window.dataLayer = window.dataLayer || []; function gtag(){dataLayer.push(arguments);} gtag('js', new Date()); gtag('config', 'UA-125707251-1'); Skip to main content

Burn the Ships 7: From Corporate Executive to Ministry President: Dan Wolgemuth #156

Warwick Fairfax

March 21, 2023

This week, Warwick speaks to Dan Wolgemuth, whose burn the ships moment looks a little different on his resume than it does in his heart. After nearly three decades of working in the corporate world, he followed his faith into becoming president of a nonprofit Christian ministry. But he’d have never gotten there if the flames didn’t first get lit within.

He had to stop pursuing a career script written by and starring him and follow a new one written to focus not on what he could accomplish, but on whom he could accomplish it for.

“I burned a ship in my own soul,” he tells us … and in doing so made a forever difference in the lives of troubled youth.


  • Dan’s backstory (3:04)
  • Why he didn’t follow his parents into mission work (4:35)
  • Working his way up the corporate ladder (6:46)
  • The GE years (10:32)
  • Moving on to a firm that was a better fit (17:25)
  • The incident that led him to burn his ships (21:03)
  • Burning the ships a bit differently (24:59)
  • Taking the helm at Youth for Christ (29:44)
  • Moving on from the ministry (43:43)
  • What “burning the ships is and isn’t (48:10)


Warwick Fairfax:

Welcome to Beyond the Crucible, I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Beyond The Crucible.


Dan Wolgemuth:

It’s a bit of a different time to burn your ship, because you’re not leaving one thing to go to another. What you’re doing is you’re saying, “I’m on this ship, and all of a sudden I have a different perspective.” And it not only helped in my consideration of going to Youth for Christ, I think it made me a better leader at HNTB. Because I immediately realized that what matters most, even in a company that’s owned by its employees is how we treat each other, how we value each other.


Gary Schneeberger:

Now, there’s an entirely fresh perspective on what it means to burn the ships as we enter the final episodes of our series about that very subject.

Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show. This week Warwick speaks to Dan Wolgemuth, who’s burn the ships moment looks a little different on his resume than it does in his heart. After nearly three decades of working in the corporate world, he followed his faith into becoming president of a nonprofit Christian ministry, but he’d have never gotten there if the flames didn’t first get lit in his heart.

He had to stop pursuing a career script written by and starring him, and follow a new one written to focus not on what he could accomplish, but on whom he could accomplish it for.

“I burned a ship in my own soul,” he tells us. And in doing so, he made a forever difference in the lives of troubled youth.


Warwick Fairfax:

Well Dan, thanks so much for being here. It’s a real honor to have you. Before we get started, just to let listeners know, Dan and I know each other from our association with Taylor University.

Dan is a graduate of Taylor, it’s a wonderful Christ-centered university in Indiana. He’s also on the board of trustees. I have had three kids go through and graduate from Taylor, and we’ve got to know each other at some Taylor events.

So wonderful to have you here, and we’ll get to what you’ve done in Youth for Christ and now mentoring, but I’d like to just start with some of the backstory and some of the threads that maybe looking back have led you to where you’ve been in business and Youth for Christ.

So just tell us a bit about a young Dan Wolgemuth and growing up, and maybe what some of your family and some hopes and dreams you had as you were growing up.


Dan Wolgemuth:

Thank you, Warwick. Really good to be with you and Gary today. So really excited about the opportunity to just walk through a story that reflects the heart and love and grace and mercy of God. Grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, the youngest of a family of six kids. My parents actually were missionaries in Japan with Youth for Christ. My father had been pastoring a church in Pennsylvania, felt the call through a man by the name of Bob Pierce.

Bob Pierce was the founder of World Vision, speaking of burning ships, founder of World Vision. And at that point he was a part of Youth for Christ. And my parents went to Japan for a couple of years, came back to Wheaton, and my twin sister and I were born at that point.

And so grew up in a very traditional Christian home in the suburbs of Chicago, my dad in ministry. So we didn’t want for anything, but we didn’t have a lot. And then ultimately, you connected those dots, ended up at Taylor University in the early 70s, graduated, and started a business career.

So I graduated from Taylor with a business and systems degree, thought business and technology was the career path for me. And for 28 years in a variety of different organizations, that was the path. So married a Taylor girl, had three kids. Sort of the classic story in many ways.


Warwick Fairfax:

Now, one thought that occurs to me is you grew up in a family of faith, your dad being a missionary and I think I read somewhere headed up Youth for Christ as president for a number of years. I think I saw 65 to 73, or some such time.


Dan Wolgemuth:

Right, exactly.


Warwick Fairfax:

Oftentimes you grow up as, what do they say, a missionary kid or it’s like, well gosh, do I want to be a missionary? Which country? Which agency? Do I want to be a pastor, youth pastor, lead pastor? It’s like growing up in a family of lawyers, you can pick corporate law or real estate law.

It’s like, well, what part of missions do I want to be in? What part of advancing God’s kingdom? But somehow that wasn’t the natural path, what it would’ve been for many given probably incredible example of your dad and parents. So any thoughts about why not instantly into the mission field or some such thing like that rather than corporate?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Yeah, it’s a really important question, and I thought you might bend that question a different direction. Because I know a lot of folks who grew up in the homes of Christian leaders who went a completely different direction out of a sense of rebellion. That was not my story at all.

