Tom Lin: His Journey from Missions Pioneering in Mongolia to the President of InterVarsity

“We entered the work in Mongolia with an exit strategy.  We never assumed we would be there forever.  Generally, I don’t think it’s helpful for missionaries to stay in one place forever.” -Tom Lin

[00:00:00] Tom Lin: I had no idea what InterVarsity was when I got to college. A group of sophomores knocked on my door, were persistent, and invited me to Bible study. I checked it out. They were persistent. Again, I joined a small group, so InterVarsity really reached out to me and I had a great experience in a small group Bible study my freshman year.

The community I loved and then I loved doing ministry. I learned how to serve others and reach out to others and minister to others, and I had a blast and just got more involved in and grew as a leader in university. 


Our guest today is Tom Lin, the Presidency of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I had the privilege of meeting Tom, when our company, JobfitMatters Executive Search, was retained by the Board of Directors of InterVarsity to conduct the search that brought Tom to be their President. Tom took his undergraduate degree in economics from Harvard. 

In addition to his day job as President of InterVarsity, Tom serves on several nonprofit boards. Let’s pick up on that conversation.

[00:01:10] Tommy Thomas: Before we dive too deep into your professional career, take us back to your childhood.  What two or three experiences do you remember as being formative? 

[00:01:17] Tom Lin: Looking back at my childhood a couple things come to mind from my young childhood. I remember distinctly in third grade as a child visiting Taiwan. That’s the country where my father immigrated, my father and mother immigrated from.

And I’ll never forget visiting his hometown in the countryside. His family was a farmer. And it really gave me a sense of who my dad was, the poorest of the poor in the community. He was the only child of eight children to go to elementary school and high school, much less college.

And there was this conversation that I overheard him talk with a friend of his when we were in Taiwan, and he said his friend said, oh yeah what was that school you went to again? I remember how it took you like two hours to walk to school every day? And my dad had told me stories about how he walked five miles to school every day, but I thought he was exaggerating.

And then when his friend literally said, it was like five miles walking to his school every day, it struck me significantly. And I’ll never forget that. And I think that just spoke to who my father was, his humility in life. He never felt like he deserved anything. Everything was kind of grace, God’s grace in his life.

And he had all these different opportunities as life went on, but he remembers where he came from. And in a lot of ways that shaped me. Generally in my life I don’t think I deserve anything in particular. I try to remember where my dad came from and that kind of simplicity in life and not feeling I’m supposed to be this or that.

It’s just, at its core, I’m the son of my father who was a farmer, so anyways, that’s shaping, that’s a significant experience that I remember. 

[00:03:00] Tommy Thomas: How did they get to the states? 

[00:03:03] Tom Lin: My dad immigrated after he graduated from college in Taiwan through a scholarship for grad school, so to Mississippi of all places in the late sixties. His college experiences in Mississippi are really interesting stories there as well. Jackson, Mississippi is where he went to graduate school. 

[00:03:23] Tommy Thomas: Oh, my goodness.

[00:03:27] Tom Lin: Yeah. 

[00:03:28] Tommy Thomas: What was high school like for you?

[00:03:29] Tom Lin:   High school was a time of generally a lot of fun. I would say high school was very positive for me. Both from a faith perspective, I was involved in my youth group and given a lot of leadership responsibilities. And that actually was a close-knit community where I got to lead a lot, and that gave me a lot of energy.

I remember organizing things, calling people every week, preparing things. We had a very active youth group of a few dozen people of different ages from pretty much middle school through post-college. And as a young sophomore in high school or junior, I was leading the whole thing.

And yeah, that was an important part of my high school experience. And then in my actual school, that was just, it’s a lot of fun. I was active in sports, a lot of extracurriculars. And had a good number of friends. I loved going to school every day. I loved seeing people. I loved sports and being active.  So, it was a very positive experience. 

[00:04:31] Tommy Thomas: Being Chinese American, did you feel different or were you pretty much one of the crowd? 

[00:04:37] Tom Lin: Yeah, certainly at that time and age, I began to understand more of my ethnic background, I went to a school which was majority white for sure.

I was one of the few Asian Americans in my grade. And no, I mean I certainly noticed those dynamics. But if anything, it gave me a lot of experiences being a cross-cultural person every day. I went to a setting that was different from my home or my church, which was an ethnic church.

