Leighton Frederick “Sandy” Ford Jr. was an athlete who liked to run and who loved the Lord. When he was 14, he had surgery to correct a cardiac electrical problem that made his heart beat dangerously fast. He had a second surgery when he was a junior in college, in 1981, but didn’t survive the operation.
“That was certainly one of the seeds that changed my life,” said his father, Leighton Ford Sr. “The passage John 12 talks about the seed falling to the ground and dying and multiplying -- in effect, out of that loss something came. We’d love to have Sandy back, but out of his loss has come many others who have been influenced.”
Shortly after their son’s death, Leighton Ford and his wife, Jeanie -- the sister of Billy Graham -- established a memorial fund to provide scholarships for other young men and women who run their race for the Lord. And today, he is the president of Leighton Ford Ministries, which focuses on raising up younger Christian leaders.
Previously, he was an associate evangelist and then vice president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, from 1955 to 1985. He has written several books, including “Sandy: A Heart for God”; “The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things”; and “Transforming Leadership: Jesus’ Way of Creating Vision, Shaping Values and Empowering Change.”
“The [loss of Sandy] was part of what I think drew both my wife and me to … have a real desire to help other younger men and women that were emerging into leadership to be effective, to encourage them, to help them,” Ford said.
He spoke with Faith & Leadership about mentoring young leaders, Jesus as an artist and the difference between what he calls “aspen” and “banyan tree” leadership. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.
Ford was as a participant in a March conference organized by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, hosted by Duke Divinity School, called “Saving the World? The Changing Terrain of American Protestant Missions, 1910 to the Present.”
Q: Over the last decade, you’ve made a move in your career to spiritual direction. On the surface, it seems different from the crusade work you were doing earlier. How are those two kinds of work related?
I’ve spoken to some tens of thousands of people on some occasions. Sometimes it would be several hundred people. I think I always tried to keep in mind not just the mass evangelism but that it was a platform for personal relating to people. If I was speaking into a big crowd, I would try to go in the stands and meet someone -- “Where are you from? What brought you here?” “Hi, I’m Leighton Ford. Who are you?” I think that helped them to be at ease and helped me to relate to them. And after the big meetings, I would stay around oftentimes for an hour or so talking to people and counseling with people. That personal element was already there.
Then about the time I was 50, I began to sense restlessness inside me, wondering what the Lord might have for us next. My wife and I looked at a number of different opportunities. But out of the loss of our son Sandy, remembering [my brother-in-law] Billy Graham’s influence and seeing a shift where a whole new generation of younger leaders were emerging, I felt that is what God would have me do, so we started leadership development for them.
We had a leadership development program called the Arrow Leadership Program. I found in that that I wasn’t only teaching about leadership and evangelism, but I was beginning to take long walks and talks and visits with men and women, listening to their desires, their dreams, their hopes, their problems, their frustrations, the things that happened to them.
It was a kind of spiritual mentoring of listening to them, listening without an agenda for them, helping them to listen to what God might be saying and encouraging them to follow through on that.
We then turned our Arrow Leadership Program over to one of our graduates, and I’ve been focusing especially on that spiritual mentoring over the last 10 years or so, which I say is mainly listening and saying, “What is God saying to you? What is it like when you pray? What is God like when you pray?”
My own personal mission statement now is to be a friend on the journey and an artist of the soul, because Jesus was an artist. Van Gogh said that. He said, “Christ was a greater artist than the artist. He painted people.”
To help people become what God has called them to be, and to be a friend with them on that journey, has been the main focus of what brings me great joy. I saw people out there in the stands; now I see them in a chair across my little office.
Q: You write about coming to see mentoring not as something that is done on the side but as your real work. Talk about that shift.
I was asked a number of years ago to write a book on the leadership of Jesus, which I tried not to do, because that’s a huge task, and who could ever do that rightly? But I decided to do it and went back just to read, reread, reread, reread what Jesus did, especially in Mark’s Gospel. It is very clear that with all that he did -- his time with his Father, his time with the crowds -- that at the center [of his focus] was the twelve that he chose, or the person along the side of the road, ... the people he spent time with.
I think that that is at the heart of mentoring: time with others, not always sitting down [and doing] some serious thing. Maybe just having fun together.
One of the mentoring groups I have up in the mountains of North Carolina -- a group I meet with every year -- takes long walks in the hills. We’re not talking necessarily about ministry all the time. We’re joking. We’re talking about football or looking at the beauty of the place.
It’s enjoying being with people. And believe me, that’s as meaningful as it is to stand up and preach -- and sometimes even more meaningful. It’s life on life; it’s being a friend on the journey. People talk about wasting time, and [that] just being with people is wasting time. How can you waste time with friends? You don’t have to have some particular objective to do it. Those relational aspects of life are as important as the intentional times we have.
