Governing with Gratitude

When you’re the leader of a place nicknamed “The Volunteer State,” it’s helpful to have served in that very role yourself. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam does indeed know what it means to volunteer, because he’s been doing it for more than four decades with Young Life. During his rich history with the mission, a short list of his unofficial titles has included: club kid, volunteer leader, committee chair, interim area director, trustee on the Young Life board and one-time “Backstreet Boy” (but more on that later ...).

The recently re-elected public servant has learned much about service from his years with Young Life, an outfit which as a high school junior he had no intention of pursuing …

Caught

In 1974, while attending the Webb School of Knoxville, Bill Haslam was a wanted man. “I had a Young Life leader, Jimmy Dean, who was doing everything he could to get me to go to a weekend camp at Windy Gap,” Haslam said, “and I came up with every excuse in the world not to go. My ultimate excuse was that we were having a family portrait made that Friday afternoon after the bus left. Unfortunately, my mother happened to run into Jimmy at the store the next day and he said how sorry he was that I couldn’t go. She said, ‘No, we’re doing that the day before. Bill can go.’”

Suddenly caught, Haslam found himself headed to Windy Gap. “I was literally that last kid who gets on the bus.”

The weekend turned out to be a revelation; not only for the fun Haslam found himself having, but in the message he was hearing. “I don’t remember a lot of what the speaker said, but I clearly remember him saying, ‘Jesus’ claims are too bold to ignore. You either have to decide they’re true and you’re going to follow Him, or they’re not. But whatever you do, don’t ignore Him.’”

For the 15-year-old, the challenge made sense. While sitting on the steps of the gym at Windy Gap, Haslam decided the claims were true and began a relationship with Jesus. Bill Haslam was caught once again.

Just three weeks later Haslam’s life was changed forever; a high school counselor called him out of class and told him to go home immediately. “When I arrived home,” he said, “I learned my mother, who had just turned 42 years old, had suffered a heart attack and died while taking a nap.

“The story continues, then, with the same people who had worked so hard to talk me into coming to Windy Gap being the first ones to show up at my house.”

Haslam’s Young Life leaders loved the young man through the tragedy, providing him with comfort and direction. “One of the teachers at our school — who is now one of my best friends — started a Campaigner group with several guys right after we got back from Windy Gap. He did a wonderful job of walking us into the truths of the faith.”

College, Crissy and Committee

When his high school years concluded, Haslam didn’t miss a beat with Young Life. He attended Emory University in Atlanta where he served as a volunteer leader for four years.

“That experience was one of the most formative of my life. I think people underestimate what a great experience being a Young Life leader is for a college student. You’re forced to leave your comfort zone and think creatively about how you share your faith. If you think you’re bold and courageous, you try walking into a high school lunch room some time, where you’re the adult or college student who feels incredibly out of place!

“You begin to learn how to share your life. You go from being a teenager wrapped up in a fairly self-involved world of high school to, for the first time, walking into other people’s lives. That’s a transforming experience.”

Also transforming was meeting Crissy Garrett, who hailed from Memphis and had been a Young Life kid at St. Mary’s High School. The two married and moved back to Knoxville, where they trained college freshmen who wanted to be Young Life leaders. Soon they transitioned onto the local area committee, where they would serve for more than two decades.

“We looked at committee as having a front-row seat to all God was doing through Young Life in Knoxville all those years,” Haslam said.

During this time the Haslams became friends with the area director, Steve Chesney, and his wife, Cathy. The couples have been fast friends since 1983, having served beside each other in the Knoxville years and beyond.

Throughout the 1990s Chesney served the dual role of Knoxville area director and regional director for East Tennessee. In 2001 he assumed the role as the senior regional director for the entire state. As a result, Knoxville Young Life was in need of a new area director.

Any question who stepped up in the interim?

Haslam remembers the time fondly. “It was great fun, it was so different. Prior to that I had been in a business job and after that I went on to be the mayor of Knoxville. It was such a great experience for me. There was so much going on in so many high schools around town.

“As a joke I told Steve he should make up stationery for me that said ‘Part-Time/Acting/Interim Area Director’!”

Chesney, however, doesn’t remember anything part-time about Haslam’s tenure. “For that year,” Chesney said, “Bill stepped in and he was a full-time, I mean full-time, volunteer area director. He led an area of seven full-time staff and 100 volunteer leaders spread out over sixteen schools in Knoxville, which is a pretty broad area.”

Childrearing

Over those years, the Haslams saw their children, Will, Annie (Colquitt) and Leigh (Avery), also embrace Young Life. “All of our kids were involved with Young Life in high school,” he said. “It was so fun for us as parents to watch leaders walk into their lives and the lives of their friends, and to see it from the other side was incredibly encouraging. And as a parent, I don’t know a whole lot of things more rewarding than to see your kids share their lives with other high school students.”

The Haslams’ three children have served in various ways, everything from work crew to leading in college to coming on Young Life staff. Leigh, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she works as the Young Life regional administrator for the Carolinas Region, remembers the influence her parents’ faith had on her and her siblings.

“My parents modeled what it looks like to have a relationship with Jesus. I remember seeing my dad have his quiet time in the same chair every morning, making that a priority. Mom and Dad were always looking outward, involving themselves in other peoples’ lives and giving that vision to us.”

Leigh has also seen her dad model the joy of the Christian life, although she may not have fully appreciated it at the time.

“One of my most embarrassing moments came in high school when I was trying to be ‘too cool for school,’” Leigh said. “In the middle of club at the end of this ongoing skit, Dad — who was the mayor of Knoxville at this point — shows up dancing, dressed as a Backstreet Boy. Everyone thought it was hilarious, and as a shy freshman girl I was so embarrassed. Now I laugh about it because today I look at these shy insecure freshman girls and think, oh it’s OK, your dad’s not dancing like a Backstreet Boy in front of all your friends!

“Other than this one-time surprise appearance,” Leigh laughed, “he gave us our space in high school and let us do our own thing.”

Campaign-er

The transition into the political world can be a harrowing one, but Haslam credits his many hours spent in the ministry with teaching him how to navigate this new arena. “I’m so grateful to Young Life for so many things, but training me to be a leader is one where I certainly couldn’t have anticipated the difference it would make for me. Everything I learned about campaigning to be a governor I learned from doing contact work as a Young Life leader.”

Steve Chesney has seen the parallels between the two worlds. “When you’re campaigning, you’re sometimes walking into strange, uncomfortable, awkward situations. I think Bill drew back to his experience of walking into a high school lunch room — what’s more strange, uncomfortable and awkward than that? He learned a great deal about people and relationships, and these lessons shaped and defined him.”

Haslam is someone who naturally reflects Christ through his character, Chesney said. “Bill is perhaps the most positive person I know. He sees the good in every person and he’s not suspicious, cynical or skeptical. Frankly, the only bad thing his political critics or the media can think to say about him is that he’s too nice! I think the state has fallen in love with that quality and realized he’s the same behind the curtain as he is on stage. In his sincere and genuine way he has gone about creating a culture of civility in the political arena. He lives out his faith in a way that’s not invasive or overbearing, which is important in the world he’s living in.”

Chesney is encouraged that Haslam’s terms as mayor, and now governor, have not separated his friend from his convictions. “Those who know Bill and Crissy have appreciated the way this current experience has not changed them. He is still the same person and that comes from finding his anchor in Christ. He knows who he is and allows that to play out in the world without allowing his celebrity status to change the nature of his essential values and principles. He’s not impressed with himself.”

This consistency and humility are evident to his kids as well. “Dad taught us to live below our means and give generously,” Leigh said. “He never drove the nicest car on the block or wore a nice watch (growing up he wore a Timex from Target and I’m pretty sure he still does), which never made us feel like we had to have the most expensive things either.”

Committed

Alongside his many gubernatorial responsibilities, Haslam also serves on the Young Life Board of Trustees, a post which provides him with a bird’s eye view of the great strides within the mission over the past four decades. He is especially bullish on Young Life’s Reaching a World of Kids initiative. “When you hear stories of Steve Larmey in Africa putting on a camp for Ebola victims — that’s reaching a world of kids. When you realize we have the largest ministry to teen moms and we can keep going to all the places Young Life has ventured into, we’re a long way from what began primarily as a suburban ministry.”

He is thankful, however, that the mission still remains true to its core principles. “The thing that stays consistent is the idea of caring adults walking into teenagers’ lives with the truth of the Gospel. I’ve had the opportunity to see that played out literally around the world. Whether that’s a high school in Knoxville, Tennessee, or a high-rise building in Moscow, Russia, the core truth of Young Life’s mission of relational Gospel is still being acted out today.

Closer to home, Haslam also enjoys a unique perspective when it comes to Young Life’s presence across Tennessee. “It’s a fun perspective,” he said. “I travel all over the state, and in the process, I’m always amazed at how many Young Life people are out there. People I’ve known for 20 years when they were volunteer leaders at the University of Tennessee and now live in West Tennessee working a regular job, married with three kids, but they’re still living out the truth of what they learned as a leader in college in whatever world they’ve been called into now.”

Today, the man who was once a reluctant teenager riding to camp, remains fully on board. “I’ve stayed involved with Young Life for a couple of reasons: one, out of gratitude for the way God used it in my life; two, as governor I’m exposed to a lot of things and it’s easy to get discouraged; it’s easy to wonder, ‘What really can change things?’

“I’m convinced Young Life is one of those things that can make a difference going forward. And because of that I intend to stay involved until my last day.”​​​​​