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Lorne Sanny’s Role as President

1970s Sanny13
Lorne Sanny, 1970s

Summary: This article opens a window into how Lorne saw his responsibilities and offers insight into his temperament and gifts. It is not an assessment, but an uncovering of how he felt from time to time about being President


Carrying the Weight of Leadership
Clarifying Sanny’s Role
Lorne’s Views on His Role in the 1980s

Carrying the Weight of Leadership

Lorne told a staff gathering in 1968 that he had been through five periods of depression in his life. One had been in the spring of the year Dawson Trotman died, 1956. He and Lucy sat down and tried to figure out a way he could get out of The Navigators and who would take him. Then, the Lord gave him John 12:24, which says: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

In September 1961, he withdrew from his office for three months to be “a private citizen”: he needed new promises. God gave him Isaiah 54:2-3. He commented later that it was harder as one aged to break out of ruts and traditions.1

When chairing international conferences, Lorne occasionally revealed how he struggled with his responsibilities. This surfaces, for example, in what he expressed during the Overseas Policy Conference (OPC) in February 1961. On the third day,2 he described this:

This conference was originally my idea, the purpose of which was to have a free discussion of everything we do. I am personally very happy with our progress. . . . We have a little setup that I feel awkward in. . . . At this moment, right or wrong, I don’t feel I have freedom in contributing to discussion or making decisions. As president of The Navigators and chairman of the conference, I am over a barrel. . . . If I sit back and listen lest my voice as president stifle or prejudice the discussion, yet as chairman it is my job to see that things don’t lag. Therefore, I don’t participate either in the discussion or the conclusions. I think I should resign as chairman of the conference.”

The participants discussed his dilemma. As Waldron Scott responded, “If you are the chairman, you have to summarize and, if you are the president, you have to make decisions . . . and I vote for both of them. But there is a real difference between summaries and conclusions.”

Lorne agreed. He would not express a vote. Occasionally, he might say “I’m going to make a decision” which the men would then respect.

Fifteen years later, when the recently-formed International Leadership Team (ILT) met at the end of 1976, they confirmed that they were committed to developing as a global team. The purpose of the ILT was agreed as “to assist the president in the leadership of our worldwide ministries.”3

During the discussion, Sanny explained that he could no longer carry responsibility for the tone, image and forms of the Nav ministry. Instead of vainly trying to understand and approve the forms of ministry in more than thirty countries, it would be more productive to train and activate our central core of Representatives, at that point, 297 men and thirty-four women. He considered that our Representatives could properly be required to be gifted, called, dedicated, disciplined, trained, and (normally) mobile.4

Two years later, Sanny reminded his ILT that it was prudent, as we continued to expand, to work outwards from the men available rather than first selecting the geography. This would help lessen the pressure of “unfilled slots” for new missionaries. He also laid out a depth chart of likely replacements for our senior leaders, a practice that Walt Henrichsen had earlier used.

However, the session ended with a surprise. Sanny handed to his team a letter stating that, “My wife and I are agreed that I should not and need not continue as chief executive officer of The Navigators for much longer—not more than three years.” After probing Sanny’s reasons, and noting that his intent was a change of organizational role rather than retirement, we accepted his decision and agreed that his successor should be selected by the end of the year. During the ILT discussion in April, Lorne told them that he nominated Doug Sparks as his deputy.

Clearly, much pressure was then placed on Sanny to continue his existing responsibilities. By the time the ILT met in December, he was ready to trace the evolution of his thinking since July, at which time he had decided to withdraw his letter.5

One result of Lorne’s thinking was that we formalized a process for the selection of a president. This process eventually involved selection by the INC and ratification by the US board of directors.6

Clarifying Sanny’s Role

Statistically, since 1970, fifty-one American Reps had returned home and fifty-seven such Reps (often, the same persons) had resigned. Analysis showed that the most prominent reason for returning missionaries had been poor selection by both senders and receivers, and the most prominent reason for resignations had been lack of gifting for the Nav ministry. Clearly, the pace of growth in the early 1970s had forced some unwise decisions. The ILT accepted personal and collective responsibility for low morale.7 As one would expect, we spent time praying over the promises that the Lord had given us.

