7 disciplines of highly effective charities

I have spent all of my career working for or with nonprofit organizations, primarily Christian groups. I’ve made a recent job move, to work with a management consultancy called The Valcort Grop, which specializes in diagnosing organizational health and providing solutions that lead to growth and impact.  I’m directing the nonprofit practice, which is a nice continuation of my life work.  TVG-Logo

I’ve been analyzing the current state of American charities, which have of course been struggling as a result of the economic hole we’ve all been in.  Unfortunately, many of them aren’t poised to bounce back as the economy flickers to life.  I’ve outlined 7 disciplines that we can see in successful charities, here.  

The article begins:

In the last year, some two thirds of Americans responded to appeals from charities for support of projects to meet human needs, create new initiatives, advance faith, and reverse wrongs. Nonprofit organizations received $298 billion in donations and were supported by about 64.5 million volunteers.

Unfortunately, the support is fleeting. For every 100 new donors, American nonprofits lost 107. A new report concluded that for every $100 charities raised last year, $100 was lost as donors stopped giving or donated less. Even as the economy flickered to life and giving increased slightly, donor attrition has stagnated charitable progress.

The reasons are clear: Although people are moved to give to specific needs, impulse giving is thin commitment. The long-term loyalty of donors, volunteers and other partners is based on the trust of organizations and their people, the evidence of real change and impact, and the relationships that are developed as part of or after the donor transaction.

Posted in Ethics, Jim Jewell, Nonprofit organizations, Values | Leave a comment

“When you fast”: Reflections on a Daniel Fast

fruits and vegetablesFor many Christians, the call to fasting and prayer is a discipline for someone else in the faith. Especially the fasting part.  It certainly was for me.  I don’t recall any spiritual fasts during most of my life, nor do I remember a specific, direct call to fasting from the pulpit in the evangelical churches that I attended.

Now, my wife and I have found that God tends to speak into our lives during times of fasting and prayer, and we try to make it a regular discipline. Now we are not world-class fasters.  We haven’t done a 40-day fast. We haven’t done the serious 25-hour no-consumption-of-anything (not even water)  fast like observant Jews do on Yom Kippur and other times. We aren’t as regular in our fasting as we’d like to be, and we haven’t done a great job sustaining a weekly fast, although we’re trying once again to make it a new habit.

I’m reflecting on fasting not because I am a model, but because I want to highly recommend a discipline of fasting and praying as a way to force a measure of self-denial and to seek greater intimacy with God.  As Kevin Queen preached at 12 Stone Church 10/28/12 in a message titled When I’m Stuck: “I give up something I want (unlimited access to foods I like) for something I want more (intimacy with God).”

In recent years we have done three Daniel Fasts, two 10-day fasts and one 21-day fast. See my earlier post on one of those fasts. The Daniel Fast is not a starvation fast. Although it depends on your level of consumption of the foods you can eat, you will likely go through the fast without great hunger.  The Daniel Fast is about purposely depriving yourself of certain food groups.

If you are not familiar with the Daniel Fast, it approximates the diet of Daniel and his Jewish compatriots when they were brought to the royal court in Babylon (Daniel 1:12 and Daniel 10:2).  They were granted permission to eat a limited diet of foods:  fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  Notably, they did not eat the meats, sweets, and alcohol from the King’s table. 

There are different modern versions of the Daniel Fast. Here’s a good Daniel Fast website and a book.

In our Daniel Fasts, in addition to eliminating any sweets, we drink only water, which cuts out coffee and effectively derails the route to any caffeine. We’re also diligent in cutting out any chemicals and preservatives, something we’re doing more and more of in our day-to-day lives.  (Although this is somewhat like a typical vegan diet, the elimination of sweets and caffeine makes it very different).

For me, coffee deprivation is the highest price of our Daniel Fast.  For my wife Debbie, the biggest price is chocolate deprivation.

Why fast?  In addition to the opportunity to refocus your relationship with God, there is the instruction from Jesus, when he said when you fast… (not if.)

