Doug Nuenke – Past President & CEO of The Navigators – His Leadership Journey: Part 1

“My wife, Pam, and I love the mission of The Navigators. We love the mission, the commitment to be advancing the gospel, the commitment to be raising up disciples and disciple makers.” -Doug Nuenke

Doug Nuenke: I loved sports as a young man. I participated in pretty much every opportunity I had. But when we moved from Chicago down to Texas, I was 4’11”and weighed a hundred pounds. I was a freshman in high school – 4’11” – 100 pounds – and I had the audacity and stupidity of going out for football in Texas

[00:00:23] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Doug Nuke, the retired President & CEO of The Navigators. I first met Doug several years ago when The Navigators retained Job Fit Matters, the company that I work for to conduct a search for their Chief Development Officer. I remember being somewhat nervous about that shirt because at least they told us that this was only going to be the second time that the navigators were going to bring in a non-lifelong Navigator to the president’s cabinet. And that was that was a bit daunting. The thing I remember about that search was the way Doug managed it. As a search consultant, you always want to have access to the CEO.You don’t always get it.

In this case, Doug certainly gave us ample access, but I think as important, he had pointed Bill Tell, who had been a lifelong Navigator to be our liaison and Bill’s presence and assistance, coupled with our access to Doug, I thought made for a good search. Doug’s a graduate of Texas Christian University, Dan, and enjoyed a great football season this year pulling for the Horned Frogs.

Doug, welcome to Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership

[00:01:36] Doug Nuenke: Tommy, it’s great to be with you this morning, man. What a blessing to get caught up after all these years.

[00:01:43] Tommy Thomas: It is. That was a great search. We still talk about that. It was things just went right. God blessed us with a good pool of people.

[00:01:50] Tommy Thomas: He blessed you with a. Gosh, a guy, I guess it served 10 or 12 years. And so that was that’s always exciting for us.

[00:01:57] Doug Nuenke:It was a great experience. And you led that process so well, Tommy, and it was dicey. It was a dicey situation, but the Lord was very gracious to bring us to a very good result.

[00:02:10] Tommy Thomas: Before we get too deep into your professional career, I always wanna start back at an earlier time in people’s childhood and maybe tell me or tell us what’s the happiest memories memory of your childhood.

[00:02:20] Doug Nuenke: Yeah, that’s an easy one. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and my dad would take me fishing wherever we lived. And it was all over the country. Wherever we lived, he would take time to take me fishing and we got out into the outdoors. It was the beginning of my great love for the outdoors and my dad invested that time and we had great adventures. All over, whether it’s rivers, lakes we would find someplace where there was some kind of body of water and we would catch anything that was in there.

We were not snobbish fly fisherman. I’m a fly fisherman today, so maybe I’ve gotten more snobby, but whatever we would catch catfish. Eels in the Potomac River we would get out and about. So those are, that’s my fondest memory.

[00:03:10] Tommy Thomas: Moving on, I guess a little bit from that to experiences that you think shaped you as a man.

[00:03:14] Doug Nuenke:Some of the experiences I remember that have shaped me, one, without a doubt was being an older brother. I am the oldest of three sons and each of us are three years apart. So I’m the oldest and then cascading down and I would my, I was put in charge of my brothers for often, during my life and my parents. My love for the outdoors and adventures. It wasn’t uncommon for my parents to drop the three of us off someplace on the side of the road to go hiking, fishing. on an adventure out in the, outdoors someplace.

And even as a 15-year-old, which would’ve put down to 12 and nine, my youngest brother would’ve been nine. I was stewarded with being able to take care of him and not just take care of him, but to actually go out and make memories.And I think that formed me as a man and it formed me as a leader.

Because to this day, I still do the same thing with whoever God has entrusted me with. One of my fondest joys in leadership is pulling a team together. Pulling people together and making memories. So that’s one without a doubt. That started when I was really young and then it probably played itself out in some different ways.

I was the tennis captain for a high school tennis team, and I brought that same joy of bringing people together in that situation. Another memory experience that formed me was we moved around a lot and we were just, one year we’d moved from Chicago down to Texas. Now Texas and Chicago are different.

Tommy, they’re different places.Texas is its own country. And I moved as a Yankee down there to Texas. And was just one year in to live there, a year and a half into living there. And I, the opportunity opened for me to run for a student council post, and I had to get up in front of the whole student body and give a speech.

[00:05:36] Doug Nuenke: And here was this guy that did not speak Texan. Up in front of the whole student body, give a speech and woo myself into getting elected, which I did. Amazingly, I look back and go, how my campaign slogan was “Don’t be a monkey, Vote for Nuenke”. Pretty catchy. Huh? relaxed. That’s right.

