Have you ever been completely convinced that you should be under someone’s leadership? So much so, that you would reprioritize all of your other life plans, even where you decided to live, around learning from that leader? That was exactly what I did in the summer of 2001.
It was already a year of significant change — I had just been through a difficult business failure, was engaged to be married, was attempting to start a new business, and my fiancée, Kimberley, and I were considering moving to Atlanta to start a new life.
As we were contemplating our new life, our church in Jackson, MS was having a retreat for young adults and invited Sandy Willson to speak. At the time, Sandy was the senior pastor at the church where I grew up in Memphis. I’ll never forget the tag line for the topic, “Saturday Night Live — Sunday Dead” which was all about centering your time and priorities around the worship of God (more on that later).
God spoke to us through Sandy in profound ways at that retreat. I don’t think I had ever encountered anyone so in love with God that he made every decision based on knowing God better, and sharing that knowledge with others so that they could know God the same way. God was important in my life, but it had never occurred to me to plan my weekend — much less my life — around God the way Sandy taught us that day.
Seeking An Answer
The week after the retreat, I emailed Sandy and asked him if it was possible that God would reshape my life and priorities by picking a pastor and a church ahead of what seemed best for my career. He humbly responded that there were many good pastors and churches in other cities and that I should probably choose based on my job. But, we had been listening to Sandy that weekend, and I had been listening to him for 2 years via cassette tape — long before our weekend encounter! Therefore, we ignored the advice in the email and decided that we should prioritize where God was leading us to learn about Him first (Matthew 6:33), and that our marriage and careers would fall into place.
7 Life Lessons From 20+ Years of Sandy
What I have learned from Sandy continues to fuel my life and leadership. Those who know me best know I quote him often. Here are some of the most useful lessons I have learned from Sandy.
Loving And Learning God’s Word — All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16). Most of us can’t hide what we love. Sandy’s preaching, teaching, meeting leading, and friendly communication makes clear that he knows and loves God's word. His communication is infused with God’s word in such a way that those listening grow in the love and understanding of God’s word too.
There is a good reason more than 350 men would get up in time to hear Sandy on Thursday mornings at 6:30. Sandy teaches God’s word in such a way that it connects the entire Bible and gives you a hunger to know more. We would tease after an AMEN bible study on an Old Testament book that we had just heard the “Gospel of Exodus”. Sandy demonstrated over and over that God’s word is reliable and profitable to inform everything we face.
The Glory Of Worshiping God — "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" (Isaiah 6:3). The only times I saw Sandy weep was when he was contemplating the beauty of God in worship. His love for worshiping God together as a church congregation is infectious and encourages individuals and families to grow to love that holy hour and a half more than any other time in the week.
The Mission Of God’s People — “Why do you guys aspire to retire, live in a gated community and play golf?! Moses did not get started until he was 80!” This is my favorite — often repeated — line of Sandy’s because it shows how he thinks we should respond to God’s love.
“Loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves means divesting ourselves of time and money.” Responding to God’s mercy and love means responding to the needs of others even when it may cost us a great deal. Sacrificing for others is our spiritual worship to God (Romans 12:1).
Leading A Local Church — “I love world missions because we get to see how God operates all over the world.” Sandy led Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis and grew its mission substantially over 22 years. His belief in a God of abundance proved we could serve our city and the world. He proved we could establish a world missions budget separate from a general operating budget and grow both significantly at the same time.
“The church is not a place for politics.” I am grateful that Sandy did not allow political leaders or political agendas to influence our church. The mission of God is so much bigger than what any political leader, party, or government can offer. Our God rules over all leaders (Daniel 2:20-21) and we are wise not to offer complete allegiance to any party or leaders. The local church can have much more influence in helping our communities flourish as we use God’s word to influence politics instead of being influenced by politics or political agendas.
As a local church seeking to love God and neighbor, “We will divest ourselves of people and money… I don’t know what that means for us institutionally, but I know it will cost us — some of our people need to go out to be part of other churches… and then we need to invite others here.” It was a sermon from Sandy to wrap up a weekend focused on the needs of our city that inspired us to get a vision for serving our city from a different local church.
Leadership Is A Lifestyle — “Ethos is the most important way to lead.” Sandy said this to remind us that people will not listen to you if your actions are not consistent with your words. The part of Sandy’s character I admire most is that his actions are consistent with his words. He is an example worth following as he follows Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
“The fish bowl is your friend.” Since people follow more of what you do than what you say, leadership — like faith — is meant to be lived out in a consistent community where people can see your true self. This gives us a chance to be vulnerable and discuss failures as well as the counter cultural ways we live.
Leadership In Conflict — “Always start a difficult conversation where you agree with the other person.” Sandy demonstrated over and over how more positive impact can be generated simply by seeking common ground first. When leaders know where they have some common ground, it’s much easier to work out differences.
“Don’t ask (or over emphasize wanting) for justice if there is a chance you think you might need to come back and ask for mercy.” I love this line, because it points to the truth that we really don’t know the whole story until we know the other side of the story. When all the parties know the relevant facts and seek God’s wisdom, a surprising solution may develop.
“Leaders should not tolerate unreconciled relationships.” We have a God who sent His son to reconcile all things. Reconciliation is fundamental to Christian ministry. Sandy’s teaching on Matthew 18:15-20 guided many to new life giving relationships in Christ and led churches and organizations to peace and unity.
Choose Your Mentors — “Choose your mentors carefully.” Is something I have heard Sandy say often. This is why we moved to Memphis. This is why we strive to live a life on a mission. I thank God for Sandy Willson.
Join us this week to hear Sandy. I can’t wait to update this article as I learn more from him this week!