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And this is Christmas

Candle

We relish the soft, airbrushed edges of our Christmases that blend the Middle Eastern night of magi and shepherds overseeing the birth of Jesus in peaceful Bethlehem with Currier & Ives snowscapes, carolers and family festivities.

Certainly the shattering of these pastoral Christmas scenes couldn’t be any more brutal than this year, with the national grieving of the massacre of children who were still navigating the move from nap time to school time. While there are frequently holiday stories that cut against the cultural and spiritual flow of the season, it is difficult to recall the reality of evil interrupting so abruptly the merriment and winter joy of Christmastime. 

For 26 families, the interruption of Christmas is, of course, secondary to the destruction of life as they have known it. We can only pray that the reality of a living Christ will be solace to the Christian families, and that God will use the new year to renew the hopes of all. 

 There is much sadness in our world at any time of the year, and it is sharpened for those who are struggling with pain and suffering, with emptiness and loss, at Christmas. There are many more families grieving the loss of children, taken abruptly in the streets of Chicago or Detroit, or slowly in the pediatric wings of hospitals everywhere. There is seemingly endless unemployment and underemployment and the sickening grind of dwindling resources and diminishing dreams. There is the loss of love and the loss of ambition.

And if there is no joy in your personal world it is hard to appreciate choirs who are insisting that there is. 

For those of us who have the luxury of contemplating the plan of God in a time of obscene senselessness, rather than the stark barrenness of a child gone, we can look at the truth of the Christmas story instead of the stained glass images of our modern Christmas traditions for a better perspective. 

This was perhaps best captured by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Christian, who wrote two days after the Newtown massacre:

The only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.

That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.

The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.

In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.

The reality of the incarnation, the embodiment of God, in the very midst of brutality and violence, from the murdering of innocents in search of the Christ-child in Bethlehem to a crucifixion at a Jerusalem crossroads, sets the Kingdom of God squarely in the grisly realities of every age rather than the in the star lit glow of advent celebration.

And that is a truth that should not dampen the great celebration of O Holy Night, or even the secular enjoyment of winter fun and holiday gift exchange, but rather put all of it in divine perspective. The world of sadistic evil intertwined with breathtaking goodness is the world as we know it and has always been known.

As such, for it to be true that God is with us–the promise of Christmas–it must also be true that He is with us on days when evil prevails, as well as on days of joy and promise. He brings Relevance and Redemption to every space and time, and He has ever since His family fled the murderous designs of a jealous despot and became refugees in Egypt.

The good news is that it is the Desire of God that we have an infusion of joy that finds the depth of the greatest suffering.   

Joy to the World, the Lord is come.  Life triumphs over death.  Good triumphs over evil. It’s hard to see it from here.  And it was as hard to see it in Bethlehem when Jesus was born as it is today.  It is the real world God decided to save. This is Christmas.

–Jim Jewell

 

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Very funny (and truthy) 2012 editorial cartoons on politics, religion, life

                                                       

              

Posted in Cartoons, Climate Change, Islam, Israel, Politics, Presidential campaigns, Technology, War and Peace | Tagged , | Leave a comment

God with us. Christmas 2012

We watched a Christmas special recently that weaved a tale that would present the ‘real meaning of Christmas,’ which for that screenwriter was “caring for one another.” People of all faiths and traditions may tire of the commercialism that drives modern Christmas, and even regret the need to shop and travel and attend endless holiday events. They look for deeper meaning (but not too deep). It is valuable, in the modern view, to use Christmas to draw out charitable sentiments, peaceful notions, and reconciliation and neighborliness. Those are wonderful accomplishments, of course, but unfortunately thin and temporary contributions of the Christmas season. Even Christians attempt to build the meaning of a holy day by embellishing and dramatizing the story of Mary and Joseph and the events surrounding Jesus’s birth, to make it a more powerful narrative.

But even the Christmas story of Luke 2 is not the meaning of Christmas, as Charles Shultz (and Linus) suggested in the wonderful little Charlie Brown Christmas movie.

