Stewards of the Mission
John Nugent spent more than 30 years in the software industry working for Oracle, SAP, and as CEO of Serena Software. He also has extensive volunteer experience serving on boards for various Christian nonprofit organizations, including on the Joni and Friends board of directors beginning in 2011, and as board chairman since 2015. His dedication to Joni and Friends’ mission and values as a volunteer, donor, and board member over the past three decades serve him well today. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration, a certificate of advanced management from Harvard Business School, and a certificate from the directors’ consortium at Stanford University’s School of Business.
For more than 40 years, Joni and Friends has provided the hope of the gospel and practical resources to people affected by disability around the globe. Ministry programs include Wheels for the World, Family Retreats, the Christian Institute on Disability, and church ministry training. Joni and Friends also delivers inspirational media such as the Joni and Friends radio program and podcasts.
Joni and Friends is a Platinum level member of the Alliance, and many of its team members have become Credentialed Christian Nonprofit Leaders (CCNL) through the Alliance. Heim and Nugent discussed the “Stewardship” theme of this edition of Outcomes.
Just over a year into your service as Joni and Friends president and COO, COVID-19 dramatically impacted our world. What has it been like to steward the organization well in such a season?
I never imagined that one day I would have the honor and privilege of working side by side with Joni Eareckson Tada. This is a very humbling experience; one that I’m not embarrassed to say was somewhat intimidating.
In January of this year, I had just completed my first year on the job with Joni and Friends. Joni and I were so excited how God was using ministry to lift almost 20,000 people off the ground into wheelchairs in 2019 and giving us the privilege of sharing the gospel to each of them as well as their families and caregivers. At the start of this year, we were on target to reach a ministry milestone – delivering our 200,000th wheelchair, but a global pandemic had other plans for us.
The pandemic, and the global government response that followed, created a new reality for people and organizations serving internationally. I was amazed how our leadership team came together to respond to the ongoing crisis. For the first time, I was able to watch the leadership team operate under stress, and they performed beautifully.
Instead of simply responding to COVID-19, the leadership team sought God’s will amid the crisis.
As you recall, the situation in the early days of the outbreak changed daily, plunging the Joni and Friends leadership team into a constant state of whitewater. Instead of simply responding to COVID-19, the leadership team sought God’s will amid the crisis. Genesis 50:20 reminded us that what Satan intended for evil God intended for good. We were convinced he was going to use COVID-19 to reveal new, amazing, God-intended strategies to further bless people living with disability. We assembled a leadership task force to reevaluate every department, program and strategy in light of a post-COVID-19 world. COVID-19 forced us to have conversations we never would have entertained before. We were humbled as we experienced the Holy Spirit guiding and leading us on a new ministry journey.
For you as a leader, what are keys to being a good steward of the mission and people of the organization you serve?
In January of last year, I jumped into my job with both feet, albeit with a bit of trepidation.
It had been some time since my last operating role, and I had never worked in the nonprofit sector, so I had concerns. God stepped in and reminded me of a few stewardship truths to comfort my anxious heart. First, he reminded me that he owns everything including Joni and Friends. I’m just the next in a line of stewards whom God has sovereignly appointed. Second, since God does the appointing, he also does the anointing. He promises to empower me with his Holy Spirit to fulfill all my job responsibilities. These truths, “set me free”!
God is calling leaders to be good stewards of all that he places under their leadership, not just the men and women in the organization but equally as important, the organization’s mission.
I find that I can steward my staff better by becoming a more effective servant leader to them.
As the leader of Joni and Friends, it is my responsibility to protect our Christian distinctives from the secular culture. This culture is waging war on Christian organizations with the goal of eroding and eventually destroying those things that make a Christian organization uniquely Christian. Joni and Friends must be ever vigilant to ensure that a secular agenda does not seep into the organization.
God mandates leaders to be good stewards of the people he has placed under our leadership. I find that I can steward my staff better by becoming a more effective servant leader to them. This requires a shift in my focus from self to others, allowing me to focus on their desires and needs. Coming alongside staff members and discovering ways I can serve them is so rewarding. In fact, I tell our staff if they are having a bad day to just stop and go serve someone. I guarantee that their day will immediately pick up!
How has your experience in business influenced the way in which you lead today?
During my days in high tech, leadership was constantly evaluating the marketplace looking for new opportunities to exploit. High tech cultures are adept at changing and adapting rapidly, taking advantage of new opportunities. Complacency is the greatest detriment to an organization’s pursuit of sustainable success. Successful organizations live by the mantra, “complacency is the poison that kills organizations,” and do all they can to neutralize it. Change is the antidote to complacency.
