Editor’s Note: Not long ago, Willie Robertson was a small-town Louisiana youth pastor struggling to make ends meet and trying to balance the demands of ministry and the responsibilities of a dad with four small kids at home. He dropped out of seminary after a year, deciding that a business degree might come in handy down the road. So he resigned from his church staff position, graduated from business school, and took over the day-to-day operations of his dad’s little mom-and-pop hunter-supply business, soon turning Duck Commander into a multi-million-dollar success story. And then the cable channel A&E dropped by and really changed his life.
The transition from leading a family-owned “redneck” business to worldwide media sensation happened with breathtaking speed. A million viewers discovered the reality show Duck Dynasty in its first year, and that has since ballooned to eight million viewers, making it one of the most-watched cable shows in the world—with a rabid fan-base that includes a vast sea of youth workers. The company still sells duck decoys, duck calls, cooking DVDs, and apparel. And Willie authored a bestselling memoir that has sold over a million copies, climbing to #1 on the New York Times bestsellers list.
Alongside his dad Phil, brother Jase, mother Miss Kay, uncle Si, and wife Korie, Willie’s “empire” is expanding exponentially. But at his core, he’s still a youth pastor, running the Duck Commander business in much the same way he ran his ministry. We talked to Willie during a short break from his Duck Dynasty shooting schedule.
Rick Lawrence: Duck Dynasty is a huge hit in the youth ministry community. I’m wondering, from your perspective as a former youth pastor, if you know why the show resonates so deeply with so many people?
Willie Robertson: I think it’s the family values. People can see a lot of themselves in our family, and I also think they can see something they maybe don’t have, and so they kind of strive to be more like that. We all get together to resolve problems without screaming and yelling at each other. And I think there are a lot of people who got turned on by the faith part of the show, and with the prayer at the end [every episode of Duck Dynasty ends at the family dinner table, with a short family prayer time]. And, also, it’s funny—I just think people like to laugh at the show and not feel terribly guilty about watching it, like some other shows. The whole family can sit down and watch it. Nowadays, there aren’t a whole lot of shows like that.
Rick: Tell me a little bit about your background in youth ministry.
Willie: I started at about 18—I was very involved in my youth group and our youth pastor would let us teach and run the small groups. Jase and I were both active in that. And then, when I went to seminary at 18, I also took a job as a youth minister/preacher. I ended up coming back and working for a local church doing youth ministry for about four years—plus two or three years of college ministry as well. It was a lot of hard work, but it was certainly worth it. And I ended up hiring a lot of the kids I had in my youth group. I watched them go through life and tried to help them out with their problems.
Rick: What did you learn as a leader in youth ministry that still impacts what you do on a daily basis?
Willie: Well I’d say a lot of patience, for sure. (chuckles) I had to be patient and get these kids to work, which is a lot like what I do on Duck Dynasty. Sometimes the people I work with remind me of a bunch of 13-year-old kids. You know, it kept me in the Word and it kept me teaching and digging deeper into the Scriptures. I was always learning more, then having to go out and try to describe and teach what it means to someone else—to get it in their heads and their hearts. [tweet_dis]There are a lot of similarities between youth ministry and running a business.[/tweet_dis]
Rick: The progression from seminary into youth ministry into a wildly successful business career is not exactly a common trajectory. I’m wondering how that happened for you…
Willie: Well, seminary was a two-year program, but I left after a year. I got my business degree because I was a little worried about ending up at a church that I didn’t want to be at and having to stay there to make money, or being told what to say or what not to say. So I thought, man, I better go get something in business because I knew I could always preach and teach and work in that. So I always knew I would try to parlay business in with ministry. It was always business plus church and spiritual stuff.
I think that’s smart. A couple of my kids have become youth ministers, and I’ve watched their struggles to make it in smaller churches. I think it’s important to know both business and ministry, and to have the freedom to do both. I worked in ministry the whole time I was working at Duck Commander—for the first seven or eight years I was still teaching and preaching on Sundays. Of course, if you’re working with a larger group of kids, it’s going to take all your time—that’s full-time.
Rick: There’s a fairly large movement afoot right now of people wondering if the professionalizing of youth ministry, where it’s your full-time job, has really gutted the fundamental nature of youth ministry. When your livelihood depends on it, does that change the very nature of youth ministry? Some are recommending a return to a bi-vocational mindset.
Willie: I’ll give you my philosophy on youth ministry. I always thought it was good when we recruited someone locally to do ministry from the local perspective, instead of hiring-in someone. When I left my church, that started a big revolving door of people coming in to take my old job, then leaving soon after—it didn’t work out. And just like you want stability for your own children, we wanted that part of our church to be stable.
