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More on Leadership from Dr. Wess Stafford

CLA President and CEO Tami Heim shares the rest of her interview with Dr. Wess Stafford, president and CEO of Compassion International.

Dr. Stafford, CLA is honored to have you as a keynote for CLA’s 2013 Conference, “The Authentic Leader.”How important is authenticity?

People hunger for authentic leaders. As a follower of Christ, living without integrity is not an option. When I grew up in that little African village, we had a tribe nearby with artisans who would carve things out of wood. They would bring their little elephants and other statues to our marketplace every Wednesday.

They would set up in the shade under a mango tree. These were intelligent business people. But we had learned that not every carved elephant they were selling was perfect. They had become very good at hiding flaws. They would take wax, mix it with the tree sap, and blend it in the cracks so that everything looked perfect in the cool shade of the mango tree.

We learned to ask: “Is this statue without wax?” The colony I grew up in spoke French, and “without wax” in French is “sans-cire.” Some have speculated that our word sincere could be linked to that phrase. What you appear to be is what you are. They would say, “Oh, this is sans-cire!” And we’d say, “Oh, good, can we take it out into the tropical heat to look at it?” And they would go, “Oh, no, no …”

Well, in the heat of battle, the wax will melt, and flaws will be clear as day. In the bright light of the sun, you will see cracks that have been filled with wax. No one expects you to be perfect as a leader, but they expect authenticity.

Compassion has a consistent Christ-honoring culture. How is that built and maintained?

I can think of many Christian organizations that have lost their spiritual commitment. I can’t think of one secular organization that found its way to a Christian commitment. Any leader who inherits a robust Christian commitment must shepherd the culture and steward that commitment.

I inherited from my three predecessors an organization centered on Christ and committed to being a servant to his bride, the church. But that can unravel quickly. It can unravel in a single board meeting. … The quickest path to losing your spiritual way is through whom you put on your Board. It’s easy to get enamored with celebrities with powerful names or deep pockets. One of the biggest mistakes nonprofits make, even Christian ones, is to confuse their Board with their major donor program. Just because a guy can give you a million dollars doesn’t mean he can also give you good advice.

The next is through the executive leadership team. As you get bigger, you start looking for people with more credentials or names that open doors. And if you look for those things at the expense of the heart and a humble walk with God, soon the executive you brought in is hiring people who don’t have a passion for the Lord, and it unravels.

Money is a third way it can unravel. At Compassion, not a penny comes from the government. That’s unusual for an organization our size. In fact, for most of the 22 nonprofits larger than us, it accounts for a considerable part of their budgets. But we’re not willing to risk the privilege of working through the church, hiring Christian staff, or bringing children to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the more we have committed to centering on Christ, the more God has blessed us. HVW YOU Hed

As the development director at Compassion in the 1980s, I brought in outside experts to study our marketing and donor base. I asked, “What do we need to do to grow?” I’ll never forget their answer: “Well, you’ve got the best name in the business, ‘Compassion International.’ Who doesn’t want to be a part of something called Compassion? But you’ve got this Jesus stuff mixed in there. Not everyone compassionate cares about this Jesus that you keep putting out with every piece of material. Our advice is to raise the name Compassion and soft sell the Jesus stuff. Then watch what can happen.”

We thought for ten seconds and said, “No, not now, not ever. Let’s make it very hard for anybody to make this place wander from the centrality of Jesus.” Our tagline became “releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name.” Our Board, recognizing how quickly Christian organizations can unravel, put into our bylaws that our spiritual commitments, those things like “in Jesus’ name,” cannot be changed without a unanimous vote of the Board in three consecutive Board meetings. In other words, the Holy Spirit must go on vacation or sabbatical. That’s not going to happen.

Because of this commitment, today, 391 children will accept Christ as their Savior across the ministry of Compassion in the more than 6,000 churches we serve. We track that statistic because it’s our outcome. It’s good to do good, but why not do strategic good to advance the kingdom of God to the glory of God?

What wisdom would you share with today’s Christian ministry leaders?

The first is to ask yourself deep in your heart: “What am I made for? What is my cause? Why has God put me in this position?” If your role doesn’t move you deeply — bring you to tears in 30 seconds — either get passionate or get out of the way. You’re taking the place of somebody God has shaped to lead that ministry passionately.

Next, guard your heart. As a ministry leader, there’s a bulls-eye target on you. If Satan can drop a leader, he can affect the faith, hope, and passion of many others. You’re in a spiritual battle, so walk closely with God. Listen to his whispers. I begin each day with an hour of listening and prayer, no matter where or how busy I am. I don’t want God to one day say: “Wess, you were so passionate; you were doing so much on my behalf that I couldn’t get your attention.” As a leader, if you aren’t madly in love with the Lord, and if prayer isn’t a significant part of your life, you need to set that right.

Then I would say fight for your family. Love your wife or husband. Love your children. The most loving thing you can do for your children is make them understand that they’re more important than ministry. I have two daughters. They know, and have known since they were tiny little girls, that while I care about the million children in Compassion, I love the two of them the most. I never want them to say, “You cared about all of them, but you forgot about us.” God doesn’t expect you to sacrifice your family for your calling.

Pour yourself into your calling. If it’s what God has called you to do, it deserves your best. Be the best authentic leader you can be.


This is an excerpt from an article featured in Outcomes Magazine in Spring 2013. Be sure to read the first part of this interview with Dr. Stafford. Since this interview was published, Compassion International has announced its new president, Santiago (Jim) Mellado.


What is Christian Leadership Alliance?

Christian Leadership Alliance equips and unites leaders to transform the world for Christ. We are the leaders of Christ-centered organizations who are dedicated to faithful stewardship for greater kingdom impact.

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