Joni and Friends’ culture is on constant alert to ensure that status quo thinking does not permeate the organization. We promote a culture that creates a safe environment that allows people to challenge decisions and speak their minds, encourages new thinking, launches new initiatives and recreates itself every few years. As a good steward, I’ve learned not to hold too tightly to favored business or ministry models, programs and ways of doing things.
A regular reevaluation of the organization is needed to beget new thinking, which begets transformational change, which begets new strategies and programs. This re-energizes the organization to create a new and improved version of itself.
What has been the most challenging aspect of moving from the role of board chairman to serve as Joni and Friends president and COO? The most rewarding?
The most challenging aspect of moving from board chairman to president & COO is also the most rewarding. I knew things were going to be different when a board member said to me, “congratulations on your demotion to president and COO!” While we both enjoyed a good laugh, I remember thinking that my role at Joni and Friends has drastically changed.
As board chairman my role was one of governance and oversight, leaving the operating details to the president & COO. Now as the president & COO, my job responsibilities are all about managing the operating details of the ministry. As I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t been in an operating role for some time, so I wasn’t sure how I would respond to the challenge. It didn’t take long to rekindle my love for operations again. It’s so rewarding to come alongside young, passionate Joni and Friends leaders wrestling over details with the ultimate goal of better serving and sharing the gospel with more people living with disability.
What is your vision for Joni and Friends and its staff team in the future?
Here in the U.S. and around the world, COVID-19 has driven people living with disability further into isolation raising feelings of depression and loneliness. The crisis has exposed the lack of connectedness, deep relationships, and practical support people living with disability desperately need. In response, Joni and Friends is rolling out a new U.S. based program we are calling Family360. This program is designed to create multiple points of connection between families living with disability, our organization and other families.
Family360 offers in-person, virtual and hybrid ministry programming throughout the year. In addition to our in-person Joni and Friends Family Retreats, we now offer a host of weekly virtual programming that is pandemic-resistant including: mom and dad support groups, Family Fun Nite, Bible studies, parenting and marriage classes and many others. Family360 provides families the connections not just once or twice a year, but now over 50 times a year. It allows us to minister to the complete 360 degree circle of the family. Family360 is facilitating deeper relationships and a greater sense of belonging, while pushing back the darkness of isolation.
In developing countries, people living with disability, especially in times of crisis, are in desperate need of basic human services. Our vision calls for the launch of a new ministry program called, Joni’s House. This involves the construction of Joni and Friends disability centers around the world where working with our partners we can deliver holistic support services to address the spiritual, physical, economic and social needs of people living with disability. Each disability center will be staffed to deliver these services to families throughout the year, in both pandemic and non-pandemic years.
We start by doing what we have always done, and that is to provide wheelchairs to those suffering with lack of mobility, to share the gospel and connect them and their families to a local church. Through Joni’s House, we will provide new services including food and hygiene kits, as well as basic medical care. For those families living in scrap wood, mud or no home, we will work with our in-country partners to build or retrofit disability friendly homes! People living with disability are often denied medical care due to religious and cultural norms. Join and Friends will partner with Christian doctors and nurses in nearby hospitals to arrange for more in-depth medical treatment.
These precious families often represent the poorest of the poor. Joni’s House will provide economic support through collaboration with leading micro-finance ministries to fund the acquisition of livestock, material and training to raise their standard of living. To be lifted out of extreme poverty creates self-sufficiency, a newfound sense of human dignity and greater acceptance within a community. Joni’s House will dramatically improve the well-being of impacted families by offering hope in hardship and most importantly, the hope of Christ.
What encouragement would you offer to others on stewarding well our leadership calling in this moment?
COVID-19 has created an opportunity for organizations to do the things they never thought possible.
I would encourage my fellow leaders not to waste this COVID-19 crisis. As I mentioned earlier, what Satan intended for evil God intended for good. There is God-intended good in this crisis for every organization to uncover.
COVID-19 has created an opportunity for organizations to do the things they never thought possible. Start by thinking strategically about how to come out the other side of this pandemic stronger, with a fresh, bold vision for the future. It’s time to start anew by reevaluating and reexamining all aspects of the organization – what we stand for, what we do and how we do it. Encourage big, bold thinking that leads to big, bold initiatives, creating exponentially more value for those we serve.
To learn more, please visit www.joniandfriends.org.