My philosophy on youth was, basically, empowering them to be able to do ministry even at that age—because nobody’s going to impact a 17-year-old kid like another 17-year-old kid. You know, the power comes from within, from themselves. I always had my kids teaching, studying, learning—to be able to do it themselves. That’s the way I was taught to do it.
So they’re the ones leading. When you find your leaders then you expand it. I did the same thing with Duck Commander. I can only do what I can do. But if I can get 10 people doing what I do, then we start something pretty powerful. And I butted heads with some of the leaders of the church. They were thinking that I should be leading everything. I said: “No, I really believe you’ve got to let these kids cut their teeth and learn.” They’re not always going to do it right, you know, but that’s where you get trained up and get in the Word. Every Sunday morning I’d meet an hour before class with the ones that I’d picked out as leaders. They came to learn and go deeper. When it came to class time, I’d train them up to teach and work with the kids.
Rick: You have five kids. As you think about the challenges facing you as a parent, and by extension also facing youth leaders today, what do you find yourself focusing on with your own kids? What are your priorities relative to them growing up in a culture like this, and in the spotlight that has overtaken them because of what you do now?
Willie: It’s a whole new world. With my kids I can say, “Well when I was your age, this is what I did in youth group, and this is what I did for jobs.” But I didn’t have the experience that they’re having. I mean, they have their throngs of followers and fans and all that, so we almost have to figure this out together—we’re all learning how to handle this. I don’t over-think it. [tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]You know, 1 Corinthians 15 tells us the first importance is the gospel, so I try to let the Bible be my guide. I’m not reading other people’s books on how they did it or didn’t do it. If I can get them locked into God, then the rest of it will take care of itself.[/tweet_box]
Rick: I know that balance sometimes is a strange word, but how do you keep your eye on the ball in the midst of all this?
Willie: Well, I’d say that I’m no more stressed right now than I was when I had four little kids at home and I was a youth minister. I was actually probably more stressed back then. You know, I had babies and diapers and ministry—what I’m doing now ain’t stress compared to that. As far as keeping up with it all now, I have the benefit of having a great staff—people who do a lot of things that I don’t have time to do. Even now, as we’ve become more successful, I’ve invested in other people to come in and take care of things. I think the secret is you can’t micromanage everything—you can’t be involved in every little thing. You have to prioritize. I’ve got to lock in on what I’m good at. I’ve done every aspect of the business in the past—from dipping duck calls in varnish when I was 10 all the way up to packaging and mailing. It’s way bigger now, but I can offer my staff thoughts and ideas and then let them go and grow.
Rick: I asked some youth pastors to tell me what they’d love to ask you, and two common threads were: How realistic is this show, and do the producers ever balk at your overt Christian leanings?
Willie: It may make the producers nervous sometimes, but they can edit things out. I think the assumption is that we get a lot of flak about it. I hate to pour water on the fire, but really we don’t. I mean, I get more flak over hunting than I do over the religious stuff. Nothing even comes to my mind, other than some random comment out there on Facebook—which I don’t read. I don’t read the good or the bad, because you’ll start getting real self-centered.
So much encouragement, though, comes from others. I’ve gotten emails from people who now pray around their table—even non-Christian people. I had a professional golfer come up to me and say: “My wife and I love your show, we watch it all the time. Man, that part at the end—the prayer—that’s just so good.” I said, “Well, I appreciate that,” assuming he was a follower. He said: “I don’t really believe in God. (chuckles) I’m not really a Christian, but I love that part of the show.” Things like that make the long days you’re filming worth it.
The prayer at the end of the show is a great thing, but to us it’s small. That’s like nothing, really, you know? If you want to go deeper, we have much more than that—but even that being on TV is awesome. There’s way more that we could say or do, but it’s not the 700 Club. We just try to let God do what he’s going to do. I think the bigger impact is from the platform it gives us to do other things—the books that we’ve written, the speeches… Then we can get a lot deeper, you know, and really start teaching people.
Rick: Well you’ve certainly planted some fruitful seeds. Your show’s been an unexpected sensation—it resonates with people in a deep place. You know, one youth pastor told me his kids really want to know if Si [eccentric uncle on the show] is really like that?
Willie: I always say, “Do you think he could fake it that long?” (laughs) Yeah, he is. I mean Si’s the best—he translates well onto TV. He’s a funny dude, man. He’s walking to his own beat, that’s for sure.