My dad was a really solid entrepreneur. It’s what actually put us all through college. He owned auto parts stores that he bought while he was not making any income as a pastor, so he had to have a vocational trade. He bought auto parts stores in rural Pennsylvania. And so there was always a business bent to him as well as a passion for ministry, which was Youth for Christ at the time when I was growing up.

So I never felt like I was rejecting them by moving in a business direction. As a matter of fact, in many ways I played out, lived out something that he really enjoyed, not the technology side as much as just the pure business side. So never an act of rebellion and never in a way dismissing the deep roots that I had in faith. But feeling like that was in my early career, that was what I felt very called to.


Warwick Fairfax:

So you went to Taylor, and from what I understand there was a stepping point before you got to GE. I think you worked for a business that was bought out. So just talk about some of those early business years and the GE legacy, and your experience there as you’re working your way up the corporate ladder.


Dan Wolgemuth:

Yeah, the first corporate ladder I climbed was a very short one, because I worked for a small insurance company right out of college. Then ultimately ended up in the publishing business with my brother and his partner Mike Hyatt. Moved to Nashville, spent four years there, highly under capitalized. Publishing is not the business for under capitalized organizations, but it was a start of business.

Wolgemuth and Hyatt was the name of that business, and learned multiple lessons. So Mike Hyatt was editorially focused. My brother is sales and marketing, really good in that space, and virtually everything else that didn’t fall into those categories I was a part of. So everything from production to accounting, it was an MBA in a crash course, for sure.

Because it was highly under capitalized and we were trying to grow rapidly, I was the one on the phone saying to vendors, “Hey, we’re struggling to make payroll, let alone pay you.”

And so it was in a sense, my honor and credibility that was being leveraged to tell these folks, “Hey, you have to wait another two weeks.” And I’ll never forget a phone call from somebody that I had said, “Hey, we’ll get you another check in two weeks.” And it was two and a half weeks and I hadn’t sent another check.

And in my mind I had checked that box two weeks ago, and I was scrambling to the next thing. And it was really a very significant moment for me to say, “Is my word worth anything?”

I’ve said to these people, “Trust me,” in a sense, and they can’t. So I think it was a really important moment for me in this small business to embrace the fact that my word mattered. I might use words to throw off somebody or to just buy a little more time, but they were going to the bank with those words.

And I think when I think about a crucible moment for me, that was 1987 to ’91, I learned a lot of lessons about my own integrity and what was I willing to do to continue to press forward. I had a business agenda, but real life relationships and people trusting me on the other end of that.


Warwick Fairfax:

And then for listeners, not everybody might know, but Michael Hyatt I think went on to be CEO of Thomas Nelson Books, and he’s got very active with a lot of courses and branding, communication. I’ve followed, certainly participated in some of his programs. He does a phenomenal job, a lot of wisdom there.

So as you look back on that experience, obviously there was a big crucible for your age at the time, it not working out. What were maybe two or the three high points of, I think you’ve maybe begun to talk about it, but some key lessons you learned from that experience?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Well, certainly again, that my word matters, and that your integrity is something you trade on. Even if you don’t have cash or capital, people are trusting you. And I really appreciated the fact that I had to learn that lesson, it wasn’t baked into me.

I could in a sense justify almost any behavior, believing that it would ultimately buy us us more time. So I think that was one lesson. The other thing was that because it was a difficult time in my professional career, how I integrated that with a growing family, three small kids, a wife, and I didn’t have good balance.

I was overwhelmed with all these aspects of leading the business, running the business, and I didn’t find good balance there. And Mary and I have talked about it often. Those four years I poured myself into that business, but didn’t necessarily pour myself into my family. And I learned that lesson I think during those really important years.


Warwick Fairfax:

So from there you worked for a company I think that was bought out by GE. So just talk about that period as that and the GE period, that was probably a key part of your life in the corporate world.


Dan Wolgemuth:

It was, I had worked for 16 years inside organization businesses that were predominantly owned by Christians. So values, integrity was important in all of those companies.

1993, I took a skip to a financial services business that was based out of Munich, Germany with a US presence in Kansas City. So immediate bump in compensation and corporate equity. It was a really significant step. Mary and I moved from Indiana to Kansas City at that time.

But within 18 months that business was bought by General Electric who also had a GE capital presence in Kansas City. So the good news was we didn’t have to relocate. The bad news was that in a sense I was immediately on trial. GE was at, again, the height of Jack Welch, neutron Jack, we’re going to buy the assets. And if the people go, it doesn’t really matter. And so I felt immediately the weight of that proving myself and so on within that GE context.

And within a year they had sent us to Folkestone, Kent on the English Channel to lead an IT project that was surrounded by Germans and Frenchmen and Norwegians and Brits and some Americans. And they asked me to lead this effort, again, I think in a sense trying to figure out if I had any leadership moxie or not.

But we spent seven months in England, which was a highlight for Mary and the kids, not quite as much of a highlight for me, but it was really learning in the crucible, in the fire, if you will, what the GE culture was all about. And then at the end of that time, we went back to Kansas City.


Warwick Fairfax:

So how did you find that? So the first crucible had taught you about the importance of work-life balance and your raised values, Christian values, your kingdom perspective was important.

But now you’re thrust in corporate America and Jack Welch, where I think I heard somewhere that he had two rules. You got to be what, one to three in market share, and I forget what the other one is. And if you don’t hit those two principles, you’re out of here or something.

