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LIFE at Wheaton Bible Church last interviewed Senior Pastor Rob Bugh in 2011, shortly before his book, When the Bottom Drops Out: Finding Grace in the Depths of Disappointment, was released. The conversation then focused primarily on the writing of the book and the circumstances in Rob’s life that led him to write it. (You can read that interview at wheatonbible.org/LIFE, in the fall 2011 issue.)
Now, on the occasion of his twentieth anniversary as our Senior Pastor, we visited with Rob again, covering a wide range of topics related to his life and his twenty years of ministry at Wheaton Bible Church.
I came from a broken, dysfunctional family. My father was an alcoholic who drank himself to death when I was 13. On top of that, just prior to his death, my parents had divorced. I went through high school and half of college drinking and partying. Although I didn’t know it then, I was becoming like my dad.
When I was in college, I met a couple of guys who were followers of Christ. We got to know each other, and they told me about Jesus. At first I thought they were nice guys who just weren’t having any fun because they weren’t getting loaded on the weekends.
Then they gave me a couple of books that really had an impact on me. The first was an amazing argument for the existence of God; the second was about Christ. When I finished those, they suggested I start reading the Gospels, and when I did, I realized that Jesus wasn’t who I thought He was—just a nice guy—but God the Son, and that He said you either have a relationship with Him and go to heaven someday, or you don’t have a relationship, and you end up in hell. Those truths were written some two thousand years ago, but they rang more true to me than anything else I had ever read.
My response? I gave myself to Jesus Christ, and my life was totally, completely, and wonderfully changed.
In your faith story you talk about your growing-up years. Were they as bleak as they sound?
It depends. My dad was sort of a benign drunk but so enslaved he couldn’t work. My mom was a rock. Before my parents’ divorce and my dad’s death, they had been separated on and off for years. My dad lived with my grandparents. Ours was pretty much a typical midwestern town, where appearances were important. I came from a relatively affluent family, and they were trying to kind of suppress my dad’s problem—“keep up the family image.”
My mom was not a Christ follower, but she was a strong, amazing woman—a good mother, very focused on us kids, and she never complained. Never said a negative word about my dad or about anybody else that I can remember. I’m sure she had her moments, but as a result all three of us kids are reasonably well-adjusted, sort of normal. My first wife, Carol, and I were married for twenty-seven years before I lost her, and my siblings have also enjoyed long, stable marriages. We have a lot to be thankful for.
What kind of kid were you?
I was a good student and a decent athlete, but I was also a wild, arrogant, foul-mouthed non-Christian who thought he was the center of the world.
And that was pretty much who you were when you headed off to college?
Yes. I majored in business—in finance—with the goal of making a lot of money.
But something happened in college that changed the trajectory of your life. You talk about a friend who gave you a book.
It was a guy named Gary. I was one of the leaders of a fraternity at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Gary was a freshman then and was considering joining our fraternity, and so I sat down and said, “Gary, I really want you to consider becoming a Beta.”
And Gary said, “Well, Rob, to tell you the truth, I have to go home over Christmas and see what the Lord wants me to do.”
Nobody had every personalized a relationship with God in my presence before. When Gary said that, it kind of blew me away, so we spent the next hour and a half unpacking his story.
I wasn’t really interested in his faith, but I was a little curious about him—and I had an ulterior motive: I wanted him to join our fraternity. At the same time, Gary was thinking, How can I help Rob join the Kingdom?
Gary was kind of Mr. Everything in high school. He came from a successful family and was quarterback of the football team, a scratch golfer, captain of the swimming team, a high-achieving student—and he had a nervous breakdown his senior year in high school. When he was in the hospital, a guy from Young Life started visiting him and led Gary to the Lord. Six months later, Gary was a student at SMU, and three months after that he was sharing his story with me. He was a brand-new Christian, and he was telling me how Jesus Christ had changed his life.
That began a friendship. Gary ended up joining our fraternity, and he is the one who put Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis and then Basic Christianity by John Stott, into my hands. I also started spending time with a couple of guys who were leading Young Life at SMU. They were Stanford grads and students at Dallas Seminary, and those guys were really smart. I had a lot of questions, and they could answer them.
