By Mark Ellis –
Pastor Rick Warren, the founder of Saddleback Church and one of the most influential pastors in America, spoke about the vital importance of Christian leaders being part of a small group and how that group ministered to him and his wife Kay when a devastating family crisis hit.
On April 6, 2013, the Warrens’ youngest son, Matthew, took his life after years of struggling with mental illness.
“Friends are people who walk into your life when everyone else walks out,” Warren noted recently at the Finishing the Task conference.
He underscored the importance of pastors and missionaries participating in a small group they don’t lead. “I’m in a small group that’s been together 16 years,” he said. “We’ve been through every kind of problem you can imagine, including tax issues, cancer, suicide, and jail.”
Then he recounted the terrible tragedy that overtook them. “Most of you know that five years ago my youngest son lost his battle with mental illness and took his life.
When he and Kay arrived at their son’s house they hadn’t seen him for 24 hours. They stood on the parking garage sobbing because they didn’t have a key to the house. “We were fearful of what we prayed would never happen and worried that it might have happened,” he recounted.
“We were waiting for the police to come and break down the door. My wife and I were holding each other sobbing.”
Kay reached up and grabbed a necklace that had two birds on it and an inscription with the title of a book she had just written: Choose Joy.
Rick thought, How do you choose joy when your heart is breaking in a thousand pieces?
How do you choose joy when you’re waiting for the police to come and tell you that you lost a son to mental illness?
“Within 30 minutes my entire small group was on that driveway and they were there with me. They didn’t need to say anything. The women came and hugged Kay and the men hugged me,” he recounted.
Their friends did something unexpected, they refused to leave. “They said they were not going to leave us alone that night. My entire small group said they would sleep at our house, in the kitchen and on the sofa, and would not leave us alone.
“That’s what friends do. Do you have anybody like that in your life? Are you like that to anybody?”
In moments of personal tragedy, Warren urged discretion. “When you’re in crisis and worried about what you’re going to say, don’t say anything. A principle for pastors is: the deeper the pain, the fewer words you use. If someone is having a bad hair day you can talk all you want. But if someone loses a son, show up and shut up. It is the ministry of presence.”