Ralph Douglas West is founding Senior Pastor of Brook Hollow Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, which has come to be known as The Church Without Walls. From an initial membership of 32 people, the church has grown into a thriving congregation of over 24,000 families who meet in three locations. The author of several books, Ralph West serves as Adjunct Professor of Preaching at Baylor’s Truett Seminary. He was recently interviewed by Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: You’re a pastor of a tremendous church, but I know that along the way God brought you through some challenging times. Talk about those early days of pastoral ministry that brought you to the founding of a new church.
West: I pastored a church in Houston’s Heights area. It was an older congregation, and I served that church for four years. Nearly 30 years separate me from that church to now. Among the tensions that developed, one was my inability to understand their history. Now, as a founding pastor, I have an opportunity to write history. I often think about the generations that will come, that will interpret, misinterpret or reinterpret what we are doing now, and might change it without understanding the reasons why certain things are shaped the way that they have been. In my pastoring that church, they had a history and I didn’t understand how to really assess that history.
The church was growing. It was numerically growing, and I think it was spiritually growing. Then there was a conflict about what we understood growth to be. I was just excited about people filling the pews, and being part of their fellowship. I didn’t understand that in a church that was older, with many families having intermarried in the congregation, every new person posed a threat to the undoing of that nucleus. Had I understood that, I don’t know what I would have done differently. I probably just would have been able to articulate and communicate my vision differently in the church.
I learned a lot in that church and pastoral ministry. I learned that they could call you “Pastor” and you don’t necessarily have to be that, if you understand what the pastoral role is. That’s an earned position; it may be given to us biblically and ecclesiologically, but communally it’s an earned position. It’s only after you have walked with people through the valley of the shadow of death, stood with people at the open grave, the blessing of a baby, the union of marriage, the baptism of a loved one, the people living together understand—only then will they see you as the pastor of the church.
Many of the challenges that I encountered at that church led to The Church Without Walls. Now it’s nearly 30 years later. I often wonder, 30 years from now, when new pastoral leadership has come here—new leaders and a new generation—how many people might stumble and fall over the same mistakes that I’ve made, all because of the inability to assess, interpret, to execute the history that we’ve established here at the church.
I learned quite a bit at that church to help prepare and shape me for the way I do church and ministry here.
Preaching: You’re now senior pastor of a major church, and leadership is such a critical role. What are some of the most important things that you’ve learned about being a pastoral leader over the years?
West: One is not to abuse the invested authority that people place in you. That has been one of the big challenges, for me, being a founding pastor of the church. I can build a team of men, strong leadership. Still, in the church the pastor is the pastor. So pastoral ministry today has to have a kind of self-correcting barometer to help you know how to make decisions and not to make decisions, to make choices, because you have the authority to do it; to run those questions, assessments, through a particular grid. So the very things that I was fighting against nearly 30 years ago are the things, 30 years later, that I’m putting in place to say: these things can work if you have the right people in place.
Another thing that I’ve learned is that leadership is influence, and you have to use that influence for the promotion of the agenda of the Kingdom of God. I want leadership to be baptized in God’s visionary agenda. Those are some of the things that I lean heavy on now, not to abuse the role of pastoral authority, and then to use influence to really help to shape the church as a community in fulfilling God’s Kingdom agenda—to go into the world and to reach them all, baptize them, and instruct them in all things. I still believe that that is the primary vision of the church, and it’s what shapes leadership.
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