Interview With George O. Wood
The Making of a Superintendent
George O. Wood
The journey of an insecure, socially awkward, freckled-faced,10-year-old pastor’s kid to a competent and anointed Spirit-filled leader, and now head of one of the largest Pentecostal bodies in the United States, is a remarkable story that brings together the freshness of life experience blended with a heavy dose of God’s grace and blessing.
George O. Wood assumed the headship of the Assemblies of God October 8, 2007. Enrichment journal visited with him to get a close up, intimate look at the spiritual journey that took him from relative obscurity in his early years of ministry to the epicenter of Pentecostalism. This inside look at the making of a superintendent will both inspire and encourage you in your ministry calling.
Describe the influence your parents had on your personal and spiritual formation.
Wood: My mother, as a single 26-year-old missionary, went with her sister, Ruth, to northwest China and Tibet in 1924. After my mother served nearly 8 years of her first term, she came home and met Dad, who was itinerating to go on his first missionary term while she was itinerating for her second term. They continued their courtship on the boat from the United States to Shanghai, and married in Shanghai, November 14, 1932. Mom was 34; Dad was 24. They were unalike in many ways, but they had a great commitment to do the work of the Lord.
I learned a great deal from my mother. She was a great woman. I never heard her raise her voice or say an unkind word. She spent 2 hours every morning praying and reading her Bible.
My dad worked hard for the Lord. When China closed to missionaries, he and Mom came home. He never felt called to another foreign mission field. He pioneered three churches, two are still in existence today. He pastored smaller churches, and many of them were troubled churches. When he was not pastoring, he did evangelism. I have been with him in some very hard places.
My parents never quit. They taught me about faithfulness and hard work. They instilled in me a good work ethic.
My dad valued education, even though he had no formal education beyond fifth grade. He did study a year at Beulah Bible School in New Jersey, and he also earned some degrees through correspondence courses. Wherever we lived his diplomas were prominently displayed. His sermons were always organized, and he preached from notes, which in those days was regarded as not spiritual.
Explain how the small church environment and church planting efforts of your parents shaped your ministry?
Wood: My parents’ efforts have given me an appreciation for people who pastor smaller churches. I know what it is like to struggle because I watched my parents struggle.
Smaller churches today are somewhat like the neighborhood grocery store when Wal-Mart comes to town. Smaller churches have to compete with larger churches that offer a full-service ministry to people. This is not an easy assignment.
With one-third of Assemblies of God churches are under 50, and one-third between 50 and 100, we have many unsung heroes who are faithfully doing the Lord’s work.
My mother would say, “Georgie, when we stand before God, He will not ask us if we have been successful, but if we have been faithful.”
The largest church my parents ever pastored may have had 130 people for a few Sundays. Most of their churches had 20, 30, and 40 people. But they served those people well. They loved them. They tried to disciple them.
I learned about scrappy people in small churches. One of my most distinct memories was in Bristow, Oklahoma. At a Sunday night service in the early 1950s, two deacons accosted my dad at the altar. One of them held his fist on Dad’s chin. The deacon told Dad to resign because he was keeping the church from being spiritual. Dad stuck it out until he got those people out of the church. But there were so few people left, he had to leave after 9 months. Since then, I have never liked the word spiritual. I prefer the term Christlike, because it is more objectively identifiable.
My dad taught me the importance of bringing new people into church membership. He became pastor of a church in Arkansas when I was a student at Evangel. The day he became pastor, he said, “George, the annual vote is coming up in a year. I think it would be good for you to became a member so if we need your vote, we will have it.”
I filled out a membership card. I went down to Arkansas once a month or so to be with them for the weekend.
The church had a habit of putting out pastors, as many of our churches did.
A year later, Dad called. He said, “George, the annual vote is coming up. Mom and I have discovered that we’re one vote short. Can you come down?”
They had a list by their telephone of those who would vote yes and those who would vote no. Even though voting was by secret ballot, everyone knew how everyone else was voting.
I said, “Sure, I’ll come down. Do you want me to bring Wanda?”
Wanda, also a student at Evangel, was the lead deacon’s daughter, and the lead deacon was on Dad’s side. Wanda and I went down to Arkansas together. I planned to arrival about 5 minutes after the business meeting started. I walked through the door at 7:35, and all heads turned. Everyone knew how the vote was going to go. Dad had one vote to spare. He stayed another year.
