Lessons from a Life of Follwership – Irv Chambers
Principles in ink on a page are just that — ink on a page. To make a difference in our lives, principles have to be fleshed out in real life, that messy place where our aspirations and ideals collide with our failures and shortcomings.
For that reason, it is a good thing to point to examples of men and women who are living in accordance with the principles we aspire to follow in our own lives — men and women who set the pace, live with integrity and finish well. For our purposes, it would be a good thing to take a look into the life of a follower who follows with excellence.
Irv Chambers is such a follower. For more than forty years, Irv has been a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and a coworker with Leighton Ford, an internationally renowned Christian evangelist, author and leader. For years, Irv served alongside Leighton and others with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, helping to coordinate crusade rallies and often serving as worship leader and platform director. In more recent years he served as a key administrator for Leighton Ford Ministries’ evangelism and leadership development programs.
I spent an afternoon with Irv asking what it takes to follow so well for so long and what advice he has for younger followers. What strikes you about Irv, and other great followers, is how little they seem to realize their importance to the leader. You will see this servant-humility as you read Irv’s reflections on a lifetime of ministry.
Q. You have devoted almost your entire career to serving and following one senior leader, Leighton Ford. When you look on your life as a follower and a leader in your own right, what stands out to you?
A. I’ve said to Marilyn [Irv’s wife] a number of times in recent years how grateful I am for the opportunities of ministry that we have had — the privilege of working with Leighton, the Billy Graham Association, Leighton Ford Ministries, all of these things — which have taken us so many places and given us so many unique evangelistic opportunities. I feel very blessed to have worked with Leighton for forty-three years. It’s been a great experience, and that’s probably why it doesn’t seem like almost half a century!
Q. You first met Leighton in 1956 and worked on a crusade together after you were introduced on the phone by a mutual friend. Did you know right away when you and he met that this was a man you could follow?
A. I think I came to that conclusion after being with him for a while. He is so articulate and practical in his presentation of the gospel. It was all very logical and each step led you to the next. I had worked with a number of evangelists before meeting Leighton and they weren’t all as straightforward or reasonable in their speaking. Some relied on histrionics or death-bed stories to assure a full altar at the invitation. Leighton not only had a passion for evangelism, which I shared, but he also had an honorable and good presentation of the gospel. I never felt embarrassed or awkward after he spoke. And I thought, Now here’s a guy with whom I can really relate. I was happy to be associated with him and with that kind of presentation of the gospel. He invited me to work with him some more and we found that there were a number of areas where we had complementary gifts. It just seemed like the Lord had brought us together and that this was the thing to do.
Q. You and Leighton have worked together intimately for many years. How has your relationship with him developed during that time?
A. Well, right from the start, I think we just hit it off well. We were not only compatible in theology, but in many ways – including a mutual desire to see people come to Christ. It was a mutual appreciation of gifts and certainly, for me, his presentation of the gospel; he is very gifted in this area and I was very comfortable with that. I’ve seen him at Kiwanis, Rotary and other secular civic clubs and never felt like he overstepped his bounds. I had been with some other speakers who went into similar situations and gave them “hell and brimstone” and there were some occasions where I said to myself, “They’ll never invite another evangelist or preacher to that service club!
But that wasn’t true with Leighton. I always had the feeling he went to the point where he could go and made the clear presentation of the gospel, but not to the point of irritating or aggravating relationships with those people and killing any future opportunities of having a minister speak to the group. Our relationship went beyond ministry. Our families often spent holidays together, and some vacations. Leighton even “married” us – but we didn’t take him on the honeymoon. You have to draw the line someplace!
Q. You have a great deal of professional respect for him.
A. Very much so, yes.
Q. Leighton is known as a remarkable leader. You have said that part of what makes him such an effective leader is his ability to adapt to his audience and to the different situations in which he finds himself. So, what are the gifts you as a follower bring to the relationship?
A. My gifts are more in the area of administration and organization, working with committees and board members. My original role in the crusades was as the music director, emceeing the crusade programs, planning the musical program, conducting the choir and recruiting guest musicians. As time went by I also got involved in organizing other aspects of the crusades – such things as stadium or auditorium rentals, recruiting choir members and prayer partners, working with finance and other committees. The objective was to plan for every possible eventuality so that things ran as smoothly as possible when the public meetings began.
Q. When you look back over your years of working with Leighton, if you had to isolate a few ways in which you were able as his follower to serve him most, what would they be?
A. Well, I think after you are with any person for a while, you begin to understand how they function, what they need to keep them from being distracted from their primary responsibility of presenting the gospel. It is a challenge to try and remove every obstacle or barrier that could serve as an interruption to the speaker or any part of the presentation. You obviously can’t foresee everything, but you work as though you can. My goal was to do as much as I could to simplify things for Leighton. Obviously there were some failures, but with each failure there was learning and the promise that “I won’t let that happen again.”
How wonderful it is to work with someone whom you feel is a servant of the Lord and so gifted with the way he shares in the good news! Leighton has feet of clay … He is human. Now me? I’ve got feet and legs of clay! Perhaps one reason it has worked so well is because of his patience with me. No one is perfect, so accept the person you work with and see how together you can joyfully lift up and exalt our Lord.
Q. I want to ask you about Leighton’s legacy, and then your own. First, Leighton’s. What is the legacy he will leave after a lifetime of ministry?
A. I think Leighton is a leader of leaders and a preacher of preachers. He’s got a good mind, he knows and has worked with many leaders. He has been called upon many times to recommend people for various positions: the president of a seminary, the pastor of a church or the leader of a para-church ministry. The unique thing about Leighton is that he doesn’t just know people in his own age or peer group. He knows a lot of younger leaders who possess leadership skills. He has mentored many and I don’t think there is anything that gives him more fulfillment than helping some young pastor or evangelist think and work through ministry opportunities.
