StartLeading: Challenge or Opportunity, Part 1 — Jason Gaboury

I was visiting with some ministry partners recently. They told the story of having a visit from a young woman who works with a different campus ministry. “She was delightful… Her passion was really something.” I smiled waiting for the question I knew was coming. “Can you remind us, what’s the difference between your ministry and that one?”

I’m meeting with student leaders. The tension in the room is palpable. My heart is echoing in my chest and in my ears. An influential leader has just passionately clarified vision for ministry that has nothing to do with InterVarsity’s mission. I have 3 seconds to redirect this conversation or watch the chapter drift away from mission, or head over the cliff of division.

Goldfish jumpSheila asks, “Can I be a leader here?” Sheila is a Buddhist student who has been hanging around for a few semesters.

“I thought you guys were committed to prayer.” Bently says. “You should join in the campus wide prayer and worship gathering.” The invitation is a trap. Either we can go along with the event, and thereby prove our commitment to prayer, or we can say no and be branded as unspiritual.

These experiences are just a few of the examples of the challenges that InterVarsity leaders face. Over time, I’ve come to see these challenges as opportunities. The question is how. How do we take moments of challenge and transform them into moments of opportunity? Here are 3 ways you can do this:

1. Get Clear: Underneath each of these situations (and many like them) is a key question that leaders can learn to identify and answer. Answering these four questions, “What do you do? How are you different? What do you believe? How do you behave?” with clarity and passion can help you turn a challenge into an opportunity.

2. Enter the Danger: Leaders need to enter the dangerous places where there is potential conflict, confusion, or discontent. We need to become comfortable entering into the danger instead of avoiding it.

3. Call for Commitment: It’s not enough to simply enter the danger and clarify the truth. Leaders have to make the ask. We have to call others to join us in our mission unapologetically. Do you see moments like those above as challenges or as opportunities?

Write a comment about a challenge you’ve faced recently. (This is the first of a series dedicated to turning challenges into opportunity.)


StartLeading: Start with Who — Jason Gaboury

There is this popular reading of the gospels.  Jesus walks around Galilee after confronting evil in the desert.  He randomly chooses the most unlikely candidates as his disciples.  In fact he chooses the folks least likely to succeed and builds them into a core team.  For three years this band of losers follows Jesus around.  They get everything wrong.  They don’t understand him or his mission.  They fail him in his passion.  And then, miraculously, after Pentecost they lead a movement destined to change the world.

This is a popular reading.  And it’s wrong… or at least distorted.


The truth is that Jesus assembled a team of people who symbolically represented his mission, were willing to take risks, and had relevant skills.  Peter is an example of courage and action, a natural leader.  James and John were hotheaded enthusiasts.  Including a former tax collector and a zealot in his team demonstrated the breath of his mission.  Yes, they had a lot to learn.  Yes, they made mistakes.  But they had (or developed) the skills they needed to carry out Jesus’ mission.

When we give into the popular view we miss a critical leadership lesson.  We start, build, and multiply ministry by finding the right people first.

Every time I say this though, I run into resistance.  “What do you mean the ‘right’ people?”  “Does this mean there are ‘wrong’ people?”  “Isn’t that elitist and discriminatory?”

No it isn’t.  Our ministry is for everyone.  Saying we need to find the right people simply means that we can and should expand ministry by finding people who represent our mission, are willing to risk, and have relevant skills.

Consider your leadership team.

Does it represent the mission field you’re trying to reach?  Is the team sufficiently diverse to engage the ministry opportunity?  (I once sat with a team of engineers who couldn’t understand why all of their efforts to reach artists were not successful.)

Will they risk?  How willing is your team to take risks and try new things?  What is the courage quotient on your team?

Are they leaders?  Leaders (whether natural or formed) have followers.  Who is following the leaders on your team?  How do you know?  Can the leaders list the names of the people who are following their example or lead in mission?

Who are the people you need to start, build, and multiply your mission on campus?


StartLeading: Throwing Your Nets on the Other Side – Jason Gaboury

We are headed into the most dangerous time of our ministry year.

Enthusiasm for new student outreach has propelled us forward. We’ve seen great advances. And now the great temptation is to settle down and return to the familiar and comfortable. Peter does this in John 21. He says, “I’m going fishing.” And those early followers of Jesus say, “We’ll come with you.” This wasn’t a recreational fishing trip. Jesus had just risen from the dead! Jerusalem was consumed with conversations about Jesus! But, despite all this, Peter goes back to what he knows. Fishing. Peter’s not the only one.

throw nets

We often start out with an enthusiastic plan for reaching new students. But before long our chapter activities, outreach activities, and weekly meetings all begin to look pretty much like they did last year.