Having that experience in a small church helped me when I became pastor at Newport-Mesa Christian Center, Costa Mesa, California. When I took the church, it had just gone through a church split. In the first 6 months, the church went from 73 members to 49 members. When new people started coming to the church, I thought, I need to invite these people to become members. Many joined the church.
A mistake some pastors make when a church begins to grow is they do not invite new people to become members. Then the old guard, who may resist growth and change, becomes a tremendous impediment to anything that may happen. The people who stayed with me were good people, and they did not create a roadblock. But, I knew if they did, I would have enough votes to draw away.
In these situations some pastors become angry, bitter, resentful, and want nothing to do with the ministry. Explain why you did not become that way.
Wood: I have told my son, who is a young pastor, “There are just two things you need to do: Love God and love people.” If you do these two things, you will not go too far astray.
Many younger pastors immediately try to assert their authority because they feel insecure. They try to change things overnight, do not respect the DNA of the church, and run over people. I did some of that as a younger pastor.
On one occasion an issue came up, and I was out of sorts. Fortunately, there was an older person on the board who would listen to me vent. He sat in my office about 45 minutes before one Sunday evening service while I vented. If the board did not go along with me, I was going directly to the membership. After all, more people had come to the church under my leadership than under the previous pastor. It was going to be the board or me. He did two things: He listened to me without rebuking me, and he kept confidence.
When it was time to go to the Sunday night service, I sanctimoniously got my Bible, headed out of the office, and proceeded across the walkway to the sanctuary. On the way, I felt the Holy Spirit speak four words to me that changed my life, George, fast your tongue. I had not thought of that before. At the next board meeting, there was an absolute change on the part of the board, without my ever having done anything. I had been overreaching and moving too fast.
Every week a situation comes to my attention that involves unwise pastoral decisions in either finances or the assertion of authority. When a pastor goes into a church, he gets a deposit in his account. It is like a bank account. He has a honeymoon, and they give him 100 points of credit. If he spends those in the first few months, he will have nothing left.
Credibility and trust must be earned. A pastor cannot go into a church and say, “I’m God’s person for this place. It’s your obligation to obey me. I’m the anointed one.” According to Scripture, all of God’s people are anointed. Pastors need to respect and love people. They need to be secure enough to surround themselves with strong people.
One pastor told his staff the first time he met them, “I’m going to be to you what Hitler was to the Jews.” That is a horrible statement. It is not surprising that, within several weeks of his arrival, the members petitioned to remove him, and they succeeded. That example is glaring, but some of the chief problems churches have are the result of unwise decisions made by leaders. Chief among them is attempting to impose authority without having earned that authority through the trust and love of the people.
Explain how God called you to ministry.
Wood: I had an unusual call. It goes back to when the deacons accosted my dad at the altar in Bristow, Oklahoma. I was 10 years old. One Sunday night shortly after that incident I said to my mother, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a preacher. I’m not going to pussyfoot it either; I’m going to be like Dad.”
From then on, I was headed for the ministry. I have always wanted the sense of a divine voice, an overwhelming call. I became less desirous of that when I realized from Scripture that everyone who had the divine voice suffered greatly.
When I was pastoring, I invited Morris Williams to hold a missions convention. He was field director (now called regional director) for Africa. I respected Williams. He had a sterling record as a missionary. I took him to lunch after Sunday morning service. I asked, “Brother Williams, how did you receive your call?”
He said, “George, I never had a call. I read in the Gospels where Jesus was taking volunteers, and I up and volunteered.”
I had never heard anyone give that explanation before. It challenged me. Since then I have studied the call in Scripture. I now realize there is a continuum on the call — everything from the divine voice to William’s volunteering. Certainly, God equipped Williams with the gifts and graces for his calling. God also granted me the desire of my heart. I wanted to be a minister.
When we talk about the call to ministry we need to be careful not to project that everyone is called the same way. God uses a variety of ways to put us where He wants us. For me, it was a quiet desire that began to well up in my heart. From that time on, I was on the trajectory to go into the ministry. The only other occupation I ever considered was law and politics.
When I was a junior in college I had an offer to be an intern in a congressional office. I came to a crisis at that point. I had to make a decision whether to accept that opportunity or continue toward ministry.
Why did you choose to attend Evangel College (now University) instead of attending a Bible college?
Wood: I did not make those choices. When I was young, I was shy. I did not feel comfortable giving an oral book report in high school. At age 10, I had broken one of my middle, upper front teeth, and I had never had it capped. When I smiled, I looked like one of the Our Gang characters. I had massive freckles and unruly red hair. I thought I was the ugliest person who ever lived. Because my parents moved every 8 or 9 months, I never had a social network. I became inward and socially awkward, physically awkward, and shy.
