From Love and Marriage, Cancer to Communication Pastors Philip and Holly Wagner Live What They Preach
Written by Kelli Gillespie
Phillip and Holly Wagner are the founding and leading pastors of the Oasis Church in Los Angeles. They’ve written books on dating, love, and mending marriages. They’ve founded a non-profit water organization, survived cancer, and recognize the importance of supporting the gifts of your spouse. While Oasis Church has grown and recently moved to new location on Wilshire Blvd, the building is actually a Los Angeles historic landmark built in 1926. Risen sat down with the duo, in their remarkable church setting to learn more about this driven husband-wife team.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine at the Oasis Church in Los Angeles, California
Risen Magazine: You are the pastors of Oasis Church in Los Angeles. As the church just hit its 30-year anniversary, take us back to how it started and what the culture of the church is today?
Philip Wagner: [Oasis Church] began as a small Bible study in Beverly Hills with about ten people and when we decided to plant a church, we started with about thirty people. It took us a little while to figure out who we were and how we wanted to do ministry; we sort of copied people who we admired. Our church now is so racially diverse – significantly diverse – and people immediately notice when they come in here. I think we are used to thinking that racially-mixed is predominately white with a few African Americans or vice versa, but we have no majority. Whether it is Asian, Hispanic, black, white; all are represented within our church. We love the differences and it makes everything very fun. I love it and I believe that this is the way it should be. Also, our church has a large percentage of people in their twenties and thirties, which keeps it energetic. It is interesting to lead people who are trying to decide what they want to do with their lives.
Holly Wagner: I think that the church really grew when we made the decision to build a church that we wanted to go to. Because at one point, about twenty-five years ago, we looked at our church and said, “We don’t like this church. If we weren’t the pastors, we wouldn’t go here.” And that was because we were trying to copy other people. So we decided we were just going to be ourselves and trust that God had called us for our personalities and our gifts. We quit being so formal, tweaked a few things and became who we are now, and that was when the church started to really grow. It’s been exciting. We wanted to create a church that, when people walked in, they said, “Oh! Home. This is normal. This feels good. It’s alive. It’s full of life.”
Risen Magazine: When did you know ministry was what you were each being called to do?
Philip Wagner: I have known since I was a boy that I would be involved in ministry. I tried to ignore it and be my own version of Jonah for a while, but anytime I would reengage in my faith, it would automatically also involve serving and leading and being part of a ministry. I didn’t know what that ministry would turn out to be, but I had been a music leader, a youth director, an assistant pastor, and then I wanted to start this church. So when I met Holly, I knew I would be in ministry, and right around the time we started dating I started this Bible study and I invited her to be a part of it. But I don’t think I really knew that she had the calling that she has now. Outside of this church, her realm of influence is much greater than mine, as far as ministry goes. I am often known as Holly’s Husband. [Laughs]
Holly Wagner: My dad’s job took us all over the world so I was out of the country most of my life. Even though I was raised in the church, it wasn’t until I was about twenty-one that Jesus became Lord. It took me a few steps to be able to call Him my Savior. And that happened when I was out here [in southern California]. I actually moved out here as an actress. I was hosting a talk show and then I did a bunch of commercials, and did a series, and a few films, and it was kind of in the middle of that when I met Philip. So it was interesting because I was trying to make decisions that honored God as an actress, so that meant turning down a bunch of things, and being careful about what I chose. In the midst of that I was trying to follow God and pay my bills. [Laughs] Then I met Philip and, when we fell in love, I knew our lives were going to be connected. But he never said, “You need to be a certain way.” As far as ministry, he said, “Just be my wife and we’ll figure it all out.” So, for the first few years of the church, I just greeted people at the door as the happy, friendly face. I worked with the kids, I did everything I could to help him reach his dream, but I didn’t really think of it as our dream as much as it was just his dream. I helped him, but I was still working as an actress, and we were very grateful for that in the early years.
Philip Wagner: Because the church wasn’t bringing in much money at all, so we loved it when we would get residuals or something. We could eat another week!