In June 1980, consultant Myron Rush led our International Leadership Team8 through an exercise lasting three days on clarifying their roles. He defined a role as “a function under which one could place measurable objectives, as distinct from a job description which typically consisted of a list of activities.”

Most of the time was spent on three iterations of Lorne’s role, each followed by the recommendations of others present. Out of this process emerged a new international structure, consisting of the International Executive Team (Sanny, with US director Jack Mayhall, overseas director George Sanchez,9 international administrator Donald McGilchrist)10 and the new International Navigator Council.

Lorne chose to continue with the term “job description” rather than shift to “role” as preferred by Myron.11

Interview with Sanny

Deeper insights into how Lorne had approached and understood his role were found in a lengthy interview that he gave in 1981 to Art Miller of People Management, as part of an assessment of the international leaders of The Navigators.

First, extracts from the transcript of his interview:

A knowledge of the Word . . . a practical knowledge, able to apply the Word to everyday situations . . . and obviously, the ability to influence people spiritually which means that when you’re around him—or hear him speak—you end up wanting to pray more, or be more effective, or walk closer to God—you were encouraged. . . . If he’s just an orator, then they might stand in awe of him and respect him, but not feel close to him.

This work does not focus on its president like the Billy Graham Association focuses on Billy. Therefore, you don’t need a president who’s a man on a white horse and flowing red cape saying “Follow me.” You have 550 area Reps and contact staff—and the key to the ministry is having all those engines going on all eight cylinders—innovatively—creatively—confidently—assuredly.

It’s very important to be real—and to be openly real. It’s also necessary . . . to be transparent—or he won’t survive—you just can’t live and pretend to be what you’re not—and last very long.

Character in the spiritual leader is the most important thing by far. I think he needs to come from a stable home. . . . The fellows around me all come from stable homes—and we have ignored that to our dismay—for instance, in missionary assignments.

He should be a thorough-going Navigator: he holds convictions coincident with The Navigators—he is committed to our calling and values—both intellectually and also in practice—he’s burning in his heart to carry forward the calling of The Navigators, as identified as what we call The Fundamentals of The Ministry.

The Navigators do tend to be more systematic, but the president of The Navigators must not be locked into any structure or system to lead a multinational work. In fact, he has to learn to live with different approaches to the same fundamentals. . . . He needs to have a deep conviction as to what and why, but latitude as to how, otherwise he’s going to beat his head against the wall.

There are eight country leaders whose appointment I approved and whose removal I subsequently approved, in almost all cases because of excessive rigidity: They could not flex with different ways of doing things or could not adjust to a young generation coming up. Illustration: It’s like the wing on a 747 aircraft which needs to be firmly anchored at the center and free to vibrate at the tip. A leader must be flexible enough to listen—to learn—to negotiate—to integrate—reasonably divergent persons and points of view . . . and able to endure, to survive, to stick it out. He has to be constantly on the learning edge, open to new ideas and new ways of doing things . . . actively seeking them. What worked well five years ago won’t work well now. . . . He must be growing, learning, listening, changing. I like to tell our staff that everything is up for grabs except two things—that the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus is the Son of God. Our calling, identity, ministry essentials . . . all will have to be re-thought ten years from now.

I find that our staff are not so much interested in what I think, but are very interested in what I think about what they’re thinking.

Last year, we were present in fifty-one countries. My job is not to be leading on the front, but to be enough on the field to keep my own soul warm . . . but to work through others. . . . The point people are out on the periphery—all our representatives around the world—so we have 550 front men.

When our HQ staff talk numbers and statistics too much, it bothers me: Field staff don’t want them to talk numbers but to talk principles—the Bible and stories. Our staff get nervous with numbers, especially in the international world, but I need to have people around me who have the numbers.

One of the greatest stresses in this job is personality problems: We are so involved with the total life of our people. They’re not merely employees, they’re our friends. Such problems are a wrenching experience and the greatest endurance has to be surviving these continuous personnel problems, with the ability to take it on the chin and not fully defend or explain yourself . . . because you know some facts that are clear to you.

One has to be very good—almost a nut—on priorities. One has to simplify.

