The Blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

January 09, 2014

How to Turn Leadership Challenges into Opportunities

Jason Gaboury

I was visiting with some ministry partners recently. They told the story of their visit with a young woman who works with a different campus ministry. “She was delightful. . . . Her passion was really something.” I smiled, waiting for the question I knew was coming. “Can you remind us—what’s the difference between your ministry and that one?”

I’m meeting with student leaders. The tension in the room is palpable. My heart is echoing in my chest and in my ears. An influential leader has just passionately clarified vision for ministry that has nothing to do with our mission. I have three seconds to redirect this conversation or watch the chapter drift away from mission, or head over the cliff of division.

Sheila’s hand goes up first. She is mindful, considerate, and ready to serve. She likes Jesus and the Buddha, splitting her time between the Christian community and the Zen meditation center. Recently Sheila heard about our need for more small group leaders. “I’d like to lead a small group,” she says.

Bently shows up regularly. His interests are focused around prayer. Every week he’s exhorting the group to attend additional prayer meetings. “We really should be committed to prayer,” he says. Increasingly the invitations feel like a trap. Either we can go along to every prayer event, and thereby prove our commitment to prayer, or we can say no and be branded as unspiritual.

These experiences are just a few examples of the challenges that leaders face. Over time, I’ve come to see these challenges as opportunities. The question is how. How do we take moments of challenge and transform them into ministry opportunities?

One way is by identifying and answering the four key questions that challenges like the ones above pose:

  • What do you do? (Your mission)
  • How are you different? (Your vision)
  • What matters to you? (Your values)
  • How can I be involved? (Integration/Application)

Answering these questions with passion and clarity can change a challenge into a ministry opportunity. The above examples are all taken from the context of leading collegiate ministry, but they are not unique to that context. Challenges about mission, vision, values, and involvement happen to every leader. 

Let’s briefly take each of these questions in turn and relate it to one of the situations above. In the meeting with ministry partners, the couple wants to know how you are different than another ministry they might know or support. Immature leaders are sometimes threatened by a question like that, and often start listing superficial, structural, or organizational differences that don’t actually address the desire of the individual to understand our distinct vision.

Next time you are confronted with the question, “How are you different?” why not pull out your vision statement? Sitting in the living room of the ministry partners, I said, “I can understand why she was passionate about reaching college students. That’s a need we all agree is vital. Our vision is to see students and faculty transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, to see campuses renewed, and to see world changers developed.” Then we were able to have a wonderful conversation about how we pursue that vision in New York and New Jersey.

The tense meeting with the student leaders reflects “mission drift.” This happens in every community. It happened among the twelve disciples (“Is this the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” they ask in Acts 1:1-9). It will happen in your ministry. And you’ll know you’re experiencing mission drift when you can’t answer the question “What do you do?” with simplicity and clarity.

A moment like the one described above is a great time to say, “Wow, I admire your passion. Thanks for sharing that with us. You know, I do think it would be helpful for me to remind us of our mission. This is the main thing that God has specifically called and gifted us to do. How will what you’ve just described help us to accomplish our mission?" Everybody wins when the mission is clear.

Underneath the challenge to attend every prayer event is a question about values. Sometimes there is a not-so-subtle power play going on as well (”If you are serious about God, prayer, etc., then you will participate in this event”). The solution to this isn’t to try to “prove” that we really do value prayer. Nor is the solution to ignore the challenge. Instead, we should see this as a chance to answer the question, “What matters to you?” A leader on that campus could pull out their core values and say, “You can see prayer and formation are core values. But so are justice, mission, and vocation. Some people are called to prayer and prayer movements. We are called to hold a set of core values together that encompass our mission. Would you like to join us in this broader mission?”

Sheila’s question is really, “How can I be involved?” Rather than put up a road block and say, “No you can’t lead here because you’re not a Christian,” why not clarify what healthy involvement would look like for Sheila? We might say, “We want every person to reach their full potential socially and spiritually. I think the right next step for you is to really dig in and investigate Jesus.”

What challenges are you facing in leadership? Comment with your questions!

For more ideas to help you lead on campus visit

Jason Gaboury is InterVarsity’s regional director for New York and New Jersey.

You might also be interested in:

Choosing to Lead

We Admire Mandela. But Not Enough.

Clean Hands & Pure Hearts


I believe the "How are you different?" question encompasses both your mission and vision. Your vision is more of a future state "What do you hope to become (and see happen)?" and your mission supports that as "What do you do (to get there)?" I like your examples for values and integration/application. They're good lessons on how to handle such tricky situations without offending well-meaning people or losing focus.

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