A Model of Leadership

As I look back over my life, there are a small number of key mentors who helped to shape me – mentors who were models that I wanted to emulate because I saw that their lives were lived in obedience to Jesus’ teachings. They were examples to me of what it meant to live a life as a peacemaker, a follower of Jesus who brought healing and reconciliation to our hurting world. I saw their lives and decided I wanted to follow their example. Dr. John R. Dellenback was one of these people.

Introducing John Dellenback 

I first met John Dellenback when I began the American Studies Program (ASP) on Capitol Hill in the fall of 1976, a work-study program sponsored by the Christian College Consortium and Coalition (CCC/C). I had heard his name through friends in the National Prayer Breakfast and was excited to meet him. John had been elected to the Oregon State Legislature in 1960 and then to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1966, where he served until 1974. Following his defeat in the election of 1974, a defeat largely attributed to the anti-Republican backlash in the wake of the Watergate scandal, he was appointed Director of the Peace Corps by President Gerald Ford and served in this capacity from 1975 to 1977.

I have clear memories of bringing our ASP students to his office right across the street from the White House and talking with him about his leadership of that agency and how, as a Christian, he understood his role as a public servant. He was always so gracious to our students and such a great example of a man who was serving God with distinction in high public office.

Although I admired him as a Congressional leader and Peace Corps Director, when I learned he had been chosen to serve as the next president of the Christian College Consortium and Coalition in 1977, I remember thinking this was a mistake. What did he know about Christian colleges and universities? He had never attended one, and now he was going to become my boss. Was I ever wrong!

Dr. Dellenback served as President of the CCC for eleven years (1977-1988) and I had the privilege of working closely with him for all that time. Dr. Karen Longman and I were his vice presidents and the three of us formed a bond that profoundly shaped my life. He became a mentor and, by his example, I learned so much about biblical leadership by his words and deeds.

Lessons Learned As I look back on my eleven years of working with John Dellenback, the following lessons stand out:

  • Marriage cheerleaders. John’s relationship with his wife, Mary Jane, was such a powerful example for Marge and me. These two loved each other and served as cheerleaders for each other. Both did everything they could to encourage the development of the other and to accentuate the other’s gifts. What a powerful model – especially in power circles in Washington, D.C., where marriages were easily broken and unfaithfulness seemed to be the norm. Marge and I saw their example and decided to try to live like this. 
  • Not a respecter of persons. For a boy from Cicero, Illinois, to meet and work with a former Congressman and Peace Corps Director was heady stuff. It was exciting to go to meetings with John Dellenback and meet representatives and senators from the U. S. Congress who knew John and respected him. But he did not defer to these powerful leaders, but always treated everyone with dignity, including elevator operators in the U. S. Capitol and the Capitol Hill police. All of these people were of equal value in John’s sight and I was so impressed by his quiet obedience to Jesus’ commandments about treating everyone as a person created in the image of God and not deferring to the “big shots.” 
  • Fearless. I remember some difficult challenges we faced in the CCC and how John never put his finger in the air to see which way the wind was blowing, like many political leaders. We would talk through the issues, get all the available information out on the table, and then he would make a decision. He was fearlessly committed to doing the right thing, regardless of potential opposition or threats. 
  • Not afraid of confrontation. I will never forget when John met with a group of Christian college presidents and told them to stop competing with each other and to start finding ways to cooperate. Their petty conflicts were impeding the development of Christian higher education and he wanted them to get the message. They did and, under John’s leadership, the CCC grew from 13 colleges and universities to over 75 schools by the time he left the presidency. 
  • “To tell you the truth.” When our staff used sayings, such as, “To tell you the truth” or “To be perfectly honest with you,” he would always interrupt you and say “I assume you are always honest with me.” Even if you just started to say these words and then remembered and stopped, you still got his standard response. There was no escape. I have adopted the same approach with my staff. 

John was soft-spoken and warm, a model of generosity, with a great sense of humor. He loved and respected people and treated everyone with dignity. John was a gift of God to me and a model of a life of a shalom-maker.

* If you are interested in learning more about this remarkable Christian leader, see the video entitled “Oregon Legends: The John Dellenback Story,” a 28-minute video available at www.soptv.org/oregon-legends-john-dellenback-story/. The focus of this video is on John’s leadership in Oregon and later in Washington, D.C., but also follows him on his trips to developing countries as Peace Corps Director and Chairman of the Board of World Vision. He had a heart for the world and especially for the poor in developing countries and America’s urban centers. John died in 2002 and his memorial service will be an event I will never forget.