One of the names of Jesus carries the meaning of his arrival, of Christmas. He will be called Immanuel, the angels tells the shepherds. Immanuel is translated God With Us, but it means so much more than our best wishes that God will accompany someone and direct their lives. Immanuel means that in a move far more dramatic than a bright star or a visit by the magi, the God of eternity, the omniscient and omnipotent God, sparked a divine revolution that would end the alienation between God and his creation. The Christmas miracle is the dramatic move of the Trinity to give people for all time the chance to experience life beyond sin and a life of abundant hope. God the Father determined to change all of human history and to reconcile the human race with the Divine by having God the Son take the form and the life of a human; the human embryo was conceived by the God the Spirit, borne by a human woman, and born as a human baby.

At Christmas we celebrate the inspiration, the conception, and the birth of the God-Child. We celebrate an event that changed everything; an event that began a revolution that would include the life and teaching of an earthly Jesus; a ghastly, sin-bearing death; and the resurrection of his human life and redemption made possible for all life. Without Christmas, God cannot be with us, because of the alienation of our spoiled human race.

Immanuel makes possible our lives and our future promise, and the hope for all generations. Now that is a great story, worthy of celebration.

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Romney didn’t lose it. Obama won it. Agree?

Jonathan Tobin writes in Commentary today:

The bottom line is that Barack Obama won the 2012 election far more than the Republicans lost it. Obama may be a remarkably unsuccessful president (he’s the first to win re-election by a smaller margin) but he was never the patsy most conservatives imagined. Conservatives spent the last two years since their 2010 midterm victory operating under a serious delusion about the president’s political strengths. That’s a terrible indictment of their political acumen, but it won’t affect their chances in four years when Obama is no longer on the ballot.

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The Character of Charles Colson

As we remember Charles Colson on Wednesday at a National Cathedral service, I am reflecting on the great man and the honor I had to serve at his side for many years. Much is being written about our memories and experiences. Searching for the right description of my time with Chuck, I recalled an actual experience that I would guess only a few people could cite.

When Pat Robertson was running for president in 1988, CBN asked Chuck to spend a few weeks hosting the 700 Club, which he did, awkwardly (interviewing others was one of the few things he just did not do well. He answered the questions for them!) During these stretches, Chuck and a few of us colleagues stayed in an oceanside house. Chuck working with Ellen Santilli Vaughn and Kenneth Myers (Mars Hill) on Kingdoms in Conflict during those days. But the memorable highlight of those days was when we went body surfing in the Atlantic with Chuck on the Virginia beach a few steps from our door . There was a tropical depression far off shore and the waves were terrific; almost westcoast-like. We had a blast.

Working with Chuck was not unlike that experience. It was a wild ride, and indeed a rush to the senses. I’ve never tried to count the number of trips I made with Chuck during the six years I served as his senior aide and chief of staff, and six more as his director of public relations and senior vice president of corporate communications. During one of those years I recall counting out-of-town days and found that I’d been on the road 40% of the time. During those years, we would advance every trip that Chuck made; everywhere Chuck went to speak, I’d go twice–advancing the event and going there with Chuck. Journeys with Chuck were fast and furious, with every moment planned out and used wisely; advance trips made that possible.

I’m part of a small fraternity of young men who traveled with Chuck–young when we started, worn out when we stopped; it wasn’t the years it was the miles! I’m trying to recall them all: Dave Bovenizer, Mike Cromartie, Al Elliott, me, a young man from Atlanta (what was his name?), Will Nance, Todd Nelson, John Dawson, and others I don’t know since I’ve been out of the PF universe the last 15 years.

Much is being said and written about Chuck since his death a week ago. Not many people spent more time with Colson than I did, especially on the road; I walked with him and observed him on long trips, early mornings, late nights, tired, frustrated, energized, adulated, you name it. We all have stories of laughter and challenge, and exhaustion and admiration. What I remember most is Chuck Colson as a distinct character with immense character. The contours of this character:

Faithful:  When I traveled with Chuck, we shared a room service breakfast most mornings, and a morning prayer. Regardless of whatever else Chuck prayed for each morning, he prayed that we might be faithful.  Faithful not just in the pursuit of the mission God had put before us, but faithful to God and his will and direction in our lives. One reason Chuck leaves such an honored legacy is that he did remain faithful to his God, and he avoided the traps and temptations that were frequently put in his path.

