Up the (Willow) Creek: Wess Stafford

wess-staffordWess Stafford is the president of Compassion International. For those who don’t know, Compassion works through the local church in developing countries to share the gospel while providing for the needs of children living in poverty. It’s also an organization I’m privileged to work for (out of the Canadian office). For literally the entire time I’ve been at Compassion, I’ve always heard people tell me how much I need to hear Wess speak, and how I really need to read his book. So for me, it was very interesting to see Wess speak at Willow Creek during his session, Leveraging Your Past.

In this session, Wess addressed the question of how do we leverage the pain and hurt in our lives for the ministry?

If anyone’s not heard his story before, it’s heartbreaking. The son of missionaries serving in Africa, Stafford, along with the children of several other missionaries serving on the continent, suffered horrific physical, mental, and spiritual abuse. As he put it, “We were little sinners in the hands of an angry god.”

As he struggled to maintain his composure, Stafford shared what he believed was his first true act of leadership. An act of courage that he’s never since matched.

One day, before being separated from his parents to return to the school, young Wess broke down in tears and told his mother everything that was happening at the school. He had broken the code of silence, and that would not be tolerated. So the teachers decided to make an example of him. They stood him up in front of all the children on a chair, and made him hold a candle that was burning on both ends. They intended to shame him in front of everyone, to hurt him once again. They said that because Wess had told, countless African souls would be lost—and it was all his fault.

As he recounted this tale, you could see the tears in his eyes as he said that this was the catalyst for his brave act. He loved the African people. He recalled that as a young boy, he would go to bed at night praying that God would make him African just like all his friends (he continued to wake up every morning white, as you can see). And he would not be responsible for any of their souls being lost.

He decided that he would not let the teachers shame him this time. He decided to take the pain. He wouldn’t let go of the candle, no matter how much his friends pleaded with him. He felt it burn his fingers, blisters popping, but he wouldn’t yield. Finally, one of the children got up and smacked the candle out of his hand.

But in that moment, Stafford says, “I’d gone from victim to victor… [and] I dedicated my life to speaking up for children.”

All this drove him to Compassion. And through Compassion, he continues to speak up for children. To show them a God that loves them, and offers them the hope that poverty and abuse snatch away.

“[I spent] 35 years looking at the wrong side of the story… [We] need to look at what God has done, even through our pain.”

Wess returned to the topic of leadership, asking “What’s your cause? What moves you to tears. Can it move you to tears? What is your passion?”

“Don’t let yourself lead without passion.”

This statement, outside of his story, is one of the most profound things in the entire session. We have to realize that when we lead without passion, we don’t really lead. There’s nothing propelling our churches, our ministries, our businesses forward without passion. It doesn’t make up for a lack of vision, a lack of relational skills or a lack of planning… but it fuels all of those. And if you do something that you unabashedly love, other people will too.

Stafford reminded us that God has granted us all a story that can be redeemed for His glory. And we should spend some time reflecting on how that story can be used for His purposes. In the program for the Summit, several questions were provided to help everyone in this reflection process. Here’s what we are to do:

Make a 30-minute appointment with yourself. 30 minutes alone in front of a mirror.

Look at your reflection and ask God to give you His wisdom to understand yourself more clearly than you have before. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who am I? What do I really care about?
  2. What do I believe? What do I value? Why am I the way I am? Why do I do what I do?
  3. Why do I lead what I lead?
  4. What is my leadership story? Where did it begin?
  5. Is my leadership based on joy and fulfillment?
  6. If so, who do I owe for it? Who believed in me, before I believed in myself and launched my leadership?
  7. Do they know it? Have I ever thanked them?
  8. Or, am I driven, even in success, by pain, sorrow or fear?
  9. If so, who hurt me? Humiliated or discouraged me?
  10. Have I ever forgiven them? (Even if they’ve never asked for it or are not even sorry)
  11. Whether your passion is fuled by joy or pain, the most profound question you may ever ask yourself is: What am I trying to prove, to whom, and why?

Forgiveness, Stafford says, does not mean:

  1. Forgetting or that whatever wrongs have been commited against you were okay
  2. Anyone is released from the consequences of their actions, or
  3. Reconciliation with an offender

But forgiveness does mean giving up the right for revenge.

“Will you let God use your story—all of it? Will you let him redeem it for his glory?”

This was a powerful and moving session, certainly the most emotional of the Summit. Stafford exudes passion, and he’s asking good questions of leaders to leverage their past for the furthering of God’s glory. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea for more of us asking appropriately reflective questions like these to better serve God and serve people.

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