David Powlison: Winston, I’m really glad you and I get to sit down and talk and do some reflecting on not only 23 years of your past, but also what you’re heading toward. How did you wind up here? Give us a bit of the trajectory of your life.
Winston Smith: I always tell people that I only know how to do two things because I’ve only ever had two jobs. When I graduated from college with a degree in philosophy, I worked at a pet store because having a degree in philosophy is like having a degree in unemployment. And then I worked here. So my fallback position is the pet store. [Laughs]
Honestly, I came to Westminster to study not really knowing what I wanted to do. As a kid, I had some sense of a call to pastoral ministry but one of the responses I heard several times was, “If you can be happy doing something else, you probably should.” It was not inspirational. So I tried to find other things to do. I started out in computer science. It was fine. I could do it, but I didn’t find it fulfilling. Then I took a class on philosophy and religion and found it really interesting to study the questions of life. I thought, here’s a way to get people talking about what’s important as well as earn a living, so I started thinking about higher education. I thought maybe I’d pursue PhD work in biblical studies or Christian ethics. I considered how I could help people to live if I wasn’t a pastor. So I got a degree in philosophy of religion. My professors suggested I pursue an MDiv because you can’t do biblical studies without Greek and Hebrew. And from there, the plan was to go on to a PhD program.
My wife Kim and I married in December of 1989, and I started classes at Westminster in January of 1990. The first class I took was John Bettler’s class called the Biblical View of Self-Image and Self-Esteem. John took 1 & 2 Corinthians as his lens for engaging with the cultural conversation at the time, which had to do with self-image and self-esteem. He used Scripture in incredibly practical ways that were culturally relevant and conversant. I thought, “He’s doing right now what I have imagined doing.” So during the break in that very first class, not knowing anything about him or CCEF or biblical counseling, I said, “What do I need to do to do what you’re doing?” He said, “Well hang out and take more counseling classes.”. So that’s what I did. I was in the MDiv pastoral track and switched to the general track and loaded all my electives with counseling material.
In the spring semester, Kim and I both took Ed Welch’s class that’s now Problems & Procedures. It was like a buffet of “you give me a problem, and I’ll give you a biblical way of thinking about it.” Bipolar. Schizophrenia. You name it, and there’s a way in. And that just lit my brain on fire. I thought, “This is a goldmine, a jackpot.” I got really excited about it. That was the nexus that I was looking for—How do you help people to live the way Scripture directs you to?
In the fall of 1993, I started an internship here at CCEF., I did just what John Bettler had told me to do: I stuck around. They gave me about three or four cases, and I met with Ed once a week. To me, that was a dream come true. I’m sitting in a room with Ed Welch talking about counseling once a week. I was just trying to catch whatever falls out of his mouth. Where else could I possibly be that would be this significant, than here and now learning how to do ministry in a way that I thought really would make a difference in people’s lives?
David Powlison: One story I like to tell is the way I first got to know Winston. I was teaching Theology & Secular Psychology at Westminster Seminary. It was a large classroom, and Winston was sitting in the back row. Now the back row is notorious for people who are goofing off. Yes, they’re all seminarians, but it doesn’t mean they’re all holy. But I had this very vivid impression that Winston was really thinking, he was extremely insightful, and he got it. He’s the rare voice from the back row that would ask these very perceptive questions and make these intelligent comments in class.
Winston Smith: A voice crying in the wilderness.
David Powlison: [Laughs] Yes, you made an impression on all of us who were at CCEF at the time. Those early signs of promise really came true. God’s given you a lot of gifts, balance, skillfulness, and insight into people, into relationships, and into Scripture.
Winston Smith: I appreciate that, David.
David Powlison: You’ve done a range of things the past 23 years: you’ve taught, you’ve done a lot of counseling, you’ve mentored, you’ve done writing, you’ve written a book on marriage, you’ve told an awful lot of jokes… What stands out? What’s the impact? What do you take away that means so much to you?
Winston Smith: I walk away with an important, balanced view of the Christian life and how ministry works. I think I started where I needed to start, with a deep dive into the Bible, biblical theology and how to handle the Scriptures. I spent a long time just reading, reading, reading, studying, and learning theology. Also, I learned that you do have to be skilled with people. You can’t just know the Bible. You need to be a skilled exegete of people as well as Scripture. They mutually inform one another. You need to learn how to love people wisely. So I learned to value skill and wisdom as well.
But I’ve come to a place that I realize that there are so many moving parts that God uses to move people along in life, and you’re only one part of what he’s doing. If it’s not Spirit-led and guided, then you don’t know what you’re doing, and it doesn’t matter what you think you’re doing. I’ve learned to play my role, but prayerfully and with open hands. I’ve tried not to over-steer. I’ve tried not to let myself be too important, but be responsible and wise. I really have doubled and re-doubled my appreciation for how important the community of the church is and how important worship is. I see what a difference it makes for my counselees who have a church family, who get fed love, who get fed in worship.
David Powlison: And they have a context to love and to worship. A biblical vision is the only one in the world that thinks the goal of our lives is to worship and to love.
Winston Smith: The people I see suffering the most and finding it the most difficult to navigate life are people who are separated from the church, living in broken relationships where they feel as if they have to find God’s love alone. For me, I have begun to realize more and more that I don’t want to do ministry behind closed doors. I want to be more proactive in people’s lives, in a community, in public worship, in life’s events, at bedsides, at funerals, at weddings, in living rooms. It’s not that I couldn’t do that before. But as a pastor, I get to do it with a clearly sacramental role.
To people on the outside, this career change may seem dramatic and sudden, but it hasn’t been that way. It’s been a very natural transformation. It’s happened more quickly than I thought it would. My intention all along was to continue to serve here at CCEF and slot part-time pastoral ministry into that. I thought maybe I’d do full-time parish ministry years down the road.
