(Editor’s Note: The SUCCESS Interview tests the foundational principles of this 125-year-old personal and professional development magazine against modern realities. Editor-in-Chief Josh Ellis will sit down with newsmakers, opinion-shapers and undisputed achievers to find out how we can all thrive in a world changing faster than ever.
In this edition, Ellis chats with Sarah Jakes Roberts, founder of the Woman Evolve ministry and movement and New York Times best-selling author of Woman Evolve: Break Up with Your Fears and Revolutionize Your Life. A hugely impactful motivator and spiritual influencer in her own right, with an online following north of 2 million, she is the daughter of former SUCCESS cover figure Bishop T.D. Jakes and the wife of Pastor Touré Roberts, both of The Potter’s House.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and space considerations. To view the interview in its entirety, join our social network, Achievers, at Achievers.SUCCESS.com or by downloading the app SUCCESS Achievers Community.)
Josh Ellis: Sarah, it’s such an honor to speak to you. In preparation for this, as one does, I spent some time on your website, SarahJakesRoberts.com. It describes you as “an author, businesswoman and media personality who balances career, ministry and family.” Balance seems like a key word there. What does it mean to you?
Sarah Jakes Roberts: Oh, goodness. Thanks, Josh, I’ve been looking forward to this.
I used to think balance meant doing everything well at the same time, but I no longer feel that way. What I’m learning is that it’s really about showing up to the moment that I’m in and being fully present in that moment, and as I’m able to be fully present in that moment, I recognize that I am able to fully dive into whatever needs are connected with that business meeting, or this interview or cooking dinner.
It is giving myself permission to not necessarily make sure the cups are level all at the same time. It’s being present enough to pour whatever is necessary into the cup that needs filling in the moment.
JE: What are the life events that allowed you to grow into realizing that definition?
SJR: Well, I mean, I became a mom at 14. So I learned at a very early age to balance being a mother, being in high school and also having high school activities whenever the babysitting would allow for that. Even moving into college, working and balancing those things, I can’t say that I was doing it very well then, but I recognized the need for it at a very early age.
I really had to be intentional about planning my energy and my time and the investment of those resources wisely. I think balance is ultimately the awareness that there’s something coming after this, so how do I want to gauge my present output so that I still have something left for the moment that comes next?
JE: I wonder about the person that comes out of this present moment. A lot of times we tend to view people as they are, in a fixed state, whether they’re a fully-realized adult family woman with a career and a ministry, or a teenage mom. We often see permanence in people—maybe we judge them as being from a certain generation, so set in their ways. Or as addicts who can’t overcome. But we never know who that person is growing into.
Was that partially your thinking by including the theme of evolution in the name of your movement and book?
SJR: You know, we don’t spend a lot of time when we are raising our children or when we are children ourselves really thinking about this idea that there is no set arrival.
We ask children all the time: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if you become that thing and you’re stationary in that thing.
Evolving is really about giving yourself permission to change, even into adulthood. In school we’re constantly going to the next grade. That same system exists in adulthood. It may not be a new grade or curriculum, but a new job, a new city, a new way of thinking, a new way of existing.
Even SUCCESS. You’re celebrating 125 years; there have been several graduations that took place. So successful adulthood is not about arrival. It is about finding contentment with that fact that I’m going to continue to grow and evolve in every stage, and who I become is more important than what I’ve done.
JE: One of the most obvious and important ways we continue to evolve as adults—all the way up until the day we die—is in our understanding of spirituality and faith. I’m curious about your personal consideration of spiritual growth or your developing understanding of a higher power, or the universe. How has it affected the way you think about your capacity to change in general?
SJR: Especially because I grew up in church, a lot of people think that spirituality was something that was just organic to my identity, but growing up, spirituality felt very much just like a set of rules—a box that you live within and don’t venture outside of. I couldn’t get my teen pregnancy, my insecurities, my fears, my dreams, my hopes, my life and my interests to fit within that box. I just pushed the box away altogether.
Growing, and changing and just becoming more mature allowed me to realize that spirituality had so little to do with the rules and the boxes that are often represented. It’s deeply, deeply personal. It is an intimate relationship with self and the creator of everything, and a recognition that the same creator that set the ocean in motion and put the sun in the sky also created me. And if he created all of these different elements with purpose—I mean, down to the bees and the flies and the mosquitos all serving that purpose—then how could that creator not have something purposeful for my life?
I had to war with the fact that it still applies to a teen mom, to a divorcee. I came to believe that purpose exists no matter what detours we experience along the way. It really helped me to understand that life and spirituality, growth and development—as long as you’re still here, they’re possible.
