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Kay Warren Chooses Joy

Thirty-seven years ago, Rick and Kay Warren, co-founded Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. Today, it is one of the largest churches in the United States with 13 campuses in southern California, four international sites, and online/live-streamed services. In addition to her role at Saddleback Church, Kay Warren has also become an advocate for HIV/AIDS, orphans, and mental illness, challenging not only the faith community to respond, but public and private sectors as well. She is also the author of several books including Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough and Sacred Privilege: Your Life and Ministry as a Pastor’s Wife. In 2013, her youngest son, Matthew took his life. While the Warren family continues to grieve the loss of Matthew, Warren is determined to eliminate the stigma and shame that often surrounds mental illness especially when it comes to the faith community. Risen sat down with this courageous woman to talk about the heart of a servant, how she practically chooses joy and why taking care of yourself is one of the most important things you can do.

Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: You moved from Texas to Orange County with only thirty dollars in your bank account. Your vision was to start a church for young families who had no interest in going to church. Today, Saddleback Church has thirteen locations throughout southern California, four locations internationally and continues to grow. Share a little bit about what that growth process has looked like from your perspective.

Kay Warren: It’s never clean and neat, and it is never a straight line. We did grow at an astronomically fast rate for about the first 12-15 years. And then there was a bit of a plateau as we moved into our new building. Interestingly enough, we grew while we moved from all these temporary buildings where we were in schools and high-tech tents and when we were finally in our building, we just plateaued. We realized that if people can’t get into a parking lot, or get into a service, or it is just too hard, then they don’t want to come. That’s when we started doing multi-site and having different campuses. That has changed many things.

We are no longer in one place. In order to really see ourselves as one church in many locations, we have to work harder to stay connected. That has probably been the biggest challenge of doing multi-site churches. All along the way it is just this process of experimenting. Rick [her husband] has the gift of faith. We all have different spiritual gifts and it is pretty clear that Rick has the gift of faith. He has always challenged our church to think exponentially. He will say, “If you think that we can have 100 people, well let’s add a ‘0’ and go for 1,000 people. And if you have been thinking let’s go after 1,000 then add a ‘0’ and go for 10,000.” He has always challenged our congregation to stretch their faith and because of that, I think there is a sense of adventure. After thirty-six years at Saddleback Church there is still a sense of excitement that is tangible. It has been a privilege to be part of a church that is constantly stretching for the next mark. It is never the mark of, “Let’s be the biggest,” or “Let’s be the best.” That’s not the focus when Rick says, “Let’s add a zero.” It is always about life. It is always about changed lives. How many more people can we reach for Jesus Christ? How many more people can we bring into intimate knowledge of God and then disciple them into His image? Rick’s faith combined with that heart of bringing people to Jesus; I never get tired of it. It is still a thrill.

RM: In the beginning stages of Saddleback, it was you, Rick and a handful of others. Rick was the pastor and you served multiple roles including church secretary, pianist and Sunday School teacher. What encouragement do you have for others about the importance of being used where God wants you to be used even if it might not look like you had expected?

KW: The heart of a servant says, “God, I will do anything that you want me to do.” That is the definition of a servant. A servant doesn’t tell the master what he or she will or won’t do. Those two things don’t go together. And I am a bond-slave. I am a servant of Jesus Christ. I move and act and breathe at His direction, not at what I think or will only do. It distresses me honestly when I see that happening. It may be a tenet that has gotten lost in the last few years of where people will say, “I’m really good at this and that is what I am going to do. And if I can’t do that here in the church, then I am going to go over here and start a NGO [non-governmental organization] or I am going to work over there at this other church, or I am going to go be a part of this organization because the church won’t let me do what I am good at.” And I just want to say, “Why don’t you come back to your pastor or church leaders and say, ‘What is it that our church needs? I am good at this or good at that, but I want to serve.’ Do you need the toilets cleaned? Do you need the nursery walls painted? Do you need toys disinfected after the service? Do you need somebody to compile a list of this or that? I am here. I will serve in whatever you ask me to do.”

We have lost that whole attitude of humility that says, “God, I am yours.” I think that it is one of the things that we talk about at Saddleback, every member is a minister. Every member has something significant to contribute and God has given us spiritual gifts for the building up of the body. But at the end of the day, we serve at His pleasure and if He chooses to not allow us to use them for a season of time or in a way that we think that we should, that is His business. Our heart attitude always has to be, “God, I will do whatever you want me to do. If You want me to pick up trash. If You want me to throw away the extra donuts, I am yours.” And when we move and operate in a church body and fellowship with that heart of servanthood, it reduces conflict. It brings fulfillment. It does bring unity within the body and gets to the heart of what it means to belong to Jesus which is, “I am Yours.”

