Judah Smith: The Love of Two Fathers

“I was 11 and had this profound sense in my soul that God said, ‘You are going to be a speaker to your generation.'”

Tell me about your dad’s cancer.

My dad died of cancer when he was 60, six years after the diagnosis. There were no symptoms during the first five years and then in the last year, he degenerated pretty fast. He transitioned the church to me about a year-and-a-half before he died.

What was the most difficult time for you during your dad’s battle with cancer?

His death. On his last day, I was preaching here at the church. He was in Vegas with my sister, brother-in-law, mom and grandkids. Things degenerated rapidly during the night. I got a call after preaching. I learned that it looked like dad may not make it through the day. I got on the first flight out and got to say goodbye to my dad. I think he could hear me but couldn’t respond.

Was it intimidating taking over leadership for your father?

A year-and-a-half before he died, he handed over the leadership of the church to me. Let me tell you the story of a lesson against doubt I learned and lasts to this day. A few months before my dad passed, we lost one of our most influential pastors—a 6-foot-9 basketball legend, a hero and larger-than-life figure in our community. The night before he died, I couldn’t sleep and I kept getting this scripture: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his people.” I didn’t know why I kept getting that scripture because no one at that point had passed away. I remember feeling like that was what I was to preach the next morning. So I scratched the message I’d prepared and focused on this scripture. At 6 a.m. I got the call that Pastor Aaron, who was like an uncle to me, was gone. That was definitive. God prepares you to do what you need to do.

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And then your father dies a short time later. How did that affect your leadership?

I got caught up in making sure the church—the people—were doing OK. They felt the same for me, hoping I was OK. There was a lot of reciprocation and empathy. My dad was very loved by our church. He was the only pastor they ever had, a very fatherly figure. He led the people and loved the people. There was a lot of hurt and pain over him not being the pastor any more. It allowed me to be with the people and not try to charge any capitols for a few years. There wasn’t a lot of performance and meeting goals.

Did the church—or you—believe it could get along without your dad?

We were a church of about 5,000 when my dad passed. There were a lot of questions, rightfully so: Where would the church go from here? Would it be OK without Wendall Smith? I had those questions too. But I knew we were a faith-filled community. My dad had talked a lot about trusting God and believing God, so because of that the community believed God was in control. There was a lot of grace extended to me.

In taking over leadership for your dad, how are you like him and how are you different?

My dad and I are similar in our delivery, preaching style and philosophy. Some would say my dad had a strong emphasis on faith; I have a strong emphasis on grace. I see it all hand-in-hand working together. Grace produces the faith, faith produces this life of good works. It’s all interconnected. Anytime we pull them apart, we pull apart Jesus himself. It’s impossible to have one without the other. If you meet God, it will change the way you live.

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