Consistent: He was consistent in all aspects of his life and we saw it in the workplace in the constancy of effort, the repetition of positive habits, the attention to minute detail, and the withering focus on core programs and priorities. His pursuit of his dreams could be relentless, or at least it could seem that way as his staff. Although many sought to enlist Chuck in a variety of Christian causes (I know I did for my public relations clients after leaving Prison Fellowship), he remained focused, following the wise dictum of Christian fundraising pioneer Russ Reid: “Every need is not a call.”

Brilliant: In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein admitted that Colson was perhaps the smartest of the Watergate characters, the “evil genius.” While Chuck was willing to apply his brilliance to accomplish political ends, and during his political career he had clearly not yet been tracked down by the hound of heaven, I’m convinced that he seemed “evil” only to political opponents. He was, on the other hand, brilliant, both before and after his conversion. For those of us charged with supporting and assisting Chuck, the fact that he had a photographic memory, literally, was a source of constant embarrassment. It served him well, however, in his endeavors and in ministry effectiveness. 

Original: Chuck was an opinion leader who, rather than wait for the talking points to be distributed, developed original and constructive positions that informed Christians and defended historic Christian faith in the marketplace of ideas. Although considered one of the leaders of the “Christian right,” Chuck was often out of step with these leaders, or really often several steps ahead. During my time working with Chuck, he bucked conventional evangelical practice and worked with Lutheran-turned-Catholic thinker and priest Richard John Neuhaus (I wonder what those two are cooking up in the heavenlies) to draft the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents, that not only indentified areas of social co-belligerence, but also areas of theological agreement. This document was welcomed by many and, as you can imagine, roundly criticized by the most doctrinaire. Chuck didn’t really care (although it hurt him that some very close friends ended friendships over his position), because he relished his role of afflicting the comforted and causing his brethren to think. 

Wise: At a particularly rough time in my life, when I’d been falsely accused of wrongdoing and it was making a big impact on my life, Chuck arranged for us to have some time together (appropriately at the airport). I moaned about how people were making claims about me that were not true, and it was ruining my life, and it was just not fair. Chuck looked at me with that penetrating look, and reminded me that many people had told lies about him during the Watergate period, and these lies were printed on the front page of The Washington Post and hundreds of other papers around the world. Friends had betrayed him and he’d ended up serving time in prison.  His life, and that of many of the key figures in the Nixon White House, had been upended. Chuck gave me this advice: “You remember meeting Haldeman and Erlichman (I’d had a chance to meet them at a Watergate symposium of sorts at Hofstra University where Chuck and the others spoke). They were never able to forgive and they allowed the injustice and betrayal to eat away at their souls. They amounted to nothing after Watergate days as a result. Don’t allow that to happen. Look forward; looking back only to learn and to forgive, but not to condemn.  Don’t allow bitterness to erode your heart and soul.”  He was the model for what he was teaching, and these words and the way he exemplified them were undoubtedly the most important lessons Chuck ever taught me. 

Funny:  And yes, Colson was a character, wickedly funny, and a brutal practical joker. When I wasn’t a target—such as when he locked me in the airplane bathroom or hid my shoes as I went through the prison metal detector, I was sometimes enlisted to participate in the pranks. One of my favorites was a time when our wonderful PF area director in North Carolina (I think), David Haley—himself a jokester—asked Chuck to videotape a greeting that David would play to the gathered guests at a large upcoming fundraising dinner. When I took this request to Chuck, he agreed.  But there was that certain mischievous look in his eyes. Here’s what we did: Chuck sat before the camera and completed a flawless taped greeting in one take, the usual. Except he began the tape:  ‘I want to thank you, Prison Fellowship friends, for your support of our work and for your support of my dear friend Bob Haley.’  Yes, he purposely used the wrong name, Bob—not David—several times in the greeting.  Chuck then did a second tape, just as flawlessly, using the correct name. The instruction to me: send the first tape to David and wait a day or so, or until we hear a gasp from North Carolina, and then send the correct tape. It wasn’t very long before I got a call from national director Myles Fish, David’s supervisor, who said David called him in a panic.  I played along briefly and then let Myles in on the prank. I sent the correct tape to David, who had a successful event, and to this day won’t admit that he’d been had by Chuck Colson. 

