“I tell people on both Christian networks and secular networks that the Bible says life comes with a reset button, a second chance button.” -John Ashmen
[00:00:00] John Ashmen: I think that’s always important, that you have people that tell you the truth. And, we have different places where that happens. It’s not just in the work environment, but also in small groups and fellowship groups and things like that.
We have the opportunity to either take their advice or not take their advice. You can surround yourself with great people and they can tell you the truth. If you don’t listen to it and take their advice, then you don’t emerge any better than you were when you went in.
[00:00:30] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is John Ashman, the CEO at Citygate Network. Prior to Citygate, John was the Chief Operating Officer at the Christian Camp and Conference Association, giving him a total of almost 30 years in association leadership. John has led Citygate through a reassessment, a relocation, a restaffing, a refocusing, a rebranding, and then ultimately through the pandemic.
John has led Citygate through a reassessment, a relocation, a restaffing, a refocusing, a rebranding, and then ultimately through the pandemic.
Through all of this, the Citygate Network membership has grown by almost a third. In addition to his day job, John is a prolific writer, speaker, and board member of several nonprofit organizations. John, welcome to NextGen Nonprofit Leadership.
[00:01:12] John Ashmen: Thank you, Tommy. Good to be with you.
[00:01:15] Tommy Thomas: Before I jump too deep in, is there a short story about how you got into association leadership?
[00:01:23] John Ashmen: I was a camp director in New Jersey, a youth camp that was located halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, had about 15,000 people a year come through on all of our programs.
It’s New Jersey, a very populated state, and the whole Delaware Valley is quite crowded. And we did camping programs up in Maine and over in Europe as well. And being in that camping world gave me visibility. And I went on the board of Christian Camp and Conference Association. At some point, one of the people who was also on the board at that time ended up taking the position of president of that association and gave me an invitation to come and also be on that team. So that’s where I served those years as Vice President and Director of Member Services, which is essentially the COO position at Christian Conference Association. That was the launch.
[00:02:20] Tommy Thomas: What do you remember about your childhood that was formative? Were y’all big campers as kids? What stands out there?
My father had a mantra that was pretty much built into his life philosophy and that was never let school stand in the way of your kid’s education.
[00:02:31] John Ashmen: My father had a mantra that was pretty much built into his life philosophy and that was never let school stand in the way of your kid’s education. And so, we would take train trips across the U S and in the middle of September and October when some of my friends were in school and somehow, I always was able to do it and I never got in trouble and I guess he didn’t, maybe he never told me, but I was always involved with something in adventure and activity with my family.
Myy dad and mom for their honeymoon, for example, were married in Ohio and decided they would go out to Illinois and see his brother. They got to Northwestern where he was teaching and he convinced them that Yellowstone National Park was not that far down the road, so they put a case of Campbell’s soup in their trunk and took off and found out it was a little bit further than they thought and so they got to Yellowstone and they said we’ll never be this close to California, let’s try that.
That was the parents that I had and the upbringing that I had, so adventure was always on the horizon.
[00:03:40] Tommy Thomas: What was high school like for you?
[00:03:42] John Ashmen: What was high school like? Boy, that’s a question I don’t get in many of the interviews that I do on a regular basis. High school was a great experience.
I didn’t have problems. I came from a rural part of New Jersey. They’re hard to find them anymore. In fact, in my grammar school days, we had outhouses for the first two years. I’m not all that old, but that’s the status of the area where I grew up. But I went to a regional high school and probably was involved in the usual stuff. A few sports teams, and in the band. I look back on high school with fond memories.
[00:04:25] Tommy Thomas: When you went to college, how did you declare a major? What was involved in your decision?
[00:04:28] John Ashmen: I was in a music group at the time. This was in southern New Jersey, South Jersey for the locals, that’s how it’s known.
And I didn’t want to go too far away to college because I didn’t want to drop out of that group. And so, I went to the college where my parents had gone, where they met, which eventually became Cairn University. At the time, the school was called Philadelphia College of Bible, and it generally prepared people to go into a career in church music or go on to seminary, so I looked around at all those things that were preferred.
I wasn’t interested in going on to seminary, and even though I was musical, it wasn’t going to be a career. I looked at education, that’s where most of the people were, and the one that interested me the most was social work. And I declared social work as the major, actually, everybody majored in Bible and you had a minor, and so it was social work, and so I left college with a Bachelor of Science in Bible with an emphasis on social work and didn’t use it right away.
