I just read John Blake’s story of the incredible pain the Stanley family has suffered. Every pastor and church member needs to read this unusual glimpse into the lives of two pastors:
Andy Stanley walked into his pastor’s office, filled with dread.
The minister sat in a massive chair behind an enormous desk. He spread his arms across the desk as if he were bracing for battle. His secretary scurried out of the office when she saw Andy coming.
The pastor had baptized Andy when he was 6, and groomed him to be his successor. But a private trauma had gone public. And Andy felt compelled to speak.
The minister stared in silence as Andy gave him the news. The “unspoken dream” both men shared was over.
After Andy finished, the pastor looked at him as tears welled up.
“Andy,” he said, “you have joined my enemies, and I’m your father.”
‘I understand drive-by shootings’
He won’t wear a suit or a tie in the pulpit. There’s no special parking space reserved for him at his church. Everyone calls him “Andy.”
As a teenager, Andy decided he was going to be a rock star after seeing Elton John perform live. Today he has found fame, and infamy, on another stage.
Andy Stanley is the founder of North Point Ministries, one of the largest Christian organizations in the nation. A lanky man with close-cropped hair and an “aw-shucks” demeanor, he is alone as he steps out of his office to greet a visitor to his ministry’s sprawling office complex in suburban Atlanta.
At least 33,000 people attend one of Andy’s seven churches each Sunday. Fans watch him on television or flock to his leadership seminars; pastors study his DVDs for preaching tips; his ministries’ website gets at least a million downloads per month.
“I tell my staff everything has a season,” he says, leaning back in an office chair while wearing a flannel shirt, faded jeans and tan hiking boots. “One day we’re not going to be the coolest church. Nothing is forever. As soon as somebody thinks forever, that’s when they close their hand,” he says, slowly clenching his fist. “Now they have to control, maintain and protect it. … Things get weird.”
At 54, Andy knows something about weirdness. He was swept up in a struggle against another famous televangelist — his father, the Rev. Charles Stanley, a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor and founder of In Touch Ministries, a global evangelistic organization. The experience enraged Andy so much it scared him:
“I understand drive-by shootings,” he told his wife one day. “I was so angry at my dad. I was trying to do the right thing.”
A new challenge for Andy Stanley
The experience wounded his father as well.
“I felt like this was a huge battle, and if Andy had been in a huge battle … you’d have to crawl over me to get to him,” Charles Stanley, now 80, says.” I would have stood by him, no matter what. I didn’t feel like he did that.”
There’s no father-son preaching duo quite like the Stanleys. Imagine if Steve Jobs had a son, who created a company that rivaled Apple in size and innovation — and they barely spoke to one another.
That was the Stanleys. Neither man has ever fully explained the events that tore them apart 19 years ago — until now.
Charles Stanley remembers the first time he heard his son preach.
“I was tickled pink,” he says. “I instantly knew that God could use him.”
Charles knows something about preaching. Millions of people around the globe grew up with the sound of his sermons ringing in their ears.
In “Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend,”Andy Stanley talks about his relationship with his father and the evolution of his ministry.
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He has preached from the pulpit of First Baptist Church Atlanta for 40 years. Tall and lean, he delivers homespun sermons in a rich baritone while holding his black leather Bible aloft for emphasis. He’s written at least 40 books.
In Touch Ministries sits like a Greek temple on the crest of a hill overlooking the Atlanta skyline. A large American flag stands near its entrance, beside a row of gushing fountains. A mammoth portrait of a smiling Charles Stanley hangs just inside and bears the inscription: “Obey God and leave all the consequences to Him.”
It’s an impressive sight, but it’s not the type of life Andy envisioned for himself growing up. His father never raised him to be a pastor.