RM: You are not one to only give financially, you give your time and talents too. For more than a decade you have been an advocate for those living with mental illness, HIV/AIDS and children left behind. What ignited the passion for these areas?

KW: My youngest child was a senior in high school and I could kind of see this empty nest type syndrome. I could foresee I was going to have a little more freedom than the years when I was fully engaged in raising my kids. I knew that I wanted to do something, but I just didn’t know what. I picked up a news magazine and there was a story about AIDS in Africa – that was in 2002. At that time, I didn’t know anything about HIV. I didn’t know anyone that was HIV-positive. Frankly, I didn’t care. Everything I did know was wrong. But it was one of those turning point, lynch pin moments in our lives when God changed my heart. He awakened it, if you will, to the needs of people, the physical needs of people living with HIV and the orphans that were left behind. It started with this magazine article that caught my attention and God used it to radically change my life and I became an advocate. I started the advocacy for HIV/AIDS without knowing a single person who was HIV-positive or without knowing an orphan.           The advocacy with mental illness is intimately as personal as it could be. It was my son who was living with mental illness and ended up taking his life because of mental illness. Nothing could have been more personal to me for that call to advocacy than my child be the one who was affected.

All of those areas of advocacy come from places where one was just an outright call from God, one was from personal experience and I saw the need not just for our family, but for other families who were living with those with mental illness and how that affected the church as a whole. [It is] calling the faith community to care for people who are living with mental illness and to raise awareness about suicide. It’s the last taboo, really. Nobody likes to talk about suicide and yet people are dying. I’m going to a memorial after this interview for someone in our church who passed away last week. It’s not a distant topic. It is happening all the time and the church needs to be in the forefront for people living with HIV/AIDS, orphans, and people living with mental illness.

Mental illness is real.It is not a figment of somebody’s imagination. It is not a character issue. It is not a sin.

RM: It was a national story as the country rallied around your family when your youngest son Matthew took his life after years of struggling with mental illness. Please share why it is so important that the faith community eliminates stigma, shame and fear, but rather creates a place of safety for those who suffer.

KW: Mental illness is real. It is not a figment of somebody’s imagination. It is not a character issue. It is not a sin. It is not a sin to have your thyroid not work properly. It is not a sin to have your brain not work properly. We are whole beings and our brain is just one other organ in our body. When the brain doesn’t work properly it can become ill and affect our lives. Helping the church understand that it is not a character issue. It is not demonization. It is not just “Read more verses. Pray more. Attend more Bible studies,” and that will fix everything. That leaves people feeling completely helpless, because what if you have prayed and prayed and you still feel depressed? What if you have memorized a whole book of the Bible and are at church every time it is open and yet you still feel depressed? That just leaves people helpless and feeling like, “God doesn’t understand and believers don’t understand.”

So, we need to erase the stigma and get the correct information that mental illness is a real illness. It’s common, about one in five people will have a mental health illness in their lifetime. That means that every single one of us will either have some degree of mental illness depression, anxiety, eating disorder or we know and love someone that does. It is real. It is common and it is treatable. There are great treatments when you can get it early and regularly and have access to good care. Many people can live normal lives managing mental illness. It is so important for the faith community to not be dragging behind, but instead leading the way. A book I read a few years ago by John Swinton called, Resurrecting the Person, says one of the good things that happened is that more people are recognizing that mental illness is an illness, however the danger comes if as a church we think, “This is a person who has an illness and the medical community needs to take care of it.” He says we need to shift it a little and think instead, “That’s a person who has an illness and that is where the church shines.” Because the church is all about restoring dignity and humanity to persons who may have an illness; it is in the sweet spot of the church.

RM: Whether it is depression, anxiety, eating disorders – that stat you shared of one in five people will have a mental illness in their lifetime is huge. What words of hope do you have for the person that feels like they are the “only one”?                                                                    

KW: You’re at a bus stop waiting for a bus. Look around you and know that several of the people on that bus are just like you. They may not feel like they can say it because there is such a stigma. But you are certainly not alone! As more and more faith communities recognize that we can minister to persons who have illness the message that we need to give is what we call, “The Hope Circle.” It is that you are loved. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a horrific day or month. You are loved by the God of the universe that created you. You belong in His family. You are needed. You have gifts. You have something to contribute. You have a choice. Yes, you have a mental illness, which you didn’t choose, but you do have choices about getting help, getting treatment, staying in treatment, seeking out the needed support. You have a purpose. God not only loves you, but He created you for a purpose. Because of those things, we think that when that’s the message of the church that creates the hope that people living with mental illness need to hang on to ride the waves because the illness tends to come in waves, especially suicidal thoughts. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary situation. The wave will pass. You will regain your stability and think clearly. So, the church needs to be there to help people ride those waves back to hope.