It was very bottom line, and obviously he did a great job. A lot of people praise him for his work. But how did you adjust to that culture given your upbringing and your philosophy and the values of GE?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Yeah, it was very difficult. When I came back from that European experience, I was put in charge of a very large systems group, 35 people on my team. And this was the rack and stack era for Jack. So we had to literally rack and stack all 35 of those employees, and you took the bottom 10% and you had to release them immediately. You couldn’t have any more than 10% of your employees in the top A bracket.

So because my natural wiring was relational and deeply committed to growing people, giving them opportunity to expand their horizons and perform at the top level, that’s not the GE culture. Certainly they want high performers, but they want a culture of competition that squeezes the best juice out of each employee.

And so those years were intense, and I spent a week a month in Europe managing those teams that I had over there, and then coming back to Kansas City. So I learned a tremendous amount in that portion of my life. Some of it, don’t ever repeat this, and some of it, yes, very good. And do your best to make sure that you’re honoring your employer in the process.


Gary Schneeberger:

I would expect that part of the challenge that you went through, you described earlier how you had to learn to make your words your bond, and live by your values because you were maybe skating a little bit. You get that set right and then you go work for a company where that’s not valued and you’re doing something else. So you must have felt I would think maybe a little off balance for a few years there. You learn something, then you go apply it at GE, and it’s not as valued as it was when you learned it at the other place. Is that a fair assessment?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Yeah, I think it is. It’s interesting, because there was a part of what I had learned in that previous environment that GE loved. So they had four E’s, Jack walked by four E’s. Energy, energize, an ability to execute, and then his last E was edge.

And edge they defined as the ability to just be in somebody’s face. So I was good with my own energy, I was good at energizing other people. We had a team that executed, but the GE definition of edge I did not have.

So at that moment in time, it was the ability to drop the right four letter words in the right environments, and to press people, to press vendors and so on. That was not my style.

So Gary, you’re right, it was a challenge specifically in that one area based on who I was and what I believed it took to manage people.


Warwick Fairfax:

So how were you able to be successful when, getting three out of four E’s is not bad, but how did you maintain your integrity and values, but yet hit the corporate performance markers that GE wanted, how’d you satisfy both?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Oh, I’m probably not the right person to ask, Warwick. You probably have to ask the folks that I worked for at the time. I think part of it would be that I motivated a team to high performance. So GE, at the end of the day is results-oriented. So if your team is performing and they’re delivering on dates and projects and so on, they’re going to leave you alone.

And I was part of a GE capital business, specifically in the insurance marketplace, that was making a lot of money. So there was a sense in which GE took their hands off until hurricanes started to happen and earthquakes in unusual places. And in the late 90s, GE moved in in a big way. And I stayed there for another three years, and then thought, to Gary’s point earlier, this is not an environment I can stay in.

So I left GE and went to another corporate role. That role was the CIO of a very large privately held civil engineering firm, 3000 engineers. I shook the hand of the man who hired me and said, “Hey, I’m going to retire with you here.” HNTB is the name of that company, great company, downtown Kansas City again. And I just simply slid the script of my life under the pen of God, and thought, He just needs to sign off one more time and I’m all good to go.

Which I believed He was doing every year. I’m not creating any problems, just sign off one more year and I’m good. And so I thought that was what my stretch into HNTB was going to be. That happened in 2002.


Warwick Fairfax:

How long were you at HNTB for?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Just two and a half years, two and a half years.


Warwick Fairfax:

Talk about that, because I know there was a shift, but did something happen while you were there?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Here’s what would happened, Warwick, I started on the board of Youth for Christ, USA, in the late 90s. So loved the mission, was familiar with the mission because my father had been involved. Believed in ministry to the kids who were often marginalized and so on.

But again, at a safe distance, a picture on a refrigerator distance. And so I’d go to board meetings three times a year, come back to my career. And I think in that process, God was really working on my heart to say, “How far do you want to go? What is this script for your life that you’re writing?”

And it was in 2004 that I went to a board meeting in Denver, which is where the national headquarters of Youth for Christ USA is. And the president resigned, 13 years. There were some challenges certainly in leadership there, but it was an abrupt end. Here’s my resignation and I’m gone in two weeks.

And fortunately YFC hired one of the board members to be an interim CEO for nine months. And I said, “Hey, I’ve got the GE chops, I’ve been at HNTB two and a half years. I can put together a profile, I can start to help in this process.”

And so they let me do that. And I created the profile, took it home, showed it to Mary. Mary had worked for Youth for Christ fresh out of college in their juvenile justice ministry. And so she read that and she said, “This is well done, but there isn’t anybody in the world that can do this job. I’m just going to tell you.”

And so that seemed like, all right, we’ll set the bar high, and then we’ll start working on this process. And the next step was, let’s start to surface some names within the organization.

And I started getting some of these names, and from a few folks, my name was on the list. And instead of feeling complimented, I wanted to be offended. Because I had a great corporate job. I had two kids at Taylor University. Again, I had the script written, don’t interrupt this great script that I have written.

And fortunately my wife was far more patient and prayerful, and she was like, “Are you going to pray about this or not?”

And so I sort of did the perfunctory prayer thing, believing that they’ll find somebody else to do this. And time went on, and I’m still in the mix. And I am just wrestling through this. So now we’re in the fall of 2004, I’ve got a solid income, we’re putting money away. It’s an ESOP, so I’ve got ownership in the company.

