Faith leaders on both sides of the political aisle are commenting on the retirement of National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson who has “shaped and stewarded” the evangelical movement in recent decades as something not to be defined by politics.
NAE, an influential coalition of over 40 evangelical denominations, 45,000 churches, schools and nonprofits that “seeks to honor God by connecting and representing evangelical Christians in the United States,” announced last week that it has begun the search for a new president as the 74-year-old Anderson plans to retire by the end of the year.
Anderson has served as the organization’s president since 2006 and previously served for 35 years as the senior pastor of Wooddale Church, a megachurch in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Anderson has also written over 20 books.
Under his leadership, the NAE has strived to get the wider society to view the terms evangelicalism and evangelicals through the lens of their theological meaning, not through the lens of political preferences held by conservative evangelicals.
During his time with NAE, Anderson has used his platform to address concerns of the evangelical community with public officials and provided commentary to mainstream news outlets.
Anderson has been one of the most vocal evangelical advocates calling for things like immigration reform, prison and criminal justice reform, the continued resettling of refugees in the U.S. and the continued provision of aid to impoverished communities at home and around the world.
As NAE president, Anderson has also been one of the more influential voices included in the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical organizations that advocate for immigration reform and regularly issue statements reflecting on the immigration debate of the day.
"I have worked with Leith over many years and rarely have I observed such a depth of wisdom, integrity, skill and grace combined in one person,” Scott Arbeiter, the president of NAE’s humanitarian arm World Relief, said in a statement provided to The Christian Post. “He has both shaped and stewarded the evangelical movement, walking into the most intractable challenges yet emerging with consensus and principled solutions. I greatly admire this man and am deeply grateful for his leadership and legacy.”
Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a fellow member of the Evangelical Immigration Table, told CP that it has been an honor to work alongside “such a wise leader.”
“Leith has a passion for the church to be a witness to the goodness and hope of the Gospel,” Hoogstra, who heads a network of over 180 Christian colleges around the world, explained. “He works tirelessly on behalf of the NAE, and they could not have had a better leader for this season in the nation’s and church’s history.”
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and pastor of New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento, California, told CP in a statement that Anderson’s contributions as an “unwavering advocate of biblical immigration reform” will be “greatly missed.”
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical public relations executive who is seen as an informal spokesperson for the group of evangelical leaders who interact with the Trump administration, said that Anderson is one of the most “extraordinary” leaders he has ever been around.
“While too often boiled down into stereotypes, the evangelical community is actually an incredibly complex and diverse movement, in every way imaginable,” Moore, who is also an NAE board member, wrote in an email.
“And across evangelicalism, we generally embrace a vibrant bottom-up polity and a bias against hierarchy for the purpose of keeping Christ as our leader and His Kingdom as our focus. It also sometimes makes our community a loud and unwieldy bunch. It isn’t easy to lead evangelicals and it is impossible over the long haul unless that leader is a servant leader.”
Having observed Anderson for over a decade, Moore says that Anderson has “served every end of evangelicalism with wisdom, sensitivity, theological conviction, patience and care.”
“[H]e has consistently done so in some incredibly complex and difficult moments,” Moore explained. “His leadership will leave the NAE stronger than ever in its history. We will miss him.”
As there has been much confusion in the media and society about what the term “evangelical” means in the context of today’s political discussions and public polling, NAE worked with LifeWay Research in 2015 to come up with a theological definition of what it means to be evangelical.
While many in today’s wide society may view evangelicals as another term for white social conservatives, NAE and LifeWay maintain that evangelicals are people who believe in four basic statements of faith regardless of their color, ethnicity and political leaning.
“Leith’s years of service to the NAE, have not only strengthened the organization, but they have contributed invaluably to evangelicalism at a time in history when our community has grown to become at least the third largest segment of Christianity in the globe, and maybe soon, the second,” Moore stressed. “Leith is probably too humble to ever acknowledge it, but many of us recognize clearly that God himself entrusted to his servant leadership a critical moment in 2000 years of Christian history in a nation that has played an indispensable role in the advance of God’s mission.”
“We will miss his wise, convictional and steady hand and as a board, we are praying intensely for God to guide us to whomever it is he would have lead the NAE next,” Moore concluded. “That person will have huge shoes to fill.”
On Twitter, several other Christian leaders offered their praises of Anderson.
One of them is Melissa Rogers, a Baptist who served as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership during the Barack Obama administration.
“Thanks to @leithanderson for his many years of distinguished ministry [and] service,” Rogers tweeted. “Leith's compassionate & courageous leadership has made a huge difference on a wide range of issues. Best wishes to @NAEvangelicals and to Leith for their next chapters.”
S. Carter McNeese, a pastor at Fairmont First Baptist Church, Fairmont, NC, praised Anderson for helping him “reclaim” his evangelical identity.
“@NAEvangelicals, under his leadership, has consistently tried to get others to define evangelicalism theologically and not politically or culturally,” McNeese wrote on Twitter. “I give thanks to God for his leadership.”