Passing the Baton

As the mission’s leadership transitions from Denny Rydberg to Newt Crenshaw, we didn’t want to pass up what is certainly a first for Young Life: the opportunity to hear jointly from an out-going and in-coming president. Recently, the two men reflected on their roles in the mission with Relationships Senior Editor Jeff Chesemore.

Relationships: Denny, you must be "downloading" a lot of information for Newt, about leading Young Life, what to expect his first year, etc. What can you share with us about those insights and advice?

Denny Rydberg: First, we tried not to download too much in April, May and most of June. Newt was finishing up at Eli Lilly and we wanted him to take his time, get ready for the move/new job and come here somewhat refreshed.​

In late June, we did a deep dive with all our department heads, U.S. and International Field representatives, etc. Marilyn and I also had time with Newt and Susan, and Newt and I had opportunities to meet one-on-one as well. The dive lasted a week and was not the endgame, but just a start on learning the people and complexities of this great mission.

Prior to the dive and in the days after, different staff have kept him abreast of key issues, events, any personnel changes, etc.

My basic advice to him is that this is the Iron Man Triathlon, not a sprint, and he needs to give himself time to learn the mission. He’s a smart guy and a quick study and over time, he’ll get to know us well.

R: Newt, what have you learned from Denny already?

Newt Crenshaw: Keep your eye on the prize of reaching the next kid, the next school, the next town, the next country with the love of Christ and utilize Young Life’s God-given resources to accomplish that mission with a sense of urgency. Thank you, Denny!

R: You already know Young Life pretty well, but have made it clear you have a lot to learn. What’s your plan for better understanding the mission, opportunities and challenges ahead?

NC: Listen. Watch. Learn. Repeat. Like Phillip said to Nathaniel in John 1, I want to “come and see” what amazing things the Holy Spirit is doing through our incredible team at Young Life as we introduce young people to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith. This is my primary focus for the first 90 days on the job, and will also become the foundation of my leadership for as long as the Lord has me here at Young Life — which I hope is a long time.

R: Denny, how has the president’s role remained the same since Jim Rayburn’s days and how has it changed (even during your tenure)?

DR: What’s the same is that every president must have a great love for Christ and kids and for kids meeting Jesus and growing in their faith. The president must be focused on evangelism and discipleship. The president must be able to create a vision and articulate it. The president must work well with the board of trustees. He/She must be able to see the needs of the mission and make hard decisions. The president must care about people, money and prayer — three ingredients the Lord has tied together in ministry. Aspects of this include selecting the right people in the right seats on the right bus and working closely with these bright leaders for the health and growth of the mission. In addition to being a minister, the president must be an entrepreneur and business person. And he/she must have a great appreciation for the history of this mission.

As far as what’s different, Jim was the founder. He wasn’t working from a blueprint. He had to develop the very basics of Young Life. I came to this mission almost 30 years after that. My job was to build on what Jim and the other presidents and leaders had developed and to move us forward. Much is the same; some is different.

R: What do you see as milestones during your 23-year presidency?

DR: First, any milestone reached was not based on me. It was because of the grace and favor of the Lord leading a team of thousands of people — staff, volunteer leaders, donors, committee people, students.
  • ​Greatest milestone: We did not drift. We stayed focused on the purpose, principles and approach God had developed and to which He had called us. We’re still pursuing and impacting adolescents. We’re still introducing them to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith. We’re still going where kids are, winning the right to be heard and sharing the Gospel in a captivating way and in terms they can understand and relate to.
  • I love that we’re reaching many more kids than we were 23 years ago. We were not afraid to have great dreams. So we doubled during the Recruiting-Training-Deploying years, and we doubled during our Reaching a World of Kids initiative. I love that. More kids got to say, “I’m so glad Young Life didn’t stop before they got to my high school and community.”•
  • I am thankful camping continued to be strong and, over the last 23 years, we started or completed 15 camps in the United States and four other countries. Plus, we started the use of COWs (Camp On Wheels) and other creative camping opportunities.
  • I love the way we exploded internationally. We’re now in over 100 countries.
  • I’m so thankful for Developing Global Leaders — a revolutionary scholarship and training program for students in developing countries. We’ve also seen the impact of this.
  • I’m thankful we’ve pursued every kid. That we’ve seen substantial growth in Capernaum, YoungLives, Multicultural and Urban, rural ministry (with an emphasis on Jumpstarts and Teachers in Mission), military ministry, Young Life College/University, and in schools and communities all over the world.
  • I’m thankful we now have 250,000 donors who generously give millions of dollars so more kids can know Jesus. 
R: Newt, we know you’re one of those thousands who have been involved with Young Life during Denny’s tenure and your involvement has been significant. Tell us about your journey in the faith.