Some leaders feel the tension. They think, “We wanted to engage more people. We’d hoped to start new ministries. But, people are tired, let’s just settle here for a while.” Jesus comes to them. His first words indicate that he’s well aware of their situation. “You haven’t caught any fish, have you?” Then he invites them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. I think that John, the most symbolic of the gospel writers, has a leadership principle in mind.

We can’t go back to what we know. Following Jesus and leading people into mission requires that we throw the net onto the other side. It requires us to do the unfamiliar. It requires us to engage new communities. To cast our nets where Jesus directs us instead of asking Jesus to fill the nets we’ve decided to cast.

Let me get practical. Do your chapter activities and demographics look pretty similar this year compared to last year? Are we essentially reaching the same types of students we reached last year? Are we starting the same kinds of groups and hosting the same kinds of meetings?

What would it look like to cast the net on the other side? Who did we meet at NSO who could open up a whole new ministry opportunity for us? What kinds of activities can we do that would have the best chance to integrate large numbers of students into our chapters? How do we need to change our activities so that we are throwing our net on the other side?

Share in the comments where God might be calling you to cast your nets in the coming week.


StartLeading: Questions Lead to Transformation by Jason Gaboury

Here’s a story that might make you think, “I never have experiences like that.”  Or worse, “I’ll never have an experience like that.” Read the story, though. It demonstrates the power of the gospel, God’s persistent love, and hope for transformation. Diane, InterVarsity’s staffworker at CUNY-Lehman College writes:

Today, I ran into a student that I met last semester named Brianna. She told me that she had a really rough summer and didn’t believe in God. This was a change. Last semester, she was curious about Jesus but didn’t get connected to one of our groups. I asked her what happened during the summer. She said she’d tell me later and walked away. I didn’t know if she’d come back but she did!


Brianna told me stories involving lots of alcohol and a boyfriend that she admitted she was using to feel loved. I asked to share a story from John 4 with her.  She identified with the Samaritan woman.

Then I asked if she knew the core message of the Christian faith. She said no.  So I shared the gospel with her using my New World app on my phone.  I emphasized many times that Jesus loves her and asked her to identify where she is in relationship to him.  She said she experiences the brokenness of the world and has not turned toward God for transformation.

So I asked if she’d like to follow Jesus & she said yes!

After we prayed she had a huge smile on her face.  One of our new members came over to high-five/hug her. It was awesome! I asked her to go to church with me on Sunday and she said yes.

While every story is unique, “the spirit blows where it will” (Jn 3), I believe that all of us who are willing to start leading can have experiences like this one. So what’s the key skill?


Read the story again.  Notice how Diane asks Brianna questions. “What happened?”  “Can I share?”  “Where are you?”  “Would you like to follow Jesus?”  “Will you come to church with me?”

Too often we think of leadership (and evangelism) as having answers.  Diane asked questions.  Jesus asked questions.  Great leaders become practiced at “making the ask.”

How are you at asking?  Think through a leadership or outreach conversation you’ve had in the last week.  Who asked most of the questions? What can you do in your next leadership or outreach conversation to increase the number of asks that you make?

Share some of the questions you intend to ask at your next leadership or evangelistic conversation in the comments section. 


StartLeading: Goals define what do you want — Jason Gaboury

“Stephanie, I think your desire for God is the truest thing about you.”

Stephanie listened attentively. Her eyes betrayed a mixture of hope and fear. Turning to John’s gospel I asked her, “If you were God and you’d come into human space, what would you say first?”

She thought for a moment, “Stop hurting each other, I guess.”

I showed her Jesus’ first words in John, “What are you looking for?” When she looked up from the text, I said, “Stephanie, Jesus’ first words here are an invitation to you. He is asking you, tonight, what it is you are looking for. God is interested in your desires. Will you take the risk of sharing that with him?”

what do you want

Leaders are often just as full of hope and fear as Stephanie. We long to lead something significant. We have this tug in our hearts to make a difference. We believe that great things are possible. And yet, we’re afraid. We’re afraid of failure, disappointment, shame, embarrassment, or just plain hard work. Jesus’ words in John 1 are for all of us? What do we really want? What are we looking for?

Goals clarify what we’re looking for. They take us out of vague generalities and press us to get specific. Goals answer three questions; what, when, and how?

  1. What – What goals clarify the outcome of our efforts. Will we reach 500 freshmen or 1500? Will our weekly meetings be focused on explorers or leaders? Will we follow up with 80% of those interested or 100%? Getting specific increases the likelihood of success exponentially. (The simple act of writing a goal down increases the chance of achieving the goal by more than 70%.)
  2. When – When goals clarify the timeline for change. Are we expecting to reach 1000 students this week, this month, or this year? Will we multiply small groups in December or January? Will the new focus for weekly meetings roll out in the fall or spring? Articulating a timeline helps us keep track of our activities. If we’re hoping to reach 400 students at a 4-hour club fair, we can check after 2 hours have gone by to see if we’re on track. This gives us the ability to celebrate our progress, or else change our tactics.
  3. How – How goals clarify the substance of our efforts. They force us to articulate the behaviors, attitudes, skills, plans, and strategies we need to succeed. How goals are the action steps that enable our mission to move forward.