“My dad was great. He didn’t pressure me. I never heard that talk, ‘You’re the pastor’s son and you need to be an example.’ “
What Andy remembers most about growing up with his father is not his fame, but his resolve. He tells this story in “Deep and Wide,” his new book about his father and the evolution of his own ministry:
When he was in the eighth grade, his father waged a bruising battle to become senior pastor of First Baptist. The battle inflamed tensions so much that his family received nasty, anonymous letters and deacons warned his father that he would never pastor again.
One night, during a tense church meeting, a man cursed aloud and slugged Charles in the jaw. Andy says his father didn’t flinch, nor did he retaliate. He kept fighting and eventually became senior pastor of First Baptist.
“I saw my dad turn the other cheek,” Andy later wrote about that night, “but he never turned tail and ran.”
His dad was his first hero.
But another church incident taught him a different lesson.
Andy was raised as a Southern Baptist, a conservative denomination that teaches the Bible is infallible and that women shouldn’t preach. His father was twice elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“We were Southern Baptists and everyone else was wrong,” Andy says. “I grew up believing that we were the true Christians.”
One Sunday, a gay pride group planned to march past his father’s church. Leaders of the congregation, warned in advance, dismissed church early to avoid contact with the group. But organizers of the march changed the schedule. Andy watched as First Baptist members filed out of the church and gawked at gay and lesbian marchers streaming by. Then he noticed a Methodist church across the street whose members held out cups of water for marchers and signs that said, “Everybody welcome! Come worship with us!”
“We’re the church that sings ‘Just as I Am’ after the sermon, and here we are shunning this group of people because of a lifestyle we disagreed with,” he says now.
The pull of the pulpit, though, was stronger than any reservations he had about church. Andy enrolled in college to become a journalist. But he abandoned those plans after a youth minister’s position opened up at his father’s church.
Those who heard Andy’s first sermons say his talent was evident from the start. He had a knack for saying things that stuck in a listener’s mind. He was funny, insightful, took on hard questions, and he nudged people to look at familiar biblical passages in a new way.
Charles started televising his son’s sermons on In Touch’s broadcasts, and picked him to preach in his place when he was traveling. And when First Baptist opened its first satellite church on Easter Sunday 1992, he appointed Andy as its pastor.
Within three weeks, Andy’s congregation was turning people away at the door because they had no more room.
Within two months, Andy’s satellite church swelled to 2,000 members.
Andy says his father was delighted. He started joking that the Stanleys would become a preaching dynasty. And both men began to share an “unspoken dream”: that Andy would take the helm after his father’s retirement. In Touch was no longer just a ministry; it was Andy’s inheritance.
“I was the heir apparent,” Andy says. “I know that he desired it.”
Something, however, would drive father and son apart.
Andy didn’t know his parents’ marriage was in trouble until he was in the 10th grade. Before then, he never saw his father or his mother argue or even disagree. Charles and Anna Stanley seemed to have the perfect relationship.
A year after his father appointed him to pastor a satellite church, he knew his parents’ marriage was disintegrating. They had been to every counselor and doctor imaginable. Eventually, his mother moved out and stopped attending church with his father.
“People got used to it, and they quit asking about it,” he says. “It happened so gradually.”
Anna Stanley had made her own mark on the church — and on her son.
“No matter what I did, I could come home and tell her,” he says. “She never freaked out, never overreacted. She was always a very safe place.”
The Rev. Louie Giglio, one of Andy’s best friends growing up, still remembers some of the lessons Andy’s mother taught at summer Bible camp.
“All of Andy’s wisdom doesn’t come from his dad,” says Giglio, now senior pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta and a founder of the Passion Movement, a popular outreach effort for young evangelicals. “She was incredibly insightful.”
The quiet exit of Anna Stanley from the pews went public in June 1993 when she filed for divorce. Her action caused a sensation in Southern Baptist circles, where divorce is considered a sin by some based on a literal reading of the Bible. Some pastors shunned Charles; others publicly demanded that he step down. The scandal dragged on for years as the couple attempted to reconcile.