I did work part-time. Some of my fieldwork assignments were to be a chaplain at the Veterans Hospital and to be a parole officer, probation officer, in Philadelphia, but went into camp work, and that Christian camp that we mentioned was the one that when I spent the first 15 years, took over from my father and he was the person who started that camp, determined it was time to do something different.
[00:06:14] Tommy Thomas: What do you remember about the first time you had people reporting to you?
[00:06:17] John Ashmen: It was at the camp. And I just remembered that the folks that were there were just fun to be with. And we made it as creative and unique as possible. We just had a lot of opportunities to really join together in a unique way in a camp setting.
We did not run a traditional office setting or environment. Everybody was out and about, and we would meet in some of the most unusual places, out in the Pine Barrens. And we just made it like an adventure every day that we would get together.
[00:07:01] Tommy Thomas: I think successful people are asked all the time, what makes you successful? I’d like to frame the question this way, and that would be, what is a factor that’s helped you succeed that most people on the outside probably wouldn’t recognize?
[00:07:17] John Ashmen: I’m told I’m creative and flexible. And so that is probably something that is a standout characteristic. In the strengths finder ideation is one of my strengths.
But strategic is also a strength. As we are going through a leadership transition here, my leadership style has been talked about particularly by the board as they were looking to find my replacement. I am an expressive driver, which means I come into a situation, assess it pretty quickly, and then pick a direction and get people to follow me. And that’s worked for 30 years and 15 before that at the camp. That would be who I am.
[00:08:00] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most creative thing you think you and your team have ever done?
[00:08:08] John Ashmen: 15 years in camping, 15 years with the Camping Association, and then 16 years with the Mission Association, and having had music in my background. 3 years ago now, 4 years, I guess, I talked to our friend, Amy Grant, from Nashville. Most people know who Amy Grant is and we said, what if we bring together the rescue mission dynamics, the life transformation attributes that are kind of part of helping people change their life? And then also blend in the unique outdoor setting and the dynamics of creative outdoor initiatives. And then also music. And so, we started something called Hidden Trace Retreat. And we’ve got a couple more scheduled here in another month.
Amy Grant worked with Citygate to establish Hidden Trace Retreat
And they’ve just been wildly successful where we bring people from a rescue mission going through a life transformation program, people who have previously been on the streets to continue with some of that teaching, but also use the outdoor setting and group initiatives and farm chores and those kinds of things to change their environment and give them total new experiences and see themselves in a different way.
We do What’s My Name? We talk about what your name means and whether you’re living up to those attributes. What’s my story? Where did you come from? What’s my style? We go over social styles. What’s my plan? What’s my future? And when we get to that, what’s my story, we bring in singers, songwriters, people like Amy Grant or others in Nashville. Cindy Morgan’s been very involved with this, Mark Elliott and they listen to the stories of people who have been on the streets, go home, and craft these amazing songs so that when we all get together in the barn on the climax of the program, they hear songs about their life story sung by Nashville musicians. And that has been something that’s gotten all kinds of accolades and awards for being a creative, unique program. That ranks up there. It’s relatively current.
[00:10:39] Tommy Thomas: What times in your life have really tested your mettle and how did you come out of those?
[00:10:51] John Ashmen: Anytime there is a unique change in people’s environment brings a lot of responses that you can expect more specific. When I came to Citygate Network, I was the first person in a hundred years, literally, to run this association of at the time, a couple of hundred rescue missions who never actually ran one. And I was never a mission superintendent as they called it. And so that put a pretty good target on my back. And when I came up with things that are presented to the board that were needed to be done to basically, save the association, that wasn’t met with a lot of applause because they saw this as critical change.
And so that was probably one of the trying times. And I persevered and I told my board chair that you have to be my armor bearer. And I told my executive assistant, I don’t want to read any of the comments that are coming in on email or social media about what people think of my decisions. I’ll just measure it by what we accomplish.
[00:12:15] Tommy Thomas: Is there a point during that transition when you saw that y’all had turned the corner?