And I came to work on a fall morning. It was still dark. I can still picture my office, I had a beautiful office downtown Kansas City looking over the downtown business airport. And I look out my fourth floor window and there are squad cars outside the office, and police tape. And behind the police tape is a body laying on the curb. And what was clear was this was a young woman, and there’s a stark reality to that because she’s not living because nobody’s paying any attention to her. They’re all screwing around working on stuff, nobody’s close to her.

And there were a variety of other people on the floor, folks that worked for me. And I could start to both hear and feel the angst in them as they’re wondering, was this a coworker that had been murdered on the way into the office? And it took no time at all for word to spread that this was a woman who had been released from prison 24 hours before.

She was a drug addict who raised money for this drug habit by selling her body. And the first day she’s out of prison, she does it again. Except this time it goes bad. She gets murdered and dumped on the curb. And what was stunning at that moment was not so much this specific act or tragedy, but the fact that everybody on the floor was relieved, that there was this great sense of relief that this was somebody in a sense, and I say this a apologetically, but that had it coming. This was a drug addict who had it coming.

And I’m standing there, arms crossed, looking out my window, feeling the relief of the people behind me and the burden on my own soul. And it was as if God pulled back the curtain and said, I don’t put anybody on a trash heap. This woman was created in my image. And if I decide that you’re capable of this leadership role in Youth for Christ, you had better consider it the privilege of a lifetime. Because you’re going to wade into the lives of young people who believe that they have no value. And I want you to know there isn’t one person I created that has no value, including that woman that died on the curb.

It was as though God himself got me by the lapel, in the days when I used to have to wear a suit and tie to work every day. Got me by the lapel and said, “pay attention. This matters to me. There isn’t one living individual that I throw on the scrap heap.”

Everyone has value. So that was the moment for me, and it was a moment that I didn’t say yes to the job. I basically said, “I will do whatever this board thinks is the right thing for me to do.”

And so from that moment on, we were in. Whether YFC knew it or not, and it would take to the next February for them to make that final decision. And it felt like in that instant, the equation shift flipped. It went from me being the answer to God being the answer, and me being without feeling like this is dismissive, but I was a means to his end. And I should be really grateful that he would consider me worthy to be a part of a mission that at that point was 70 years old.


Gary Schneeberger:

And in that experience, at that moment, for listeners who may find themselves facing that, when something becomes so clear to you, how do you not burn your ships? How do you not in that moment, say, “This script that I wrote, this boat that I built, Hey, that’s not the boat I’m supposed to be in. This one over here is the boat I’m supposed to be in.”

I’m sure you didn’t put it in those terms, but that had to be what you were feeling, that the life you had carved out for yourself, the sailing that you were doing was not where you were intended to sail.


Dan Wolgemuth:

Yeah, the interesting thing about that was I wasn’t at a decision point, because Youth for Christ hadn’t offered me this job. So it’s a bit of a different time to burn your ship because you’re not leaving one thing to go to another, what you’re doing is you’re saying, I’m on this ship, and all of a sudden I have a different perspective.

And it not only helped in my consideration of going to Youth for Christ, I think it made me a better leader at HNTB. Because I immediately realized that what matters most, even in a company that’s owned by its employees, is how we treat each other, how we value each other. And so when you get into executive leadership, it’s easy to start to think, well, if I raise shareholder value, that’s the purpose for me to be here. Even as a Christian.

And I think at that moment it was as though the Lord said to me, Hey, I’m not even sure you’re qualified to be a part of this process with Youth for Christ, but I want you to be a different person from this point on.

And so the ship I burned was not deciding to move from Kansas City to Denver, the ship I burned was, this is not about me. This is about me doing my very best to elevate kingdom values, whether that’s in a fourth floor office in downtown Kansas City or in a small office in Denver, Colorado. That was the ship I burned. And frankly, I’m really glad that happened before Youth for Christ ever offered me the job. Because I feel like my soul was at a different place in February when I said yes.


Warwick Fairfax:

What you’ve just said, Dan, is so profound. And in some strange way I can relate. As listeners would know, growing up in a large family media business, I did everything I could to make sure I was qualified. Undergrad at Oxford, worked in Wall Street, Harvard Business School. It’s like, I know the mission God has for me, I’m dead set certain. And it was all very logical.

I was never trying to hurt anybody or do anything bad. I never thought of myself as arrogant. Humility is one of my highest values. But sometimes when you are so certain you know what God’s plan is for you, you can get maybe an arrogant attitude to what their plan is and your role in it.

And I don’t know, arrogance can seep in even when you don’t realize it. So as I looked at it, when I became a believer in it through an evangelical Anglican church at Oxford, it was obvious to me what God’s plan was.

I was 100% certain I knew. The company was founded by as a strong a businessman for Christ as I’ve ever known. Employees loved him. He was a good dad, husband, elder at his church. Founded all sorts of nonprofits. What an example to emulate. I felt like the company had drifted from the values of the founder, it was being poorly managed as my parents thought. Without going on, my dad died in early ’87 as I was processed a graduate, or last few months at Harvard Business School. And things went on from there.

But as I look back, it’s like, well, why was I so certain? I was so certain I knew what God’s plan was, and then when I felt like I broke God’s plan, that was probably the biggest crucible I faced. But looking back on it’s like, some ways who God would first use, he would bring down and make humble.