What are you looking for on campus? This is Jesus’ question to us as leaders. Do we have the courage to get specific?

Write a goal in the comment section that captures your desire for campus. Make it specific by answering what, when, and how.


StartLeading: Vision Starts with the Why — Jason Gaboury

“What brings you to Hunter College?” I asked.

“Pre-nursing.” The mixture of hope and anxiety in her eyes was typical of freshmen attempting to major in nursing in Hunter College’s elite program.  “I guess I want to help people.”  She went on to tell a personal story about illness in her family, a compassionate nurse, and a desire to be that for others.

“Wow. You experienced compassion, and you want to pass that on.” I took a breath.  “What are you going to do while you’re in school to develop your compassion, this gift that you want to give to others?”

Her eyes moved up and to the right.  “I don’t know.”

“What about joining a community of people that believed compassion was the most powerful force in the world and wanted to help each other learn to live that out?”

I then introduced her to InterVarsity.


Simon Sinek gave a TED talk called, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”.  In his talk he argues that most vision communication moves from the outer rim of the above diagram to the middle, from the most concrete to the most abstract.  “But”, he says, “the great leaders communicate from the inside out.”

Here’s an example from NSO.  A student asks, “What’s InterVarsity?”  A typical response might sound like this.  “Oh, we’re a Christian group on campus.  We have small groups, large groups, and God Investigation Groups…we build really great community.”  Would you want to come to a group that just wanted to keep you busy?

What if we said instead, “We believe that no student is here by accident, but that every one of the 14,323 students on campus are loved by God.  Tragically most students don’t know it.  Our events, activities, and service projects are all set up to help ordinary students connect with each other and experience God’s love in tangible and transformative ways.  Our next event happens tonight, wanna come?”

See the difference?

Write out your answers to these questions and share your vision message in the comments below:

  1. Why does your chapter exist?  (Hint: See InterVarsity purpose statement)
  2. What are your events and activities designed to do?  What impact are they designed to have on students’ lives?
  3. What is one specific action step you could invite the listener to do? 

Start Leading: Intentionality – Carolyn Carney

Every week in this space I will offer some thoughts to aid you in your own spiritual formation as a leader.  You invest a lot of time and energy and money into your college education.  (And for that matter, you invest a lot of time and energy and money into gaming and caffeine consumption and staying in touch with your friends!)  Professors give careful thought and consideration regarding the components you will need in order to master the course content they are teaching.  Have you given careful thought to what components you need in order to be spiritually formed into the image of Christ or are you just making it up as you go along? 

Spiritual formation is not simply what happens at a conference like Basileia or Expedition or the Big Event.  Spiritual formation centers around the steps you intentionally take toward Christlikeness in between those conferences and all that time outside of Christian gatherings and worship services.  Leadership is a context for your spiritual formation.


Intentionality.  It is how leaders live.  In the first chapter of Mark, after a very long day of ministry where Jesus teaches with authority, casts out demons, calls disciples and heals an entire town, he retreats to a place of prayer.  Rising from that time of prayer—a consultation, if you will, with the One who leads him—Jesus emphatically says to Simon, “Let us go on….so thatfor that is what I came out to do.”  Let us, so that, for—small words, big impact.  Jesus comes out of this time with a clear intention, a decisive direction, a specific purpose.  He’s not making this up as he goes along or just doing what he feels like doing; he is always purposeful and intentional.

Part of being formed into the image of Christ, means that I endeavor to become more intentional and I ask God to help build this in me.  How can intentionality become a spiritual practice for us as leaders?

Here are some examples of intentionality a leader can take after a large group meeting:

  • Meet 3 new people.  Ask good, opening up questions, like, What happened for you when the speaker talked about ______________? Or What is your faith background?
  • Affirm and thank the speaker.  Ask what observations he or she has about the chapter.
  • Give verbal feedback to anyone who’s been upfront: one thing positive that they did, one thing they can improve.
  • Jot down some notes you want to bring up at the next leadership meeting.
  • Find one current member who seems to be “off”, not interacting, aloof.  Find out what’s up or delegate to someone else.  The key is to notice.
  • Ask if you can pray with someone who is in need or has responded to an invitation.

This week practice intentionality in your conversations, in your commitments, in your studying, in your leading others.  Notice what happens, both in you and in others when you are intentional.