In 1995, Anna Stanley explained why she wanted a divorce in a letter to her husband’s church that was excerpted in the local newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in an article titled “Torn Asunder.”
She said she had experienced “many years of discouraging disappointments and marital conflict. … Charles, in effect, abandoned our marriage. He chose his priorities, and I have not been one of them.”
The impending divorce didn’t just threaten Charles’ family; it jeopardized his ministry.
He had always preached unquestioning obedience to the Word of God. And wasn’t Jesus clear about divorce in Gospel passages such as Luke 16:18: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
New Testament passages such as those had prompted First Baptist to institute a policy that prevented divorced men from serving as pastors or deacons. What would the church do when its celebrity pastor — the man who packed the pews and beamed First Baptist’s name across the globe — got a divorce?
Charles treated the calls for him to step down like he treated the punch in the jaw so long ago — he didn’t flinch. He said he would gladly work on his marriage but he wouldn’t resign as pastor.
Gayle White, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution religion writer at the time, dug up a quote from the embattled pastor that explained his rationale and used it in her “Torn Asunder” article:
“You see, into my ministry I brought the survival spirit. You do or die. You do whatever is necessary to win. It doesn’t make any difference what it is.”
That survival spirit was second nature for Charles, whose father died when he was 9 months old and who grew up so poor that he learned about Santa Claus the Christmas morning he discovered in his stocking the orange that had been in the refrigerator the night before. He lived in 17 homes by his 8th birthday.
His mother, Rebecca, worked two jobs and was often away from home. But she’d leave her son notes, reminding him of chores, giving him advice or simply to say, “Charles, I love you.”
At night, she’d kneel beside her only child and pray, “God bless Charles here for whatever it may be.”
Just as his mother protected him, Charles shielded her. She married an abusive alcoholic who told his stepson he would never amount to anything and sometimes tried to attack Rebecca.
Charles would intervene.
“You come after my mom,” he’d say, “you come after me.”
So it was really no surprise that, decades later, Charles would refuse to back down. He told opponents calling for his resignation that he answered to a higher authority.
“God said you keep doing what I called you to until I tell you to do something else,” he says today. “I got that straight from the Lord. … I was simply obeying God.”
Besides, what could he do — make someone not divorce him?
“If somebody doesn’t love you and doesn’t want to live with you, you can’t — nowhere in the Scripture does it say that you’re to preach the gospel until someone does this or that,” he says.
Charles, though, wasn’t the only one in his family with a strong will. His son had other ideas about divorce.
When can I give up on my relationship with my dad?
Andy Stanley, founder of North Point Ministries
The tension between Andy and his father had been building even before the divorce.
They were partners in ministry, but they were becoming rivals.
As Andy’s congregation started outdrawing his father’s, people told Charles that his son was becoming a prima donna who wanted to take over the entire church.
Those rumors seemed to be validated, Charles recalls, when his son’s church staff asked him to give them the satellite church’s property.
“They felt like they had their little nook,” Charles says now. “They didn’t have their little nook. Whose idea was it, No. 1, and who’s paying for it, No. 2.”
The distance between father and son was also philosophical. They had different ideas about church leadership.
Andy had discovered another preaching mentor, the Rev. Bill Hybels, an unassuming, genial pastor — the kind who travels alone without an entourage. He helped pioneer “seeker churches” while leading Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago.
People tend to focus on the cosmetic innovations of seeker churches: incorporating contemporary Christian music in worship, injecting clever skits and colorful stage props into services. But Andy was also drawn to Willow Creek’s primary mission: reaching “irreligious people” who had been turned off by traditional church.
After hearing Hybels, Andy says, church made sense “for the first time in my life.” Hybels became his hero.
“They were more committed to progress instead of maintaining traditions.”
Andy incorporated some of Hybels’ innovations into his father’s satellite church. He stopped wearing suits in the pulpit as his father had insisted. The church grew even more. But so did the tension with his father.
Was he competing with his father?