RM: You have had so many incredible things take place in your life as well as your share of lows too including a couple bouts with cancer and living with mild depression yourself. I think your book Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough is powerful because it challenges people to view joy as a choice and not necessarily a feeling. How do you choose joy?

KW: It comes down to a decision. First it is what I know about God and His character and His love for me. God is in control in the details of my life. It is building a quiet confidence that everything is going to be alright. Even for me, with the death and the suicide of my son, it is ultimately going to be alright. God has got him. He is in God’s hands. I will learn to live again and I am. Then, the next part is deciding based on those things that I am going to give my praise to God even when it doesn’t feel good. Matthew’s death isn’t good. It will never be good. There is no way that I could ever imagine saying that his death by suicide was good. But God is good and God is working in the details of both Matthew’s life and our lives. Matthew’s story isn’t over. Matthew isn’t done and neither is his story.

In only the way that God can do things, as he redeems the brokenness and redeems what the enemy meant for evil, people have chosen to stay alive because of Matthew’s story. I have had multiple people in these last four years talk to me and say, “I heard your story. I heard you talk about Matthew. I saw the devastation that was unleashed in your family as you tried to cope with his death. I just want you to know that I have taken suicide off the table. I don’t know how I am going to get through this. But I have taken suicide off the table.” In essence, God uses Matthew to save lives. That is exactly how God works. Because that is how He works in Genesis 50:20; Joseph says to his brothers when they sold him into slavery and he became second in command in Egypt, decades later he came back and was able to say, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” I have no doubt that the enemy meant Matthew’s death as evil for him and evil for us, but God is still working it for good, saving lives even as Matthew’s life was lost here on earth but it’s not the end of him. Well, when you know that and you look at life across that grid, when you run the circumstances of your life across the grid that God is good that He is working out the details of our lives and that ultimately even the worst things that happen to us will be okay, then it is so much easier to say, “God, I don’t understand this. But I trust you.” In that, comes joy.

It is always about life. It is always about changed lives. How many more people can we reach for Jesus Christ?

RM: Your latest book came out in May and is titled Sacred Privilege: Your Life and Ministry as a Pastor’s Wife. The message transcends to every woman whether a pastor’s wife, mom, or career woman. What is an encouraging principle or life lesson you can share with them?

KW: I say to every woman, but particularly those in ministry because ministry brings unique stresses and pressures that are unlike any other, as it relates to every human being, one of the biggest lessons I have learned is to take care of myself. That doesn’t particularly sound like a spiritual realization, but it is. When we realize that our husbands, our children, our friends, our churches, or our place of work, are not going to take care of us, it is up to us to take care of ourselves spiritually, emotionally and physically. When we accept that responsibility, it establishes the foundation for living a whole life. A life that is healthy and whole and free what God has made you to be. Rick has no control on how close I am to God. It is completely up to me whether I spend time in the Word, whether I pray, whether I have a heart of surrender and put into practice the biblical principles found in His Word. Rick has nothing to do with that. That is ultimately and only up to me. I determine how intimate I am with God when it comes to my emotions and mental health. Yeah, I have been scarred and wounded, not just with Matthew, but other places in my life and places I have developed wrong attitudes and maladaptive responses to what happened. Ultimately, that is not Rick’s responsibility to fix me, or my friends’ responsibility to be nice to me, even though I am this grumpy person. It is up to me to do the hard work of growth and change and healing. It could mean going to counseling, talking to trusted friends, reading books. That is up to me. Physically, nobody controls what I eat. I would so love to blame everybody else for what I eat. But ultimately, I choose what I eat. I choose the quality of the food that I eat. I choose how much sleep I get and how much I exercise. At the end of the day, those become my choices.

When we as human beings, accept responsibility for our own lives, then we can develop strength, have resilience, have courage and have the emotional strength to love and forgive. It pushes us into the world to extend the same kind of grace and mercy that has been given to us. If I have one message to tell anybody, it is, “Accept responsibility for your own self and when you do, your life will be really what God intended it to be.” You will have what you need as you seek Him in intimacy as you do the hard work of change and healing emotionally and as you take care of the one and only body that you are ever going to have in this life to live out God’s purposes.

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