(Photo: Willow Creek Association)
Mario Vega, senior pastor of one of the world's largest churches, spoke to leaders across the U.S. during the Willow Creek Association's Global Leadership Summit on Friday and shared just how difficult it can be to lead through feelings of anguish.
Vega serves as the senior pastor of Misión Cristiana Elim, a church founded in El Salvador that today is attended by about 73,000 people. He says he has had an experience comparable to the experience of the biblical prophet Samuel, who, Vega suggests, was in anguish when God no longer accepted Saul as the king of Israel (1 Samuel 15).
Speaking through an interpreter, Vega told conference attendees that he was once faced with a decision that cost him a friendship with one of the world's most influential church leaders.
Vega started working with Elim when the church was in its infancy. In 1977, when he joined, the church was just three months old and was made up of a small group of just 25 people. At that time it was also under the leadership of a different pastor, whom Vega developed a friendship with, and two years after joining the church Vega left to start another Elim church in a different city.
The pastor's church grew rapidly – in a single year it jumped from 3,000 to 9,000 in attendance at one point– and it became an example for other developing churches to follow. In 20 years' time, what began as a small church with a few dozen people grew to 50,000 people, the size of an entire denomination.
In 1995, the pastor wanted to form a board to lead the church. Because he was a close friend to the pastor, and had been the first person to be ordained within the blossoming church, Vega was placed on the board alongside other important pastors.
Around that time, though, Vega and the other board members discovered that the pastor had fallen into some sort of moral failure. The first decision faced by the newly formed board was whether or not to force the leader of their church to resign.
With the hope that the pastor would be spiritually restored, and in order to protect his image and future ministry, the board decided to keep his failure a secret. Over the course of the next few years the pastor's behavior grew worse, however, and without strong leadership in place, problems arose in the church.
Vega was eventually asked by the board to become the leader of the church, and he was faced with a difficult decision. Like the prophet Samuel, whom Vega suggests was disturbed by the idea of turning his back on his friend Saul even though God was angry with him, Vega says he didn't want to take control from the pastor even though the leader's integrity had already been compromised.
"It was a difficult situation because accepting this position of leadership would alienate me from the pastor that viewed me as his very close friend," Vega said.
It has been 17 years since Vega accepted his role as the senior pastor of the church, and he has rarely seen his old friend since.
"When someone's values and life principles are different, life's road begins to pull people apart and only by accident do their paths cross again," he said.
Vega encouraged leaders at the conference by telling them that, when making tough decisions like the one he made, the anguish they feel is normal, but he warned them not to let their grief paralyze their ability to make decisions.
Leaders in anguish go through phases, he said, including denial, depression, acceptance and, in the end, action. Although Vega's loyalty was tested – he felt he could either be loyal to God or to his friend, but not both – he concluded that he could not allow an immoral leader who refused to repent to continue leading God's church.
"Never give yourself permission to avoid doing what is right," he said.
Today, Misión Cristiana Elim is made up of campuses throughout El Salvador and over 7,000 cell groups, and is staffed by 92 pastors.
The Global Leadership Summit was held Thursday and Friday at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., while a live broadcast of the event was viewed at churches across the country.