Almost 20 years later, Andy pauses before he answers:
“Not intentionally, but I felt like what we were doing was better.”
All the tensions converged one day when Andy’s father called him into the office to discuss the divorce.
“Dad, you never asked me what I think you should do,” Andy said.
His father smiled and asked him what he thought.
Walk into church the next Sunday morning and read a letter of resignation, Andy said. Tell them that you want to continue as their pastor, and will preach as long as they want.
“Daddy, your church is not going to leave you,” Andy said. “They need the opportunity to choose to have you as pastor if you divorce. If you do this, it all ends. Let them choose.”
Andy says his father didn’t hear anything after the word “resign.” All the rumors seemed to be true. His son had joined the church faction trying to get rid of him.
His son had betrayed him.
Andy says it was after that exchange that he started popping up in his father’s sermons, not as the heir apparent, but as the Old Testament villain, Absalom. Absalom was the charismatic but treacherous son of David who tried to snatch his father’s kingdom away from him through war.
“My dad at the time fashioned me as an Absalom who had rebelled against him,” Andy says. But Andy himself felt betrayed.
He wondered why his father didn’t denounce from the pulpit those people who questioned Andy’s loyalty. He told his father, I’m your most loyal staffer, but you can’t see it.
“I never felt I should replace my dad. I didn’t feel like I was at war with my dad.”
It consumes you. As soon as he got home, we were talking about it all the time.
Sandra Stanley, wife of Andy Stanley
The conflict could not have come at a worse time for Andy. He had recently married; a baby was on its way. He had a steady job, health benefits, his congregation was booming. But his relationship with his father was crumbling. It was like being trapped in a soap opera.
“It consumes you,” says Sandra Stanley, Andy’s wife. “As soon as he got home, we were talking about it all the time. There was always something new happening, some new comment.”
Andy had to act, but how? His answer came in the form a slim book he happened to pick up one day, “A Tale of Three Kings” by Gene Edwards.
The book explored the story of a biblical soap opera, the relationship between David and King Saul, Israel’s first king. Saul descended into jealousy and paranoia because he was threatened by David. David eventually left King Saul’s kingdom and abandoned the spoils that came with it.
Andy’s eyes stopped on one line in the book:
“Beginning empty handed and alone frightens the best of men. It also speaks volumes of just how sure they are that God is with them.”
That line clinched it for Andy. He would walk away from his father empty-handed — no church, no salary, no health benefits.
He would turn his back on the unspoken dream.
Now he had to relay that message to his father.
That day remains vivid. He drove to his father’s office filled with anxiety. When he saw his father sitting behind his massive desk, he knew he wasn’t going to take it well.
“He was in his stern, commando mode,” Andy says.
His father reacted by staring at him in silence. Then he accused him of joining his enemies.
He finally rose slowly from his desk, walked over and embraced him.
Both men cried before regaining their composure.
“It was really bad. It was horrible. But you know what? I had perfect peace,” Andy says. “I’ve never been so sure of a decision even when the whole world blew up all around us.”
Andy says he could not have stayed at his father’s church, no matter how much money or fame he stood to gain.
“My dad taught me to be better than that,” he says. “Seeing him get punched when I was in the eighth grade — all that was clear to me. You trust God with all the consequences.”
News of Andy’s resignation spread.
Reggie Joiner was on First Baptist’s staff at the time. He would later help found North Point and now runs Orange, a nonprofit that teaches churches how to reach and keep young people. He remembers meeting with Charles after his son resigned.
“I sat in his office for two hours and he talked about Andy being his legacy,” Joiner recalls.
Chairs replace pews and bands replace choirs and organs at North Point Community Church.
Later, he called another leader at First Baptist to tell him that Andy had resigned. The stunned church leader said he had never heard of a young pastor walking away from such a prominent ministry.
The man paused before finally telling Joiner:
“I think I could follow that guy anywhere.”
In Part 2, we read how father and son reconciled.