I began coming out of that toward the end of my high school years. When I prepared to go to college, I told Dad I wanted to go to Central Bible College. My brother, sister, and all my cousins who had gone into the ministry had attended there. He said, “George, you know I’ve had to take hard jobs to support myself in the ministry.” He had painted houses, worked in a factory, and carried mail.
He said, “I don’t want you to have to do that. The Assemblies of God has opened a new school. I want you to attend there and get a teaching degree so if you fail in the ministry, you will have something to fall back on.” That is why I attended Evangel. I double majored in history, and in religion and philosophy, with a minor in English.
When I finished, I was single and 20 years old. In 1962, where did you go in the Assemblies of God with that kind of a background? Who wanted you? If you went to Bible college, someone wanted you; but no one seemed interested in my educational background. So, I decided to continue my education.
I considered three seminaries, one in the East, one in the Midwest, and one in the West. God uses strange ways to guide us. There was a girl on the west coast in whom I was interested, so, I went West. She married someone else. She was in the perfect will of God. I realized through that incident, though, that sometimes what we think is an end is only God’s means of getting us where He wants us.
You also attended Fuller Theological Seminary. Tell us about that experience and the role higher education had in shaping your life and future ministry.
Wood: The experience I had at Fuller was phenomenal. In those days if you went to seminary, it was called cemetery. I was told that if I went to cemetery, I would lose my Pentecostal experience, and I would be lost to the Assemblies of God. Many people counseled me not to go.
It was a daunting experience. I had never been around people outside the Assemblies of God. At Fuller I had a roommate who was Presbyterian. I thought Presbyterians were icebox believers. It turned out that my Presbyterian roommate had greater personal piety than I did.
I learned from an incredible, stellar faculty composed of the luminaries of the evangelical world at the time: George Eldon Ladd, author of Jesus and the Kingdom; Geoffrey W. Bromiley, the church historian; Wilbur M. Smith; Everett F. Harrison; Edward John Carnell. These people were just phenomenal.
I learned from these professors, but I also learned to rebut the criticism that Pentecostals base their theology on their experience. It happened this way. In my first year I took a class with Gleason L. Archer, a Harvard intellectual who had written an introduction to the Old Testament. Archer knew about 20 ancient languages, such as Sumerian and Akkadian. I had Hebrew and Old Testament with him.
In an orientation class, a different professor came each week for 2 hours and allowed us to ask questions. Some of the students got into a question and answer debate with Archer on what the phrase “husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy 3:2,12 and Titus 1:6 meant.
Archer adamantly said, “husband of one wife means that the elder or the ordained minister can only have one wife in a lifetime. If your spouse dies and you remarry, you are disqualified from that role.” I thought, I’ve never heard that before; that’s extreme.
In my second year of seminary, Archer’s wife died. In my third year, he remarried. He dressed differently, acted like he was 30 years younger than he was, and changed his view on the text 180 degrees. I said to myself, Here is one of the most educated men in the evangelical world, and his experience has helped condition his theology.
There is danger in letting your experience shape your theology. But at the same time, what we as Pentecostals have done — when we have had an experience — is look in Scripture to see if there is any warrant for it. I think that is the key test. If there is no warrant in Scripture for the experience, then we need to question the experience or, at least, not make it universal. We need to regard it as we would Peter’s shadow — a unique event — because other people are not having the same phenomenon. But we can look at our Pentecostal experience and see that it is rooted in Scripture.
Many incidents occurred at Fuller that helped me see this. In fact, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, wrote a congratulatory note when I was elected general superintendent. I wrote back and expressed deep appreciation for the role Fuller played in my life and ministry.
The experience I had at Fuller made me believe that ministers need to get as deep an education as possible. When I was a younger minister, Robert Frost, one of my spiritual mentors, prayed for me and the other students. He said, “Lord, help them lay foundations that are strong enough to bear the weight You will later place on them.”
A formal theological education helps ministers build strong foundations for life and helps them avoid burnout. The reason people get burned out in the ministry is they do not have sufficient intellectual and spiritual resources to draw on to sustain them.
I walked into a pastor’s office when I was a younger minister. I looked at his library. It contained only books that were titled, Simple Sermon Outlines,and they had cobwebs on them. Some were unused. I thought to myself, This congregation is not getting fed, because he is not being fed. He will not last. This pastorate will not last.