It was actually a Taiwanese church that I went to. So, I would cross cultures every day. And it certainly has helped me as an adult in my career as well. These days I’m in a different setting, multiple different settings in different cultures every day, to experience that in high school every day, certainly helped develop me and shape me positively and prepare me for the future.

[00:05:24] Tommy Thomas: You went to Harvard, and you studied economics. Tell us a little bit about that. How does a guy choose economics as a major?

[00:05:30] Tom Lin: I often say, my major is economics, but in many ways my major was InterVarsity. It was the campus ministry I was involved with.

Going to Harvard, which was a generally liberal arts school. So, there’s no business major per se.  Economics was the most popular major. It was general enough, social science, and so I fell into it. It wasn’t that I was passionate about economics. However, I would say looking back now, I see how God used it.

I’ve been in pretty much full-time vocational ministry most of my life, with the exception of a few years, and economics helps me think about systems, systematically about things. Trends help me analyze things, analyze this macro and micro.

I think economics, certainly starting economics certainly helps me with today. I would not have made that connection though if you just assumed that I never use economics anymore, but I do use some of the ways you’re taught to think. 

[00:06:33] Tommy Thomas: How did you connect with InterVarsity?

[00:06:36] Tom Lin: It was InterVarsity who reached out to me. I had no idea what InterVarsity was when I got to college and a group of sophomores knocked on my door, were persistent, and invited me to Bible study. I checked it out. They were persistent. Again, I joined a small group, so InterVarsity really reached out to me and I had a great experience in a small group Bible study my freshman year.

The community I loved and then I loved doing ministry. I learned how to serve others and reach out to others and minister to others, and I had a blast and just got more involved in and grew as a leader in university. 

[00:07:12] Tommy Thomas: Early in your career, you helped establish IFES in Mongolia.   What was that like and what was the hardest part of that?

[00:07:22] Tom Lin: Yeah, so in the early 2000’s, my wife, Nancy and I went to Mongolia, and it was a context which really was a pioneering context, we call it. There’s not much Christian ministry going on. The Bible was translated in the year 2000.  We arrived in 2001-2002 where, you know, there was a lot of excitement for this new Bible.

Church planting was going crazy. People were investing a lot in church planting. I would say that was an exciting experience because we were on the front end of a huge decade of growth in the Mongolian church. And yeah, we wanted to go because people needed to hear about Jesus and most Mongolians had never heard of the gospel before.

And so what an opportunity to go and focus on student ministry, campus ministry, specifically planting a new campus ministry movement in Mongolia. And it was Mongolian, the goal was that it would be Mongolian led indigenous, that we’d raise up Mongolian staff and eventually a Mongolian board and praise God that those things happened over a period of time.

[00:08:32] Tommy Thomas: Can you think of anything that you learned there that you’ve carried forward? Any particular leadership lesson that you still use today? 

[00:08:43] Tom Lin: Yeah, many, for sure. I would say in Mongolia we learned a few helpful missiological concepts that I think is helpful for every leader to think about.

One is, you enter with an exit strategy.  You never assume you’re going to be there forever. Generally, I don’t think it’s helpful for missionaries to stay in one place forever.

And so, you’re always thinking about how I can develop this movement or this organization to be self-sustaining so that it no longer depends on me.

I think that’s helpful for any organizational leader, and certainly you’re always thinking about succession planning and how do you develop future leaders, and what’s your best contribution? And can you pass and delegate your responsibilities to someone else so you can work on something else?

And I think those principles were really helpful. And I think those are some significant lessons and things that continue to hold dearly. 

[00:09:41] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go to mentoring.   That seems to be a theme in a lot of leaders’ lives that I speak with. Have you had a particular mentor or has that played a role in your development?

[00:09:52] Tom Lin: It’s interesting. I think as a Gen Xer, I’m of a Gen X generation. Growing up I didn’t think too much about mentoring. I think the millennials are much more open to it. And particularly, you may have interviewed folks, the millennial Boomer connection is very strong. Gen Z now appreciates mentoring, but Gen Xers, generally, thought we could figure it out ourselves, in a lot of ways.

