I learned from the CCO nearly everything that I lead from today | Stephanie’s story
Hi, I'm Stephanie Summers and I'm a CCO alum. I'm currently serving on the search committee for the new president of the CCO. My current work is as the CEO of the Center for Public Justice, a nonpartisan Christian think tank based in Washington, DC. And I'm grateful to God for the opportunity to share the impact of the CCO on my life and work.
My CCO story starts more than 30 years ago, when a student in Pittsburgh named Bob came to know Christ through the CCO’s ministry. Bob joined CCO staff and stayed in Pittsburgh and led another student named Jeff to Christ. Meanwhile, at Westminster College, a CCO staff member named Matt led a student named Carolyn to Christ. Carolyn and Jeff met at one of the CCO’s summer opportunities and started dating. Carolyn did a season on staff with the CCO and afterwards, she and Jeff got married and they moved to the North Hills of Pittsburgh, where they became my youth pastors.
I met Carolyn and Jeff 30 years ago, and I put up a good front that everything about my life was fine, but things were really a mess at home. And I was a mess. I had started abusing drugs and alcohol when I was 12, and almost everything about my life by the time that we met was a lie to cover a lie to cover a lie.
Carolyn saw right through me, and she understood my deepest fear without me ever saying it out loud. I still remember the first time she told me, “You are not too bad for God.” She made a drawing for me that outlined creation, fall, redemption, restoration and told me to put it up in my room, which I did. For two more years, she and Jeff prayed for me and promised to help me when I was ready for help. They probably shared the gospel with me 200 times in those two years.
And then one morning, after waking up to another aftermath of what had become my full-blown addiction at the age of 16, I knew that my way did not work. I knew I was going to die, but I realized that I wanted to live and I wanted to live for the kingdom vision that Carolyn had drawn on that paper.
I remember praying, “Hi, Lord. Help.” And that was it. And then I called the kindest, most joyful people I knew, Carolyn and Jeff, to get me the help that I needed.
Fast forward to my time at Kenyon College, God used Kristie Martel, who was a CCO student leader a year ahead of me, to keep me connected to the body of Christ. Her gentle student leadership, inviting me to get involved in opportunities for Bible study and prayer, and encouraging me to lead in ways that I was gifted meant that my faith took root and flourished.
God's call to me to join CCO staff was an affirmation of those gifts. In classic CCO style, I was a poetry major, and during April of my senior year, Byron Pryor, our CCO staff person, said to me, “Honey, you're not that great of a poet, but you're an awesome student later. What if you give the CCO three years?”
God had me stay for 12—three on campus and nine in organizational leadership. In each of these roles, I had the privilege of serving with some of the most remarkable people I've ever met, whose love for God and transformative vision for every area of life continues to shine light.
I learned from the CCO nearly everything that I lead from today—not only in the formal training, but in how CCO lives the all-of-life-redeemed vision together. For example, I lived with two married couples during new staff training, and it was my first experience of living with people who had Christ at the center of their marriage. God used their examples to powerfully heal and bless me in ways that shape my own marriage today.
Amazingly enough, God also used the CCO to bring me to the Center for Public Justice. I met Jim Skillen, CPJ’s founder, when he spoke at Jubilee when I was a college student. His talk on the biblical vision of justice blew my mind and deeply influenced my life from that point on.
Over the years, God used my CCO connection to bring together my understanding of young adults and my passion for navigating the complex challenges of what it is to be a Christian in a pluralistic society. And when I left the CCO and came to CPJ, I discovered to my delight that dozens of the longtime supporters of CPJ are generous, CCO staff and alumni.
I also enjoyed a sweet season where the officers of the CPJ’s board of trustees were CCO staff alums from earlier generations than mine. The collaborative leadership style that is a CCO hallmark deeply influenced how we work together and how we set the pace for our board’s work, where everything we did was viewed as a leadership development opportunity.
Beyond my learning of the big gospel vision of “all of life redeemed,” beyond learning of valuing young adults as active leaders, a posture of generosity rather than a scarcity mindset, and the collaborative leadership skills, CCO impacts my leadership at work and play every day in a couple other ways.
From the CCO, I learned the value of work done in partnership with institutions in ways that mutually strengthen the partners, and how to work across lines of deep difference—something that CPJ embodies in our proactive multi-faith work in our diverse society. I learned how to trust God through prayer and work in response to asking for God's wisdom. During my time on staff with the CCO, I learned to feel the fear and do it anyway, because of the sufficiency of who God is. I learned from the CCO how to handle conflict within a faith-based organization, including the gift of giving people the benefit of the doubt and seeking to resolve challenges quickly and at the right level. I learned from the CCO how to embody organizational repentance and forgiveness. And I learned from my CCO colleagues countless examples of selfless, humble God-honoring servant leadership.
Every day, someone on my team at CPJ or in the context of some other leadership responsibility I hold responds to something I do or say with the words, “That was really helpful.” And 90% of the time, whatever I've just said or done is something I learned directly from the CCO. And I say so.
In the course of my work, I also interact a lot with people who are deeply skeptical about Christianity. Many times I've been pulled aside by one of these people after they've observed me working with my team where I trusted them to lead, and they ask me, “How did you get like that?” And then I get to testify to the goodness of God and to the impact of the CCO on my life and my leadership.
As you enter CCO’s 50th year together, my prayer for you is the prayer of the Apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesian church, that according to the riches of God's glory, God may grant you to be strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit in your inner being so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith that you being rooted and grounded in love may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ, that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to God who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we think or ask according to the power at work within us to God, be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
—Stephanie Summers, Kenyon College 1998 | March 23, 2021