Lord, Jesus we are sorry for handling so casually matters that are important to you and the building of your kingdom.  As we learn to practice intentionality in our leadership, will you grant to us a more purposeful mindset—to stay the course, until you lead us to the next thing? 

Question: Share the context in which you intend to act intentionally for the sake of mission his week in the comments.



StartLeading: Vision & Clarity – Greg Jao

My eyesight is terrible. When I don’t wear my glasses, I shuffle forward. I’m constantly reaching for the next handhold. I’m nervous about tripping up. I can’t recognize people just a few feet away.

When my vision is clear, I run. I take risks. I leap over obstacles. I recognize people and opportunities (Look! My friend. And a bookstore just ahead!) When my vision is clear, I know where to go and how to get there.

vision glassesWhat’s true for me individually is true for any group. When the vision is clear, everyone in the group moves ahead with freedom, courage, and clarity. So how do you make your vision clear?

A Vision You Can See

A vision has power when the words evoke a concrete, clear image. It’s literally a picture of the future. Too often personal and collective visions are merely vague aspirations (e.g., “excellent service”, “bold evangelism”, “be a good student.”) A good vision, though, makes the aspiration concrete: “Our customers spontanously call us to thank us for our work.” “Every student in the college has been invited to respond to the Gospel personally, relevantly, and graciously from a friend in the fellowship at least once before they graduate.” “My professors encourage me to take another class with them.”

As you work to clarify vision, use your senses. What would it look like if we succeeded? Sound like? Feel like? Smell like?

In the New York/New Jersey region of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, we described our vision for student transformation this way:

We envision a future where students first hear about InterVarsity from campus tour guides who describe us on every tour as the largest and most dynamic student group on campus. During the year, they see people who have an intimate relationship with God and whose actions and attitudes reflect a biblical worldview, a holistic engagement with Scripture and the world, and a growing experience of personal holiness and transformation. They discover that our activities and publicity, members and ministries regularly awaken an awareness of their need for God. They find themselves intrigued by the topics of the large group meetings, compelled to attend special events, and strangely drawn to the vibrant prayer meetings and bible studies. Because they each know two or three InterVarsity members, they have been invited – sensitively, relevantly, and clearly – to become a follower of Jesus at least once or twice before they graduate. And they know each InterVarsity member can name at least 2-3 friends on campus who have made that same decision. Because InterVarsity exists, students give their allegiance and love to Jesus – and become witnesses to the way the Holy Spirit grows them in Christlikeness and empowers them for mission.

Clear enough for you?

Next Step: Take the vision statement of a group you belong to (as an employee, member, or leader) and write a “vivid description” of what you aspire to accomplish. Share it in the comments below.



StartLeading: Develop New Leaders – Are you a Searchlight or Spotlight? – Jason Gaboury

Pick Your Seat

Find the brightest spot in the room.  Square your shoulders.  Make an impression!  These were just a few of the maxims David taught us.  As an aspiring actor in my first ‘real’ job, I was quick to learn.  Success as an actor would mean finding the light.  It would mean picking the chair in the spotlight.


The seat in the spotlight is influential, but the influence is limited.

Spotlight or Searchlight

By the Sea of Galilee Jesus chose a different seat.  He got into a boat belonging to a fisherman named Simon and taught the crowds.  (My guess is that he had one eye on Peter the whole time.)  After that was done, Jesus focuses in on Peter drawing him (and his partners) into an adventure that would change their lives.  At the turning point of this story (read it for yourself in Luke 5) are Jesus’ words, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.”

It isn’t immediately obvious how different these two seats are.  After all, doesn’t Jesus use the water as an amplifier?  Isn’t he positioning himself in the spotlight?  Luke’s emphasis (and Jesus’) is different.  The story is about Jesus’ catch of Peter.  It’s Peter and the other disciples becoming ‘fishers of men’ that Jesus is focused on.  In the hands of the master, the spotlight turns into a searchlight looking for others to advance his work.

Expert or Multiplier

As ministry leaders we have to choose what seat we’re going to occupy.  We can choose the spotlight, honing our ministry skills, becoming experts, expanding our capacities to teach, preach, organize, evangelize, and manage.  Or we can sit with a searchlight looking to identify, develop, and multiply others to carry the mission forward.

Great leaders choose the searchlight.  This doesn’t mean that leaders never get up in front.  Leadership requires moments of sitting in the spotlight, clarifying vision, catalyzing a movement, or calling for commitment.  But most often the leadership seat is the one where you catapult others to carry the mission forward.

Which Seat Do You Want?

What seat do you want?  Really?  Are you drawn by the potential influence of being the ministry expert, the hub of activity, the one making the big impression?  Or do you want to release other people to make their biggest potential impact?  Both great talent and great leaders serve the kingdom of God.  There’s room for both, but it’s helpful to be clear which seat you’re choosing.

Pick your seat.