[00:12:22] John Ashmen: Yeah, there was. One of the things that really helped, Tommy, was that I wrote a book on the whole idea of hunger, homelessness, abuse, and addiction called Invisible Neighbors. And that book actually went through three printings and sold very well. And when all of those members, now organizations, number over 300. When those people saw that I understood what they were about and could voice it even the way that they couldn’t, there was much broader acceptance, and then when they saw the positive changes and the connections to federal governments and the links we were making there and the unique public relations initiatives and involved with movies like Odd Life of Timothy Green, Same, Different as Me, I think they also, they said, hey, this is going the right direction. And we want to be part of it. And so that’s why our membership has grown 50% since I’ve come.
[00:13:28] Tommy Thomas: What lesson do you think y’all brought out of the pandemic that you’ll take forward?
Collaboration is paramount. I pushed collaboration from the very beginning of the pandemic. Faith-based organizations, particularly in the nonprofit world, had become very siloed. That was hurting us.
[00:13:34] John Ashmen: Collaboration is paramount. That’s an easy one for me. I pushed collaboration from the very beginning. Faith-based organizations, particularly in the nonprofit world, had become very siloed. This is our group.
This is what we do. And even when I came to try to get people involved in government relations was, oh, we don’t want to get involved with government. The camel gets its head under the tent and pretty soon the whole camel disappears and we’ll get eaten up. My statement was, hey folks, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
And so let’s see what we can do to build bridges. We have different philosophies about what’s going on and we have different ideas of what the solution is, but let’s at least talk to one another and see where we can work together. So we started not only building connections to the government but also we’re encouraging members to reach out and see who around you is a partner in what they’re doing.
And so a lot of our members became friends with those people running Dream Centers or Adult and Teen Challenge or Salvation Army, or whatever it happened to be in their city and started to have good relationships. Things like, hey, here’s another mission nearby and they have a great women’s program and we have a great men’s program but their men’s program isn’t that good.
And maybe we can be the men’s program. Let them have the women’s program. We’ll send our women over there. And so the collaboration that started at that point was something that was already in place when COVID came. And when we determined that we needed to have a bubble, the safe place.
And then we needed to have a place for rule-outs. And then we needed to have a place for quarantine. We had to have a place for isolation. We had different missions or ministry organizations sharing those responsibilities. Likewise, I was asked to be on the U.S. Interagency Council COVID 19 Task Force, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, USICH. And I was on there with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. People from Health and Human Services. The White House had a representative on the call. Department of Education, Department of Labor. A couple of other groups were on there.
Of course, FEMA was on and the Center for Disease Control prevention was on and the only three non-government agencies on that call were the Red Cross, us, and the Salvation Army. And we were collaborating at the highest level through the entire COVID pandemic.
[00:16:26] Tommy Thomas: Richard Paul Evans, the best-selling novelist, said that sometimes the greatest hope in our lives is just a second chance to do what we should have done right in the first place. When you think of a staff team and somebody that needs a second chance what’s going through your heart and mind there?
[00:16:47] John Ashmen: If we’re talking about what I’m seeing at missions they are there. They’re paramount in this area. Many of the people who staff missions were former clients. In fact, many of the CEOs are products of their own program. I’ve taken so many trips to rescue missions and touring with the CEO and, here’s our kitchen and here’s our men’s long term recovery dorm.
That was my bunk up there in the corner when I went through the program. And I just see that happening all over the place. I was within six different missions. Last week one of them called, Hope the Mission, used to be called Hope in the Valley in the Burbank area. They had something on their wall that said you can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.
I tell people on both Christian networks and secular networks that the Bible says life comes with a reset button, a second chance button. Any person being in Christ, they can be a new creation.
And that’s what so many of our members are doing, seeing these people who are having second chances, as you put it, Tommy, go and finish well. I tell people on both Christian networks and secular networks that the Bible says life comes with a reset button, a second chance button.
Any person being in Christ, they can be a new creation. Old things pass away, and everything can become new. 2 Corinthians 5:17. So that is part of what we’re about and why Citygate Network has done the work it’s done so well.
[00:18:17] Tommy Thomas: Maybe aside from your dad, have you had mentors in your life who made a significant contribution?
[00:18:24] John Ashmen: One that I would immediately go to is someone who’s passed away now. His name was Lloyd Mattson. And he was a mentor from afar. For most of my life he’d write books, and the books that he wrote, I would follow and just emulate the things that he was doing.
The creative side came out. I started quite a few camping programs because of the work that he had done and the positions that he had taken on things. Lloyd Mattson certainly was one of them.