Kind: Finally, for all of his ex-Marine, hatchet man tendencies and reputation, Chuck was actually a remarkably tender person, kind to the people who he served with, those he served, and the many who crossed his path; and attentive to his family. His heart showed the most when his friends and colleagues, and those he loved, faced misfortune. A man who was in constant, sometimes crazy, demand, he always had time for the wounded one in the herd. People have reflected on his care and concern for his devoted wife, Patty.  I observed so much of that. And also for his children. I remember one stretch of time when our travel schedule was very heavy, Chuck’s daughter Emily was going through a difficult time. As we flew from city to city, day after day, and week after week, Chuck called Emily every day to get an update and to encourage her.  I should point out that this was before there were cell phones (I know, I know, aging myself). When we’d get off a plane, he’d make a bee line for a pay phone. This was the consistent pattern for months. There was nothing more important. 

That’s the Chuck Colson I knew. The friend we memorialize this week. The Christian who led us and whose primary legacy is a more culturally engaged and a more loving church. We are so much richer as a people because he was born again, served a life sentence serving others, and, yes, showed us how to love God. 

–Jim Jewell

Posted in Christianity, Evangelicals, Jim Jewell, Leaders | 3 Comments

Bonhoeffer on Marriage

Saw this appropriate passage in the midst of this new national debate on the definitions and characteristics of marriage.  It is from Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  (h/t to my Facebook friend WIllim Sulik)   

‎”Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the …world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory, and calls into His kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more that something personal – it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. As you first gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God. As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.

* * *

God has laid on marriage a blessing and a burden. The blessing is the promise of children. God allows man to share in His continual work of creation; but it is always God Himself who blesses marriage with children. ‘Children are a heritage of the Lord’ (Psalm 127:3), and they should be acknowledge as such. It is from God that parents receive their children, and it is to God that they should lead them. Parents therefore have divine authority in respect of their children. Luther speaks of the ‘golden chain’ with which God invests parents; and scripture adds to the fifth commandment the special promise of long life on earth. Since men live on earth, God has given them a lasting reminder that this earth stands under the curse of sin and is not itself the ultimate reality. Over the destiny of woman and of man lies the dark shadow of a word of God’s wrath, a burden from God, which they must carry. The woman must bear her children in pain, and in providing for his family the man must reap many thorns and thistles, and labor in the sweat of his brow. This burden should cause both man and wife to call on God, and should remind them of their eternal destiny in his kingdom. Earthly society is only the beginning of the heavenly society, the earthly home an image of the heavenly home, the earthly family a symbol of the fatherhood of God over all men, for they are His children.

God gives you Christ as the foundation of your marriage. ‘Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God’ (Romans 15:7). In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

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A Colson Memory on a Sad Day for the Christian World

The passing of the man I consider the most influential evangelical of our generation, Chuck Colson, brought to mind a flood of memories from my days as his chief of staff and in other positions at Prison Fellowship Ministries from 1983-1995, and then as his public relations counsel for some years after that.

The first of those memories was in March 1983 when I arrived in PF’s Great Falls, Virginia, office to begin as director of public relations, leaving a somewhat parallel position at World Vision in California, drawn by Washington, D.C., a fascinating mission, and mostly by the evangelical star, Chuck Colson.

I was 29 and although I’d already been around the world a few times, I learned quickly that high level media outreach in the most powerful city in the world was far different than sun-baked L.A.

Chuck was rarely in the Virginia office because he traveled extensively, and when he wasn’t traveling he tried to live his life with Patty in their Naples, Florida, home. So when he came to the PF office a couple of weeks after my arrival, I was anxious and didn’t know what to expect from the “Nixon hatchet man.” He was gracious and welcoming, of course; but little did I know then that my long career at PF would include years of traveling with Chuck, managing his office, and as he put it, serving as his “hatchet man.”