But then an opportunity came up that seemed like a perfect fit. It wasn’t just something I wanted but it was something that people I respect were saying, “This would be very good for this congregation and this would be really good for you.” So I’m starting out as a full-time minister. I’m on a steep learning curve, but I believe it’s what God is calling me to do.
David Powlison: As you’ve been growing in your vision for ministry, you’ve also been simply living as a man who’s a child of God, who has life hardships, who needs grace. Could you just say a bit about your personal faith in Christ? What are critical passages, truths, and realities that have caught fire for you over the last 23 years that anchor your sense of identity as a Christian and as a person?
Winston Smith: To start, I was really given to anxiety as a boy and a young man. It was anxiety, in part, linked to the need for comprehensive meaning. I was a young existentialist. I remember finding a lot of help in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. I remember getting to Westminster, and one of the passages that really locked in for me was Jesus’ summary of the law. It was his ability to say, “I can take all of this rich revelation and make it accessible you. Two things really matter: love of God and love of neighbor, and they’re both about relationships. So if you want to know what God really values and what he’s about—it’s relationship.” So this automatic prioritizing happens. All this stuff around you really exists to glorify God and the way that you love him and people. That’s how you decide what you’re going to do with your stuff and your activity and your energy. You’re going to love God and you’re going to love people. All kinds of wisdom questions then follow about how you’re going to do that. But in one sense, it simplifies a lot. I brought that understanding to the way I did counseling and to the way that I reworked and made the marriage counseling curriculum material my own, and in the Marriage Matters book.
In the last ten years, another truth that has struck me has been thinking about Jesus as near rather than far. I’ve grown in my understanding that the Holy Spirit, while a unique person of the Trinity, is often considered the spirit of Christ because of his critical role of communicating Christ to us. He is the way that Christ is made manifest to us in that we are temples of the Living God. I’ve spent time focusing on his nearness and his presence. I’ve tried to spend more time being still. Instead of letting my own mind be the mechanism of God’s communication, I’ve focused on being alert to the Spirit’s leading and prompting and the immediacy of that.
David Powlison: It’s interesting that you started talking about the two great commandments and then you shared about God’s gift of himself to us, that he loves us. That’s often struck me. The two great commandments in many different ways drive us to realize our need for the gospel, our need for a Savior, including the fact that maybe we’re poor at relationships or that we fail or we get distracted.
You also talked about anxiety. Anxiety, in my experience, is premised on, “There’s nobody near. It’s just me in a world that’s big and out of control.” If in fact God is near and he loves me, it changes the whole script and it gives this foundation in which loving him back and loving others becomes the meaning of life.
So, Winston will you be involved at all at CCEF in the future?
Winston Smith: Time will tell. I have an active mind, and I’m a curious person. I’ve been advised to make sure that I stay alive academically, and the church has given me permission to pursue things that I’m interested in. But right now, my mind is so full of what I don’t know about how to be a full-time pastor that it’s hard for me to imagine making room for other things. But I’m sure that time will come. I do aim to live not just locally within my parish, but within a greater community of people and churches. Pastoral care and counseling is going to continue to be important to me and I hope to make contributions in those areas.
One non-negotiable is that I have a book about emotions that I’m writing with Alasdair Groves that we’re going to finish. That will be the number one priority outside of my parish.
David Powlison: Would you give us a summary of how we can pray for you?
Winston Smith: I think the temptation for me and for many when you’re doing something new is to feel anxiety and pressure and in that to get too active and become grabby and over-steer. I want to enter into this new phase with a childlike faith that’s humble, willing to learn, and willing to make mistakes, and in that assume and know God’s care and guidance. I’ve made the worst mistakes in my life when I felt anxious and pressured and I just did something because I felt like I needed to do something. It’s much better not to do something when you don’t know what to do. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Pray that I would know God’s peace and move slowly and wisely as I’m doing something new.
David Powlison: I’ve learned over a lot of years of counseling that a time will come in a conversation when I won’t know what to say next to the person. I need the Lord to give wisdom. What question do you ask? What do you say? How do you help? Counseling has a lovely way, if we approach it rightly, of making us to know our own need.
Winston Smith: When you don’t know what to do, and you find the peace of Christ in the midst of that in front of your counselee, you’re actually doing something important that they need to witness.
David Powlison: Exactly. So, has the reality of the transition hit you yet?
Winston Smith: I’m already answering emails from both places—from CCEF and from the church. I’m already starting to feel the pull of two worlds. It will sink in for me and for others soon enough, and it will be difficult. Please pray for my counselees, too. I have worked very closely with some of them for long periods of time and now, because of my departure, they’re in pain.
Thank you, David, for this time to share and process.
David Powlison: Of course, Winston. Let me pray for you.
Our Father, I am grateful for the direction that our conversation took. There are things we’re meant to do, but our lives are not summed up by a list of achievements or a resume. They’re summed up by the kind of life we live and that we would live with integrity. I pray that Winston would in fact live as we have talked, that he would not over-steer his life, that he would be humble and teachable and that he would take risks and cheerfully fail, dust himself off, and come back to Christ for grace and seek to again reach people, to the places you’ve called him to love and serve well. Make him full of charity, full of a goodness, full of a genuineness in his worship of you. And through that, Lord, then bring fruit through his preaching his teaching, his friendship, the informal moments, the way he conducts the worship service that it would never be done simply by a routine. We also pray for the men and women who have sought his aid. I pray that each one of them would navigate this change with grace and that they would find that the Christ of whom Winston has spoken is in fact with them and will not abandon them. I pray that they would embrace that truth at a deeper level and while they feel the loss of someone who has been valuable, they would yet anchor their hearts in you.