How the Summit Changed… Everything
After 18 years serving in the local church, Dave Bushnell is now a regional director for Willow Creek Association. He’s in charge of growing The Global Leadership Summit across 13 Western states. Dave traces his most impactful Summit moment back to the prompting he and his wife Karen received to expand their family from two children to five through international adoption.
In a way, the Summit is the same for everyone. We all hear the same speakers. We all see the same words on the screen. But the Summit experience is also distinctly unique for each person who participates.
I’ve been a student of leadership for decades. I’ve been going to the Leadership Summit since the year 2000. Ultimately, it is responsible for how I lead today.
The Summit changed me, my local church, my family, others’ families, and now I’m watching the Summit change entire cities throughout the US.
The Summit raises the temperature at my local church
I was a local church pastor for 18 years before moving to Willow Creek Association. I started attending the Summit during my tenure in Pittsburgh. When we moved out west to Bellingham, Washington, the church we served was already a host site. But nobody had really taken it on as their pet project. It was kind of floundering.
Of course, I was already an absolute Summit fanatic, so it became a huge passion of mine to use content from the Summit year-round as I did leadership development within the church. We embedded it into our discipleship process, and whenever I got leaders together, I showed a snippet of video to support what we were trying to impart.
We had some challenges in the church, and at some point we decided to take the spiritual temperature of the congregation. Using a very measured spiritual-growth survey, we wanted to see if our emphasis on the Summit and use of the content year-round was having any impact.
What we saw was that the spiritual fervor of the congregation actually increased by 17 percent. Now, it went from “terrible” to “really bad,” but it was up and to the right, so that was very good to see! The temperature was rising.
The Summit starts exploding in Bellingham, WA
That spiritual fervor manifested itself in a new willingness for members to sacrifice their time, talent and treasure. And not just for the church. We saw people who were not yet in a serving role or a Kingdom-building role finding their way into serving roles within the community and within their family. The entire staff ended up rallying around the Summit as a recruitment tool. It became our strategy for recruiting—and retaining—leaders.
The Summit wound up just exploding in Bellingham. One in four of our weekend attenders came to the Summit and our church became one of the top GLS sites in the country.
Around that time, Willow Creek Association called me and said, “We’re expanding big time, and we’d love somebody to serve sites in the Western United States. Would you consider joining our team?” It was an exciting new vocational opportunity, and it was good for our family from the standpoint that we didn’t have to uproot them.
The Summit transforms my family
Of course, family is a key part of my Summit story. Before we had children, my wife, Karen and I dreamed of what our family would look like: two boys, two years apart. After our first son, Trevor, was born, our second pregnancy was timed just right to fulfill the family we had envisioned.
But it ended in grief. Tragically, we lost that child in pregnancy.
That caused us to incline our ears to God and say, “How do you want us to expand our family?” What we heard was, “Adopt.” So, we brought home our son Easton from Russia. He was one. And there we were. Two boys two years apart. Mission accomplished.
We went along that way for a number of years with our little family of four. Then Karen and I were at the Leadership Summit in 2006 in a session with Richard Curtis, the British filmmaker.
He had created a 90-second candid video clip of a little girl in a yellow dress. She was probably five years old. She was in India, and she was all alone on the street. The sun was setting. There were pedestrians and street traffic going by. And this tiny little girl took her tattered blanket and carefully set it down on the sidewalk. She crawled into it as the sun set, and that’s her bed for the night. There’s no family; she’s all alone as a child of the street.
Well, God used that video to convict and prompt us. “I’m not done with you bringing justice to unjust parts of the world via adoption.” So, we set out to bring home an infant girl. During our “paperwork pregnancy,” we started wondering, “Well, maybe we should bring home a boy our son’s age.”
By the time we were done with the paperwork, the adoption agency told us they had an infant girl and her brother—a boy our son’s age. Would we consider bringing them both home?
We knew that was way beyond our capacity—which is exactly where we believe God wanted us to be. So, we brought that little girl and her brother home. In the process, we learned that older children are much, much harder to place. Learning this, we were prompted to adopt an older child. So, we brought home our oldest, who was 12. She’s 19 now.
By this point, we’re done. This is not the family we pictured, but it’s the family that God had for us. And He delivered that knowledge through the Summit. Today, we are parenting five children, four of whom have had significant trauma. That trauma presents itself every single day in different ways for each one of those kids. Our biological child has Asperger’s and is borderline autistic. So, the parenting load is so, so challenging.
Sometimes Karen and I look at each other and just say, “Man, some people have two normal kids. What on earth would we do with our emotional energy and our time if that’s what we had?” I’ll be honest, it’s some heavy parenting. We’re constantly on. It really is the hardest leadership challenge of my life.
The Summit transforms more families
What’s amazing is that there were other people at that same Summit who had that same “yellow-dress” moment. Two other families in the exact same auditorium had exactly the same prompting to adopt. We later learned that there were hundreds of other families at the Summit who also had that prompting. In fact, I came to find that there are a whole bunch of kids who are now in the United States and have a shot at life as a result of that moment of the Summit.
So, that’s my Summit story. The life that I’m leading right now is not the life that I pictured, but it is certainly the life that God pictured. There is a grander vision story for every single person, and the Summit is a great deliverer of that.
But my story doesn’t end there.
The Summit transforms entire cities
I get to see the same power that transformed my family now transforming entire cities and towns. What I’m seeing is that the churches in those communities are using the Summit to start conversations they would not have been able to start otherwise. The Summit is giving them entry into relationships with business and community leaders.
Together, they are asking, “What is the core problem or need in our community—and how can the church be a resource to meet that need?”
These might be social service conversations. Like, “Hey, we’ve got a constituency of at-risk students. So, man, we would just love to have them meet with tutors.” Then it becomes, “Let’s get after that … together.”
One of my favorite sites that I get to serve is the Las Vegas Police Department. It’s huge. They are a Summit host site, and they are using it to train their teams. They envision a Summit for all of their first-responders. They are also expanding the Summit to their two jails using inmate-generated funds.
And yes, this is a government institution and there is taxpayer money involved. So, I sat down with the sheriff and I asked him, “Everybody wants to know, how do you get away with it?” He said, “You know what? I just do what works, and the Summit works, so we’re going to keep doing it.”
Another one I brag about is a large tech company. They’re surrounded by techies and business folks, and they’re using the Summit to start spiritual conversations with business people about values-based leadership development.
Their primary point person this year runs a Ford dealership, and he borrowed sales managers from the surrounding dealerships to staff his business so his entire team could go to the Summit. They invited 400 of their best customers to join them and offered to pay a discount for those customers who wanted to attend.
The Summit is for everyone
Ultimately, every church and every community use the Summit a little bit differently. Willow Creek Association is not some seminar-behemoth trying to steamroll everyone with our view of what works. Rather, we focus on community level buy-in and impact. Local leaders own it and contextualize the content for the needs of their community.
Instead of trying to “own” the gift of leadership, we are opening our arms wide and releasing it to the body of Christ to be used, adapted and contextualized where and how it will have the most impact.
And it does have impact. When a leader gets better, what they lead gets better. When that happens enough times in a specific city, the entire city gets better. Leadership becomes the tide that lifts all boats.