So, I didn’t value it, I would say earlier in my career. And then it wasn’t until later that it was interesting. It wasn’t until later that I found a mentor that reached out to me. His name is Steve Hayner. He’s the former President of InterVarsity in the nineties. And Steve cared for me.

He invited me to his home. He eventually would play a mentoring role, which basically meant in my life of key moments, key decision-making moments in my life. He entered and would give me his advice, or I would ask for it. And yeah, he periodically would show up. I would seek him out when I was trying to decide a career decision or if I had just a significant life question I was wrestling with.

So, Steve would’ve been one of those mentors. I’ve had other ones, another one in my life is Leighton Ford. I still do spiritual retreats with him. In fact, I have one coming up soon. And he’s been a different kind of mentor, more a spiritual guide in helping me do some reflection in my life.

[00:11:20] Tommy Thomas: Steve and Leighton are two very different personalities. 

[00:11:26] Tom Lin: Yes, they are. They are. 

[00:11:27] Tommy Thomas: I’ve had the chance to work with both of them over the years, and as I remember Steve is being so soft spoken and yeah, you wouldn’t know he is in the room unless somebody pointed him out and Leighton’s a little more forward and a lot more energy in the room when Leighton’s in the room.

[00:11:42] Tom Lin: That’s right. Yeah. It’s certainly different and that’s also helpful I think, in mentoring to have different types of leaders as mentors. And yeah, so I feel lucky that these two in particular reached out to me and initiated with me in different ways. And, yeah, I think they played a significant role.  For sure. 

[00:12:03] Tommy Thomas: Usually if people get to your level, they end up getting most things done through teams. And I’m probably assuming that’s true about you. Maybe tell me about what you think was your most dynamic team as you think back over the years. And it could have been in student ministry, it could be an executive ministry.

[00:12:20] Tom Lin: I think I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great teams and I think they’re all very dynamic. I think probably one of the most exciting teams and exciting moments was when I directed the Urbana 2012 conference, my first Urbana event. I directed a huge ambitious event where we’re preparing for usually two years in advance for these five days where about 18,000 young people come together to explore global missions.

Right? And so many facets of it from operations, the communications to recruitment, to vision casting and budgeting for it. And it was like running an organization. The team we had needed to be dynamic, needed to be collaborative, needed to work with urgency at times. And, we did it and it was a phenomenal conference.  And so that was probably one of the more dynamic teams, and team experiences. 

[00:13:29] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most ambitious project you’ve ever undertaken with a team? 

[00:13:34] Tom Lin: That one I would say was one for sure. To have key goals like seeing 18,000 people come or partnering with 300 organizations.

We had come to the event, managing thousands of volunteers and then a world class program. There was a particular moment at the Urbana. We called it the join in where we partnered with World Vision. What we did was we assembled something like, I believe it was to speak accurately, I want 40,000 – 50,000 medical caregiver kits within a 90-minute program time slot at the conference. These would eventually be shipped to Swaziland and other parts in Africa for AIDS caregivers to use. And we did it at Urbana in this massive stadium with trucks on the stage.

And it was just a really ambitious undertaking. And within 90 minutes, these 18,000 students put together 40,000 kits. It was an active experiential event, and then these trucks pulled away with being fully loaded with these kits and they were like on its way to Swaziland. It was pretty amazing how it all came together, but it took a lot of coordination, a lot of preparation to pull that off.

That was a fun project within the bigger Urbana project. 

[00:15:04] Tommy Thomas: Let’s switch a little bit. Our topic overall is next generation leadership. What are some of the things either that you’re doing or that you’re seeing being done that you think is contributing to this next generation moving into place?

[00:15:18] Tom Lin:   Yeah. I ask that a lot. Our bread and butter. What we do is develop the next generation of leaders. We do that on campus. We do that with student leaders. I think one way I’ll answer the question is how we develop the next generation of leaders within our organization because I get asked that question a lot in terms of staff or employees.

I think the keys are really around first intentionality. I think you have to be intentional. It doesn’t just happen. People often say to me I don’t have any, I don’t have any potential people, so what can I do? I think it takes intentionality to build your pool of people and then to invest in the right people within that pool.