JE: Spirituality itself has evolved over generations. You know, 100 years ago, 200 years ago, it was fire and brimstone. And then one generation at a time, it has changed. You’re pastoring now about how we take care of our bodies, or things like financial health and just general success and happiness.
SJR: I believe the delivery, the culture and the language we use really makes the difference.
I’m a cook, Josh, so, you just have to go with me: The same piece of chicken could be fried, grilled or barbecued, but it is still chicken. I like to think mine is a little saucy: I’ve got fashion in the mix, I understand the culture, what’s happening on the internet, what’s moving a generation, where their passion is and where their frustrations are. My father does the same thing, too, but it’s within the context of his generation. What we really see happening is just this passing of the baton. We serve chicken, but we’ll put barbecue sauce on it if that’s what it takes to get people to eat it.
This is a show-me generation, and I think that it demands the ministry to really be vulnerable, honest and transparent about how the very words we’re preaching apply to our own lives and the transformation for ourselves.
JE: For my entire life I’ve been hearing that fewer people are going to church, fewer people identify as religious. Do you believe that trend is real, and if so, why?
SJR: I’ve heard the same statistics. I could tell you so many [faith] communities that are defying that; that their core demographics are younger people. And yet I don’t want to diminish the fact that this is very real.
But I wonder sometimes, are they leaving church the way we left the box stores and moved to Amazon? It’s not necessarily that they’re losing the idea of spirituality, of God or of having a life that has purpose as much as they’re finding different ways to feed those parts of their soul. The onus on us as pastors is to go where they are. My social media has grown exponentially over the last few years, and I think it’s a testament that people are still very much plugged into spirituality and to faith in general. If we see people leaving the church, then the church has to move.
JE: I think it’s clear that the same things that draw people to you are the same things that draw people to Mel Robbins, or Lewis Howes, or Trent Shelton or any number of thought leader-personal development influencer types. It’s authenticity, being yourself and expressing what works for you.
SJR: There’s something powerful about someone saying, “I don’t mind sharing my secrets—the secrets to how I built this business, or the secrets to how I broke loose from shame and fear and anxiety. Anytime someone is willing to vocalize the fact they have the same challenges so many people live with, and can lead me to a space of transformation, I think that’s what really makes the difference.
JE: As you mentioned, in 2022 we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of SUCCESS magazine being founded, and there are a lot of parallels between the genre that this magazine exists in—personal development or personal growth—and spirituality. In fact the magazine was really born out of something called the New Thought movement, which argued for free will and that our results in life, our success, grows out of our thoughts, and our positive beliefs are manifested in reality.
Big question here: How have you squared your clear belief in free will with God having a purpose for us?
SJR: I don’t think they have to necessarily compete. Free will is so core to how God created us. And yet I recognize that my will is often blind, because God has more knowledge and perspective on all of the different variables and moving parts and how things work and why things go the way they do. My spirituality isn’t just about getting what I want or building a life that I want. I desire to have a life that is a reflection of God’s plan for my life.
And so, I don’t think those ideas necessarily have to wrestle with one another, but they often do because so many of us want our plan and God’s plan at the same time, and sometimes they just don’t mix.
JE: One of the other ways I think spiritual leaders and those of us in this personal development genre have always been alike is we share an opportunity to help champion equality—equality of all kinds. It’s happened slowly but surely. It’s a key part of our mission at SUCCESS now. How does someone like yourself, as a woman of color, as someone from the faith-based perspective, hope to lead on that?
SJR: I hope very far. I will tell you, though, it is not just a woman’s job to make space for herself at the table. I do think there is a responsibility for men to also recognize their shortcomings and make space for those women. You know, my husband, my father, they’ve been incredibly instrumental in me being able to reach as many people as I’ve been able to reach, because they made space for me at the table.…
I’m someone who has served mostly the Black community. But I also speak in white churches, and that has allowed me the opportunity to speak to white leadership about things that hurt the Black community. I see myself very much as a bridge to explain what they are seeing and where the disconnect is, and to also make them passionate about the love that we all believe in and the hope that we all have for humanity and how we can roll up our sleeves and make it happen.
JE: Last thing: I notice that your words and your approach come with an openness. You’re not only speaking to true believers. Is that the future of the church?
SJR: We have to meet people where they are and say, “Right here, right now, you can be skeptical. You don’t have to know whether you fully want to be a Christian, or what the Jews believe, or what the Muslims believe. All you have to do is allow for God to meet you right here, right now to understand what spirituality means for you.”
That is the beginning of transformation that leads you to ultimate truth, and if we can create as many opportunities for people to be authentic about where they are so they don’t have to pretend, then we can see real change that attracts other people to go on their own journey as well.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos © BRIAN K FREEMAN JR B.FREE and Courtesy of Sarah Jakes Roberts