Ken Whitten: Senior Pastor, Idlewild Baptist Church, Lutz, FL
Ken Whitten admits that his weakness can be that he allows too many opinions to come to the table. “I am a collective leader, which means I detest making decisions or casting vision from a vacuum.” He sees his church, Idlewild Baptist Church, a 12,000-member church in Lutz, FL, as being pastor-led, deacon-served, ministry-organized and church-approved.
A growing new campus of 143 acres — in fact, they have relocated twice in 12 years — and 725 new members just last year, it is an exciting time for the congregation. In fact “exciting” is the slogan for the congregation. “’Exciting Idlewild’ was a name I joyfully and gratefully inherited more than 22 years ago,” Whitten, 57, says. “The former pastor and staff coined that phrase because that’s who we are. I have always said jokingly that my fear is being sued for false advertisement. But Idlewild is a body of believers who are excited about loving and serving Jesus.”
Who was the pastor of your youth and what is your conversion story?
My pastor growing up was my Uncle Archie Grigg, a man who was a soul-winner, loved God’s Word, and taught me to love Jesus. I was saved at age 7, but much like being married, I had so much to learn. It seems back then all the sermons had only five themes. We heard a different sermon each week, but when they were finished, each could fit in any one of these categories: Hell’s Hot – Sin’s Dark – Judgment isSure – Heaven’s Sweet – and Jesus Saves.
At age 7 I knew I was a sinner and in need of a Savior. I gave all I knew of me to all I knew of him. He took me then and has kept me now.
What a Savior!
Who were your parents, and was there any one thing in your family that made you the person you are today?
I was the youngest of six children born to my parents, Casey and Elsie Whitten. If you looked closely, you could tell I was the youngest because my cheeks were pinched more than all my siblings. Dad went home to be with the Lord in 2004 at age 86. Mom is now 93. She’s my greatest prayer warrior. Both my parents were people of humble means. My dad taught me to tithe, and mom taught me to read God’s Word daily.
Dad was a deacon, and mom was everything a pastor would want in a church member. I am a man who loves Jesus, loves the church, and loves people because of them. Going back to church on Sunday evening and Wednesday night was never up for a vote. Because the “Wizard of Oz” came on TV on Sunday night, I never saw the entire movie until I was in college. We were poor from the world’s standard, but in heaven’s economy, very, very rich.
You appear to be a very approachable, relational man. Is there any one thing that accounts for that today?
Perhaps growing up with six siblings and with three older sisters, and at times feeling like I had four moms – may have contributed to me loving people, wanting to “mother” them a little, and be their friend. My dad was a lot like my grandmother (his mother): humble, friendly, respectful of others, and he knew how to love and get along with people.
Obviously, family plays a big part, but faith does as well. God’s grace is overwhelming to me. At the foot of the cross, it’s level. No one struts in his presence. The more I look into God’s Word, the more it looks and lives into me. Paul said it better than me, but it’s how I want to live: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor. 4:5, NKJV) (Emphasis added.)
You’ve been called “sincere, genuine and transparent” and “not a preacher; he’s a people’s pastor.” Do you see yourself that way?
At this question I feel a little like the man who received a medal for being humble. He wore it so they took it away from him. I try to be those things, but that’s not how I would want to describe myself. It is true – I love people, sometimes too much because I’ll make myself sick to make others well. That’s not good. I can say this: If that’s how people see me it is because they do see Jesus in me because surely he is all of those things.
Is there anything that can really make you angry?
I always marvel at the emotions of Jesus Christ because he never was angry for himself. He became angry at how poor people were treated, how his Father was not revered and worshipped, how religious rulers became more important than real relationships. He was angry at injustice, prejudice, sin and Satan.
I get angry when a goal of mine gets blocked. My anger is not always righteous. When I do not feel respected at home,
I get angry. When I see people use the church, but not love the church,
I get angry. There’s only one letter different in “anger” and “danger.” I want to be “good and mad.” I want to “be angry and sin not.” But truthfully some days my anger is so self-serving and immature, I’m ashamed when I get angry.
I’m a lover, not a fighter, so anger isn’t something you see a whole lot from me. I love life, people and the Lord too much. Life’s too short to be angry. My wife, Ginny, always says, “Dogs get mad, you shouldn’t.” So true.
You mention family as being important to you. I know you take a long vacation annually with the entire extended family at Sanibel Island (far right photo). What takes place, other than relaxation, during that time?
Each of our four children – two sons, two daughters – and their spouses are responsible one day for the evening meal, family games and devotions. We laugh a lot, and whether it’s golfing, fishing, shopping or just hanging out at the pool or the beach, one thing is for sure, it’s a sweet week of being with just family.
Is there anything you and Ginny have done over the years of your kids’ growing up that has made “family” so special — and apparently so successful?
Our children’s walk with God is more of a tribute to their mom than their pastor. As you know in ministry, family time and church time can really be a competition for one’s devotion and heart. Never, and let me say it again, never have I heard Ginny say to the kids, “Well, your dad can’t be there because he has a ‘church thing’ to go to.” Or, “You know your dad, church always comes first.”
