Rich Stearns will retire as president of World Vision, the Christian humanitarian agency known for its focus on children, after two decades building it into one of America’s largest charities.
On Tuesday (Jan. 9), the day he made the announcement, he tweeted:
“Today, after 20 years as President of @WorldVisionUSA, I announced my intention to retire at the end of 2018. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity to serve with some of the most amazing faith heroes on the planet – my colleagues all across the world. Thank you Lord!”
During his tenure, World Vision grew to collect $1 billion in annual revenue in 2017, making the 67-year-old ministry No. 15 on Forbes’ list of the nation’s largest charities. The agency’s statement on Stearns cites its “two million supporters, child sponsors, and partners and says it is on track to serve 30 million children by 2022.”
That track was nearly derailed in March 2014, however, with a blowup in Christian evangelical circles over how World Vision would deal with LGBT employees.
Stearns wrote to employees that the board agreed to alter the employee conduct manual for the U.S. branch of World Vision to recognize same-sex marriage as being within the norms of “abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage.” At the same time, he wrote, “we are not sliding down some slippery slope of compromise, nor are we diminishing the authority of Scripture in our work.”
Two painful days later, the agency reversed course. It faced withering criticism from conservative evangelicals such as Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Rev. Franklin Graham, who called the move “ungodly.”
Worse, to the child-focused agency, it lost nearly 5,000 sponsors who had been paying $35 a month to support impoverished children. Stearns said it was difficult to see that in all the “confusion and dissonance” of the new policy, “discussion of the good work of the agency had been taken off the table and out of the discussion,” he told RNS.
“We made certainly, in retrospect, a bad decision, but we did it with the right motivations. Our regret is that we caused more division instead of finding a place of more unity,” he said.
Then Stearns called for as much passionate attention to be given to the issues of poverty and suffering.
This has been his theme ever since he left the corporate life in 1998 to follow what felt like “a call from God on his life” to join the Seattle-based parachurch ministry.
And it remains his focus. In a July essay for Christianity Today, Stearns, 66, gently chided Christians for being “prone to ’cause ADD,’ lurching from one crisis response to another.” He urged a steady focus on defeating relentless hunger, poverty and the pains of the global refugee crisis.
Commenting on Stearns’ retirement, Moore — setting aside the 2014 controversy — told RNS that the World Vision leader “creatively and persuasively called Christians to follow the path of Jesus, toward a faith that believes and a faith that acts. Rich never forgot that Jesus loves us, body and soul, and in his amazing global leadership he taught us how to do likewise.”
Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, called Stearns “a rare find — an effective leader, a prophetic voice and a willing learner— all in the same person.”
The World Vision board said it would initiate a search for Stearns’ replacement, “diligently seeking God’s will” and using an executive search firm that specializes in Christian ministries.