Servant Leader

Servant Leader
Courtesy of CitizenLink

You know those people who retire after a long, productive career—then go right back to work, one way or another, because they still have a lot to give?

Tom Minnery is one of those people. And no one who knows him is surprised.

On Oct. 1, Minnery will step down as president and CEO of CitizenLink, Focus on the Family’s public-policy partner. It’s a turning point in a tenure that began in 1987, when he founded the magazine you hold in your hand, then rose to become senior vice president of government and public policy for Focus on the Family.

But a turning point isn’t an ending point. After he takes a short break, Minnery will go back to work for CitizenLink three days a week, helping the group launch its Statesmen Academy to train current and aspiring Christian lawmakers in the art of effective politics. (More about that later.)

In the meantime, however, he’s found time to reflect on a career that has taken him on a journey he couldn’t have predicted at the start—in part because the pro-family movement didn’t yet exist.

Change of Course

In 1976, Minnery was a promising young journalist in Rochester, N.Y., when the Gannett Newspapers chain promoted him to its bureau in Washington, D.C., first as a Capitol Hill correspondent, then as the manager. He’d already been fascinated by the ins and outs of politics, and that fascination grew on the job. But so did his frustration with the way newspapers often treated his stories—editing them in ways he felt were shallow and misleading. Also growing was his sense that, for all the speed with which he’d climbed the ranks in his profession, there was something missing.

It came into focus for him one night when Tom and his wife, Deb—both of them new Christians—went to a concert where Bill Gaither debuted a song with the lyrics, "I don’t want to spend my time a-writing songs that answer questions that nobody’s even asking anyhow."

"If you take those words and substitute ‘news articles’ for ‘songs,’ that was my song," Minnery says. "I was thinking, ‘There’s got to be more to life than this.’ "

So he started thinking about a radical change—applying to enter Dallas Theological Seminary. Deb didn’t need to be convinced. She was way ahead of him.

"Deb had been secretly praying that I would do something like this, but didn’t want to derail this career I had if it was what I really wanted," Minnery says. "But then I told her I felt I needed to get a serious education in the Christian faith. Faith is deeper than politics, and it provides ultimate meaning in a way that politics do not."

Goodbye, Washington; hello, Dallas. In 1979, the Minnerys and their (then) two children headed to Dallas Theological Seminary, and Tom began what was to be a four-year stay. But after just one year, he was contacted by the editor of Christianity Today, who was looking for a journalist with an interest in theology to serve as the magazine’s news editor.

Goodbye, Dallas; hello, Chicago suburbs. In 1980, Minnery took the job—transferring his credits to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., to keep his studies going.

Finding His Focus

About two weeks after he started the new job, Christianity Today’s board of directors met on site. Wrapped up in his work, Minnery hardly noticed they were there. Until he heard a knock at his door.

"I looked up and there was the chairman of the board, Billy Graham, standing in my doorway during a break in the meetings," he says. "It was obvious he wanted to talk, so I invited him in. We talked about 20 minutes. He asked about how I got there, what was in the news, what I was writing about. After he left, I was dazzled."

It was their first meeting, but not their last. "Whenever we were in the same place, he always wanted to have lunch and get caught up on the news," Minnery says. "We’d sneak off, which sometimes was hard for him to do, because he was surrounded by people who loved him. We were friends for a few years; that was a big honor."

Minnery stayed at the magazine until 1987, enjoying the opportunity to combine his faith with his journalistic interests. Then his life took another unexpected turn.

It came when he returned to Washington, D.C., to cover meetings of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, whose members were appointed by then-Attorney General Edwin Meese. He’d hoped to meet one member in particular: Dr. James Dobson. But it looked like he wouldn’t get the chance.

"During breaks, the other members disappeared into the back room, but Dr. Dobson never could," Minnery says. "There was always a long line of people who wanted to greet him, thank him, shake his hand, and he always gave those people as much time as they wanted. After several sessions, he still hadn’t had a break."

The hearings ended and Minnery headed home—only to run into Dobson at the airport. "There he was in the restaurant, eating by himself," Minnery says. "I introduced myself and we began talking—about issues, about my background."

The upshot: Dobson—who’d been thinking about starting a public-policy periodical at Focus on the Family—asked Minnery to develop a mockup. Minnery went home to Chicago and did just that.

"The publication was Citizen, though it looked a lot different than it does today—two colors, 16 pages, more of a newsletter than a magazine," Minnery says. "He loved it, and invited me out to join the staff, so we took our now-three kids and moved to Los Angeles."

Originally, Minnery was to be Citizen’s managing editor, but his job quickly expanded. "Things were moving fast at Focus," he says. "By the time I got there I was asked to manage all the Focus magazines. A year later, Focus started its Public Policy division to engage with legislation around the country.  Dr. Dobson asked me to lead that, so I did."

You could fill a book with the projects Minnery has led in his 28 years in public policy. Gathering a team of expert policy analysts. Building a network of state-based family policy councils. Creating multimedia communications outlets as technologies evolved—magazine, radio, fax, email. Getting involved in countless legislative contests and policy issues at the state, local, national and even international levels—including making the pro-family case at the United Nations.

What those who’ve worked with him remember best, however, is not just what he’s led, but how he’s led.