Lorne had more to say, but he ends this interview with “the five basic elements of strategic global planning for the top leaders of The Navigators”:

  • The fundamentals of the ministry
  • The global imperatives
  • Our global structure, to accommodate what we expect to happen
  • Geographic priorities, because we have too few resources to meet the needs
  • Leader development

He then ends with the hope that “the next president will have had overseas experience: he will have to be an American, but it would be very helpful if he were a missionary or had had quite significant overseas experience.”

The outcome of Art Miller’s process was what he called a “motivated abilities pattern.” He asserts that the one motivational thrust is the most important thing in life to the achiever and that he or she will attempt to perform every job in accordance with this thrust, regardless of what others may see as more urgent needs. In the case of Lorne, Art identified his motivational thrust as:

Tackle the developmental challenge; overcome the problem, handicap, difficulty; attain advanced, enhanced position.

The assessment of Lorne then runs for ten pages and it is very clear from Lorne’s marginal notes that he is in strong agreement with the diagnosis of his pattern and preferences. Miller conducted the same exercise with those on Lorne’s team, and ended with observations on how they would work best together.12

Lorne’s Views on His Role in the 1980s

In September 1982, Lorne made the following comments:13

My view of the organization is that it naturally disintegrates. Therefore, in order for me to do other things, I need a person who can direct the organization.

My interest in strategic planning is to see that the steel thread runs through it and that we have prayer targets.

I am no longer interested in resigning – like I used to be. What I cannot accomplish by stepping down, I will now accomplish by delegating.

The next step is to take my job and to split it in two: I will concentrate more on the externals; Jerry White on the internals.

I have a paternalistic, proprietary feeling. And in a sense of stewardship of our aim, vision and character. I’m a sheepdog.

In 1983, we find Lorne continuing to work at sharpening his role and defining his objectives. He wrote to our staff in September:

After weeks of thought and much prayer, I’ve determined these two primary objectives for myself:

1. To clarify, communicate and maintain the aim, vision and character of the Navigators, so that we fulfill our calling (imperative II; global objective 3).

The aim: to multiply laborers. The vision: to help fulfill the Great Commission in every nation. The character: Christ-centered and biblically based.

2. To help organize, lead and develop an effective biblical leadership team—so that we move forward together as a unified yet diverse, accountable global society (imperative IV; global objective 1).

In short, I want my contribution to The Navigators to be a growing and relevant ministry, on track and in good hands.”14

Having worked carefully with his team on a process for selecting our international president, Lorne announced in December 1985 that he would be stepping down, and the process was activated. It is described in the article on “Transitioning our Navigator Presidents.”

See also articles on:

Transitioning our Navigator Presidents
Boards of Directors
IHQ-USHQ Relationships
Authority and Submission: Lorne Sanny

By Donald McGilchrist

2701 words


  1. Leadership Development program at Changi, Singapore April 1981.
  2. Minutes of session 9 on January 11, 1961.
  3. At that time, the ILT consisted of Sanny, Jim Downing, Skip Gray, Jack Mayhall, Jim Petersen, Joe Simmons, Doug Sparks. Under the above objective, they agreed on six functions.
  4. December 1976 ILT minutes, section 2.
  5. He also told the ILT of his conclusion that an international board would be premature, even though Joe Simmons was pressing for “autonomy.”
  6. See, for example, process of November 30, 1981.
  7. December 1978 ILT minutes 5, 6, 7. Some Reps had departed because the clear articulation of our Aim in the new FOM was not in line with their personal callings.
  8. Seven ILT members plus Sanchez and the proposed overseas director. Also Warren Myers, Bob Sheffield, Jerry White.
  9. Sanchez, at that time, was international staff advisor, assisting Lorne in personnel matters and training others in counseling. He would soon become international ministries director, thus relieving Sanny of the looming responsibility of being overseas director.
  10. Leroy Eims as deputy president also reported to Sanny.
  11. Clarifying Our Roles is a booklet dated June 17, 1980 which summarizes the process and conclusions. That it was an intense process is evidenced by the fact that each person present listed their fears and expectations.
  12. The above paragraphs are extracted from the report to Lorne by People Management in April 1981. This also included Lorne’s description of his enjoyable achievements from childhood onwards.
  13. Transcribed by McGilchrist. Remarks on September 17, 1982.
  14. “Dear Staff” letter, 1983-4.
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