Holly Wagner: And then, at some point for me, probably within the first five years, [the church] became mine, and I wanted to actually help more strategically. God wanted to teach people, and not just entertain them – which is fine – but actually be helping them. It then became more and more something that we did together. And then I would teach with the kids, I would teach membership classes, and we began to realize that I had a teaching gift. Eventually I was teaching on Sundays, and now, thirty years later, I travel and teach everywhere and write books, and people will say, “Did you see this as your future?” And really, no, no I didn’t. I just love God and I thought, “I’m going to be faithful with what is in my hand at this moment.” I think sometimes young people feel like they need to have the whole picture, and all that does is paralyze them from taking the next step. So just be faithful with whatever is in your hand – whether it’s a class in school, a Sunday school class that you’re teaching, a Bible study, a connect group, whatever it is that God has trusted you with, just be really good there. He’ll give you the next step. For me, that is always what it was: “Oh! This door opened. I think I’ll walk through there. Oh! Now this door opened!” I wasn’t pushing them down.
I think sometimes young people feel like they need to have the whole picture, and all that does is paralyze them from taking the next step.
Risen Magazine: You’ve been married for nearly 30 years, and seeing couples flourish in their relationships is a passion that you help nourish through seminars, conferences and books. Your most recent book written together is titled Love Works. What does this mean and why do you think this is such a timely tool for couples?
Philip Wagner: The idea behind Love Works is that I feel like people have gotten discouraged about marriage, and maybe even disillusioned or cynical regarding relationships, so the norm is to go out and either sleep together after a few dates, or move in together to try it out, and, maybe never even get around to marriage because you hear heartbreaking marriage stories. You hear that fifty percent of Christian marriages end in divorce – which is not true by the way. But it’s those kinds of comments that cause you to say, “I don’t know if this is for me.” We know that marriage works. And we know that love works – God’s version of it. And God’s way is a way of blessing and joy. Every great relationship takes work. I like to say that it is not a life sentence of hard labor. It is working to obtain that joy and unity and passion, and to keep that going. And that is well worth the work. But even when we first started bumping heads, we would wonder whether we might have married the wrong person because we are so different, and I think a lot of people say, “I don’t know if this is going to work.” But if you’ve had conflicts, and you’re different, and you struggle, that means you’re normal. You’re not necessarily a candidate to call it off. So that is kind of the spirit behind Love Works. We are offering our input on dating, and choosing the right person and all of that.
Holly Wagner: The first part of the book is for the unmarried. He [Philip] actually has a portion of the book called “Red Flags,” which helps to recognize some red flags. Sometimes a young person will marry the potential, and that’s not what you’re supposed to do. Potential is awesome; we all have it! But what do you see in their life that might be a red flag? Sixty percent of our church is single, so we deal with unmarried people all the time and helping them to make wise choices in their relationships. In Love Works, we actually alternate chapters, so it’s a little bit of a “he said/she said” voice. He’ll say something in one chapter and then I’ll fix it in the next, and vice versa. My chapters typically have more exclamation marks and smiley faces. [Laughs] Its funny, [Philip] gets frustrated with my exaggerations, but he loves it when I exaggerate his strengths. And so we talk about how to fight, how to handle conflict, how to communicate, and we have a chapter on sex that we wrote together because we felt that was the best way to write it. Otherwise it’s alternating.
Risen Magazine: There are alarming statistics when it comes to divorce. If someone is going through a particularly difficult time, Philip you wrote, The Marriage Makeover, which can help transform a relationship in ten days. What are a few keys that couples could put into practice today?
Philip Wagner: The Marriage Makeover is meant to refresh your attention to what makes a relationship awesome. Because when you are in love with each other and you are engaged, or somewhere around that time of a relationship, we know what to do. We are in love, and we say nice things, and we think, “I love this feeling! Let’s get married and keep it forever!” But you get married, and then life happens. You have children, or you have a job, or you lose a job, or you have financial problems or somebody gets sick and the priority of marriage begins to work its way down on the priority list. I think marriage only works when it is the priority.