Over months of thinking and talking to these guys, I realized that God had to exist and that Jesus Christ had to be who he claimed to be, so when I was a sophomore in college, Christ saved me.
Did your life begin to change?
Radically. Immediately. I was a wild guy. I was smoking dope. I was drinking a lot. I was running around. I had girlfriends. I was the vice president of our fraternity, setting up wild fraternity parties every weekend—and all of a sudden God took all that away, and I began to share my story with guys in the fraternity house.
By the end of the semester, I pretty much lost every single friend I had in the fraternity because of the change in my life—because I wasn’t doing the things they wanted to do. But we started a Bible study in the fraternity, and we saw some people come to Christ.
Not initially. I was still a business major. The Dallas Seminary guys were discipling me and giving me opportunities to teach Bible studies—which I wasn’t very good at. But God gave me an appetite for teaching His Word, so after I graduated with my business degree, I went to Dallas Seminary, thinking I wanted to be a youth pastor.
How did your family respond?
The whole idea of my coming to faith was a problem for them. My mother didn’t have the slightest idea about how to talk to her friends at the country club about my becoming what was, from her perspective, a Jesus freak. I tended to be a loudmouth, so we had lots of battles. I was sort of the typical hotheaded kid trying to save the world.
What came next?
My first job after I graduated from seminary was as a youth pastor in Neenah, Wisconsin. Carol and I had been married just a little over a year. I was at that church for nine years, about halfway through transitioning into adult ministry, focusing on evangelism and discipleship and small groups.
Around that time we had dinner with Duane Litfin, who had been a professor of mine at Dallas Seminary. At that time he was Senior Pastor of a church in Memphis, Tennessee, and he told me he was looking for an Executive Pastor. To make a long story short, not long after that we packed up and moved to Memphis, where I oversaw the staff and other aspects of administration at the First Evangelical Church.
Four years later, when Duane left to become the president of Wheaton College, I was called on to preach almost every week. I had only preached occasionally before that, but the experience made me realize how much I enjoyed the whole process.
So when Duane told me about a conversation he’d had with a man named Chuck Stair, who was on the search committee for a new Senior Pastor for a church in Wheaton, I was interested.
What were your first impressions of the people you met at WBC?
I was really impressed with the people I met on the search committee and the Elder board, and as I spoke in several different venues. I was just like a kid in a candy store thinking, This is really going to be fun.
Were you concerned about some of the unrest the church had gone through in preceding years?
People had warned me, “You don’t want to go to Wheaton. People are really hard to get along with. You’ll get chewed up and spit out.” Maybe I just didn’t know any better, but I thought, you know, If this is what God wants us to do. . . . Duane Litfin continued to give us good counsel. And Chuck Stair was the chairman of the nominating committee, and he was huge in our lives. Chuck was very persuasive and winsome, and I was really impressed with the search committee and with people like Glen Heck who were part of that process.
Your son, Ryan, was a baby at that point, but how did the girls feel about the move?
My girls were ten, eight, and six. So they were a little too young to really get it. If Mom and Dad were excited, they were going to be excited. And one of the nice things about being in a larger church is that you’re not quite in the public eye all the time. My personal ministry commitment was always to be myself wherever I am, so I really tried to keep my kids from feeling as if we were somehow different.
For me personally, I might add, Wheaton Bible Church was an intimidating place, because in the first couple of years I was here, I had all these people in the church giving me books. That was really nice, but the problem was they were all books these members of my church had written—people who were professors at Moody or Wheaton, or mission leaders, or authors, or scholars who worked on the various Bible translations.
But I decided I was going to try to be myself and not try to “out-scholar the scholars” in our church or to impress people. I was going to lean into God, not into public approval. I take seriously my ministry in the pulpit and the teaching
of God’s Word. But I’m also, by God’s grace, fairly comfortable in my own skin. And that’s really been God’s grace in my life over the years.