'He Listens to Everyone'

"One of Tom’s qualities that I’ve come to admire most is his steadfastness," says Carrie Gordon Earll, who succeeded Minnery as Focus on the Family’s vice president of government and public policy. "He’s been at the pinnacle of success and he’s been through stunning defeats. Through it all, he’s been steadfast, with his eyes focused on the assignment that God has given him."

CitizenLink Marketing Director Sonja Swiatkiewicz has seen the same qualities.

"Tom’s been unflappable in the face of many, many, many assaults on the family," she says. "He keeps moving forward, rallying his team and the troops across the country. He shows how to move forward in a way that’s not gloom and doom, wringing our hands or just praying for the Second Coming, but working purposefully with the tools that we have—with fellow believers and others who care about the family—and making a difference where we are, here and now."

That’s not just what Minnery preaches, but what he practices. For example, he and his wife, on their own time, research and publish "Tom and Deb’s Picks," reviewing candidates for local office in Colorado Springs, Colo., before every election—something they’ve been doing for the past 15 years.

"He does the little things," Swiatkiewicz says. "Here’s someone who’s at the helm of one of the largest public-policy organizations in the country, and he’s still actively involved in his precinct, making a difference right here at home."

Earll praises Minnery for modeling the down-to-earth qualities of a servant leader—treating people with love and respect, regardless of whether they’re mighty or lowly by worldly standards.

"Tom has had the opportunity to serve the giants in evangelicalism and he’s had the ear of the most powerful people, yet he listens to everyone,” she says. “He’s kind, respectful and patient. I’ve observed him through the years taking time to respond to an email or a phone call from an average constituent who had a question or a concern. There was not a task that Tom would not do."

People who know Minnery outside the office say he’s the same way in daily life.

Daniel Klute, a friend from Bible study, was left partially paralyzed by failed back surgery in 2008. "Tom and another man from the group came to my house and put in a lift for me," Klute says. "He’ll get right in there with everyone else, hammering the nails. He’s got a heart for helping people."

Dominick Gonzales remembers the day he met Minnery six years ago. It was his first day in the church, when he and his family took a cab because their car had broken down. They’d planned on taking a cab home, but when the Minnerys met them, plans changed.

"He had a full car already, but he figured out a way to get myself, my wife and my two kids in there," Gonzales says. "That epitomizes the things I appreciate about Tom. He goes out of his way to help, and he’s very observant of new folks in the room. Whenever there’s anyone new, he’s front and center, making them feel welcome."

Lasting Legacies

When Minnery thinks about his decades in public policy, he remembers highs and lows. He remembers the wave of marriage amendments passed by state voters, mostly by landslides, in initiatives led by family policy councils working with Focus. And he remembers this year’s Supreme Court ruling striking down the will of the people.

Given all that, it would’ve been easy for him to get on an emotional rollercoaster. But he hasn’t.

"In the pages of the Bible, God’s people are disappointing Him all the time," he says. "I don’t get burdened when we fail to accomplish great things or, having accomplished great things, we lose them after a while. We’re trying to be faithful with God’s principles, and if God allows something like that to happen, so be it. We will continue to work in other ways and try to regain what we’ve lost."

"What I’ve taken away from all these years of experience is that no victory is ever final, nor is any defeat ever permanent," he adds. "Politics ebbs and flows, but there’s a permanent motivation in Scripture for God’s people to be engaged in it (Romans 13), and in our particular government, we honor government by being engaged in it."

With that outlook, Minnery is happiest about his involvement in projects that are designed for the long haul.

Like family policy councils. "That network is a lasting legacy," he says. "Most of them are thriving on their own now, we’re offering them more services and they’re improving all the time, so I’m confident that they’ll continue to grow."

And like CitizenLink itself, which became independent of Focus in 2013, in order to develop its own strong funding base and make an impact on elections.

"The separation of CitizenLink from Focus—with the blessing of Focus—bodes well for the future," Minnery says. "It enables CitizenLink to grow and muscle up for the challenges ahead. I’m grateful to Jim Daly and the Focus on the Family board of directors for their trust and support. They saw the wisdom in this move, and they remain great friends of CitizenLink."

Minnery is enthusiastic about the man replacing him there—Paul Weber, a longtime senior executive at the Alliance Defending Freedom. "I feel wonderful about the future of CitizenLink under Paul, who contributed so much to ADF’s great expansion with his skills and talents,” he says. “To have him here is a very great blessing."

Most of all, Minnery is looking forward to working with the Statesmen Academy to increase the influence of Christians in government for decades to come.

"If you want to recover some of what has been lost, you can’t just be angry about the course of our government, even though that’s understandable," he says. "You have to be astute about politics, to understand the system and move forward slowly, incrementally toward your principles. You have to understand the art—and limits—of politics."

"That’s what the Statesmen Academy is going to do. Working through family policy councils, we’ll gather selected Christian legislators or those who are serious about running for office, train them in the art of politics under experienced Christian legislators who’ve been able to make headway in the system and will pass on the art of politics to those who are entering the field. Essentially, we’ll be teaching politics to politicians."

That’s Tom Minnery’s version of retirement. Don’t be surprised if he’s still at work for a long time yet.