And certainly that was a massive humiliation on me that’s made me very wary of saying, oh, I know what God’s plan is. Even if it’s logical to me, like, I’ve prepared myself with all the skills, Oxford, Harvard Business School. Others had gone to Oxford, nobody in my family had gone to Harvard Business School. It’s like this is all part of some big plan.

I understand finance, et cetera. So I think what you went through, when you feel that sense of humbling. And gosh, maybe I am arrogant, the ability of God to use you at another level was because of what you went through. You would’ve been probably a significantly less effective leader, and probably God could have used you significantly less without that epiphany.

So I want people to understand how that mindset meant everything to Dan Wolgemuth, and everything for Youth for Christ, if that makes sense.


Dan Wolgemuth:

I would double down on that. I love your story, and it’s profound, it’s powerful. But I think there are times that you look for a crucible moment or a burn the ships kind of moment. And you feel like it has to be this catastrophic decision of one big job or another big job.

And the fact is that the next morning I went back to the same office, but something had happened. And it was a burn the ship moment. It was this moment where I said, God, I’m yours. I want to do what you want me to do.

Recently I ran into, in the Denver airport, one of the women that worked for me, she was in a significant leadership role for those two and a half years. I was at HNTB two and a half years, and she saw me across a TSA line, came over to me and thanked me for those two and a half years. And I’m convinced that God was doing something in me that made me better while I was there. And again, I’m grateful that he called me into Youth for Christ, because I think what he taught me at that moment was, I’m going to keep you in the classroom from this moment on.

So yes, you’re going to move to Denver. Yes, you’re going to lead this wonderful mission, but you’re going to continue to learn from people around you, including 17 year old kids that understand the love and grace and mercy of Christ in a way that you have never understood it.

So that started, I think, a different trajectory in my own learning process that has continued to serve me in a way that I’m deeply grateful for.


Warwick Fairfax:

Talk about what you found at Youth for Christ, obviously has a tremendous legacy, but there were some challenges you had to face. It was not easy. So just talk about what you found and how you approached those challenges.


Dan Wolgemuth:

The challenge at Youth for Christ was that the model was set up from its founding as what might be most easily understood as a franchise model. So you have a national office, but then you have 150 chapters around the country. They have their own 501(c)(3), so they’re their own nonprofits in their own cities. And in a sense, what they’re buying from the national office is the brand and some training material.

In 2005, when I started, there was very little influential leadership. People did their own thing in their own community, and then they’d come back and gather for an annual event. And then go back and do their own thing. So the more I pushed in, the more I realized there’s no shared national mission that says… Certainly we were about young people, but even that definition, in some parts of the country, they defined young people as three and four year olds. They were working in the foster care system. In other parts, they were working with vocationally challenged 35-year olds.

And so the question was who are we, and are we better off if we really define who we are? And then align ourselves based on a common commitment to this mission? Not that somebody’s mission to grade school kids isn’t important, but that’s not our mission.

So getting clarity around a vision was enormous, and doing it in a way that wasn’t corporate. In a nonprofit world, that is the way you diminish somebody. You say, “Oh, Wolgemuth, he’s so corporate.” And that immediately undermines this idea that we’re coming together for a shared promise, a mission, vision. And so that doesn’t happen overnight.

I think naively, I thought I’d go to Denver, we’d start to talk about shared values. Everybody’s going to salute, we’re going to lock arms. And this is going to be wonderful. But it was only wonderful if you didn’t bother what I was doing in my own local communities.

And they were doing great things, we just weren’t doing it together. So the beauty of that is that when the mission started to coalesce around a shared mission, around shared definitions, around a shared curriculum that says, here’s how we can help equip every chapter around the United States. We’re going to work with the same kind of kids, we’re going to equip in the same sorts of ways. It was powerful, and frankly, it still is.

I’m watching what God can use to do, whether it’s working with incarcerated teenagers or pregnant teenagers, or suicidal high schoolers. The vision and mission is powerful, and still folks locking arms and saying, we’re in this together. So it was a challenge, and maybe in different ways than I expected, but really powerful to see how folks came together.


Warwick Fairfax:

I can imagine in those early days of thinking, okay, here’s this Dan Wolgemuth character. He’s come from GE. Some may have known, yeah, the Jack Welch mantra, the bottom 10%’s got to go. And you got to be in the top three in each market’s like, is he going to bring GE to Youth for Christ? And which are the 10% that’s got to go? And what’s it mean to be in the top three in my market anyway? I don’t know how that works in the faith-based world. Does that mean I got to beat out Young Life or Campus Crusade or something. Is that what it means? What does that mean?

So I’m sure there were some fears. And just getting people on the same page, even with people of faith, one of the things I’ve found is people are human everywhere. Even people of faith, they have hopes and dreams and agendas, and we’re all human. That doesn’t just say, well, that’s just corporate and everybody just sings kumbaya in the faith based world. It doesn’t work like that.

I’ve as you know been on two nonprofit boards, and without getting into details, there were instances in which different groups would try to say, well, this is what we think the vision of the organization should be. Well, no offense, but it’s not your job to do that. Your job is what does the vision mean to you in your area? That’s the right question.

But it’s not up to your wordsmithed vision, I can’t tell you how often that happens. Like, gosh, this feels like the wrong answer to wordsmith the vision that the board and the president of the organization, you don’t get to do that.