[00:06:01] Tommy Thomas: Just think you could, what you could have done with a TikTok campaign. .

[00:06:04] Doug Nuenke: Oh my. . .

[00:06:07] Tommy Thomas: What do you think is about the great outdoors that that makes for a good team building environment?

[00:06:12] Doug Nuenke: The Lord made it, so that’s gotta be part of it, right? . And I think for a lot of us as leaders, we can get in a rut of meeting with people at an office over desks or even, even at restaurants or at coffee shops. But there’s something that opens our eyes up to God’s goodness. It’s creation, recreation, recreating together. Think of that word recreating. Recreating together with the people that God entrusts to us.I think that must be part of it as I think about it. That’s a great question.

[00:06:51] Tommy Thomas: You mentioned team sports and playing tennis. what did you bring away from team sports that, that helped form you as a leader?

[00:06:59] Doug Nuenke: Yeah. I moving down to Texas from Chicago.I loved sports as a young man. I participated in pretty much every opportunity I had. But when we moved from Chicago down to Texas, I was four 11 and weighed a hundred pounds. I was a freshman in high school, four 11, a hundred pounds, and I had the audacity and stupidity of going out for football in Texas.

[00:07:26] Doug Nuenke: Yeah. I hadn’t heard about Friday night Lights. But I went out and even in that, I think there’s something about being together with others in a team environment and the camaraderie that has formed. Even for me, I didn’t play one play for my whole year.I think they were afraid to put me out on the field, what, how I might have gotten hurt.

And that’s when I shifted to tennis, but it was the camaraderie, it was the memories, it was the building of people together, that was beyond. Just even the score on the page at the end of the match, there were friendships that were built. I don’t know if you’re probably familiar with this book, Boys in the Boat.

[00:08:08] Tommy Thomas: Oh, yes. I love that book.

[00:08:10] Doug Nuenke: And that book speaks of the camaraderie. When people are brought together, people from different backgrounds it levels the playing field. You’re joining together in a common cause, and it does something you never forget it and it forms us as people, I think, because we form one another. It’s how God designed us to be in community. Proverbs 27:17 “as iron sharpens the iron, so one man sharpens another”. And I can think of very few places that happens as profoundly as in team sports. . .

[00:08:48] Tommy Thomas: When you got to TCU, how did you decide on your major

[00:08:54] Doug Nuenke: That’s a great question. I went to TCU thinking I was gonna be a doctor, and two things happened. One, as I found a fraternity my freshman year and my grades slipped. And then the next thing that happened was I found the Lord and I had a great group of believers that were around me that poured into my life helped me see a different kind of life that I could live.

And nothing against pre-med. I, still at times go, oh man, I wish I had become a doctor, but I think more so the Lord was leading me in a different way. And I ended up choosing social work because I just saw social. As an opportunity to grow in people skills and in being able to serve others.

I didn’t know much at that time, but I was beginning to get a hint that the Jesus life was about serving others, so I ended up choosing social work.

Tommy Thomas: What are what are people always surprised to find out about you?

[00:10:02] Doug Nuenke: One of ’em, which I’ve alluded to already is that I moved nine times before I was 18 do the math.That’s, just every other year pretty much. . So that was, that’s something people are surprised because I don’t think that’s an experience that most people have. Another one that is fun, it wasn’t fun at the time was being on an erupting volcano. We were on a mission trip in Indonesia with a group of friends, and we were on a volcano that hadn’t erupted in 16 years, and it chose to erupt on the day that we were climbing on the top.

We were on the very top. Wow. We could take a whole podcast and I could tell you that story, but we don’t have time today for that. But that’s one that surprises people. And it certainly surprised me that day

[00:11:00] Tommy Thomas: Anytime I’ve talked to somebody that’s spent their adult life with an organization like The Navigators, Cru, InterVarsity or Young Life, I like to ask the question “when you joined the organization, did you think it would be a career”?

[00:11:06] Doug Nuenke: Now? It’s a good question. I’m really not sure. My wife Pam and I have been on staff of the navigators for over 30 years now. But before that we had another life. we had eight years on a church staff in Denver. And I was with another Parachurch ministry for about five years, which we loved that time.

Still are friends with the people that we serve with there. Still connect with them and serve in different ways. So I’m not sure that I saw it as a career, but I know that regardless of the job that I have, how I earn my income in the years ahead in this Pam and I will always be navigators in that spirit of who the navigators are.