I would say that the person I worked with at Christian Camp and Conference Association after I left directing the camp, his name was Bob Koblish. He was a mentor as well. I learned a lot about association work from him and, interestingly, he says he learned a lot from me, but I think we learned from each other and that’s noteworthy as well.
[00:19:19] Tommy Thomas: Certainly, the Koblish family is good stock. I mean you got a good family there that have made a great contribution to both the Christian world and society in general.
[00:19:33] Tommy Thomas: I don’t know of Rob Hoskins down at One Hope, but I saw a posting he said the other day, surround yourself with people who know you better than you know yourself and will tell you the truth out of love. That’s how we grow. How do you resonate with that?
[00:19:48] John Ashmen: Yeah, it’s like the tombstone sometimes, credited to Andrew Carnegie, but I don’t think it really is his. It says, here lies the body of the man who surrounded himself with better people than he was. I think that’s always important that you have people that tell you the truth.
And, we have different places where that happens. It’s not just in the work environment, but also in small groups and fellowship groups and things like that. We have the opportunity to either take their advice or not take their advice. You can surround yourself with great people and they can tell you the truth.
If you don’t listen to it and take their advice, then you don’t emerge any better than you were when you went in.
You can surround yourself with great people and they can tell you the truth. If you don’t listen to it and take their advice, then you don’t emerge any better than you were when you went in.
[00:20:28] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most dangerous behavior that you’ve seen that derail leaders’ careers?
[00:20:34] John Ashmen: Some people don’t like to be seen as making a mistake and if they do, they hide it.
I think pride is there as well. I think the other thing is that for so many leaders, their self-worth is tied up in what they are doing and not who they are, particularly who they are in Christ as Christian leaders. And so, when it comes time to let go of an organization and hand it over to somebody else that those tentacles wrap around and you find that they’re not really willing to let go and it starts destroying the organization unless there can be some quick chopping of those tentacles to move.
This whole thing of succession is really critical. We did a survey of our 320-plus organizations back in the year 2020. And we asked hundreds of questions and we’ve got a lot of valuable information, but one of those was. I didn’t know how long they expected to work and 39% of our CEOs said they would be leaving in the next four years.
So that was COVID right at it’s prime point. I think a lot of people were tired and we thought maybe that wouldn’t be the case, but it doesn’t seem to be inaccurate. We’re seeing people come and go, quite a bit. We probably have about 30 of our member organizations that are in transition right now.
And that just comes back to this idea, we’re seeing who’s able to let go and who isn’t. The future of those organizations depends on how well succession is handled.
[00:22:22] Tommy Thomas: Stan, with succession, you’ve obviously seen a lot of it in both of your career tracks. How soon should a board and a CEO begin to think about that?
[00:22:36] John Ashmen: I believe a succession plan should exist as soon as you hire someone. You don’t decide, here’s what we need to do because the CEO needs to leave right away. We have documents that we tell our members to put a succession plan together. Here’s sample documents, what it looks like.
You have a succession plan that is timed. Planned succession. You have one that’s an unexpected succession. We even have documents that go to boards that say here’s what not to do when you find yourself in the midst of an unexpected transition. And then once you have that plan, put it in a policy manual and put it on the shelf.
I tell CEOs when they ask me that question, I get a lot of them asking me when should I mention it to the board? I said, when you are sure you are ready to leave and it’s going to be within two years. Because if you start talking about that, even hinting at it to your board, their whole mindset changes and they look at you as somebody who’s in the process of going.
They aren’t willing to take risks and you may be wanting to finish a project and they’re not willing to put the extra effort or time or money into it because they sense that a change is coming. There are right ways to do succession and there are certainly wrong ways to do it. I like to think that I’ve rescued quite a few people from announcing things prematurely and helping them figure out how to end well.
[00:24:18] Tommy Thomas: Next week, we will continue this conversation with John Ashmen. During that time, we’ll discuss succession planning, John’s recent transition from leadership at Citygate, and how he and the board handled that transition. We’ll talk at length about board governance. Then I asked John the question that seems to be getting a lot of traction lately.
My shark tank question. If he were a panel member of a nonprofit version of Shark Tank, what would he have to be convinced of before providing startup capital to the nonprofit organization?
“Collaboration is paramount. I pushed collaboration from the very beginning of the pandemic. Faith-based organizations, particularly in the nonprofit world had become very siloed. That was hurting us.” -John Ashmen
Links and Resources
Listen to Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas on: