Defining moments. Every leader has them. Likely one or two come to mind just on hearing the phrase.
Outcomes editor-in-chief W. Scott Brown asked Paula Fuller, Executive Vice President for People and Culture with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, and Bruce McNicol, CEO of Trueface, to reflect on how being rooted in relationships of trust has shaped their leadership. Fuller and McNicol reflected on a pivotal defining moment they shared:
How has being rooted in relationships of trust with God and others shaped your leadership?
Paula Fuller: In 2002, I was invited to join a vital gathering of thought leaders from various organizations to grapple with the crisis of ineffective discipleship in the American church. Our initial gathering was diverse in ethnicity and gender. I saw several highly respected, veteran leaders of color who I knew or knew of and a larger number of white leaders who were unfamiliar to me but had impressive credentials. As a recent seminary graduate who was unquestionably younger than most of the others, I was excited to be there and was simultaneously pondering what I had to offer.
After introductions, we were paired up for an icebreaker: a lesson from a national karate champion. The person standing across from me witnessing my enthusiastic display of punches, kicks, and well-punctuated shouts was Bruce McNicol. This marked the beginning of our partnership and friendship.
Bruce’s contribution to this community was rooted in his calling to develop high-trust environments of grace. I was captivated by the material he presented, and desperately needed a fresh revelation of God’s grace in my life. Our pairing was a divine appointment. When the meetings ended, we were all invited to be part of a working group that would develop spiritual formation models for churches and other communities.
When the group reconvened in 2003, I was the sole woman and person of color who returned. As I looked around, I wondered, “Why had none of the other people of color or women sent me the memo about why they weren’t coming back? What had I missed?”
During our ensuing 2005 meeting, as we discussed our target audience, I felt dissonance again—fear that our resources would not reach people on the other side of the racial divide. I wrote a note to Bruce: “I’m struggling with speaking up about reaching a multiethnic audience or (silently) checking out . . .”
Bruce responded, “I’m thinking the same thing—two alternatives: I’m waiting to see if anyone except you or me will bring it up. If no, then I’ll do it. Do you feel better me doing it? You doing it?”
I said, “We can both do it. In some ways, it should be expected that I’d say it . . . right? My fear is that really trying to do an authentic multiethnic work is too hard.”
Just then I was called on to offer my thoughts.
I said, “I like the formation characteristics on the chart, but we’re targeting mostly white males. It would be culturally arrogant to presume that we’ll just ‘pick up’ a multiethnic/diverse audience as our peripheral audience.”
I then said, “Close your eyes and imagine that you’re the only white man in a room of black women. We’re having the same conversation about spiritual formation and mission, and living and ministering among the lost. Now open your eyes. Do you think that we would reach white males?”
“I’m not saying that God is not working here and what we’ve created isn’t valuable, but ‘mostly white males’ is not the audience I’m trying to reach . . . so maybe I shouldn’t return next year.”
In that moment, I concluded that the price of being an authentic multiethnic community was too high for this group, so I was not prepared for what happened next.
Bruce added, “If mostly white males is the target audience, I can’t attach my name to this because that’s not what I’m about. Paula has been trying to help us broaden the diversity around this table over the last four years and we haven’t listened.”
There were mixed emotions around the table as we broke for lunch then… and as we prayed.
At lunch, I approached the session’s leader who repeated what he’d said to the group—that he “felt like a failure in developing an ethnically diverse group and we could not move forward.” I told him, “I have no context for what just happened. My paradigm was broken in this moment. When I shared, I expected to say my piece and leave. I never believed it would change the direction of the group. I’ve been on my journey of racial reconciliation and multiethnicity for 15 years, and this is one of the highlights."
That afternoon we spent time in prayer and repentance and ultimately decided that we wanted to live out our value for multiethnicity and reconciliation. To move forward, we first had to turn back. The session leader contacted those who had dropped out after the first year and apologized for mistakes that had been made. The next year, we met in an inner city location to see if our work was relevant to the poor, and we opened up the group to new people from a variety of backgrounds. Our session leader's defining moment became a transforming moment for the entire community.