It didn’t start that way, however, and today I’m thinking of just the first striking memory. During that first week in the office with Chuck, I received a call from Ted Koppel’s producer at ABC Nightline. They wanted Chuck on the program for the 10th anniversary of Watergate. Chuck hated these Watergate anniversaries and retrospectives; although the media turned its attention to figures such as Colson during these times, he didn’t want to talk about Watergate; he wanted to talk about prison ministry, worldview, and topics like the “moral imagination” of followers of Christ.

But I couldn’t believe my good fortune. After years of trying to sell media on coverage of the massive international development work of World Vision, with only occasional success, in my first few weeks at PF, I had Nightline begging for an appearance by my boss. It’s why I’d moved to Washington.

However, Chuck was playing hard to get. Finally, the producer asked if she could talk to Colson by phone, and he relented. After a long conversation, he reluctantly agreed to appear on the Watergate-themed program. The producer, Chuck told me, had made a final pitch: “Chuck, you know that Ted and I are Jewish, but if you’ll come on the program, we’ll both convert.”

Chuck immediately agreed. And he did the program.

The next morning, I was summoned to Chuck’s office and he handed me–with a wry smile–two paperback copies of his bestselling book Born Again. Both were inscribed: “I wanted you to read more about your new faith.”

He told me to drive immediately into the city and deliver the books to ABC, which I did—and of course all knew the conversion pitch was tongue-in-cheek from the beginning, and that was the end of the story.

But today it represents for me the perfect Colson story: He was selective in his use of his time; always conscious of his faith and witness; always ready with the quip; and there was always a good chance a practical joke was near at hand.

Heaven is a richer place today, and here on earth we sit by a large pair of Bostonians with little chance they will ever be filled. 

He is a hero of the faith, a great American, and an unforgettable friend and mentor. I already miss him.

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Evangelicals Still Need Chuck Colson

by Jim Jewell

Word spread today that Chuck Colson was struck down this weekend by a brain “event,” with surgeons removing pooled blood and Chuck left in critical condition in a Virginia hospital.  An official statement on his condition leaves much unsaid.  As his longtime chief of staff, friend, and fan,  I can clearly state that I am praying for Chuck’s full recovery. The evangelical world, really the entire disintegrating church in a bleeding culture, should join me in praying fervently for many more years of fervent Colson influence.  There is no one behind him, ready to serve as an independent, perceptive, orthodox Christian conscience in a time of overwhelming nonsense.

One could easily make the case that Colson is the central evangelical figure in the last generation. He was not the most visible, popular, best-selling, controversial, quoted, or cited—but he is among the leaders in all of those categories. At the same time, much of his influence is behind the scenes and through his profound influence on influencers.

I saw much of this unfold as an associate, aide, and consultant to Colson over nearly two decades, from the early 80s into the new millenium, serving for part of that time as his chief of staff, and—as he would occasionally say with a chuckle—his hatchet man.

Chuck Colson’s life and work has had an enormous impact in at least these five areas:

Conversion

Colson was known as the White House “hatchet man,” a man feared by even the most powerful politicos during his four years of service to President Nixon. When news of Colson’s conversion to Christianity leaked to the press in 1973, the Boston Globe reported, “If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody.” Colson would agree. He admits he was guilty of political “dirty tricks” and willing to do almost anything for the cause of his president and his party.

“My conversion kept the political cartoonists of America clothed and fed for months. The cartoons were all somewhat the same: a picture of me in a monk’s habit, standing outside the White House fence, with a sign that read: Repent!

“But before my conversion I wasn’t nearly as bad as I was made out to be,” Colson told me, “And I’m not nearly as good as a Christian as I’m made out to be. But it makes for a great testimony!”

That testimony is usually confused in the re-telling, with the story including a Watergate conviction that resulted in a prison sentence for Colson, and while in prison sentence he turned to God. The facts are that Colson, in the midst of the Watergate hearings, dramatically came to faith in Christ in 1973, and as a result of his new faith and life, he decided, in 1974, to plead guilty to a charge that was related to Nixonian dirty tricks (but not directed related to the Watergate break-in or cover-up). Colson was sentenced to prison on the basis of the guilty plea and he entered prison as a Christian and began his conversion memoir, Born Again, during his seven months in prison. Born Again was one of the nation’s best-selling books of all genres in 1976 and was made into a feature-length film.