Dan Wolgemuth:

Right, exactly.


Warwick Fairfax:

But people try that. You don’t have to get into this, but I imagine that might’ve happened too.

So how did you get people on the same page when, who’s this Dan character coming from GE?

And, oh by the way, what makes him king? How did you get people on the same page with a shared vision when they were like, “Yeah, the shared vision’s great, so long as it’s my vision and you leave me alone. Because I know what I’m doing.”

I like working with young people, what’s wrong with helping people get back in the work world at mid 30s? What’s wrong with that? Is he against helping people like that? I guess he doesn’t like helping people. So how did you do all that, get people on the same page?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Well, I was probably a tad naive. You would think after 28 years in corporate life, including eight with Jack Welch, that naive would not be a word that you would use.

But I do think that I was naive in the sense that I believed that it would be an easier shift to have people move away from a picture of autonomy that said, I am in charge of my own city as it relates to Youth for Christ, and I’ve defined it this way.

And so as long as you, corporate, you Youth for Christ USA, as long as you facilitate this in some way and continue to send me your latest branding information, then we’re all good to go. I think what you had to prove was that by coming together with a shared mission and vision that we could reach more lost young people, more kids who are inside the juvenile detention systems. That by doing this together, and doing it in a way that’s both scalable and repeatable, there are two good GE words, scalable and repeatable, that by doing that, what we do is we reach more of those 40 million 11 to 19 year olds that need to know they matter.

And that’s the number. So we got to the place where we said, our mission was, YFC reaches young people everywhere. And the question was, who gets to define that word, those words, young people? And so we did, we defined it. We said 11 to 19 year olds, and I wish you could have seen people recoil when I said, “If you’re working with somebody outside of that, we’ll give you three years to start to hand that off. Work with other like-minded partners to hand it off. But the fact is there are 40 million 11 to 19 year olds in the United States that need to know they matter.”

So what we began to point out was we have a shared mission that’s going to make us more effective at reaching kids in your community by doing this together and doing it in a similar way. And it took a little while.

I had some very hard phone calls, some video calls with local boards that pushed back. But the fact is that by and large, 95% of our chapters got on board. And today they’re more effective than ever. We’re seeing growth happen because it’s repeatable and it’s scalable. And it’s done with excellence because we’re doing it to a prescribed demographic of young people.

And that’s really counterintuitive in ministry to define, here’s who we’re going to minister to. But when you do that, then we can equip them, then we can train, then we can hold folks accountable. It’s amazing what happens when folks get on board.

And so I think we’re seeing that I’m no longer the President/CEO, so I can say really good things about what’s happening there. It’s really exciting to see what God’s doing there.


Warwick Fairfax:

How did you come up with that vision? That’s very specific, 11 to 19 year olds. Where’d that vision come from?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Well, we went all the way back to Billy Graham and Tory Johnson, who were the two founders. Billy Graham was the first full-time employee. And the vision at the beginning was high school teenagers. It was teenagers focused. So we went back there and said that was the presumption at the beginning. We moved in the 60s and 70s into middle schoolers, which still falls inside of that teenager demographic.

Here’s a gift God gave me that I would never have asked for, Warwick. You asked about it. We were doing a fundraising event at Torrey Pines in San Diego, and a man came up to me who had just retired from the Navy. He was a retired four-star admiral. And he said to me straight up, I think God’s calling me to be a part of Youth for Christ, and I think he’s calling me to be a part of your team.

This was a man that worked for Donald Rumsfeld who was the strategist behind the initial push into Afghanistan. His name is Admiral Bruce Klingen. And he was the one who could look at where we were and say, you have questions to answer. I’m not going to tell you what the answer is, but you say young people, what do you mean?

And we wrestled through this. And he did it over and over and over. He worked for us for three years. He was a gift that nobody asked for but changed the trajectory of Youth for Christ because he made us answer questions that often ministries and nonprofits don’t answer. They don’t answer the question, who am I and why do I exist? What promise am I making that only we can deliver to our communities?

And if you’re letting every community define it, you can’t make a promise that you can keep.


Warwick Fairfax:

Absolutely. Just looking at the website, I love the stuff on there that introducing young people to Jesus at pivotal moments. Give life to your story. It’s just powerful, powerful words about what Youth of Christ, reaching young people everywhere, as you mentioned. Powerful words, a powerful vision.

One of the lessons for leaders is that if you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll be, I don’t know, nothing to no one. I think that’s the aphorism.

I forget who said that, but it’s something like that. So any kind of marketing, branding, and vision, you’ve got to be very specific and say there are things we’re going to do really well, and we’re going to say no to a bunch of things. Because that means we can do a defined set of things excellently. So that’s impressive.

So you did that, what, 15, 16 years, quite a long time that you were head of Youth of Christ?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Yeah, I was. After 15 years, I went to the board and I said, “I think this is time.” That was the beginning of 2020. They started a search and then a pandemic happened. And at the end of March, they came to me and said, “We think this is a really bad time to try to find your successor. Will you keep doing this?”

And I thought they were talking weeks or months, I guess we all probably thought that. My board chair said to me, “I want a one year commitment.” And I went back to Mary, had one of those really burn the ship secondary moments. And can you burn them again? I think I did.


Gary Schneeberger:

Yes, it’s a big ocean. You can burn them as many times as you want.


