Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, Says ‘Every Day Is a Celebration’ as He Prepares to Retire

Image: Jon Warren / World Vision

You’ve grown World Vision US from $350 million to $1 billion over your two decades as president and CEO. Today 40,000 international staff serve children in 100 countries, and you just visited Rwanda to launch a five-year plan to make it the first developing nation with universal access to clean water. Why retire now?

I believe that everything has a season. Like Moses with the staff in his hand, I brought what I had to offer World Vision and made it available to the Lord. I’ve had a wonderful season here, but I don’t want to be that guy the board is whispering about: “When’s the old boy going to leave? Isn’t it about time?” I’m 67. It’s time for World Vision to have a fresh vision and a new leader who has new things to offer.

When World Vision first courted you, you said it was looking for a leader who was “part CEO, part Mother Teresa, and part Indiana Jones.” Is that who you’ve become?

I think to some extent [yes]. The Mother Teresa part is you got to have a big heart for the poor and a passion for the least of these. The CEO part is it’s a billion-dollar organization, and it’s more complex today than when I started. And the Indiana Jones part is sometimes you find yourself in places like South Sudan surrounded by AK-47s. You’ve got to have a certain amount of adventuresome-ness in your bones to do that travel and enter into the world’s heartbreak.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments?

AIDS, refugees, and WASH [water, sanitation, and hygiene] have all been major passions of mine. When tackling the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early 2000s, my marketing VP said, “We’re a G-rated ministry, and this is an R-rated issue. Christians will never give to this.” And I said, “Well, then they’re wrong. We’re going to try to make the case to the church that we need to care for widows and orphans in their distress.” Today, refugees are a similar issue. They are not popular for American Christians to support or churches to embrace. But this is one of the biggest things happening in the world—involving 15 million refugees and displaced people from Syria and Iraq—and for the American church to be on the sidelines is unacceptable. On WASH, we went from being a tertiary player in the field to No. 1 in the world. We now bring clean water to three to four million people a year. And that took a lot of effort, a lot of fundraising, and a lot of technical expertise.

One of the things I’ve learned about leadership is a leader has to read the times. You look at the world, and there’s no shortage of crises. But none of us has the resources to throw ourselves into every one of them. And you can only take so many messages to your donors. So you’ve got to discern which of these things—for our organization, at this moment—do we draw ourselves into.

Support for refugees became heavily politicized during the 2016 election. How do you advocate when many supporters view it through a partisan lens?

That’s always a challenge, no matter who’s in the White House—and World Vision goes back to [President Harry] Truman. So from Truman to [President Donald] Trump, there have always been people in the White House who sometimes align with Christian values and sometimes don’t. And every president’s job description is to keep America great and to put America first, right? So I tell church leaders, “We need to let the government be the government. But we need to make sure the church stays the church.” God doesn’t love American children any more than he loves the children of South Sudan or the children of Syria.

So the prophetic voice in the Old Testament was always used to bring people back to the plumb line of God’s truth and God’s righteousness. When you read a passage like Zechariah 7:9 [“Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.”], those words seem very contemporary right now. So you have to be willing to take up unpopular causes. There are always going to be areas of conflict between what our government wants to do and what God would have us do.

What lessons from the success of your AIDS advocacy do you think apply to refugee advocacy?

A lot of it is lack of information. I have found that when the facts are presented, Christians tend to do the right thing. They’re generous. With AIDS, I used to say we’re not going to deal with the issue of sexual immorality. Our message is going to be biblical. “Pure religion is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress” [paraphrasing James 1:27]. And it worked. People saw the crisis through a whole new lens.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Jeremy Weber