I’m not saying that you can fix every problem in ten days; that sounds like an infomercial. But I do know, and believe, that you can dramatically change the environment of the relationship, or the home, so that it becomes a platform for a safer opportunity to work on your relationship. If someone was unfaithful or someone has an addiction, it can create opportunities for healing. So these ten things just say, “Focus on this today. Focus on making your marriage a priority.” For instance, honor. I believe that behind every marriage problem, there is a problem with honor. Whether it’s a disagreement with how to manage finances, or you’re sexually frustrated, or you’re having a faith challenge, somebody feels dishonored or somebody is dishonoring the other with how they communicate. We try to work on that so the couple can talk about the issues – because if you feel safe, you will talk about the issues. If you think that when you bring something up, your spouse is going to say, “Oh, well that’s just your emotions,” then that’s not very honoring. Or it could be, “Oh, you’re just so stubborn.” You basically have to find a way to bring honor into the situation. I joke about it by saying, “Remember when you were going to marry this person and you presented them to your parents for the first time? You spun it so that only the best qualities were mentioned. Maybe move that way a little bit.”
The Word of God is the weapon that God has given us, so no matter what fight you are fighting, which for me was my health, you can declare the truth of His Word.
Risen Magazine: Holly, part of your testimony is that you are a breast cancer survivor. Can you share a little bit about your story and then maybe both of you could give advice on how couples can face any type of health crisis within their family?
Holly Wagner: I am nine years out now, and that’s awesome. Nobody wants to hear that diagnosis spoken in their lifetime and sadly there are only more and more. But for me, I am a natural fighter; I am not passive. The strength to that is when a situation like this presents itself, where I am dealing with a disease, I pull out every gun I have, the whole arsenal to achieve victory. We approached it spiritually. Philip put scriptures all over our home, so no matter where I turned, or whenever I opened a door, there was a scripture about healing. Ephesians 6 tells us that we are supposed to put the armor of God on, and never take it off. One of the things it talks about is the sword. There are two offensive weapons; the sword, which is the Word of God, and prayer. The Word of God is the weapon that God has given us, so no matter what fight you are fighting, which for me was my health, you can declare the truth of His Word. In Exodus, He tells me His name is Healer – that Jesus paid the price for my healing. I would just pull those scriptures out and put them everywhere and declare them and speak them over my life. And then I could approach it with everything I had. I’m a little bit of an alternative thinker, as far as medical issues are concerned, so I did a number of alternative treatments. I approached it from a point of prevention by saying, “How can I make this never come back, from a practical standpoint?”
Philip Wagner: We approached the issues spiritually, medically; nutritionally… we really put our focus in everything. And I remember coming home one day and all the cupboards had changed; all the tasty, good food was missing, and we had lots of green stuff everywhere, and vitamins and supplements. But I’ve actually learned to love it. There’s a huge benefit to it. That’s just life with Holly, when she’s ready to change, it happens immediately.
Holly Wagner: [Laughs] There’s no slow speed for me. I just want to encourage people. I’m not telling people to do exactly what I did as far as the nutrition, but just start doing something. It would be unwise for us to not take care of our bodies. God has given us one body, and He has trusted us with this body to fulfill His purpose on the earth. So, to the best of my ability, I’m going to make my body strong. And most people know the right things to do. Exercise, eat right and sleep. Really it’s not more complicated than that. And since society is not really helping us, we have to be pretty aggressive in what we are going to do. We just approached all three of those areas, and we worked together. It’s been a journey, and I’ve had to fight fear and navigate through people, weekly, who would come and say, “It’s great that you’re feeling good. You know, my aunt had cancer and then was cancer-free for twelve years, but she got it last year and she died.” I hear that kind of stuff all the time, so I have to apply the same principles and say, “No, remember what the Word of God says. Nahum 1:9. This is not coming on me a second time.” I just find the verses and let faith be built in my heart until I have a peace about trusting God with my life. It’s not mine; it’s His. So I’m not going to live in fear. I’m just going to do what I can do to live my life full speed, with passion, and with a focus on helping other people. Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of your own fight, you retreat inward, and I just don’t think we should do that very often. No matter what challenge or crisis you’re in, if you can take your eyes off yourself, you can always find somebody who is in a worse situation than you, so how can you help? Go sponsor a child. Go downtown and feed people. Do something to get your eyes off of your own situation.
Risen Magazine: Philip, you founded Generosity Water in 2008 which is a non-profit organization committed to bringing solutions to the clean water crisis. What made you want to take on another sector of ministry, this time globally?
Philip Wagner: I had read a statistic from UNICEF that, at the time, about one billion people on the planet do not have access to clean water. When I first heard that I thought, “Surely that’s not true.” But I researched it a bit and found out that legitimate sources were saying this, and then I thought, “That’s crazy!” In fact, unsanitary water is the number one killer; more than disease or war, because it leads to many diseases and it makes people vulnerable when they are dehydrated or drinking poor water. It’s especially a huge cause of the deaths of children. So I just thought about a billion people and said, “I can’t help all those people, but let’s help some.” I wanted to see what I could do. It started out in the church. I told them what I just told you and we decided for our first project, to help build a well in Africa. So we financed a couple well projects and I thought, “This is awesome!” With each one, you reach two or three hundred people, or even more depending on the situation. So we continued it. And then, my son [Jordan] who has a real entrepreneurial gift came in to lead the project, since I wanted to keep my focus on the church, and then he took it to another level. When I handed the organization to him, I think we had funded twenty or twenty-one wells through our church, and now we’ve funded more than six hundred in eighteen countries.
God has given us one body, and He has trusted us with this body to fulfill His purpose on the earth.
Risen Magazine: As we’ve seen, you two have very unique aspects of ministry based on your passions and talents. How can a couple embrace the areas where God has gifted them without making the other spouse feel alienated or overly-competitive?
Philip Wagner: There are more and more couples pastoring together these days, so this is a conversation that a lot of people have and there is a tricky balance to it. But I think, just like our marriage, we each bring strengths to the team. So rather than her wanting me to do it her way or vice versa, we contribute personal strengths to it. And the bigger the church has gotten, and the more complicated. We have had to have conversations and think out strategies together so that when we meet with people, we have a more unified voice. It’s not a science, it’s hard to tell people what they should do, but our goal is communication.
Holly Wagner: In the beginning of our marriage, like a lot of people’s marriages, we were like, “Yay! This is awesome!” But then, over time, you start to try and change the other person. You forget that you were attracted to them because of their very differences. You would not have been attracted to that person if they were exactly like you. So then we waste time trying to make the other person act like us, think like us, write like us, and communicate like us. I think we did that, where I was trying to fix him and he was doing the same. And then, it seems that once you resolve one issue and you think, “You be you and I will be me,” another issue arises and you move backward. It’s a bit of a dance, trying to let the other person be who they are by respecting and honoring who they are, while still making sure you are both connected and following the same path. Over the years we have created lanes in which we would run and we tried to keep them separate, though we both had the same goals.
Philip Wagner: And what we mean by that is areas of responsibility in the ministry. We are always tweaking structure and allocating different responsibilities.
Holly Wagner: It’s tricky. A healthy church has a mother and a father, just like a healthy home – a male and female voice. But what makes us unique is that I speak and travel a lot, and have a lot of books, so my voice has really gotten out there, and Philip has never been threatened by my voice. And I think that that is true because he is so secure in who he is. At the end of the day, he recognizes my gifts, which are special to me. We see it that a win for me is still a win for the team. And a win for Philip is also a win for the team. And that takes work since, as human beings, we are all ego-driven, but at our core, that is what we believe.
Philip Wagner: And it relates back to both marriage and ministry because part of my goal is to help her reach her goals. I don’t want, at the end of her life, for her to say, “Because I was married to Philip, I didn’t get to reach all my dreams, but at least I had a pretty good life.” I want her to say, “Because I was married to him, I was able to achieve most of my dreams.” And I am confident that she feels the same way. So I celebrate her successes and I encourage her. And to be honest, as a man, I’ve had moments in the beginning where I felt like I had to work twice as hard to get half the results. Everything she does turns out amazing! There are questions that men would ask, and even women, about our careers compared to our partners, but many of those questions can be answered by the desire for one another to succeed.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2014