Dan Wolgemuth:

And here’s the reality. So we said yes, and then think of all that went, whether it was some of the racial tension, the George Floyd incidents, and they needed a familiar leader to take them through those 12 months. And I often refer to myself as familiar old pair of slippers that you put on. Wolgemuth will get us through. He’ll help us because he’s been here 15, now 16 years. So yes, long answer to 16, 16 and a half years before we stepped out.


Warwick Fairfax:

And somewhere along the line you also, I think I read somewhere in 2006, became a board member, one of the board of trustees at Taylor, which given your association with Taylor, you and Mary met at Taylor. So that, you’re still on the board of Taylor. And are you still a board member at Youth of Christ?


Dan Wolgemuth:

No, stepped all the way out.


Warwick Fairfax:

Stepped, so talk about, Taylor’s obviously something you’re still involved with. And from what I understand, you do a lot of mentoring. So just talk about that whole association with Taylor and how that happened.


Dan Wolgemuth:

Yeah, I mean I think it was a logical step. It felt, again, like a natural thing for me to get engaged at Taylor. And I would tell you that even with Taylor, I kept it at arm’s length. I would come to the board meetings. I’d do my best to be prepared and actively participate in the discussions that were going on. What has really shifted for me at Taylor is that Taylor makes a promise. It’s one thing when you look at a vision or a mission statement and you view it as a collection of sentences that just you put on your glossy brochures.

It’s the Murdoch Trust in Vancouver, Washington where I’m doing some coaching that says, no, that’s a promise you’re making to your constituents. And at Taylor, the promise is we’re going to provide the marketplace with servant leaders, whether that’s in a local church or at General Electric, or name the company, we’re providing servant leaders.

And so I think the language around making promises to communities, to churches, to companies has really been invigorating to me. And I love Taylor, believe that God’s doing a good work there. I still am part-time with Youth for Christ because I love this mission, as you can tell.

So I’m doing some coaching there. I’m still raising some resources for Youth for Christ, and I’m still every once in a while looking into the face of a 17 year old who just got out of prison but believes that God has set his or her life on a different trajectory. And there’s frankly nothing like that.

And to the extent, Warwick, that I can get that kid to go to Taylor, it’s a win win.


Gary Schneeberger:

The fact that you mentioned a kid of that age, a teenager of that age you’re still helping, I think is a great place for us to start our descent to land the plane. Because that moment where you had that internal burn the ships moment involved a young woman who was in that age, who, for whatever reason, nobody knows, didn’t think that she was valuable. And then you dedicated your life in the pivots that you made to pour into those folks.

So one thing I want to say, and I didn’t say it when you guys were talking about it, but both of your stories of that internal realization that the script that you wrote for your life maybe wasn’t the script you should follow.

And to keep the metaphor going, you realized you weren’t the captain of your own ship. In the last analysis, you both realized that you were not the captains of your own ships, which is another kind of burn the ships moment that happens in our lives.

I would be remiss in my job as the co-host, Dan, if I didn’t give you a chance to let folks know who’ve been listening, how they can learn more about you and what you’re up to these days. Is there a place online that they can go to find out?


Dan Wolgemuth:

I would encourage folks, even as Warwick just mentioned Youth for Christ. I would love for you to go there. You’re going to see stories. Youth for Christ really anchors itself in the power of story, God’s story, my story, their story.

These three rings that became our logo, again, a branding that brought us together. But I also write a weekly blog called Friday Fragments. So you could go to and you could sign up for that. It’s about a 500 word piece that I do every week that is a journal of my own life. It is a little bit of a devotional, a little bit of a motivation or encouragement piece. It doesn’t shy away from public issues and so on. But that’s another way for folks to get in touch with me, certainly.


Gary Schneeberger:

And let me, before I turn it back over to Warwick, one of the things that we do with all of our guests on this series, burn the ships and in general, is ask them to fill out a form in advance so we have the ability to ask you some informed questions.

And one of the questions we always put on there, for the series we’ve put on there, is what advice do you have for people who are facing their own burn the ships moment? And your answer, especially as we’re getting to the last couple of episodes of the series, is really instructive. And I’m going to ask you to unpack it after I read it to you.

You said, “burning the ships isn’t an invitation to vacate a difficult situation. Burning the ships means following the call of something sacred, going to discover something sacred.”

Unpack that a little bit for folks who are listening, both those who are Christians and those who might not be. What does that mean?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Well, I think I’d go back to that October, 2004 moment, where I realized that I burned a ship in my own soul. So I don’t think anybody would’ve said prior to that that I was an arrogant, self-consumed kind of person. What they might have said is he’s competitive and he expects a lot of his people and himself.

And in a sense it’s trying to win. And it’s easy to think at that moment to think that you can win at all costs. And I think the paradigm for me is that that burn the ship moment had to happen first in my own soul. God knew that I had to be willing to say, I’m yours. I’m going to learn from you. I’m going to give myself away in a sense, whether that means I continue to be a senior vice president of technology at HNTB or I become the president of Youth for Christ. That was a natural consequence of me having that internal moment.

So for somebody who is at a really difficult spot, it might feel like, boy, I’m pouring gas on this because I am ready to burn this ship. Because I am tired of this ship. That’s not really an adequate description of what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is coming to terms with the fact that you were created for a purpose, and that purpose isn’t just your own purpose, it’s to benefit the broader context. Whether that’s your family, your company, your community, your church, whatever that might be, we’re not meant to be autonomous beings all about ourselves.