Many ministers cannot afford to continue a formal education. Often their time and resources go toward supporting their families. But with the Internet, libraries, and the many resources available for learning, ministers have opportunity to continue their personal study and educational advancement.
Continual learning is critical. As a pastor, I spent about 20 hours a week in study and message preparation. I do not know how a pastor can feed people if he is not spending substantive time in study. The seminary experience gave me the tools, resources, and life disciplines to continue learning throughout my ministry.
Please share with our EJ readers the ministry and life-application lessons you learned while pastoring Newport-Costa Mesa Christian Center.
Wood: I knew beyond a doubt that God wanted me at Costa Mesa. It had already gone through a split and had fewer than 100 people. It continued to decline in my first 6 months. It was knowing that God wanted me there that helped me stay until the church righted itself.
Ward Williams, dean at Evangel University and one of my mentors, gave me some sound advice. I had left Evangel, where I was on faculty and also campus pastor, to take the Costa Mesa church. Williams said, “George, in the 1950s when Calvary Temple in Denver, Colorado (at that time an Assemblies of God church), began to grow, Charles Blair held seminars in his church that were attended by many people. After several years he began to notice he was getting some criticism from these people. They attended his seminar and then tried to do what Calvary Temple was doing. It was not working in their church. So, Blair adjusted his message. At the next seminar, Blair said, ‘Welcome to Calvary Temple. Learn all you can from our ministry, but when you go home, don’t build on Calvary Temple’s strengths or on Charles Blair’s strengths. Build on your own strengths.’ ”
Williams looked at me and said, “George, build on your own strengths.”
That was a tremendous piece of advice, because at the bottom of my personality is an insecurity complex. I needed to look carefully at my strengths. Natural ability and spiritual giftedness may be somewhat on a continuum. In many instances, spiritual giftedness may continue the natural graces God has given you.
I felt I had two biblical gifts — the gift of teaching and the gift of leadership. I decided to concentrate on those gifts and to also bring on the church board others who had different gifts — motivational gifts and charismatic gifts. For 17 years in that church I concentrated on those two things. This does not mean I neglected other things, only that my focus was on teaching and leadership. The church grew significantly, and it grew every year. Williams’ advice was one of the best pieces of advice I ever got.
I received another good piece of advice from J. Robert Ashcroft. As a young minister I had been on the floor of too many General Councils. At one General Council I had been to the microphone to comment on every issue. Ashcroft and I were eating breakfast, and he said to me, “George, I have a word from the Lord for you.” He took out a 3-by 5-inch card on which he had written: “Let your emphasis be on the creative and constructive above the critical and corrective.”
“George,” he said, “there’s nothing wrong with being critical and corrective, but don’t put your focus there. Focus on being creative and constructive.” This was a good word for me.
Another lesson I learned at Costa Mesa was the importance of unity in leadership. Out of my experience of venting to one of the deacons, I realized that if leadership is divided, the people will also be divided. For 17 years after that, I never made a major decision unless I had unanimous backing from the board. I only made one exception to this, and that was on a clear issue of right and wrong. Two board members were out of sync, and I made the decision with the majority rather than with a unanimous vote. I lost those two board members. The issue was that serious. It was one of those decisions I had to make.
In the first month of my pastorate I learned another valuable lesson. The lawn next to our A-frame sanctuary was overgrown with weeds. I did not think much about it, even though it was an eyesore. One day I was in my office praying, and I felt the Lord say, George, if you cannot take care of the grass, how can I trust you to take care of the people? A person can almost judge the spirituality of a church by three things: physical appearance, the condition of the men’s bathroom, and the pastor’s library. After we mowed the lawn and planted grass, the church began to grow.
When I came to the church, the people were giving about $5,000 a year to foreign and home missions. I am a missionary’s kid, so I know the importance of missions. Our monthly missionary commitments were $275 — most of those were $5 and $10 commitments. Finances became so bad that by mid-summer I was going down to the electric company to pay the bill the day they were going to shut off the power. We needed $400 to $500 a week to break even, and we were only getting $200 to $300 a week. Our preschool, which was founded to make money, was losing $1,000 a month. This was draining our general fund.
Things became so serious that the board and I were meeting every week at 6 a.m. in a private room in a restaurant. We would eat breakfast, pray, and then decide what bills to pay. About the third week into this, August 1971, one deacon said, “Since Pastor has been here, we have not made any of our missionary commitments.” We were 6 or 7 months behind.
He said, “I think we should take whatever comes in Sunday’s offering and pay at least 2 months missionary commitments before we pay any bills.”