His heavily publicized commitment to Jesus Christ as a highly visible public figure has been instrumental in many conversions among, for the lack of a better word, the elite in this nation and around the world.

Prison Ministry

Because Chuck Colson began his Christian life in prison, the needs of prisoners and the failures of the criminal justice system were among the first problems that God brought to his attention, the commitment he made to help those prisoners is a promise he has never broken. The attention he brought to prison ministry has changed the church.

Upon his release Colson founded Prison Fellowship (in 1976), which has become the world’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, crime victims, and their families. Christians had been ministering to people in prison throughout the history of the church, but it had never had scale and visibility; neither was it well-funded. As a result of Chuck Colson’s intelligence, notoriety, communications skills, organizing ability, and fundraising prowess, Prison Fellowship has grown to unimaginable proportions (for a prison ministry), and prison outreach has become a prominent part of church programming. [Many of Prison Fellowship’s largest donors had only marginal interest in prison work. As one major contributor told me: “If Chuck asked me to support a basket-weaving ministry, I’d do it.” We called this part of the donor base “Colson groupies.”

Applying a Christian Worldview to Secular Culture

It wasn’t long after he began Prison Fellowship, that Colson sensed God’s calling to comment on the culture and the church’s interaction with the culture through the written and spoken word. It was clear immediately his knowledge and life experiences were unique among Christian leaders. Colson called on Christians to begin each day “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” After his two autobiographic books that described his conversion (Born Again) and the beginning of the prison ministry (Life Sentence), he moved markedly toward a critique of church and culture, beginning with Loving God in 1983, often using illustrations from the rough world of prison ministry to make his larger points.

In later years, perhaps sensing his own mortality, Colson began a center to train a new generation of leaders to renew the church and revitalize the culture. Colson describes this as a new effort “to be salt and light, rubbed into the culture in such a way that the people and institutions around us slowly begin to understand that they have embraced the Lie, and to replace it with the Truth of a biblical understanding of all of reality.”

Colson has written 20 books, which have collectively sold more than five million copies, and his 4-minute daily radio commentary, BreakPoint, has been a popular daily word for Christians.

Influence in the Political Arena

His 1987 his book Kingdoms in Conflict (updated in 2007 as God and Government) was a best-selling directive to the Christian community on the proper relationships of church and state, and it positioned Colson as a centrist evangelical voice for balanced Christian political activism. (Pat Robertson’s presidential run made the original release of Kingdoms) a big hit. That influence continued over the next 20 years, often behind the scenes.

In Faith in the Halls of Power, Michael Lindsay writes that Colson is the evangelical “movement leader who seemed to have the greatest influence” in Washington. More than a quarter of the senior political leaders he interviewed mentioned Colson by name when asked about the “most influential” evangelical leaders, more than the SBC’s Richard Land or Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins (no one mentioned James Dobson).[1]

Seeking Christian Unity

Colson’s commitment to the unity of the Church led to his co-authorship (with Father Richard John Neuhaus) of a cutting-edge document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” that significantly helped to build an important bridge between Protestants and Catholics. Seeking commonality with the orthodox Christian faith and working to bring the church together is perhaps Colson’s most courageous and controversial act, with a number of conservative evangelicals at least privately critical of his actions, and many publicly dismissive of the ECT initiative. Colson’s book The Faith was a remarkable effort to identify the common tenets of the Christian faith.

In recognition of his work, Colson received the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1993, donating the $1 million prize to Prison Fellowship. Colson’s other awards have included the Humanitarian Award, Dominos Pizza Corporation (1991); The Others Award, The Salvation Army (1990); several honorary doctorates from various colleges and universities (1982-2000); and the Outstanding Young Man of Boston, Chamber of Commerce (1960).


[1] Lindsay, D. Michael. Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. Oxford University Press. 2007.

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