Stepfamilies and Giant Steps
When you were last interviewed in life in 2011, you were about four years into being part of a blended family. Yes. Most people in our church know that Rhonda and I both lost our spouses to cancer within just a little over a year. She was married to Dr. Tom Williams, one of my closest friends, who was taken by an aggressive cancer in 2005. We were still reeling from that loss when my wife, Carol, herself got a cancer diagnosis. After she spent a year fighting that horrible disease, we lost her in August of 2006.
I never could have imagined after those shattering losses that Rhonda and I would marry and experience the kind of joy that God has given as we’ve built a life together. God is good.
While I am busy with ministry, Rhonda continues in her pediatrics practice—and her patients love her! She tells me that she works part-time, but what I’ve learned is that when a physician works part-time, it’s more like a full-time job. She is just an outstanding doctor, and I am so proud of her.
Back in 2011, your family numbered eleven? Yes. Today there are a total of fourteen—when we can all get together. I had four kids and Rhonda had three. Four of our kids are married, and we have three singles. Ryan, our youngest, is a sophomore, studying business at Clemson University. Christine, Rhonda’s youngest daughter, is in her second year of grad school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. My youngest daughter, Alissa, is living and working in the city. Those are our singles.
Shannon, the oldest, is married to Luke. They are parents to our only grandchild and are missionaries in Asia. Nate, Rhonda’s son, is married to Sarah, and they live in Indianapolis. Kyle, my second daughter, comes next; she’s married to Eric, and they live in California. Kyle is expecting our second grandchild, and she’s due at the end of September. Kelly is married to Jared, who serves with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in California. So we have two in California. One in Indianapolis. One in Asia, and no grandkids around here.
Are you able to stay in touch with your granddaughter? Not as much as we’d like. But we’ve visited there, and they’ve been back once in the two and a half years they’ve been gone. Rhonda and I Skype with them every Monday morning, and we get to talk to Eliza, who will be three in November. Rhonda sings with her, and then we catch up with Shannon and Luke on family news.
Tell us about some favorite moments in your years at Wheaton Bible Church.
From the beginning I have felt that God has blessed me with a wonderful relationship with our Elder board. That doesn’t mean that Chuck Stair didn’t sit me down a time or two for a “Dutch-uncle” talk, but in twenty years, there have never been bad moments between me and the Elders—and that’s really unusual.
God has also blessed me with a wonderful staff of people through these years who have been leading Children’s Ministry and Student Ministry, our Global and Local outreach, and more.
Those early years were characterized by a lot of fun. Our kids were young. It gave us all sorts of entry points into the community. They were in public schools in District 200. We eventually built a house in a neighborhood in Wheaton and saw God do incredible things in our neighborhood. People coming to Christ. People coming into the church.
What has been your biggest challenge as our pastor?
My biggest challenge was doing life after Carol died—pastoring, parenting, learning what it meant to be a single man, a single parent when I was fifty-one, fifty-two, years old—and having to do it all so publicly. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
Everything else pales in comparison to what seemed like an impossible assignment of doing life and doing ministry at that point in my life. Carol and I had a great marriage for twenty-seven years. Our kids knew it. The church knew it. I was a busy pastor, and all of a sudden my world came to a screeching halt—and yet every Sunday I had to preach. I had to lead a staff. I had to problem-solve with people, counsel people.
There is no greater challenge than ministering while you’re bleeding. There’s a sense in which we’re always bleeding and we always do ministry in the context of bleeding, but in that situation I was hemorrhaging.
And all of that took place right in the middle of the preparations for our relocation. We were about a year and a half away from moving the church to West Chicago. That was the busiest, most demanding, most exacting period of my vocational ministry. All sorts of decisions needed to be made. There was a need for all sorts of leadership, vision casting, fund-raising, and dealing with the feelings of those who didn’t want to leave downtown Wheaton because they were afraid we would become a large, impersonal church.
A relocation is really difficult for almost any pastor. That’s why so many pastors leave after they complete a construction project or a major fund-raising effort. And then to have my wife die in the middle of it was tough. Really tough.
In what ways has being the pastor of Wheaton Bible Church changed you?