They all thought that was a great idea, so they voted unanimously to do it. I was thinking, Oh, okay. So we prayed, and then the deacon who made the motion after prayer said, “You understand that means we will be unable to pay your salary as well.”
I said, “I really hadn’t understood that, but that’s okay. Let’s go with it.”
I was determined not to tell the congregation that the church had financial needs. This was not because I had George Mueller faith; I was embarrassed that the church was doing so poorly under my leadership. When it came time to take the offering, I called the ushers forward and said, “Let’s receive the morning tithes and offering.” We had the normal prayer over the offering. I did the same thing in the evening service.
I never allowed the offering to be counted during the service because that is a sure way for deacons to backslide. They are never in the service because they are always counting money.
After the altar service on Sunday night, the two deacons who had counted the offering came to me smiling. They said, “Guess what the offering was today.”
I said, “I don’t know, tell me.”
They said, “The offering was $1,353.”
I replied, “You’re kidding.”
Later I looked in the church’s records. There had only been one offering in the history of the church larger than that. The church had sent a missions team to the Caribbean and had made a special effort to raise money. I still get chills when I think about it because it was miraculous to have an offering that size.
I went to my office the next day. As I was praying, I asked the Lord what lessons I needed to learn from this. The Lord said two things: This is My church and not yours. I am not interested in building this church on your personality. I am interested in building this church on Mine. Second, Put Me and My kingdom first, and I’ll take care of you.
Seventeen years later, in 1988, we were giving $45,000 a month to missions. Those were anchoring lessons from the early days.
I learned a good work ethic from my dad. Even though the church had never had any pastor that kept office hours, I was at the church at 8 a.m., and I left at 4:30 p.m. If a dry cleaner has business hours and he is not in the business of human destiny, then a church needs to have business hours.
While pastoring share an important lesson you learned about hiring staff.
Wood: I did something a little unusual as a pastor. I do not know how I will repeat it as general superintendent. We never added a staff member that we could afford at the time we added him. My personal belief in staff is that they are to equip the laity for ministry, not to take jobs away from the laity. If you have a good staff, you will multiply ministers.
We came to a point about the 14th or 15th year in my pastorate where many things had developed. Our early childhood center had more than 200 children under age 5. We had a great senior high program with 200 teens. But we had a miserable junior high program. We might have had 10 to 12 junior high students. We desperately needed to improve the program.
Our financial situation had changed when we moved into our new facilities. At our old facilities we had about a $1,200-a-month mortgage payment. At the new facilities we had a $30,000 a month mortgage payment. It was touch and go all the time. The church treasurer was like the widow who had the cruse of oil.
I went to the board and said, “I know a young man who is graduating from college. I think he would make an excellent junior high pastor. He is trying to choose between coming on staff at our church, if we will authorize it, or teaching school this year. I would like to bring him on staff as full-time junior high pastor.”
The board said, “Pastor, we always try to implement your decisions regarding staff, but this time we are stretched. You know how stretched we are. We don’t see how this can be done.”
Everyone I spoke with said, “George, it just can’t be done.”
I was not going to bulldoze over people; I do not believe in that. I did ask the board, “Would you mind, then, if I appoint a committee to evaluate our junior high ministry?” They agreed. So I asked three members of the board to serve on the committee.
The next month they said, “We spoke with our junior high students. We realize how severe this problem is. Our own children do not want to go to this church. They are bored and disinterested. While we cannot afford it, Pastor is right — we need to do something.”
So we brought this young man on staff. Within 1 year we had 200 students in the junior high program. The new families that came into the church because of our junior high minister more than paid for his salary. I learned from that situation a critical lesson that most church boards do not understand: Add staff for growth, not for maintenance.
We practice this principle on the mission field. We do not wait until there is an existing national church before we send a missionary. We send a missionary and pioneer the field. Why not use the same approach at home, when we need a qualified person to get a ministry under way?
In youth ministry, I learned there is a difference between fishing with a fishing pole and fishing with a net. Some youth ministers are terrific at fishing with a fishing pole, but the group never grows. They inordinately spend time with a few, but they do not have the ability to catch people while discipling others. Jesus did both. He took the smaller group members and discipled them, but He also had a wide net with which He embraced many people. When you are hiring people on staff, if you do not have an understanding of what you are looking for — especially in youth and children’s ministries —look for net fishers.
With the net, people can disciple. John 21 explains it well when Jesus did the miraculous catch of fish and then commissioned Peter. You catch the fish, but you must also disciple the sheep. Pastors must be able to do both.