warren didn’t deserve to be successful nor did he deserve to be saved. However, he was saved by grace and by the same token his ministry is successful because of grace.
“'You just have to basically get out of the way.' 'It’s not about you,' as he would famously write in the opening lines of The Purpose Driven Life many years later. 'It’s about Me, God,'” Sheler said, paraphrasing what Warren heard God say to him. “He recognized it didn’t matter who he was; he was a flawed human being. What was important was he was putting himself in God’s service and God had chosen him as a matter of grace.”
On his second issue, Warren felt God clarified to him that the church was not his church but God’s. From that point of view, he felt God reminded him that the Lord will build His church and make sure people grow spiritually.
Coming out of the desert, the two questions that threatened to derail Warren’s ministry were answered. However, Warren said he still struggled with the issues and was in depression for months afterwards.
Now after three decades of pastoring Saddleback Church, the congregation has grown to more than 22,000 regular attendees and sits on a 120-acre campus.
Sheler concluded the Web discussion Wednesday with his personal insight on the subject of his biography.
“The amazing thing for me – having seen him in private meetings and public situations and private conversations – is you don’t see two or three different Rick Warrens,” Sheler remarked. “You always see the same person. Sort of what you see is what you get. I really think he is authentic, far from perfect, fun to hang around with, and I think as people get to know him, they will find many layers of intriguing aspects of a remarkable human being.”