We love the mission of the navigators. We love the mission, the commitment to be advancing the gospel, the commitment to be raising up disciples and disciple makers.

And because we believe it so strongly, we believe it’s God’s call and every believer to live that way, right? And so no matter what we do, In the future, whatever we do from a job standpoint, we’ll always, so to speak, be navigators, I think it’s Christ call on all of us, but we love that the navigators focus on that.

[00:12:27] Tommy Thomas: What do you remember about the first time you actually led a staff team?

[00:12:38] Doug Nuenke: This is a really a profound memory for me. I was a senior in college at TCU and we were involved with a campus ministry that was student led, completely student led. It was called the Wednesday Night Bible Study. Can you guess which night it met on Tommy? I see where this is. I see where this is going.

Yeah. Pretty creative name, huh? The Wednesday Night Bible Study, but it was happening ministry there and it, we had hundreds of students involved, but as it came about my senior year, I was asked to lead that campus ministry as a student.And I can remember, like it was yesterday, sitting in my dorm, in my room, the house actually, I was living with a group of guys in the house off campus, sitting in my room realizing that I was gonna be leading the leadership team that night.

The team, and these were people who had influenced me to come to faith three years. God had used them to win me to himself. I could go around the room, I can envision the picture the faces of them right now. I can and think of the personalities they have, the gifts they had and how they had influenced me.

And here I was my senior year being asked to lead them. That was humbling in itself. But I can remember sitting in my. Beginning to try to put some thoughts together. How in the world am I gonna do this? I have no idea. I’ve never done this before. And the lord one, one thing the Lord does was I’m gonna turn here real quickly.

First Timothy chapter four. God spoke to me outta the scriptures as I was calling out to him that, that afternoon he, he spoke, he encouraged me and these are the words that he gave me. The beginning of some words he gave me. He says, don’t let anyone look down on you because you’re young, but set an example for the believers in Speech and Life, in Love in and in purity until I come. Devote yourself to the public reading of scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which has given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters. Give yourself holy to them so that everyone may see your progress.Watch your. and you’re doctrine closely.

And I read those words and the Lord encouraged me. And then all of a sudden, the Lord just started giving me things outta the scripture reminded me of scripture that I had read over the years and things that I could pass on. He gave me my first team meeting notes,

There I was, I can see where I was sitting. I was in my room. I was on my knees. and really crying out because I was scared. It’s what in the world have I gotten myself into? And I think that not only helped me that day, and it really was profound because it gave me that group, it gave me their hearts for that year of ministry that we were moving into together.

But it also started a pattern. For the way that I would live and the way that I would lead for the rest of my life to this, up to this time was dependence on God for the words to say and being devoted to the scriptures and knowing the scriptures and having, to the best that I’m able to be a conduit to others of God’s message and the truth and the encourage from the scriptures.

[00:16:39] Tommy Thomas: So fast forward a little bit.What kind of leader training program does The Navigators have today?

Doug Nuenke:I’ll just briefly just say we and actually I would say during my tenure for the 13 years that I was the US President for the navigators, along with some other truly devoted leaders that served right there with me in it, we saw God really develop not only leadership programs, but a culture of leadership.

[00:17:15] Doug Nuenke: And we prayed about that early on. This is 13 or so years ago. We prayed, Lord, won’t you give us a culture in The Navigators of leader development so that all leaders, all staff see the importance of being developed themselves and take it seriously to be developing those that follow them. And so at another time, we could talk about some of the ways that we’ve set up some programs, but it’s had a profound influence. In fact, I would probably say, and I think others would say that during my tenure, the one most important thing that I was able to lead behind was a strong development bias. A bias for developing people and a culture of leader development, but also, Hundreds of staff who have been developed and who are on a path towards increased development over their careers with the navigators. It’s exciting.

Tommy Thomas: When you think back on those 13 years, what skills or competencies did you use most often?

[00:18:19] Doug Nuenke: One of them has gotta be, My, my Greatest Heart, which is already coming out all the way from starting out with my two brothers, going on Adventures to Tennis team to different aspects of leader development. Psalm 7:17-18 is a short passage that almost brings me to tears because it’s so important to me in my heart of hearts.

Psalm 71, verse 17 says, since my youth, oh God, you have taught me. And to this day, I declare your marvelous deeds. Verse 18, even when I’m old and gray, do not forsake me, oh God, till I declare your power to the next generation. Your might to all who are to come.

So without a doubt, one of the skills or competencies I brought was this whole area of developing the next generation of leaders, developing the bench.