NC: I met Jesus when I was 11 years old when a neighborhood family invited me to come to a revival at their church. The Gospel — what it meant to trust only in Jesus for my salvation and to follow Him — was presented in a crystal clear manner by the speaker, and He also painted a vivid picture of the alternative of being under the dominion of the devil and subject to God’s wrath. Needless to say, I walked the aisle and gave my life to Jesus! My faith lay dormant for a couple of years until our family started attending a Bible-teaching church. Since those days, I have walked with my Lord Jesus — or rather He’s walked beside me — and I am blessed to have always been a member of a body of believers committed to God’s Word and the transforming truth of the Gospel. I have served in various capacities in the local church and also in ministries like Young Life, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Twelve Stones. God has blessed me with my wife, Susan, with whom I have served side-by-side for 29 years. To this day, God does not treat me according to my sins, but according to His great mercy. I look back on my life, through the good times and especially the hard times, and am deeply grateful the Lord of Creation has called me to Himself in Christ, asking me to abide in Him by the power of His Spirit.

R: Please share about your history with Young Life.

NC: In the summer of 1981, after graduating from high school, my family went to Trail West’s family camp. My mom and dad were thinking of starting Young Life in Newburgh, Indiana, and they wanted to experience it firsthand. To quote the movie, Jerry Maguire, Young Life “had us at Hello!” While I was away at college, my mom and dad chaired the local committee that started Young Life, and I served as a volunteer leader while interning at Lilly in Indianapolis. I later served as a volunteer leader in Charlottesville, Virginia, while on my first assignment with Lilly, and have been a leader, donor, committee member/chair in Zionsville, Indiana, and Kobe, Japan. I also had the privilege of serving on the Young Life Board of Trustees from 2004 to 2009. I’ve been blessed by every minute I’ve served the Lord through Young Life, and I’m more than confident I won’t be sorry when I see Him face to face on that great day.

R: Denny, how long have you known Newt?

DR: About 15 years. Newt served on our board, I’ve been in Newt and Susan’s home, met their daughter, Jensen, and look forward to meeting their three sons as well. One time Newt and I even did a donor call together. I also knew Newt’s mom and dad who have been great supporters of the mission in so many ways over years and years. The loss of Newt’s dad (Newt Sr.) was a big blow to their family and Young Life.

R: What would you like people to know about Newt and what he brings to the position?

DR: He loves Christ, kids and our mission. He’s relational. He knows Young Life — he’s been a volunteer leader, a committee person and has served on our board. But he’s not been a “total insider.” He hasn’t been on staff. He hasn’t led this mission. He’s making a huge transition so please pray for Newt and Susan and be patient as he learns. I believe he will be a great leader.

R: Newt, how would you describe your leadership style?

NC: In Mark 10, Jesus responds to the request of James and John (or their well-intentioned mother, according to Matthew 20) to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory. The other disciples didn’t take too kindly to the brothers’ perceived “power grab,” and Jesus used this teachable moment to share with them all the nature of authentic, kingdom-oriented leadership: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42b-45).

Since all who belong to God are “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29), my leadership needs to be like what Jesus taught and exemplified — a servant, even a slave, who gives his life in service to others.

I think our collective leadership at Young Life should manifest itself in the ways Paul describes in Ephesians 4:1-16. I have been meditating on this passage in the past weeks and would commend it to all of us.

R: Denny, what challenges do you see for the mission in the years ahead?

DR: Here’s what I believe:
  • ​There’ll be an intense spiritual battle as we seek to reach every kid, everywhere, for eternity. Satan will increase his attacks.
  • There’ll be huge cultural changes. It may be extremely difficult and we’ll have to be amazingly creative to minister in the midst of these changes. But God will not be surprised by what happens and He will give us direction and power.
  • At some point, there may be no tax breaks for missions and for those who give to these organizations. I’m hopeful this will not impact Young Life because our investors are so committed. But it will pose a financial challenge in other ways.
  • As we grow, we’ll have to be better equipped to minister in more countries setting up nonprofits, hiring staff, training, etc.
  • The best Young Life work is yet to be done. I’m convinced this is the Lord’s team and He desires every young person have an opportunity to know Him.
  • I’ve been bullish on Young Life for 23 years. I continue to be positive, hopeful and confident. I’ll be cheering all of you on.
R: What are you most excited about, Newt, in regard to leading the mission?

NC: I look forward to seeing God glorified through us by the work of the Holy Spirit to transform lost kids, lost families, and lost communities into followers and lovers of our Lord and King, Jesus Christ. As Paul says in the Ephesians 4 passage, we are called “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (v. 12) ... and when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (v. 16).

R: How can we be praying for you and Susan and the kids?

NC: Please pray we would stay close to the Lord Jesus in this transition and be patient and kind toward one another. Pray for traveling mercies for me and God’s protection from the evil one as we begin this new work and are away from one another over the next several months.

R: Finally, Denny, how can we be praying for you and Marilyn?

DR: Like everyone else who makes this kind of decision, we have zero experience in what retirement means and how to do it. So pray we may hear clearly the voice of the Lord and obediently follow where He leads. 
We’ll spend more time with our kids, grandkids, my dad and friends. Please pray for these relationships.

We want to use our gifts and experiences to further the kingdom, so pray we might seize opportunities that come our way.

We’ll face the challenges of getting older, saying goodbye to loved ones who are “promoted to glory.” Pray we might face change with abundant grace.

One of the greatest gifts Young Life has given us is the community of those who pray for us daily or weekly. Pray for Newt and Susan as much as you’ve prayed for us. But every now and then, remember to pray for the Rydbergs. We’ll be eternally grateful.