First of all, she knew that wasn’t true. There have been times my wife has taken second place, and over the years, I’ve learned to repent and change that, but Ginny and I both have always felt our kids belong to the Lord and to us and not to the church. Years ago I made a pact with my kids: You come hear me preach, and I’ll be there at your swim meets, ballet recitals, baseball games, soccer games, and band and choir concerts. They’ve kept their end and still do, and I have as well. Ginny is a great mom, and while they know their parents aren’t perfect (far from it!), we try to be the real deal. My kids are the real deal too – all four of them and their spouses.
Our October issue carried a story about the difficulties that pastors’ wives have in the shadows of their husbands’ ministries. Was there anything that you and Ginny talked about or agreed to early in your marriage/ministry that has carried both of you though the strains of ministry that so many other pastors face — not always successfully?
Perhaps not consciously, but I can tell you this. Ginny has never seen herself living in anybody’s shadow, especially mine. I am free to be available to meet our church’s needs and our staff’s desires because of her. She makes it easy to do that. We are a team. We are both called.
She is my greatest cheerleader and a great prayer warrior. She knows when I’m quiet, I’m thinking – probably about church. She sits in different locations in church, she sings in the choir and is very active in the body, but if faced with the choice to hear her husband preach or watch our son pitch, guess what she’ll choose? A sermon CD only costs $4.00. She’s probably heard that one before, but there’s only one high school baseball career. She’s going with my blessing to represent us both. Only difference is — she won’t yell at the umpire like I might. Oh yeah, that’s another thing that can make me mad.
I count 126 deacons of the church in the ministry plan; what functions do so many people carry out? Where are the month to month decisions made?
Our deacons play a vital role in this body we call Idlewild. They are not a board – we do not find that in the Bible. In fact, the only board in the Bible is the one Paul floated on in the Mediterranean. They are servants. They serve widows in our fellowship, and they do something else. They give great collective counsel to their pastor. It’s a great marriage when you have a group of men who are close to the church family and serve them; why wouldn’t you want to know their answers to the questions of “Are we going to fast, too slow? Are we okay? Are we clear in communicating the vision? Is there something that needs changed?”
We have very few committees, but three very busy committees in our structure — Personnel, Finance and Stewardship, and Missions.
Deacons trust staff. Staff trusts committees. Committees trust staff, and the church trusts staff and structure.
For a physical plant that large on 143 acres, is there a management structure that you use to get the work done in an orderly fashion? Do staff have annual goals to meet?
We have 22 pastors and an incredible staff of managers and directors that I have the privilege of doing life with and who are the arms and legs of our ministry. We have a Leadership Team comprised of department heads that meet weekly for two hours. Additionally, we have a weekly two-hour pastoral staff meeting for encouragement, biblical instruction and communication, and a monthly two-hour M2 meeting (ministers and managers) for vision casting, planning, and settling staff and scheduling conflicts. Then monthly our entire staff gathers for our All Staff Breakfast – we call this meeting our Monthly Rally. We publish the Rally Rag listing birthdays, anniversaries and special recognition for the month. We have door prizes, reward staff with praise and encouraging cards, and sometimes monetary gifts as well. Rally stands for R – Recognition; A – Appreciation; L – Laugh; L – Look Ahead; and Y – Your Pastor.
How many direct reports to you have? How close are you to most of the decisions, or are you more engaged with the vision of the church and what is coming on line?
My executive pastor, Brian McDougall, reports to me, and I am indirectly responsible for all of our pastoral staff. They know I am available to them, and Brian knows they have access to me any day, any time, and anywhere. One of the things we are getting better at every day is evaluating everything we do after we do it. What worked? What would we do different? What didn’t work? Why did we have the response we had? Who did well? Who did not?
You’ve served on the SBC’s International Mission Board and other missions units. Your church budgeted last year for $1,840,070 for missions work. The Great Commission Resurgence of the SBC has brought recommendations for evangelization. What do you see being accomplished there now that will be meaningful?
One of the highlights of my life was serving as a trustee for eight years with our International Mission Board. I was privileged to serve on the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCR). For the GCR to be effective, it has to be more than a byline or a slogan. Churches have to catch the vision for the thousands of people groups without the gospel and sacrifice personal and corporate wealth to get the gospel to penetrate lostness. Two things have always brought Southern Baptists together – missions and evangelism. I see great days ahead for the SBC in those two areas. www.Idlewild.org
When the congregation has ‘celebrity’ members
Tony Dungy was very active while he was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He and Lauren served in our preschool ministry, served ice cream at Vacation Bible School, helped with our recreation ministry, and when we planted a church in central Tampa, they became very active there. Their children are active in our Saturday recreation ministry, and his kids sing in our Children’s Choir programs on Wednesday evenings. Tony and Lauren have never seen themselves as celebrities, only as servants. They are the real deal.
I feel a little uncomfortable talking about high profile people who attend Idlewild. James reminds us the ground at the foot of the cross is level.
One great characteristic about Idlewild is that even though the Yankees Spring Training is in Tampa and people like Andy Pettitte, Joe Giraldi and Mariano Rivera have attended, and people like Lou Piniella, who is a member and active here, we do not get star struck, and those folks are treated like everyone else. That’s the way the Lord wants it, they want it, and we want it. — KW