The chairman of our board said to me one time, “Leighton, I’ve seen you use a lot of small touches. Those small touches with people -- a phone call, just a few minutes, just listening to someone -- those very small touches are as important sometimes as lengthy times with people.”
Q: Talk more about those small touches with regard to people in your care. What are your practices of remembering what people are going through or when they have a significant event, for example?
I have dates on my computer calendar that remind me that it’s not only a birthday but it’s an anniversary. One of the young guys I mentored died recently, and I need to remember to call his wife. I have those reminders there. Sometimes it’s making a list of people I need to call to see how they’re doing. It’s realizing it’s very important, even if it’s not a significant event.
“Just tell me what’s happening right now.” That’s a very important practice of ministry, whatever part of ministry, whatever part of life we’re in.
I started off in our mentoring ministry with a list I call my GGTW list -- Guys and Gals to Watch. Oswald Sanders, who was a well-known mission leader in Asia, from New Zealand, had his list of “Blokes to Watch.” I read that and I thought, “Oh, I want a list of guys and gals to watch.”
When I met someone and I was impressed with them and seemed drawn to them, I would put their name down and every once in a while drop them a note, call them, ask them to go with me maybe on a ministry trip. It was out of that that our first mentoring groups formed.
Q: What common missteps do you see in mentoring relationships?
One of the missteps is to project our own thoughts and our own situations onto someone else. Very easily, someone will say, “Oh, I understand that. I’ve been through this or that.” I think we have to be very careful about not projecting our own experiences there.
I think we also have to be careful about not putting our own experiences up as the final word, and putting our thoughts in place of Scripture, instead of listening to God’s word. Of course, the words of our Lord are the most important.
Probably another misstep in a mentoring conversation is being afraid of silence. Oftentimes, we’re afraid and think, “I have to fill that time.” Sometimes we just have to rest and say, “I’ll just be quiet and let them have time to think through something,” and then trust that God will be speaking to them rather than rushing in with something. Those are some things I have to remind myself.
Q: What do people need if they’re young and enthusiastic and have gifts and want to serve but don’t how?
I think they need to have an opportunity to observe and watch close, and up-front, people who are doing the ministry. I think then they also need some personal coaching and direction, if that’s available.
The other thing I think they need at some age is someone who will value them for who they are and help them to develop their own voice, their own way of doing things. To learn that God has shaped them in a particular way, not to be into someone else’s mold.
We often start off, I think, putting on someone else’s clothes, in effect, but then somebody will say, “You’ve got a gift. You need to use this.” People need to be encouraged to be who they are, who God has made them to be. Like an artist starts.
Detail from “Aspen Grove” by Leighton Ford. (Courtesy of Leighton Ford Ministries.)
I began painting in the early 1990s. I’d never thought of drawing or sketching at all, and I was bored with the sabbatical in Vancouver, Canada. I picked up a book on drawing.
I never thought of doing it. I got one of those books and started trying it. And then I got a coach who did that, and she would criticize me, and [she] helped me to learn that way. It came from inside me. I tried it myself, and then there was a coach who helped me to do it.
I think there is an art to leadership; I think you learn by doing it, but you also learn by listening to others and then find what is your own style that God has made for you.
Q: You have talked about the difference between “banyan tree leadership” and “aspen tree leadership.” What is the distinction, and where did the idea for it come from?
Someone asked me recently about servant leadership, which is, of course, Jesus’ style of leadership, which we all have to continue to learn and relearn -- the man didn’t come to be served but to serve.
Paul Hebert, who was a veteran missionary in India, said, “We’ve got a lot of banyan tree leadership in India.” What he meant by that -- like the great spreading banyan tree that’s in India and Florida and other places -- it takes up so much space that it doesn’t let the sunlight through, to filter through, to nurture little seedlings. So not much grows under the banyan tree. He said, “We’ve had a lot of leadership like that in India.” And, of course, in other parts of the world too.
I thought about that and I thought, “Yeah, there are a lot of big leaders that take up a lot of oxygen and space when they walk into a room, and they’ve got a very important place.”
In contrast to that, I was looking for another image. The aspen tree grows its roots underground, and you don’t see most [of them]. You see the top of an aspen tree. The largest aspen tree in the world has 44,000 trunks in Colorado, and it grows up from underneath. So there are two different approaches, I think, to leadership. Some people -- my brother Billy Graham has been a large tree, but he’s also nurtured other, younger leaders.
I think that, to me, that’s very important, that the aspen tree -- we don’t always have to be seen. We don’t always have to be visible. Some of our best work and leadership in ministry may take place out of sight, almost underground, and then it springs up to let others grow, let their beauty shine forth.
I think also, to me, that’s an image that I try to remember.