I spent last week listening to some remarkable people.  The best known to Catholics is Father Robert Barron, the creator of the “Catholicism” series and the prolific preacher whose homilies and talks are the basis of the Word on Fire media ministry.Together with four leaders from Catholic Christian Outreach, I met Father Barron in his office in the tranquil setting of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, where he is rector.Just a day later I sat in an auditorium with 7,000 other people–and many thousands more watching on large screens elsewhere–listening to the likes of General Electric’s CEO, the crusading head of the tax department in Uganda, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, and a Pentecostal pastor from Calcutta.

And that’s just a taste of what went on at the Global Leadership Summit sponsored by Willow Creek Community Church, one of the largest churches in the US, attended weekly by some 25,000 people.  We even heard Michael Jr., a successful comedian, who manages to be both hilarious and Christian in his work.While I was at the Summit, a priest friend sent me an e-mail asking for a summary.  I can tell you that a summit summary would be the longest sermon ever preached, or the longest e-mail ever written.Still, I think it’s important that I do my best to share this remarkable experience with you.The Summit is the brainchild of Willow Creek’s long-time pastor, Bill Hybels.  Twenty years ago he was inspired to create world-class leadership training to energize Christians around the world.  He invited an astonishing mix of speakers, including such diverse figures as President Bill Clinton and General Colin Powell, not to mention top executives like Jack Welch of GE and entertainers like Bono.Other speakers have come from backgrounds in Christian ministry, social service, education, or the arts.  One of the most impressive speakers this year was an African American actor, playwright, and filmmaker named Tyler Perry.  I’d never heard of him, but since Wikipedia says he made $130 million last year, I’d say I’m in the minority.

Bill Hybels started the Summit with the conviction that business leaders can learn from pastors, and pastors from business leaders; that the young can learn from the old, and vice versa; and that religious people have much to learn from secular people, and secular people much to learn from them.

Why does this matter to you–if you’re a reader of my blog, or a parishioner listening in church?  I’m not writing this because I thought you’d enjoy a little talk on “how I spent my summer vacation.”  For one thing, an experience like this is no vacation.  It was an intense, even life-changing, time for me.  I expect to be living the lessons I’ve just learned for a very long time.

But the big reason why I hope you will click on some of these links, and take me at my word about the importance of the Global Leadership Summit, is that the whole thing will be offered on video very close to home–and around the world, if you’re one of my few international readers–in October.

Here in British Columbia, the GLS will take place in Surrey and in Kelowna on October 23rd and 24th.  This link will give you location details as well as dates for other cities.

If you’re taking me up on the challenge to investigate attending, your first question might be “Isn’t this just for leaders?  Why me?”  If there was one thing that was clear at the Summit it was this: we are all leaders.  Some of us lead congregations, others companies, still others families.  But in one way or another, we are all leading.

The second question could be “Why do I need this?”  That was certainly one of mine.  The answer I received was blunt:  Do you want to develop, or not?  Do you want your life to be different, or not?

Leadership is a choice, not just a calling.  Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, told us “Leaders have the joy of unlocking other people’s potential as they unlock their own.”

In the words of Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric since 2001, “Leadership is an intense journey into yourself.”  This was precisely how I felt at the Summit. It was sometimes painful.

The skeptical reader, especially one who knows me as a man of enthusiasms, might be wondering how this approach squares with Pope Francis’s exhortation that “the people of God want pastors, not bureaucrats, or clergy acting like government officials.” Yet in the same breath, the Pope calls on us to try “to be a Church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.” The conference, I thought, offered a new road that could appeal to many outside of the Christian flock; indeed, much of the content and many of the speakers seemed to have been chosen with that in mind.*

And what of Pope Francis’s  wonderful image of the Church as a field hospital after battle?  Does the Summit’s approach to leadership run the danger of treating the Church like a business? Does it help heal wounds?

Personally, I sure hope to find a highly-trained and skillful surgeon if I arrive wounded at a field hospital.

Something that happened on my way home from the conference might help to show the broad application of the wisdom that was shared with us.  On the plane, I found myself seated beside an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for some years.  Naturally enough I sang the praises of the GLS and he listened politely.

Later in the flight, though, we talked about how our lives were going.  He shared a very complex and painful problem in his family, one that required some immediate action to avoid long-term hurt.  I recognized right away that principles–and even practices–that I’d learned six hours earlier held a key to resolution and reconciliation.

This is precisely the genius of the Global Leadership Summit.  It looks like a big-business, big-ticket conference on management, the kind of thing you can find at Harvard Business School for a few thousand bucks anytime you’ve got a week to spare.  But thanks to the genius of Bill Hybels and his team, what you see is not what you get.  The Gospel is the organizing principle of the Summit and might be called the operating system that is its backbone.

Years ago I read a book called “Jesus, CEO,” which argued that Christian principles could be the foundation of successful business leadership.  Days ago I became convinced that Christian principles–humility chief among them–must be the foundation of all leadership.

Equally, I hope I have learned that leadership skills are essential in every parish.  Certainly, the pastor must learn and follow them: Bill Hybels stressed that the culture of a community will only be as healthy as its leader wants it to be.  But I’ve also learned that there are many leaders in the parish, both volunteers and staff, who can advance the Gospel vision by living and learning these principles and methods.

Some of the speakers held us spellbound for an hour.  I thought it might be fun to try that in this week’s homily, but I think it’s probably a good idea to curb my enthusiasm.  But you’ll be hearing more about this from me in the weeks and months ahead.


* My Door Is Always Open, Pope Francis, with Antonio Spadaro, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2014; ISBN 9781472909763

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