At this point, I think his greatest legacy will be the development of young leaders. That’s not to say that all that he did in the evangelistic crusades and with the Lausanne Committee was not important, but it prepared him so that he could have this ministry of mentoring and developing younger men and women who will be tomorrow’s leaders in ministry.
Q. How do you share in that legacy? What have you done to help make that happen?
A. You know, I don’t feel like I have done that much, other than support him and, hopefully, lighten his load in some areas so that he could more effectively use the other skills God has given him. It has been a privilege and a unique opportunity to see God at work in very special ways.
Q. Is that legacy one that you’re proud to be a part of?
A. Yes, I think that’s all part of it. It is very encouraging to me because I think that a person is especially fulfilled when he or she is using and developing the gifts God has given. That brings great joy and satisfaction. And when you also see people come to Christ, you feel as though you have an investment in it. What could be more fulfilling?
Q. When has it been the hardest to follow Leighton?
A. One situation that comes to mind is when we were in another country on a secular university campus for a lunch-hour assembly where the mood seemed to be “get this evangelist and make him sorry he ever came to this campus.” That day our team was the target of large fresh eggs and the most inventive four-letter words I had ever heard. It was toughest for Leighton. That was one day it was hard to follow Leighton, because of these difficulties, but one of those that I remember most fondly. But I was never prouder of Leighton as he made a simple and loving presentation that made an impact on that campus.
Obviously, with anyone you’re going to have some disagreements. I’ve never had a disagreement with Leighton on anything I’d call major such as in theology. Sometimes, maybe on philosophy of ministry, but with him, I really felt like God had called him and I could support him and help him. I’ve had some differences sure, but maybe I would have taken his approach had I been the leader. I accepted the fact that he was the leader and the buck stopped there. As a follower or a leader it is important to put yourself in the other person’s “shoes”, to try and see it from his perspective.
Q. Can you think of a time when you had to do that?
A. Many years ago there was a time where he was questioning his gifts in ministry. We were in the midst of a difficult crusade. He felt empty as he stood to preach, and began to wonder about his call to ministry. In a case like that, you have a twofold anxiety. The first it, what’s happening to my brother? And secondly, what’s going to happen to my wife and family? You know, am I going to be out of a job? You are going to face difficulties in even the best of situations.
Q. How did you help Leighton during that time?
A. I don’t feel that I was that big of a help with advice or words of affirmation. The most helpful thing I could do was just to be there for him. Jeanie [Leighton’s wife] was there, which was fortunate because she is a great encourager. Sometimes availability can be the biggest help and the most important thing you can be or do.
Q. You are a veteran follower. Many of the readers of this book will just be beginning a lifetime of following. What advice do you have for them?
A. Find a leader that you respect, who is or will be a role model for you. He should be one whom you can learn from, and who is willing to teach you and make you his disciple or mentoree. Find somebody who will push and challenge you. I think of a friend of mine who, during his seminary years, spent his summers working on a church staff where they had a very wise pastor. Each summer the pastor gave him a different position and new responsibilities. One summer he worked with the youth, another in Christian education and another in another position. He was training that young man for the pastorate and gave him much practical experience. That seminary student today is one of our leading evangelical pastors.
Find somebody who can give you tools, different kinds of opportunities and who will challenge you with responsibility. In high school, I had a pastor who was probably more gifted as an evangelist than as a pastor. He preached, he played instruments, he sang … He could do it all. And he was passionate about preaching the gospel anywhere and everywhere. In those days I was a trumpet player (allegedly!) and he used to take me along to some of these evangelistic meetings. I thought, Hey, this is neat for me; it’s a great opportunity. I didn’t realize it, but he was really discipling me all that time. And part of my passion for evangelism came from him, from those weekends during my high school years when I was out playing the horn and watching and listening to him. It’s amazing what that did for me. Your life can also be a significant influence on others.
I would also say, go to your leader and tell him or her what you would like to get out of this job opportunity. Is this person willing to invest in your growth at the same time as you invest in this ministry? We all realize that a team effort can produce greater results than that of one person, provided they are going in the same direction.
Q. Now, imagine that you’re speaking to leaders. What counsel do you have for them as they lead their followers?
A. First, find somebody who is not looking to take your job, but sees his gift as supportive and complementary. If he’s looking for your job, and in a year sees that isn’t going to happen, he will be gone! Be willing to invest in the training of people so that they can be more effective in the combined ministry you are called to. Encourage them to succeed, and celebrate their successes with them.
Second, give the follower enough information so that he can fulfill your mission; let him know what your limitations are. In other words, if you tell a follower to do a job, let that person know exactly what the job parameters are and what you want him or her to do. Is he to survey the situation and come back with three recommendations? Or is he to survey it, determine the best possible solution, work out a budget, submit it for approval and, once it is approved, proceed with the project until it is completed? Be specific – and be realistic! Help him to evaluate failures and to know the reason a project failed. How would you do this now that you have had this experience? Look for someone who shares and wants to buy into your vision.
Be an encouragement, not only to the follower, but to his family.
Help him grow – challenge him!
Q. How old are you?
A. I turned seventy recently. Now, I feel more like forty-nine.
Q. Do you?
A. I always felt twenty-nine or thirty. I don’t feel like I’m seventy … I remember my seventh grade teacher told the class he was twenty-seven years of age, and I thought that poor guy’s got one foot in the grave. After being in ministry all these years, though, it doesn’t seem that way now!