A Race Well Run

On May 16, Denny Rydberg lost his battle with cancer and, to use a favorite phrase of his, “was graduated to glory.” It was the end of a journey he and his wife, Marilyn, had traveled in relative privacy for a little over a year, supported by the fervent prayers of family and friends. Now, the mission he led for more than 23 years grieves a stunning loss, recounts the impact of a remarkable man and draws on the faith for which he was a steadfast champion.

A Mission Remembers

Into the vacuum created by Denny’s passing came stories — accounts not so much of his accomplishments or impact, but of his faithfulness in prayer and love for those with whom he served. In opening remarks at his memorial service at Seattle’s University Presbyterian Church (UPC), Young Life trustee Susan Hutchison said:

“We are fond of saying in Young Life that ‘some people are Jesus with skin on.’ And that was certainly Denny. He had an extraordinary capacity to love us. His ability to keep track of us and our families was due to his amazing memory and big heart.”

In gatherings to reflect and remember Denny, in social media posts and doubtless in private conversations, we shared stories of a phone call or email from Denny simply saying, “Mar and I prayed for you today,” or, “This is the day each week when we pray for you and your family.”

A Pastoral Leader

Before Denny joined Young Life as the mission’s fifth president, he and Marilyn led The Inn, a robust ministry to young adults at UPC. One of thousands impacted by that ministry, Mike Gaffney, Young Life’s senior vice president for the Asia/Pacific Division, spoke about Denny as a pastor:

“He always had a hand on your back — affirming who you were but also gently encouraging you to take the next step in life and leadership. As I look back I realize what a profound role he had in shaping who I have become, as a husband, father and leader.”

Bringing this pastoral heart to his role with Young Life, Denny was an encourager first. But he was also a visionary leader. When asked whether his priority for Young Life was excellence in ministry or growth, he responded, “I’m into both.” Indeed he set a high bar for everything that happened in the mission, from excellence in camping to effective local ministry. He also brought focus to a mission in need of strong leadership.

A Unifying Force

The following excerpts from Made for This: The Young Life Story detail the early days and what Denny faced entering the mission:

On April 23, 1993, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved the appointment of the mission’s fifth president: Dennis I. Rydberg.

Although Denny Rydberg was an unknown to the majority of staff and volunteers within the mission, the forty-eight-year-old from Washington state had quite the résumé: youth director at First Presbyterian in Tacoma, the director of Christian education at First Presbyterian in San Diego, one of the founders and vice presidents of Youth Specialties, director of operations for Inspirational Films, the editor of the Christian humor magazine, The Wittenburg Door, speaker, consultant, author of ten books, and then finally director of university ministries, a position he shared with his wife, Marilyn, at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle.

Prior to this position, Marilyn had also served as the national women’s coordinator for Campus Crusade, spoken on more than one hundred college campuses and put Campus Crusade’s training together. The Rydbergs knew ministry, but could Denny Rydberg be expected to lead a mission of men and women, so unfamiliar with him, and he with them? Could this man, or any outsider for that matter, grasp the Young Life culture?

“Denny had to face an awful lot of people who didn’t believe an outsider could come in and run Young Life, and if he did, for sure he would ruin it and it would become just a big church youth group,” Greg Kinberg, Young Life’s chief operating officer, explained. “He quickly startled them. He really did have a fix on contact work, relating to kids who don’t know Christ, winning the right to be heard, building bridges of friendship. In that sense he was a real gift.”

In his memorial comments, John Vicary, executive vice president of U.S. ministries, spoke of Denny’s unifying hand on a mission in need of strong leadership:

“He brought us back to the vision God had always had for us. When Denny became president 26 years ago, we were not a unified mission. We were divided by theologies and personalities and Denny came and quickly called us to a vision so much bigger than ourselves ... Every kid, Everywhere, for Eternity and we couldn’t argue. We had to set aside our petty differences and join him in the calling God had always had for this mission.”

An Unfolding Legacy

The fruit of that single-minded focus on introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith has been abundant: during Denny’s tenure (1993–2016) Young Life’s global presence expanded from 25 to 101 countries; the staff grew from 1,700 to 4,900; the number of camps increased from 16 to 30. Furthermore, over that time many faithful and new supporters responded to Denny’s vision, fueling a growth in contributions from $35.1 million to $251.4 million.

Lacking the perspective of time, the full impact of Denny Rydberg’s leadership of Young Life is difficult to measure. The numbers above and the accomplishments listed on the opposite page speak volumes, of course. They do not do justice, however, to the individual lives changed under his leadership. In the last months of his presidency, Denny received the following email from a high school junior.

“Dear Mr. Rydberg,

Before a couple days ago, I’ll admit I didn’t know Young Life even had a president, much less who you were. My Young Life leaders have told me about you, and how you’ll be retiring this year. I’m one of the millions and something kids who’ve been reborn since you took office.

Like any broken thing though, it still has cracks when it’s fixed, and I struggle with stress and fighting off depression every day. But it’s because of Jonathan and my other leaders that I’m fixed at all. I tell you this because without everything you did in your years as president to expand Young Life, there would be no Young Life here, no Jonathan the Young Life leader, and no renewed me. It’s because of my leaders and you that my future looks bright, and I want to thank you.”

Thank You, Denny

As the longest serving president, Denny Rydberg left this mission better than he found it — he was indeed the leader Young Life needed “for such a time as this.”

We continue to pray for Marilyn, the entire family and the many around the world who had the pleasure of knowing Denny Rydberg.

Some Milestones from a 23-Year Presidency
Missionwide Ministries and Initiatives Begun
  • ​Recruiting, Training and Deploying (RTD)
  • Small Towns/Rural ministry officially begins
  • WyldLife and Young Life College became official, missionwide “lifestage” ministries
  • Teacher Staff Initiative
  • Latino Student Staff Initiative
  • Reaching a World of Kids (RWOK)
  • Developing Global Leaders
  • Office of Alumni and Friends
  • Campership Legacy Fund
  • Women’s Leadership Network
Camps Acquired/Built
  • Crooked Creek Ranch (Colorado)
  • Lost Canyon (Arizona)
  • SharpTop Cove (Georgia)
  • Washington Family Ranch – Canyon (Oregon)
  • Pico Escondido (Dominican Republic)​
  • Timber Wolf Lake (Michigan)
  • Clearwater Cove (Missouri)
  • Carolina Point (North Carolina)
  • Washington Family Ranch – Creekside (Oregon)
  • Cairn Brae (Scotland)
  • Pioneer (Armenia)
  • Wild Ridge property (West Virginia)
  • Tudor Farms (Maryland)
  • Haiti (Haiti)​