And I think that burn the ship moment is far more important than maybe the one that feels like it’s the stereotypical, I’m leaving Kansas City to go to Denver. We all know people who have done that, made a career shift, and they really haven’t burned the ship. Because it’s still all about them. And that’s why I think the first step has to be something internal before it becomes something external.


Warwick Fairfax:

Wow, Dan, that is so profound. I guess a couple closing questions is, and I think you’ve answered it to a degree. But tell us about what’s on your heart now, what you feel led to work on in this phase of your life, post Youth for Christ.

And second question, which you’ve really I think given a pretty good answer, but I’ll ask it anyway, is there might be somebody in a cubicle somewhere that’s like, I’m doing okay, I’m getting good performance reviews in my corporate job, wherever it is. But gosh, is this all there is?

I don’t hate my job, but gosh, there’s got to be more to life than just this corporate day-to-day job. Something that will give me more joy and fulfillment, and a legacy I and my kids can be proud of. So really two questions. One is, what’s your vision now for your life? And second, if somebody’s in their cubicle with a is this all there is moment, what advice would you give them?


Dan Wolgemuth:

The first question, it’s something within the last week that I have dealt with in a fresh way. Mary and I have 11 grandchildren too, the oldest is 15. Two 13 year olds, a granddaughter, grandson. So we did a special guy’s retreat for the 13 year old boy, a women’s retreat for the 13 year old girl. And as I’m looking into the face of Graham Wolgemuth, my grandson, the first namesake in the family, I’m realizing that this is the future.

And I realize it feels cliche, but I really think that my generation valued things like comfort and predictability, and this American dream that somehow felt like accumulation was the way that you could tell if you’d accomplished something. And I’m looking at these 13 year olds, and I’m thinking maybe their perspective is already better than my perspective at 13 years old.

So I’m going to continue to invest in this next generation, teenagers and then onto to college students, believing that they have a lot to teach the generation that preceded them about what it looks like to serve beyond their own comfort and their own accumulation.

So that’s why I love still being a part of Youth for Christ. That’s why I loved being a part of Taylor University. I’m committed to continuing to believe that God doesn’t throw kids on a scrap heap, even if they’re addicted or they’re consumed with themselves, he just simply doesn’t. They’re made in his image. So that’s the answer to the first question. Refresh my memory on the second one.


Warwick Fairfax:

Well, that was a great answer. It’s more, let’s say you’re in your cubicle thinking, is this all there is? The corporate life. Wouldn’t I like a legacy people could be proud of, and be more joyful and fulfilled? So it’s the is this all there is moment as they’re in their corporate cubicle?


Dan Wolgemuth:

Yeah, and you know this, both of you know this.

The reality is that you can have something happen without ever having to leave that cubicle. So it isn’t as though you’re going to be in a spot where you think, I’m just a nobody in this cubicle, and I’m tired of making money for other people and getting these great performance reviews, but it doesn’t really matter very much.

The fact is God made you for a purpose. So a verse that always stands out to me, Ephesians 2:10 says, “you are God’s masterpiece.” I remember saying that to teenagers who had no clue really who God or Jesus was, but the fact that the Bible says you are a masterpiece, Ephesians 2:10. And seeing something happen in the demeanor of a young person to believe that somebody thinks that they’re a masterpiece.

So when you realize that, and that the back end of that verse says, “and you were designed to do good work,” that’s what God designed us to do. Whether it’s in the cubicle or in a completely different vocation, maybe it is time to push the clutch in, shift gears, and go a completely different direction.

But I think you have to find within your own soul the fact that there’s contentment you can have and purpose you can have even if you’re still in that cubicle. And I think that’s the pivotal moment. That is the understanding, that you are made for something more than just what you might script for your life.


Gary Schneeberger:

I have been in the communications business long enough, listener, to know when the last word has been spoken on a subject, and Dan just spoke it.

And what I love about what he said and what he has said in the last several minutes, and in fact this whole show, is he’s talking about what Warwick talks about all the time with Beyond the Crucible. And that is a life of significance. That’s the goal. That’s where we have encouraged you since we started this podcast more than 150 episodes ago, to set your GPS toward a life of significance.

Dan found it in a place that he wasn’t sure he wanted to go at first. No one can fill this job at Youth for Christ, his wife said, and oops, he filled it. Warwick found it in his own life after the failure of his takeover of the family media dynasty. Now with Beyond The Crucible, both the podcast and the business.

So as we get to the end of this second to last episode of our series Burn the Ships, it’s a great perspective that Dan’s brought that that doesn’t always mean literally taking a match and burning something. Sometimes it means figuratively taking a match and setting ablaze something in your heart that changes the orientation of your heart from focused on you and maybe your comforts to maybe your accomplishments, and focusing it on what a life of significance which Warwick talks about all the time.

Both of them here have been talking about the same thing. And as we get to the end of this, again, second to last episode of this series, we’re landing in familiar territory in our new ships, and that is a life of significance. We will see you next week.

If you enjoyed this episode, learned something from it, we invite you to engage more deeply with those of us at Beyond The Crucible.

Visit our website to explore a plethora of offerings to help you transform what’s been broken into breakthrough.

A great place to start, our free online assessment, which will help you pinpoint where you are on your journey beyond your crucible, and to chart a course forward. See you next week.