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In Tribute to a Christian Social Engineer

Dr. Ralph WinterRalph Winter was a maverick, engineer, and entrepreneur. He was a mentor to me in my ’20s. He passed away yesterday at age 84 in Pasadena, CA. He was best known as a Christian leader who turned the focus of Evangelical missionary work beyond national borders to unreached peoples. My wife and I met Dr Ralph Winter when I was 24 years old. Winter was two years into buying the old Pasadena Nazarene College to house a new think tank, the U.S. Center for World Mission. We immediately found him intelligent and captivating in a quiet way. We turned our 1967 Pontiac Tempest toward California and joined his small vanguard seeking to revolutionize mission service.

For the next 14 years I worked in the worlds that Ralph Winter shaped. I developed the Perspectives Study program, helped establish World Christian magazine, served the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, and help launched the AD 2000 movement. At each chapter Winter was there, sometimes pleased, other times frustrated. By 1992, I set out for Colorado to create my own consulting group, beyond Winter’s world.

What did I learn from Winter? Through modeling I learned a great deal about strategic leadership. Winter was a disruptive innovation in himself! He not only thought of innovations, he acted to introduce them. Earlier in his life when rural Guatemalan pastors needed help leading churches he helped establish a Theological Education by Extension (TEE) program to serve them, in their own context, rather than to have them pull up roots and migrate to urban areas. Later as an anthropologist he would highlight how these same indigenous populations where often “hidden” from our sight, and underserved by the global church.

Through his speaking I learned about visionary leadership. Winter was idiosyncratic, always seeing things differently. This vision went to the heart of the reading the Scriptures. I remember back in 1981 he began talking about Abraham’s call to serve the nations from Genesis 12:1-3, even while called to found the Jewish nation. This helped to galvanize the perspective of thousands, and became a spur to me to learn everything I could about the multi-cultural nature of the New Covenant and the kingdom of God. By his example Winter taught me that that a leader establishes a thought world and invites others into it. That world, like a balloon, can take flight and give lift to many endeavors.

Finally I learned about entrepreneurship from Winter. He was always starting things, launching new task forces, publishing new books, creating new outlets. Often the entrepreneurial impulse went beyond the administrative support, and the new project collapse under its own weight. Other times the new creation took root in good soil and flourished. Today, I teach graduate students about evolution and revolution in organizations. Winter was the perennial champion of creative destruction in life, whether that was our own paradigms of service or our outdated endeavors.

There are areas of leadership where Winter fell short. That is another thought. Today I am thankful for all I learned from Winter and his collaborators. Most of all, I am thankful for a Christian social engineer–who lived his life for the glory of God.

Dr. Jay Gary is president of PeakFutures.com, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years he has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

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