Twenty Years with Denny and Marilyn

In this article, we tip our hats to the president and first lady of the mission, Denny and Marilyn Rydberg. Because adequately capturing the impact of two decades of service and leadership in less than 2,000 words is an impossible task, we’ve included extra content not found in the print version of Relationships. For this added content, scroll down to “What I’ve Learned about Denny Rydberg.”

 

Donna Hatasaki (DH): Denny, along with my own questions, I’ve also collected some from Young Life staff and volunteers around the world. Let’s start with a question from a first-year staff associate who was three years old when you became president:

 

“Twenty years? Wow, Denny, that’s a lot. How does it feel?”

 

Denny Rydberg (DR): It might seem long to a person who was in preschool when I took the job, but it doesn’t seem long to us. It’s been a pretty quick run.

Marilyn Rydberg (MR): We don’t think about that 20-year milestone a lot. We’re usually focused on what’s at hand. But it’s been good to get to a milestone and have a little time to reflect.

DH: So let’s reflect a little. Here’s a question from a 15-year volunteer:

 

“As president, you see the mission from 30,000 feet. What did you see when you first became president and what do you see today?”

 

DR: When I came 20 years ago, I saw some tremendous people — great staff, wonderful volunteers, generous donors. I had a great appreciation for our history. I thought our approach to kids was God-given. And I was amazed at the grace and favor that so many people had for Young Life.

But to whom much is given, much is required. I felt like Young Life had been given a lot, and we needed to step it up. We needed to invite more people to the party to help us go after more kids.

DH: When we look at statistics today, here is some of what we see. The number of staff is up more than 125 percent since 1993. The number of volunteer leaders has nearly tripled. We were in 18 countries, and now it’s 93. Our annual budget has more than quadrupled. We’ve gone from reaching 456,000 kids to 1.4 million kids last year. As you look at the mission today, what comes clearly into focus?

DR: Today I’m pleased we’re having an impact on many more kids each year; I’m pleased we have more donors, volunteers and leaders because people and money are what fuel this growth. I’m thankful there are more people praying; I’m thankful we’re doing better training than we’ve ever done before; I’m thankful we’re reaching the world, not just the U.S. I’m thankful we’re going after every kind of kid — urban, suburban, rural, college, middle school, high school, Capernaum, YoungLives.   

I still see an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s alive and well. I still see the grace and favor we enjoy. But we could be doing more, and we’re trying to do more.

DH: Seventeen years ago, I interviewed you and I asked you to describe your leadership style. You said it was easier for other people to describe your style than to describe it yourself. So, Marilyn, how would you describe Denny’s leadership style today?

MR: When you hike with Denny, he’s always about 15 steps ahead of everybody. He’s a visionary, but he’s not just a single-minded visionary. He is always scanning to see how the mission is doing. He likes to know where the weak points are. He likes to see problems before they get to be big ones, either with people or with things that aren’t trending well.

DR: I can add a couple of things. I play different positions. Sometimes I’m the quarterback and have to call the play. Sometimes I’m the coach and have to sit down and think of the big game plan or come alongside a player and encourage him or her. But I’m also an interior lineman. I’m trying to block so others can score. I try to take care of a lot of the distractions and difficulties so the people running behind me can find a clear path to the goal.

MR: (smiling) For people like me who don’t know what an interior lineman is, I see us like parents in a family. As parents you deal with a lot of things your children never know about. I watch him — and us — do that. It’s what you do so that everybody can shoulder the appropriate amount of the load. I think that’s pretty healthy.

DH: Now let’s talk about Marilyn! Denny, a lot of women had questions for Marilyn, and we may have to do a separate article to get to them all. But here’s one for you. What would you like to say about your ministry partnership with Marilyn over the past 20 years?

DR: Marilyn is a tremendous mentor to me. When we got married, Marilyn had been the national women’s coordinator for Campus Crusade (now Cru), had spoken on more than 100 college campuses and had put Cru’s training together. When we did college ministry at University Presbyterian in Seattle, we shared that.

In her role the past 20 years, she’s been a brilliant strategist. And strategists aren’t always known, they’re behind the scenes. She’s mentored some key people in this mission in significant ways and again, not in the spotlight. She’s helped me on personnel decisions and in all kinds of ways.

She’s unbelievably smart. She’s insightful, intuitive, and I wouldn’t have lasted 20 years and have the enthusiasm I have today if it hadn’t been for my friend, Marilyn Rydberg.

DH: Here’s a question from someone at the Service Center:

 

“We’ve faced many tragedies in the last two decades — the Columbine shootings, Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina and Sandy Hook, to name a few. We’ve also suffered tragedies within the mission. As president, you’ve been exposed to more heartache within the mission than possibly any other person. What’s been required of you in those difficult moments?”

 

DR: I don’t want to underestimate what other presidents have faced. Jim Rayburn was facing WWII when he started Young Life. The kids he was preaching to in tents were headed to war and probably a number of them lost their lives. I also don’t want to underestimate the tumult of the ’60s that different people faced. I think anybody in this role faces a lot of tragedy and heartache.

But because we’ve been here this long, we have faced the things you’ve said. And because the mission has grown, there are more Young Life staff and volunteers who suffer heartache and loss. I’m sure not perfect on this, but I do know it’s helpful to phone or write people who are facing these kinds of difficulties. And it’s important to go to people when you can. Rudy Giuliani said weddings are optional, funerals are mandatory. That’s where we’re going tomorrow, to a funeral.

DH: But even today, in the midst of heartache and sorrow, you’re in meetings and now this interview. What keeps you moving forward?

DR: There is a compassionate side of leadership where you’re taking care of your people. Great generals did that. They’d walk around with their troops. However, you’re not just taking care of the troops. There is a mission. That’s why we’re called a mission. We have some hills to climb, we have some battles to fight, and there’s a ton of kids to reach. So it isn’t just about, “How are you? How are you doing?” We’re in a war with the evil one, and we want to prevail.

DH: Talk about Reaching a World of Kids (RWOK). Where did it come from? How did it evolve? One regional director asked:

 

“Was there a Moses moment for you?”

 

DR: The Lord doesn’t speak to me through burning bushes. It’s sort of a nudge in the ribs. There was this nudge that we were becoming satisfied where we were, yet there were so many unreached kids still out there. Again, to whom much is given, much is required.

MR: We need to see just how big God is and how much He wants to do — not in our strength but in His.

DR: When you have a big vision, it attracts people who want to see their investment make a difference. So not only have we exceeded $170 million of our $260 million RWOK fund-raising goal, with three years to go, but our operational giving is up a ton. We have people saying, “I believe in this. I want to put my money where my heart is. And this is the place to put it.”

DH: You talk a lot about taking hills and fighting battles, but you also know how to lead the troops to real retreat. One of the great gifts you’ve given this mission is the All-Staff Celebration. Here’s a question from an area director on the East Coast:

        

“When you thumb through your mental scrapbook of the five All-Staff Celebrations, what are some of your favorite photos?”

 

DR: My favorite all-time photo was the year I got to the Celebration early enough that I was standing around the pool when the first group of staff arrived. And it was almost like they couldn’t go to their rooms because they had to get into the pool NOW! I felt like a dad who had taken his kids to Disneyland.

MR: One thing about the Celebrations, they are all carefully planned, and they sound so fun, but I always have the sense the Lord says, “I’ll take it from here.” Then He makes something happen over the top because He wants to bless the staff for partnering with Him in the Gospel.

DR: Sea World last year was one of my favorite memories, because of the surprise it was to the staff and their overwhelming response. I’ve never seen so many grateful staff in one place thanking you for an event. And to be with all these new staff in the first row watching the whales. I was soaking wet. That’s fun stuff. I’m going to miss All-Staff Celebrations when we, at some point, leave Young Life.

DH: You’ll just have to keep coming.

DR: No, it will be different. Gotta let the new people have fun.

MR: Absolutely.

DH: You mentioned someday leaving your position. There were a few folks who submitted questions having to do with life after Denny and Marilyn Rydberg. Some wanted to know, what advice would you offer the next president of Young Life?

DR: Well, first, we wouldn’t want to impose our thoughts on anyone new. And, second, I want people to focus on what we need to get done today.

DH: Then how about this from a regional director:

 

What courage will be required of the mission in the next 10 years?

 

DR: There’s a great change going on in our culture and society. It’s becoming more and more unfriendly toward the faith. It’s not going to be as easy to stand up and proclaim Jesus or to face some of the social issues coming our way. We’re going to need courage and creativity for this new day. How do we contact kids, conduct clubs and do all we do in an increasingly hostile environment?

DH: Twenty years from now, when a staff associate asks an area director, “Who were Denny and Marilyn Rydberg? What were their contributions to this mission?” what do you hope they might say?”

MR: Wow … well I hope they say, “They were faithful.” When we came 20 years ago, we thought the mission was great, but still we’ve prayed we would leave it in better shape than we found it. I hope they would say that was true.

DR: I hope they would say we were faithful, we were visionary, and we had a practical side to us.

My friend, Bill Robinson, became the president of Whitworth around the same time I became the president of Young Life. Back then he wrote me a little note and said, “Young Life is a great organization. Don’t screw it up.” I just wrote to Bill recently and said I’m still trying to live out his mandate.

MR: It’s really not about the president and what he thinks or who he was. It’s about reaching kids. Whenever we do pass the baton, we really do believe Young Life’s best days are still ahead. 

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What I’ve Learned About Denny Rydberg
By Donna Hatasaki

I’ve worked directly for Denny Rydberg for almost 20 years. I’ve interviewed him for articles twice. And still I learned a few things about Denny in the process of interviewing him this time around.

First, he’s only human. Of course we all know that, whether we work for him or not. But it became clear to me this time around that Denny is a certain kind of human. He’s the focused kind with a single mission on his mind. He wants more kids to know Jesus. That mission anchors him in each moment, so when the winds whip and the rains fall, he grabs a jacket and keeps charging up the hill. You might not like some of his decisions; you might not agree with him on occasion; but it doesn’t matter. The integrity of the mission is what matters most to him, and all of his decisions are designed to maintain that integrity while moving the mission forward at the same time.

Second, he travels lightly. It’s not that he travels lightly so he can keep charging up the hill. It’s that he is able to keep charging up the hill because he travels lightly. He has the ability to be kind and compassionate without becoming entangled or bogged down. He is the opposite of codependent. His sense of well-being is not dependent on the feelings or opinions of others. Like it or not, he is free to lead.

Third, he is faithful in a very practical way. For example, he keeps a basket of Christmas cards in his office. They are the cards from staff and volunteers. I know this because an area director told me. Marilyn told the area director last year that she liked the area director’s Christmas card. As the conversation unfolded, the area director learned that Denny prays for each card, and that he also prayed for every staff person by name before the last All-Staff Celebration in Florida. “There were a lot of names,” Marilyn said, when I asked her. “He did it by himself.” 

“I’m not a big prayer warrior,” Denny was quick to deflect. (He travels lightly, sans ego.) “They were simple prayers.” (He is faithful, in a practical sort of way.)

Denny is only human, but he is a certain kind of human. The slightly introverted kind who rises by 5 a.m. and reads Jesus Calling with his wife while they drink coffee. The dog-loving kind who talks sweetly to his two Shih Tzus and even asks them questions on occasion. The fun-loving kind who sits on the front row at Sea World with young staff guys and gets happily soaked by Shamu. Denny is a certain kind of human. Apparently, he’s the kind that God can use to lead Young Life for 20 years.​​