So, intentionality creating, and that might include creating access. So every year I host what I call the president’s living room consultation. I bring about a dozen or more emerging next generation leaders into my home for three days in the living room when we talk. And I give them access to me and I give them access to other leaders.

And I think sometimes the key to developing future leaders or giving them access to current leaders you have to be intentional though. And then I think another thing we do is we offer stretch assignments. So, to develop the next generation, you have to give them tough assignments. So, it’s going to be hard for them to develop into, let’s say, the next level without giving them risk taking opportunities to stretch assignments where they can prove themselves or learn from tough assignments in addition to their day job. So anyways, those would be a couple things. I’d say, yeah, intentionality, access stretch assignments. 

[00:16:58] Tommy Thomas:  You’ve mentioned two or three generations here, so you’ve got the boomers and the Xers, and have you noticed any difference in their proclivity to take risks? 

[00:17:09] Tom Lin: Oh yes. Yeah, of course. Generally, for the millennials, again generally speaking, and generational theorists would agree with this, and studies have been done.

Because of their upbringing. And the millennials have seen mostly prosperity and the rapid advance of certain technologies, iPhone generations, such apps that can solve the world’s biggest problems generally. They’re willing to take risks because they think, and they see the opportunity to change the world.

They can do it. And so, their proclivity to take risks is, they’re fine with it. Gen Z, the current student generation. They’ve seen some hard things. They’ve experienced the great recession.   The world’s not their oyster and everything’s not come easy.

Mental health crisis. So generally, they’re more risk averse. And what used to be when, to millennia you might say, hey everyone charge. Let’s go, let’s take the mountain, let’s take the hill. You can do it.  For the Gen Z folks, that’s not an effective rallying cry.

Usually, you need to say let’s do it together. We’re behind you. You have the support you need. I’ll be your mentor along the way. Or you lower yourself and take the big goal, and you break it up into three pieces and you say, hey the first step is this. You can do that first step and then we’ll do the second step.  And so, it is different. 

[00:18:33] Tommy Thomas: Maybe a more global leadership question. What’s the most dangerous behavior or trait that you’ve observed that can derail a leader’s life or career? 

[00:18:47] Tom Lin: Yeah. There have been studies done about derailers. I think for me I don’t see it so much as you do this one big thing, or you have one big trait and it’s going to all of a sudden sneak up on you and it’s going to blow up in your face or something. For me the most dangerous behavior is the collection of small decisions that a leader makes. Small steps. So, for example, I think when it comes to money, we can easily get tempted to have a deserving mindset. I deserve that thing. I worked so hard, that little decision or I should need that thing because I’m a little tired. I deserve a little bit of this or that. And the collection of small choices adds up to one day, a leader can be tempted to take something or make a decision that they shouldn’t do. Or another example is, my time is valuable. They’ve heard that a leader and you begin to buy into that, and you start making little decisions.

They start off innocently. My time is valuable, so therefore I should do X or Y or the organization should do X extra Y for me. And then where’s the fine line, the line starts to blur and it goes into my time. I am so valuable that I should be able to do extra Y.

So, a collection of small choices can easily build toward the point where a leader really does something completely unethical or, yeah, derails them completely. I always tell people to watch the small steps and the small decisions you’re making. 

[00:20:24] Tommy Thomas: What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?

[00:20:43] Tom Lin: Yeah, maybe I’ll just share something more recent I’ve been thinking about. I was reading Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, his autobiography, and one of the things he mentions is, people don’t want to follow leaders who are pessimistic.  It’s not a formula for success. Generally, people’s inclinations, they want to follow a leader who’s hopeful who is optimistic about his future. And I think generally that’s something that I’ve abided by, even if there are challenges, people want to hear about the hope you have. People want to follow a leader who’s optimistic about what’s to come, who can paint a picture of why the future, or the preferred future, is better than today’s future to today’s reality. And I think that’s so true and so important in leadership. 

[00:21:33] Tommy Thomas: What do you do and maybe what do you and Nancy do for work-life balance? 

