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Rich Stearns, CEO of Lenox China to President of World Vision: Ten years later

By Lloyd Reeb - Lessons he has learned - Ten Years Into his Second Half - Halftime, by its very nature is a journey. It’s a brand new phenomenon that very few in previous generations experienced, and perhaps that’s why we find it perplexing. So we can learn a lot from our peers who are a few steps ahead of us. Ten years ago Rich Stearns left his post as CEO of Lenox, Inc. to become CEO of World Vision. On his watch millions of poor kids have been impacted. I asked him to unpack for us what he’s been learning since his Halftime transition. “I remember when I got to World Vision I sent Bob Buford a letter saying I could be the poster boy for the Halftime movement (http://www.halftime.org/). I had read his book in 1997 and ended up at World Vision in 1998”

Now Rich has written his own book chronicling his ‘Halftime’ experiences. It’s called: The Hole in Our Gospel. I interviewed Rich about the themes from his book.” I asked Rich to take us back to what was happening in his career at Lenox when he read Bob’s book and what spawned the desire in his heart to be involved in serving the poor?

“I had grown up a relatively poor kid. My parents didn’t go to high school. The fact that I could go to two Ivy League schools was a miracle. So when I got into the corporate world and had early success I couldn’t believe it, it was the American dream come true. I was living a life my parents could have never imagined, and yet I was trying to do it as a follower of Christ, to be a Christian in the work place. I was on church boards, school boards, and the board of Gordon College in my thirties. I thought to myself this is what it’s all about. It was about following the Lord, doing my thing, and never really looking for something deeper or in addition. I was a donor to World Vision, and I said hey I’ll send the check but I don’t need to get involved. I’m too busy. So, when a friend of mine called in 1997 and said that World Vision was looking for a new president, and ‘I think you’re the person that God is preparing for this,’ it was one of those crazy prophesy things. It was that friend, Bill Bryce that sent me a copy of Halftime. He said I’ve got a book I want you to read. I said Bill, I’m not interested in this job, I’m not qualified, I’m not available, I’m doing just fine. If you want to send me a book fine but I’m not going there. I did read the book and found it quite convicting as I kept thinking about the World Vision job. I read it and I thought wow, this is a whole different way of looking at life, looking at your giftedness, and how you might serve the kingdom. I think that’s why Bob’s book resonates with so many people. It was a radical re-thinking of the question ‘what does God expect of us? -- which incidentally is the subtitle of my new book The Hole in Our Gospel. “

Of course, not everyone is called to sell their company/practice or bail from corporate America to take a full time role in a ministry. Many Halftimers partner with organizations like World Vision in non-staff roles. So I asked Rich, “for people who are just starting this journey, and perhaps wish they could do have the impact you are having around the world, how has your view changed of what God has called you to, and what a life of significance looks like?
“First of all, back then I was looking at the decision very much was a pro’s and con’s exercise. Sometimes I use the metaphor of the old show Let’s Make a Deal with Monty Hall. The contestant had won something, maybe a dining room set and a complete set of Lenox china, and Monty Hall says ‘will you trade what you’ve won for what’s behind the curtain?’ And they hem and they haw, and they say well gee I don’t know. There could be a year’s supply of pork-n-beans behind the curtain. I’ve won the dining room set and the china. That’s worth a few grand.

“Well, that’s what it looked like to me. I had won the CEO job, the ten bedroom estate, the Jaguar XK8, the seven figure income, and the earning potential. And here’s the Lord saying will you give all of that away for what’s behind the curtain, and by the way I’m not really going to let you look behind the curtain to see everything you’re going to get. You’ve got to trust me. All I could see is that it was a pay cut; it was give away the home, the CEO title, the Jaguar, move the kids, move the wife, and trust. Then of course I thought, well this is a job I can’t even do. What do I know about World Vision, and I’ll probably get fired in a year, then I’ll be unemployed on top of all of it. The words, “Ye of little faith,” come to mind. From where I sat it seemed to be all about what my family and I had to give up. It wasn’t about looking at what the Lord was going to do. God tells us, I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)

“I now look back and laugh at myself because what I was clinging to was dross. It was vanity, vanity as Solomon would say, chasing after the wind. What I gained was solid, substantive, spiritually deep, rewarding, relational, and significant. You know there’s a quote from the book of Jonah, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” I came very close to forfeiting the blessings that God had in store. God can’t fill your hands with His blessings if they’re clinging to something else. Those things all of a sudden make sense to me looking back ten years. It has been ten years of tremendous spiritual growth and blessing.

“After ten years I went back to Lenox to see if there was anybody there that still remembered me. They gathered in a conference room, about a dozen people that had been there under my watch, and they told me a story of tears and sadness. There had been five CEO’s since I left, all hired and fired, they had been divested by the parent company, they had been merged, closed five of their six factories, and the people sitting there wore hollow eyed, grim expressions, they’d been through miserable hell in the corporate world.

“I think the Lord was saying do you see what I saved you from? That was what you thought was your safety and security. All that glitters was not gold. Look where I’ve taken you. I shared with them about my life at World Vision, and they literally couldn’t believe it because when I left they all thought it was the most stupid thing they’d ever heard. Some of them admired me but they just shook their head and said who would quit this job to go do that, he’s crazy. At the end of the meeting they said, have you got any job openings? We would love to work for an organization like that. Then three weeks after that meeting I read in the newspaper that Lenox declared bankruptcy and went into Chapter 11. So those were the idols I was clinging to ten years ago.”

One more lesson: There’s one big surprising observation Rich makes that you simply don’t want to miss.

“So many people who were in my position might have felt I should keep my corporate job for the sake of my family. To move my kids, to take that pay cut, to jeopardize the money that might be in their trust fund someday, that’s not fair to them. I think a lot of men and women might use that excuse to say we would do this but we can’t do this to our kids, or a man might say I can’t do this to my wife.

“Neither my wife nor I grew up with money. Her dad was a career military enlisted man, and my parents never went to high school, went bankrupt, and had no money. One day, probably in our thirties or early forties, we realized, oh my gosh, we’re raising rich kids. Our kids are rich kids, and it surprised to us. Everything that goes along with that moniker of ‘rich kids’ – they were kind of spoiled, had a limited world view, pretty self centered, they’d gotten everything they’ve ever wanted. As much as we tried to raise them with understanding the value of a dollar, they’re growing up affluent. “Our transition to World Vision happened very suddenly, and I’ll never forget something my wife Rene said, ‘our kids will remember very little of what we’ve told them about values, but they will never forget what we did. They will never forget that mom and dad nuked their comfortable life, stepped away from that CEO job, turned in that Jaguar, sold that dream house for one reason, to follow Christ.’ She was right; it’s had a profound affect on my kids, and my family in a very, very positive way.”

“Rich has written a new book The Hole in Our Gospel which the Halftime team highly recommends. I asked Rich what he hoped we’d get from the book. “The message of total surrender, that what the Christian faith is about is taking up our cross daily, and completely surrendering our will, our ambition, our money, our time, our treasure and talent and laying it all at the foot of the cross. That’s where God wants to get us, and in some ways it’s only then that the Lord can really take us on a journey of adventure and significance, and joy.”

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posted by Justin Forman | 8.07.2009 - 8:16 AM

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