I think being the lead pastor for so many years has tempered me, helped me to see the wonder and the diversity, the beauty, and the challenges of the body of Christ, of what it means to follow Christ. Being here has also afforded me the opportunity to speak and to travel in a variety of different places around the world, and through those experiences I’ve gained a much bigger picture of the Kingdom of God as I’ve preached in Ethiopia, or when we’re in different places in Europe or in South America and spending time with our missionaries.
The people and the leaders of this church have really shaped me and humbled me. I tend to minister out of the context of relationships, and the relationships I have here with people at Wheaton Bible Church are invaluable. This has been just a sweet, sweet time in my life.
For someone who is the pastor of a local church, you have a particular sense of the call on the church to reach the world. For those who don’t know, could you talk about your leadership role with Greater Europe Mission (GEM) and say a little about why you’ve felt called to do that?
I was the chairman of GEM’s board for several years, and in a couple of months I’ll be stepping into that role again. The why is found in the Great Commission. To follow Christ is to think globally—to do all we can to see the nations come to Christ. Jesus said, “Go.”
Rhonda and I both raised our kids with a real heart for the world and a desire to see Christ lifted up. I took my kids on mission trips while they were growing up, and Tom and Rhonda did the same thing. We wanted our kids to get a bigger picture of how God works, a bigger picture of the body of Christ, to see some of the variegations and color in the body of Christ. I don’t mean that in terms of skin tone but in terms of variety.
There’s a lot of diversity in the body of Christ around the world, a lot of different expressions of worship, expressions of evangelism, expressions of discipleship. And some of our richest experiences have been overseas. Rhonda and I are traveling overseas almost once or twice a year, and that’s been really good for us.
I also have a sense of urgency to see the nations reached. We don’t know how long we have, or even how long we’ll be breathing. We don’t know how long it will be until the Lord returns. And my role in GEM has exposed me to a lot of godly people who are lifting up Christ in a lot of different ways. It’s given me opportunities to be exposed to different ministries and to think globally and missionally.
Talk a little about the role of the local church in global ministry.
The local church is the organism God has ordained to carry the Gospel—locally and all over the world. You find that all through the New Testament. There has been an ebb and a flow in the effectiveness of the local church throughout history to go after missions. But the local church has the human resources, often the financial resources, to get after this in a wonderful way.
Are there Scripture passages that have shaped your ministry?
There are many. The Psalms have kept me on my knees, giving me a vision of the splendor and glory of God. They kept me afloat when Carol was sick, because there’s such an undercurrent of suffering and pain in a lot of the psalms. I love that. Then the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark. This picture of Jesus and who Jesus is that we’ve studied together for most of the past year has been great.
I also love different passages in the book of Isaiah. Passages that I’ve memorized over the years have really helped me. For example, when I pray, most days I begin praying by quoting a passage from Isaiah just to help me get set vertically: “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread” (Isaiah 8:13). So that gives me this picture of the holiness and the majesty of God. Then I go to Hebrews 4:16: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Fear God and regard Him as holy, but the reality is, you’re a broken guy, and you can’t do that. So continually cast yourself on God’s grace. Apart from God’s grace I’m nothing, and apart from God’s grace I’m not going to live in the holiness of God. I’m going to fuel my carnal desires or capitulate in the battle for my heart.
Talk about the role of Sunday worship in a Christ follower’s walk of faith.
I believe the hour, the seventy-five minutes, we spend in worship is probably the most important time of the week for the church. And it needs to be one of the most important times in the life of the body. We have this amazing opportunity, responsibility, and privilege to come together in the presence of God and worship—to be under the teaching of God’s Word, to pray, to confess sin, to experience what God wants to say to us as a body, to do life together. But we live in a culture that is increasingly downsizing the ministry of the Word and the role of Sunday in the life of a believer.
What is your heart’s desire, your prayer for the people of Wheaton Bible Church today?
I love to pray that God will continue to open our eyes and our ears to His Word, and that we would work harder at applying it in the different situations and relationships in our lives; that we will be more sensitive to what God is saying and what God wants each of us to do.
So I’m praying regularly a passage in Isaiah where God says, through Isaiah, “Rain down my righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness flourish with it” (Isaiah 45:8). I pray that all the time for the people of Wheaton Bible Church—that God would rain down righteousness, that He would shower it down, that he would open wide our hearts and our minds to Him, and that as a result, salvation and righteousness would grow up as it is fed by the Word of God, because there’s no growth apart from the Word.