[00:21:39] Tom Lin: Oh, work-life balance. I think. You know how I view that question? I think to me, work life balance is you have to work at both. You have to work at your work and you have to work at home, or your personal life, right? So it’s not so much you work here and then you just veg out, so I think you work at both. And for me it meant I’m committed. I had both children at home. Now I have one at home, but I’ve had both at home for quite a while. I was committed to evening dinners at home, no matter what work demands were. I was committed to evening dinners at home when I was in town and I didn’t carry work into dinner. And if I really needed to do work later at night, I’d wait till the kids go to sleep. So very careful about my evenings and then maintaining a Sabbath, there’s a reason why the Lord commanded us to keep Sabbath and observe a Sabbath. And I think that really helps having the discipline of Sabbath where you’re making sure you rest one day a week.

[00:22:35] Tommy Thomas: What are you most excited about in life right now? 

[00:22:40] Tom Lin: On one hand with my family, I’m excited about my kids growing up. One of my daughters is in college, and I’m in college ministry, so it’s an exciting time for me to see my own daughter enter into this fantastic life stage.

I think in work generally I’m excited about what we call our 2030 calling a vision. At InterVarsity we have a vision to see every campus in the country reach with the gospel. It’s a fantastic vision for 2030 that is bigger than just InterVarsity. It’s collaborative. We’re working with over a hundred different organizations to see every campus have a gospel movement.

And that’s really exciting for me because it gets at my planting my experience in Mongolia wanting to see the unreached reached, kind of mentality. And as well as, I love campus ministry, so I want to see other organizations and churches get excited about campus ministry.

And then ultimately, I want to see students’ lives transformed and more students reached. It is a combination of a lot of things that go into this 2030 calling and that’s what’s making life exciting right now? 

[00:23:52] Tommy Thomas: Let’s reflect back a minute. The last two or three years we’ve lost two of your peers have gone on to be with the Lord and Steve Douglass and Denny Rydberg, and I know you’ve worked alongside those men and with them. What kind of reflections do you have on their leadership?

[00:24:10] Tom Lin: Oh I would say Denny I did not have the chance to work with as closely, but we certainly collaborate a lot with the current CEO of Young Life, Newt Crenshaw. I would say with Steve Douglas, I did have a good number of years where I worked alongside. We met together to pray and fellowship with our spouses twice a year.

My reflection on Steve is what I was saying about the small decisions equaling big ones. He was very aware that Steve was humble. One of the things he would do is he would decline a first grade up first-class upgrade on airplanes his entire life. He traveled a lot, but he would always decline an upgrade.

I think he was very aware that even the small choices we make where we subtly begin to think that we deserve an upgrade or an extra treat or whatever, he wanted to be a model of simplicity and humility. And so, he would decline it every time. That’s amazing. And then the second thing that struck me about Steve Douglas is he’s always sharing the gospel, always sharing the gospel, always wherever he was, whether it wa at a restaurant with a waiter, a waitress, on an airplane, in a store. He would always just talk to somebody and find a way to share the gospel, and it was just very inspiring. 

[00:25:29] Tommy Thomas: What are you going to say next week when you get a call from somebody that either thinks they want to be a leader, or maybe they’re already in the leadership track and they’re having second thoughts? How are you counseling our NextGen leaders?

[00:25:47] Tom Lin: I think for NextGen, there’s something about perseverance and paying the cost. So, I do think what I would counsel them is and it’s harder to do I think in our North American context some of our majority world friends and leaders understand suffering and the role of suffering more.

I think we’re still less developed in that area. I would say I would counsel, persevere, especially in today’s day and age as a leader, you are going to face extreme pressures, criticism, and reasons to hang it up. Reasons to just say I can’t do it anymore. And I think I would say, keep on building the support team around you.

Who’s got your back?  Who is there for you? But when you engage in suffering, just know that’s normal. And it happens. It will come. And that’s part of the territory in leadership. So, I think that’s how our counsel is just encouraging them to persevere and to understand it is a part of the reality, but you don’t have to go through it alone.


I’m grateful to Tom Lin for taking time from his busy schedule to visit with us today. Why are we taking a break next week? It’s 4th of July week holiday. And my experience has been that a lot of us take time away from work to spend time with family and friends. We will return the week of July 10 with our next episode. 

In the meantime, stay the course on doing your part to make the nonprofit sector more effective and sustainable. 

“An organizational leader should always think about succession planning – how do you develop future leaders and what’s your best contribution?” -Tom Lin

Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship


IFES – International Fellowship of Evangelical Students


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