[00:19:25] Doug Nuenke: Every organization is one generation from extinction and organizations that do not major in leader development will have to depend on outside resources to be able to fuel what God has started in the first place. And that’s not a bad thing. God does that. God brings people from the north, south and the east and the west to accomplish his purposes.

So, it’s not a negative thing. But as far as it depends on us. I think our job is develop those behind us to so and so to speak, work our way out of a job. So that’s one of, without a doubt. If I only did one thing, no matter what job I’ve had my whole life, I’ve done that. And then the second one is coalition building.

Bringing people together.Philippians 1:27 talks about. Paul’s joy in seeing the Philippians striving as one for the sake of their calling. It’s striving as one, bringing unity and we all know that Satan’s number one job is to divide us, is to try to get us, polarized and not able to work together.

[00:20:41] Doug Nuenke: And organizations like the Navigators and other parachurch and churches are not immune to having disparate, different opinions and not just different opinions, but even division sometimes between groups. And I would say that what I just love trusting God to build coalitions because the navigators have been blessed by God to become more diverse over the years.

And by diverse, different gifts, politically diverse. As far as ethnicity diverse. And with that comes different opinions and which is really the beauty of all that God’s created, right? It’s beautiful to have pe different kinds of people together, but I think coalition building was one of the ones that, that I had to use and that I enjoyed using, was bringing people with different opinions, different methodologies, different ways of viewing different topics together, and finding a way forward.

[00:21:42] Tommy Thomas:Staying with that, The coalition building and collaboration. I understand that the presidents of many of the parachurch ministries of the United States get together periodically, and I’ve heard people at Cru and InterVarsity talk about that. Can you tell us about that? What that was like for you?You’ve got many women to sit around the table and collaborate and be in the, be all in the kingdom. Work together.

[00:22:03] Doug Nuenke: Yeah. We met the couples. It was the presidents of Cru, Young Life, Youth for Christ, The Navigators, InterVarsity and FCA.We would meet together with our spouses two times a year for two and a half days had meals together and do life together. It was powerful that we became deep friends because we went through challenges together. In some cases we were challenges that were in the body of Christ, in our culture that we were all dealing with. And in other cases, it was personal things that we were going through.

And the Lord really knit our hearts together. and it was powerful too for the learning that took place. What an amazing group of people to learn from. I came away with journals full of notes and humble, often humbled . I go my, oh my, they have their act together. So much more than we have. I could take this back and really learn and help my team learn from some of these aspects and vice versa. There were things that The Navigators were doing that other benefited from.We miss those times not being in that seat anymore.

Tommy Thomas: In the past couple years two of your colleagues have gone on to be with the Lord Denny Rydberg of Young Life, and most recently Steve Douglas of Cru, What do you remember about these two men and their leadership contribution to the nonprofit sector and to the kingdom of God?

[00:23:38] Doug Nuenke: What two Godly, passionate, fun men that are now with Jesus.

I think for both Steve and Denny, their passion to see more and more people come to Christ would have to be one of them without a doubt. And it didn’t matter who, but particularly because of the focus of those two missions. It was students, college students, and high school, junior high kids. And they just had such a passion for that.

And it exuded out of them. And the, it gave energy to the missions that they led. I think when I think. Steve Douglas, I think in his heart for partnerships, he was always working to try to bring groups together to do more together than they could separately. And he, without a doubt left a, a lot of those partnerships are continuing on to this day that he helped put in place because of that passion.

[00:24:41] Doug Nuenke: And so more kingdom stuff is getting done these days because of that. Passion that Steve had in bringing people together and those partnerships going on and with Denny without a doubt, his creativity and growing young life, I the mission of Young Life grew so much over the years under his leadership and continues to grow under Newt Crenshaw’s leadership.

[00:25:05] Doug Nuenke: But Denny’s creativity that he brought to take young life from where it was when he started and really invest the time was fun to watch and be someone to be able to see that and then to be able to learn from him over the years while he was in that role and before he went to be with the Lord.

I hope you’re enjoying this conversation as much as I am for me, the time has flown by. I probably should have expected as much when I read Doug’s email to me confirming the details. He said, I’m looking forward to hanging with you brother. We’re going to have a lot of fun.

Join us next week as we continue this conversation.  Doug will take us deeper into his leadership journey with The Navigators.

When I think of Steve Douglas, I think of his heart for partnerships.He was always working to try to bring groups together to do more together than they could do separately.” -Doug Nuenke

Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

The Navigators

Boys in the Boat – Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics


[email protected]

Follow Tommy on Twitter

Follow Tommy on LinkedIn


Listen to Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas on:

Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts