Bob Osborne recently surpassed ten years as Executive Director of Serge. To mark the milestone, we put Bob in the hot seat. Serge author Jack Klumpenhower sat down with him to ask about both the past and the future: growth, values, Serge’s unusual workforce, and the “Slinky effect.”
Jack: How has Serge changed in the past ten years?
Bob: When I became Executive Director, Serge was going through a period of instability and soul-searching. There had been several leadership changes after founder Jack Miller died. All this brought uncertainty, and we needed stability before we could flourish. We had to hone our purpose and our values. It took a lot of introspection that felt mind-numbing to me at the time, but it needed to happen.
This took several years of perseverance and patience, putting one foot in front of another day after day, doing what we say we believe. Eventually, that kind of perseverance catches up, like a Slinky. You keep stretching it out; you press forward day to day—and bang, the spring lets loose and it explodes forward. So now we have this critical mass of buzz and excitement about Serge in seminaries, colleges, churches, and through our internship and apprenticeship program. We had just over 150 missionaries a few years ago, more than 240 now, and expect to have more than 400 by the year 2020, so we’re more than doubling in size in a short period of time. We’ve broken stride.
I’m enormously excited about where we are. It’s like I’ve been in the dugout planning and positioning, and now I get to step onto the field and play. Our narrative is no longer, “Here’s who we are; aren’t we wonderful?” Now our story is, “These are the people we’re pointing to Jesus and His gospel; can you join with us in doing that?” To me, that’s a far more exciting message. It’s a message with Christ at the center—what He is doing in and through us to bring about growth—not us trying to manufacture growth in our own strength and for our glory, but for God’s glory.
Jack: What else has contributed to Serge’s growth?
Bob: Our culture and ethos have surely been part of it. The Serge culture is deeply personal. We’re concerned with the welfare of people around us. We emphasize celebrating with each other and praying together, not just on the field but also in the office. We admit that our lives get messy and sinful and we want to be authentic because that’s where we see the power of the gospel in life.
For years, all this talk about weakness and sin has felt intimidating to many people, but the evangelical culture is starting to catch up to this idea. Young people in particular are now talking about transparency. They appreciate the authenticity at Serge. It turns out we’ve been practicing these aspects of the Christian life all along, and now people find it attractive.
Serge is a values-driven organization. We are about living out our values across a variety of tasks, so we don’t just have one program or geographical area of service. That also makes us attractive to young people today who share these values, who don’t want sterile Christian lives of behavior modification but rather a place where the gospel works out of weakness.
But isn’t it harder to keep values intact as an organization grows?
It can be. Over past few months, I’ve been talking to the leaders of other Christian organizations who’ve also experienced rapid growth. I asked each of them if their values got sacrificed in their growth. They all said it was actually their values that made them grow—people wanting to join them because of those values. Still, I don’t think we’re out of the woods. Numerical growth always brings organizational complexity and a need for more policies, systems, and procedures. Remaining personal and unafraid of “messiness” is an ongoing challenge.
What have you learned about how to be a leader in a culture like that?
Before I was a Christian, I led by dictate as a leader. I used my position to tell people what to do. Being a Christian leader means being other-centered rather than focused on my own agenda and what people can do for me. That affects how I spend my time, who I talk to, and how I encourage them.
I’ve also had to learn patience. Like most people, I’m impatient. But people are complex and you have to make things work through a lot of people over a lot of places in a big world. Missionaries are a rare breed of people, one of the most unique workforces on the planet. Think about a person who will leave their home and culture, humble themselves by asking for money, open themselves up to testing and scrutiny of their private lives, and then move to an uncomfortable place where they and their children may be at risk—and they likely have to learn a foreign language. Missionaries are very independent and highly motivated. So it’s essential to care for them with good support systems, making their lives easier and more bearable.
What’s something you wouldn’t have said ten years ago that you’d say now to other Christian leaders?
Don’t take yourself so seriously. Rest more. Play more. Laugh more. Spend time with your spouse and kids. Enjoy the people around you more. Be more concerned about your own spiritual health and faith and growth in Christ than you are about building an organization.
And you should have a few close friends you don’t have to explain yourself to—people you can be honest with. I’m not talking about some sort of fake accountability that never really works. I’m talking about people you can pick up the phone and call who know you well enough that they’ll tell you when you’re becoming full of yourself, and will tell you to stop it. Having people like that in your life is huge. Most leaders are very isolated and don’t take the time to cultivate those enduring, trusting relationships.