How was this a defining moment for each of you?
Bruce McNicol: In the 15 years leading up to this story, God had given me an intensive interest in crossing cultural and racial divides in various countries. It was like the Spirit had given me “eyes to see” things to which I was formerly blind or indifferent. Then, he would set up moments where he would say, “Now I am giving you an opportunity to influence or empower others, to make a difference. Don’t miss this opportunity to use what I’ve deposited in your life. Have courage. Trust me.” This meeting in 2005 was one of those potent moments, where I knew I would stand with Paula, even if it meant leaving a room of respected colleagues.
My defining moment demanded a willingness to take risks, demonstrate courage, and model vulnerability in a critical moment.
Paula Fuller: My defining moment demanded a willingness to take risks, demonstrate courage, and model vulnerability in a critical moment. My willingness to do so created an opportunity for the group to grapple with the unconscious bias in the room. Even if the situation turned out differently, my willingness to speak out would have created a defining moment for me.
My defining moment had two dimensions: 1.) I spoke up and challenged the unconscious bias in the room thinking that I would make a graceful exit but feel good that I had spoken out and named the elephant in the room, and 2.) God showed me that he was able to transform a situation that I thought was too difficult to change. Who am I to say what is too hard for God? Is anything too difficult for God? In that moment I was also forced to acknowledge my conscious bias about white men in their sixties and their capacity for change. I thought, at best, I would hear a reaffirmation of our value for multiethnicity, but the need to press forward and continue the writing project for the sake of expediency. I was wrong.
God used a leader’s vulnerability and willingness to confess he’d failed, to transform my perspective about the group’s capacity for authentic multiethnicity. At the moment he was experiencing significant pain, I felt renewed hope. That created a moment of significant learning, which resulted in new possibilities for our community.
How can leaders recognize and courageously seize defining moments in their own lives?
Paula Fuller: We need to remember that defining moments aren’t scripted. We must be attentive to recognize them and willing to step into them. The transformative moment God had for this group didn’t arise from a topic on our agenda. It required courage, a willingness to take risks, an ability to deal with messiness and model vulnerability.
We need to remember that defining moments aren’t scripted. We must be attentive to recognize them and willing to step into them.
This story also demonstrates that relationships rooted in trust create environments for leaders to operate with greater authenticity and vulnerability.
Bruce McNicol: There’s a beautiful reason why various Scriptures say things like, “Wake up”, “Keep alert”, and “Listen closely.” We’ve been invited into a stunning communication dance with the God of the universe. He brings us these defining moments, often unannounced or with little "heads up" until we are in the moment. So, continually listening for the Spirit’s guidance, whether we’re by ourselves or with people, helps us "stay in the moment." Some of these moments will be “defining” for our colleagues and leaders, who need us or nudge us. We may not realize how “defining” certain moments are until we look back on these sacred conversations.
Seizing defining moments also requires learning to receive influence from God instead of pursuing power. Pursuing power turns us inward on ourselves, our reputations, our titles and our positions. The very pursuit of power adversely changes the fabric of who we are. In contrast, receiving influence turns our eyes toward Jesus and toward the others he wants us to serve, which helps us capture these decisive moments.
Finally, the posture of receiving influence prepares us to pay a price for following his voice in these crucial moments. Our part is to obey, and leave the consequences of our obedience with him. This helps us seize, rather than shrink from, these “trust moments.” You know you have truly listened to the Lord when you act on his direction without knowing how things will turn out. The transformation is in the obedience.
As a leader, pray often for the eyes to see defining moments of trust. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Pet. 5:6-7).
Paula Fuller is Executive Vice President, People and Culture, at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (www.intervarsity.org), a ministry to college students and faculty. She has an MBA and M.Div. and was a contributor to The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation (NavPress, 2016). (firstname.lastname@example.org) Dr. Bruce McNicol, CEO of Trueface, is co-author of several bestselling books, including The Cure (TrueFace, 2016). God uses Bruce to help younger leaders in the marketplace, entertainment, and the church to experience the healing and freedom of God’s grace. (www.trueface.org).