When you say, “rain down righteousness,” what does that look like?
That God would quicken His reality, His presence, His character in our lives. That He would intensify who He is in us as we respond to Him, and therefore, that we would respond in ways that are righteous and holy because we’ve experienced the righteousness of God, and that we would respond in ways that honor Him because He has revealed Himself to us.
And that His righteousness, His transcendence, His uniqueness, His holiness, would capture our imaginations and our hearts so that we would reflect Jesus to the world around us, the world that desperately needs Christ.
We asked several people close to Rob what they thought LIFE readers should know about Rob. Below is some of what they shared.
From Lon Allison, Teaching Pastor:
What some people don’t know is that Rob is a fun-loving man — and I emphasize fun! Whether climbing a mountain or bare-footing behind a boat at 40 miles an hour, this guy was made for adventure. When he is in the beauty of Creation and engaged in sports, his face lights up and his smile spreads to everyone around him. It is a delight to share moments like those with my friend Rob.
From Jim Goetz, Elder Board Chairman:
Rob is fascinated by snakes. He lights up with energy as he grabs them by the tail and laughs when they bite him—the nonpoisonous ones! This reveals that Rob is still the kid who grew up by a river in Indiana. It also reveals his love for God’s awesome creation, from the rivers of Indiana to the Colorado mountains he climbs. Rob looks for God in life and to God in death. He knows the ups and the downs and encourages me through mine. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
From Donna Stone, Rob’s assistant:
Rob could not survive without three-by-five index cards. He uses them to remember dates, times, appointments, and more. At work he uses them to write down things he needs to discuss at home, and at night he makes lists on them to be completed (usually by me) at the office! It’s a great system and has served him well—but that didn’t stop Elder Jim Goetz from poking a little fun at Rob with a recent birthday gift of sixty 100-card packs!
From Chuck Stair:
One of Rob’s endearing qualities that I have noticed from the very beginning is his ability to laugh at himself, which shows that he is very comfortable with who he is. He has been always able to speak about truths from the Scriptures in a straightforward, compelling way. He could be speaking about difficult subjects like sexual purity or divorce, no matter—he deals with them in a winsome manner.
Rob has gone through some deep waters. Going through Carol’s illness and subsequent death and the accompanying pain brought a spiritual depth to his teaching us about the Christian walk. He has developed a wonderful empathy for others when they are suffering. His own ability to grow as a man of God has brought benefit to all of us and keeps his teaching fresh.
Rob is what he is, no pretense. He is the real deal!
From daughter Shannon:
I’m not sure if many people outside our close friends know what a fantastic dad my dad is. Sometimes there is a lot of negative press about PKs and MKs [Pastors’ Kids and Missionaries’ Kids) and their experiences being sidelined by their parents’ work. That tragedy does happen, but it didn’t in our house. My dad was almost always home in the evenings, and I never remember him missing any of our sporting or other big events. When we were kids, he read to us before bed at night. As a teenager and college student, he’d take me to Starbucks to talk. He was (and still is) in constant communication with his kids.
Today, as an adult, I can say that my dad is really in tune with all his kids’ lives—he’s on the phone with everyone all the time. I talk to my siblings myself, but he often updates me on how they are. As adults, he is our encourager and adviser and friend, and we know he prays for us a lot. And since I moved overseas, we have a weekly Skype date with him and Rhonda. This kind of communication he practices with us as adult children just flows naturally from the completely present and active dad he was when we were kids.
Another aspect of his parenting that really stands out to me is the practice of forgiveness. My dad has always been quick to admit it when he knows he’s wrong. When we were kids, I remember him asking for our forgiveness regularly when he lost his temper or for something else. I really learned the practice of seeking and giving forgiveness through watching it practiced in our family. This is something I try to do today with our two-year-old daughter: when I know I’ve been impatient with her, I tell her and apologize. I felt like it was so valuable for me to have parents who would admit fault, and my dad led the way in this.